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FShattered

Warnings: Shootin’, shaggin’, and sayin’ shit.

 

 

Chapter 1

Damn mud. It was even in his hair. He raked his fingers through it, trying to dislodge some of the dried chunks. Too late. The rush of people from the street, the pounding of hooves, and the yelling of the driver to whoa signaled the stage’s arrival even before it careened around the corner, a frenzy of mud flung in its wake. He crammed his hat down on his head. That should help.

Thumping the palm of his hand on his leg, Johnny tried to figure the odds on whether Murdoch would just give him that ‘you screwed up again’ look, or if he’d go ahead and start yelling. Probably the look. Save the yelling for when they got out of town. The thumping dislodged some more dried mud that had been caked in his conchos.

Hell, he didn’t need to hear any more about it. Mud, cracked and flaking, was all over him, his shirt was ripped, and his spurs had lost their jingle. All because Murdoch had insisted he meet him with the buckboard. True, the fact that he’d been running late and had taken that shortcut he took all the time on Barranca, and taken it fast, probably had something to do with the getting stuck and the messed up axle that happened trying to get it unstuck. How was he to know that gulley could fill up like that just because it rained, hard, for a couple of days? Nobody’d ever mentioned it.

He’d worked on pushing it out and digging it out and yelling it out until the mud just grabbed hold of it deeper, then he unharnessed the horses and rode one, saddleless, to town to meet Murdoch, leading the other just so nothing would happen to it out there alone. Somehow he didn’t see Murdoch riding the broadbacked horse back to the ranch, even if they could find a saddle to fit it, so he’d already lined up a buggy from the livery. That was all he could do. That, and plaster a smile on his face as the stage drew up.

Wooden planks were stored next to the boardwalk for days such as this, so he grabbed a couple and aimed them toward the coach door, plopping them in the puddled mud. He let out a stream of mumbled curses when the road spit fresh mud on him, but caught his tongue as the coach door opened and a vision stopped in the doorway, like she was posing for a painting, her blond hair glowing as the sun picked that instant to finger through the clouds.

An angel on high. And he’d thought they were only in heaven. She raised her brow just a bit, and he spurred himself into action, helping her down and steadying her delicate weight on the wooden planks as she stepped toward the haven of the dry boardwalk. She smelled like spring, felt like silk. She looked at him expectantly, big blue eyes, so he started to introduce himself.

“My bags?”

Damn! He backed and slipped toward the stage, just catching himself from falling in his haste to retrieve the case that was lowered to him. He plunked it next to her, along with his best smile, and was trying to think of what to say when a voice called out behind him.

“Young man, I’d like some assistance here!” An older woman peered from the door, a parasol in her hand, a cool look on her face.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said, clomping back to help her, wondering why Murdoch couldn’t do it. She wasn’t all that old, not for the old man, in fact she was what some people called a handsome woman, fair, in some ways an older version of his angel. Maybe her mother? It wouldn’t do to slight her, not if he was going to make points with the daughter. Either way, it was a good chance to show off how helpful he was. He delivered her to the boardwalk, guiding her along the planks careful as if she was a prize heifer while he slid alongside in the mud, watching his angel out of the corner of his eye. These were the sort of ladies he’d often wondered about from across the street in his former life; the kind off-limits to Johnny Madrid. But not Johnny Lancer. Now he could cash in on his new name, get to know them. Or at least, one of them.

“Mother, this place is horrid!” The angel’s voice was like the breeze on a warm night, the kind that made the curtains billow just a little. She looked around Green River, wrinkling her nose as though the streets were filled with sewage, not mud. Well, it was kind of sloppy today.

Suddenly remembering Murdoch, Johnny skidded back along the plank to meet him. But when he stuck his head in the door, he found the stage held only a couple of priests who appeared to be sleeping.

“Boy, the bags?” The older woman waved toward the stage impatiently.

“Uh, yes ma’am,” he replied, then turned to the driver. “Did a big man get on the stage?”

“Your name Johnny?”

“Yeah?”

“Here. He dropped this off.” The man handed him a note with his name on it. A quick reading told him Murdoch had been detained but would be along on the next stage. Great.

“The bags?”

“Yes, ma’am, I’m coming, I’m coming.” She seemed kind of pushy. He hefted the remaining bags and carefully balanced himself on the plank back toward the ladies. “Name’s Johnny, ma’am,” he said, placing the bags on the boardwalk and tipping his hat, “Johnny Lan...”

“Yes, yes, so I heard. Please take them to the hotel,” the older woman ordered, gesturing to the pile of luggage. They were already walking toward Green River’s only hotel before Johnny could protest. He looked after them, his jaw working but the words still stuck in his mouth. “Glad to meet you, too,” he muttered.

He shrugged and grabbed the largest bag in one hand, tucked the smaller ones under his arms, and finally hefted the other big bag in his left hand. Walking as though avoiding a rock slide, the bags slipping with every step, he finally made his way to the ladies now leaving the hotel desk.

“Upstairs,” the mother motioned, flitting her gloved hand, handkerchief waving, toward the stairway. Her beautiful daughter was already on her way up.

Johnny let out his breath with a huff but they kept on marching up the stairs, never looking back, so he sighed and followed them, up the stairs and to their room, finally depositing the bags with a small crash just inside the doorway.

He tried his smile again, the hat tip too. “Like I said, ma’am, name’s Johnny...”

The woman slipped a coin in his hand. “Thank you, Johnny, that will be all,” she said, closing the door slowly, nudging Johnny back with its advance, closing off his chance to meet his angel.

“Um, ma’am, I’d be honored to escort you two ladies to dinner,” he said hurriedly, trying to stay ahead of the narrowing crack into their room, “seeing as you’re not from around here. They got a place serves real good Mexican food, if you like that.”

“I hardly think so, on both counts. Good day.” The last thing he saw was her tight polite smile before the door closed. It was a start. A lousy one, but a start. He wondered what Scott would have done different.

Johnny looked at the coin in his hand. He’d been too busy trying to keep her from shutting the door to really notice it. Shit. No wonder. He knocked on the door. “Um, about this money, ma’am, you...”

The door opened abruptly, and now she wasn’t smiling. “That’s all you’re getting! Now please leave.”

“Uh, no ma’am, you got it wrong, I don’t work here, I’m not even from town.” He thought hard. If he could impress her with his newfound name and fortune, she’d maybe warm to him better. “I’m from Lancer, um, it’s a really big ranch...”

The door stopped its swing inward. “Lancer? Murdoch Lancer’s ranch?”

Damned if it didn’t work. “Yes, ma’am! Like I said, I’m...”

“Yes, yes, I heard you.” She looked him up and down in a way that made him feel like a spoiled side of beef. “Murdoch’s still taking in strays, I see. That man always was a soft touch, especially for your kind.”

“Uh, well, yeah, I mean, not exactly. Um, I’m his son, Johnny. You know Murdoch?” He tried to peer around her to catch a glimpse of his angel, but she was out of view.

If anything, her expression turned suddenly stonier, the way she looked him over more critical. “His son? Not Maria’s son?”

“Yes, ma’am.” That got his attention. She knew his mother?  “You an old friend of Murdoch’s?”

“Murdoch and I are very old friends, from around the time you were born,” she replied, a smile now on her face but a frost still clinging to her words. Fancy people tended to be like that. “In fact, I was planning to look him up.”

Johnny couldn’t help but smile at the news. He’d have at least one more chance, one where he’d be ready. “I’m sure he’s gonna be real pleased, soon as he gets back in town. Should be tomorrow, Miss...”

“It’s Mrs. Florence Sinclair,” she said, seeming to warm a little, “and my daughter, Miss Anastasia Sinclair. My son, Ian, will be joining us soon.”

“Pleased to meet you, Mrs. Sinclair, Miss Sinclair.” His angel had a name, and she had joined her mother at the door. He couldn’t take his smile off her. “You sure you don’t want to get some food?”

They both looked him up and down. “We’re really quite tired from our journey.” 

“I understand, ma’am.” Looking at the mud still clinging to him, he did understand, too.  He started to leave before he remembered what he wanted to ask. “So, you was friends with my mother, too?”

“No,” she said, closing the door between them. It struck him how she could put that same expression on her face her daughter had, when she’d looked like she’d smelled shit.

 

Chapter 2

“Johnny!” It was a screech that had the birds fluttering up from the loft and Johnny grabbing for his gun.

Dios, why did she have to scream like that? He took his hand from his gun, gave Barranca one last pat and ran toward the rear of the hacienda, where Teresa was still yelling loud enough to pop a lung. He’d been shocked the first time he’d heard her use some of those words. Bet she wouldn’t be using them if Murdoch weren’t off in Green River.

“Whoa!” he yelled as he turned the corner around back, taking in the scene. Clothes were strewn about in the dirt, some half buried. A few still hung in tatters from the clothesline. Teresa was brandishing the rug beater, glaring at a small dog with hair like damp straw that in turn simply danced about, landing every few steps with his elbows on the ground, yipping and wagging his tail.

“I’ll kill him!” She advanced on the dog, which only made it bark more.

“Awe, he didn’t mean it! He’s just playing. I’ll clean it up, Teresa!” Johnny jumped between the irate woman and the dog, which took the opportunity to clamp onto his flared pants leg and start tugging, growling ferociously. Johnny swatted at him. “Come on, Teresa, don’t tell anybody. I’ll help you with the laundry for a week.”

“Help? You’ll do it all! I quit!” She threw the beater in the direction of the dog. The dog grabbed it and raced around the yard, stopping when he was tantalizingly close then springing back into action when Johnny made a move to retrieve the stick. Teresa stomped back into the hacienda.

“Dios, Rojo, you done it now,” he muttered, stooping to pick up one of his own shirts. He looked around at the casualties and sighed at the thought of spending his day washing clothes. Actually, the shirt in his hand wasn’t all that bad. The mud was just on one side, and once it dried he could probably just brush it off. It’s not like it wasn’t going to get muddy again as soon as he wore it. He laid it aside carefully and stooped to examine another. Scott’s shirt. It was even cleaner than the one he’d just looked at. Just a sleeve. But Scott was so persnickety about his clothes. Maybe he could just dunk the sleeve. He walked around, separating the clothes into salvageable and dunkable piles, glaring at Rojo as he worked.

Rojo cocked his head and barked, then nudged the stick toward Johnny. “You better hide that stick if you know what’s good for you.”

He sure hoped Teresa wouldn’t go complaining to Murdoch when he got home.  Murdoch was already itching for a reason to ban Rojo from Lancer entirely. Sure, he’d dug up the garden a few times, chewed almost through the cinch on Murdoch’s saddle so it snapped when Murdoch tried to mount up, and stampeded the herd that one time. Murdoch never called him by name, just “that good-for-nothing mutt.” Teresa just called him “your dog,” always delivered in an accusing tone — although he’d caught her sneaking Rojo treats when she thought nobody was looking. Scott usually had more colorful descriptions for him, such as “that canine catastrophe” or “the barking tumbleweed.” Rojo did kind of look like a tumbleweed, with wiry hair that stuck out in a confusion of wild angles.

What’d they want him do? He’d come across the dog in the middle of nowhere, hanging around the well-dead body of another dog, maybe his dam. He couldn’t leave him there. So he’d scooped him up and brought him home. He didn’t tell anyone that he’d wanted a dog his whole life, or that there was something about the little varmint that just always made him happy when they were together. Even when the red devil (that was actually Jelly’s term for him) was being a butt hole. But he was barely full grown. Johnny had been working with him, teaching him to help with the cattle, and he couldn’t wait to trot out his prize pupil once Rojo’d learned the ropes. At least he hadn’t caused any more stampedes.

He reached for one of the shirts still clinging to the line. The sleeve was ripped. Scott’s shirt. How many tan shirts could one person wear? He looked around furtively. One less, as far as he was concerned. He balled it up and flung it to the side for later disposal.

“Hey, Johnny!” Shit! Scott. He quickly kicked the tan shirt under a low bush.

He ambled back to the line as Scott appeared. “Yeah, I’m just helping Teresa with the wash.”

Scott looked around at the two piles of clothes on the ground. “Interesting technique,” he said. “Have you demonstrated it to Teresa?”

Johnny was fishing for an answer when Rojo bounded up to Scott, shaking his head as though he were killing a rat. The dog stopped in front of him, offering the now muddied tan carcass of his shirt. Scott held it out gingerly in front of him, quirking a brow at Johnny.

“You kinda rough on clothes there, Scott,” Johnny mumbled.

***

At least nobody’s fancy clothes had been in the wash. Else he might have actually had to wash them again, what with everyone having to get fussed up for the Sinclairs. Johnny hadn’t been able to see Anastasia since that first meeting in town. Ranch work had kept him away, and Scott had been the one to finally pick up Murdoch. At least Murdoch never found out about the wagon., which Johnny’d finally gone out with some mules and hauled on until the mud gave in. As excited as Murdoch had been to learn of the Sinclairs, though, he maybe wouldn’t have even cared. 

Sure, he’d only known Murdoch a few months, but Johnny’d never seen him this addled. The old man had them cleaning the hacienda like the queen was coming. It was a wonder he hadn’t put somebody to sweeping the dirt in the corral. It hadn’t escaped Johnny’s eye that he’d had them gussy three guest rooms. Anastasia’s brother, Ian, was due in today, and then Murdoch planned to bring all of them out to the hacienda for supper. Scott and Johnny had been given strict orders to stay around the hacienda and clean some more — and to make sure they were spotless themselves. This last order was given with Murdoch staring directly at Johnny.

Now they sat awaiting the royal carriage.  Johnny was afraid to move.

“You tied this too tight,” he said, sticking his fingers between his neck and collar. “I won’t be able to swallow any food.”  The smells wafting from the kitchen had had him drooling all day.

“It was the only way I could make sure there was some left for the rest of us.” Scott gestured to the buggy just visible heading toward the Lancer arch. The ground was still too wet for it to throw up any dust. “Too late now, anyway.”

They waited impatiently as the buggy finally pulled up. Johnny had filled Scott in on his angel Anastasia, hoping Scott would get the hint she was spoken for. He took one of the horses and steadied it while Scott and Murdoch helped the ladies out, and a young man hopped nimbly to the ground. Johnny’s first reaction was that he could be Scott’s brother. He was tall and lanky, with a long face, blond hair and light eyes.

“Florence, I’d like to present my sons,” said Murdoch, beaming. “You’ve met Johnny, I know, and this is Scott. Catherine’s boy.”

“Mrs. Sinclair, I’m pleased to meet you,” said Scott, like he did this all the time. “I’m anxious to hear how you and Murdoch know each other.”

Johnny had thought Mrs. Sinclair was the picture of elegance that day off the stage, but now he realized that had been a mere shadow of what she really was. Not a hair was out of place, and the white lace on her dress almost hurt his eyes it was so bright—not that it could distract him from the angel at her side. But he tried to follow Scott’s lead, pay attention to the mother.

Mrs. Sinclair’s words poured from her like honey. “I’m very pleased to finally meet you, Scott. I know your father must be ecstatic to have you home at last. He spoke of you often.” She turned to his angel. “I’d like to present my daughter, Anastasia.”

Scott took Anastasia’s hand and kissed it. “Lancer has never been visited by two lovelier visions.”

Damn, he was good! Johnny sidled up closer, anxious for the ladies to get to see him all cleaned and duded up.

Anastasia smiled warmly. “Why thank you, Mr. Lancer.”

“Please, it’s Scott. And you may remember Johnny,” he added, pulling Johnny into the group, “although I understand he looked a little different when you met previously.”

Johnny stepped forward, wondering if he was supposed to come up with some flowery malarkey like Scott had, settling for just reaching for her hand. Her brother stepped in before he could close the distance.

“I’m Ian Sinclair,” he said, shaking both Johnny and Scott’s hands as the brothers welcomed him, doing the same with Murdoch.

“Why don’t we go inside where we can be more comfortable?” suggested Murdoch. “I especially want you to meet my ward, Teresa. Besides, I know you ladies don’t want to get your dresses dirty out here.” He held his arm out for Mrs. Sinclair, and after a second, Scott held his out for Anastasia. Damn. Nobody’d told him he was supposed to do that. And he sure wasn’t going to hold his out for Ian.

He had just turned to follow them when he heard a screech.

“Rojo, no! Get down!” Johnny dove for the dog before he could muddy up their dresses any more. He succeeded in slipping in the mud, landing at Mrs. Sinclair’s feet but grabbing Rojo by a rear leg.

“Get that good-for-nothing mutt out of here!” bellowed Murdoch.

“Oh no!” Mrs. Sinclair held her soiled dress up in dismay, staring from it to Rojo to Johnny, adding under her breath, so quietly only Johnny could hear it, “Filthy mutt!”

 

Chapter 3

“Murdoch and I are very old friends,” Mrs. Sinclair was saying, the tiniest morsel of roast beef balanced on her fork as it hovered just above her plate. Johnny wondered how long she could hold it like that without it dropping off. She’d been doing a lot more talking than eating. “My husband and I actually lived in Green River for several years. He owned the bank. Both Ian and Anastasia were born here.”

“Why’d you leave?” Johnny bit into a big hunk of meat and chewed heartily. He’d hastily secured Rojo in a stall, rinsed himself off, and changed into other clothes just in time to sit down with the rest of them. Unfortunately, the only clean shirts he had were the ones from his salvage pile, which suddenly didn’t seem all that salvageable. He’d felt both Murdoch and Teresa’s stern looks, and seen Scott’s amused grin, as soon as he’d sat down and tried his best to cover the dried mud he hadn’t been able to brush off. Damn mud.

Mrs. Sinclair dabbed at her mouth after she delicately nibbled the beef on her fork and sipped her water. “I can’t say that the town has changed very much. Anyway, I wanted Anastasia and Ian to see where they were born, so we decided to pay a visit. Of course, I have to confess I was hoping to see Murdoch again. What a bonus to meet his whole family, too!”

“I assure you, the pleasure is ours,” replied Scott. “I take it you moved away?”

“Yes. My husband, God rest his soul, had an opportunity in San Francisco to go into business with his father.”

Johnny studied the silverware puzzle some more. He’d been sure Murdoch would have words with Teresa for trying to show off how many forks and stuff they owned. If they’d had more people to feed they could have just given each one the normal amount and still showed how many they had. As it was, piling up several for each person was almost embarrassing, like they assumed everybody was going to drop theirs and the floor was too dirty to eat off. He was being careful to use only one so Maria wouldn’t have to wash more. He glanced at Mrs. Sinclair, noticing she’d already eaten off two different forks. Maybe she was trying to be polite and pretend she needed them, only she hadn’t even dropped one.

“Besides,” she was saying, “San Francisco is so much more civilized for raising proper ladies and gentleman. You were fortunate to have Boston’s cultural opportunities, Scott.”

“In some ways, absolutely. But I missed out on a lot by not growing up here.”

“Compared to Boston? I’d give anything to have spent more time there,” Ian chimed in. Johnny noticed he was on his second fork, as well. Maria wasn’t going to be happy with them.

“You’ve been to Boston?”

“Only briefly. I spent two years in New York attending Columbia University, until my father’s ill health called me home. I was able to visit Boston on several occasions. New York is a wonderful city, but Boston, well, Boston is the simply the cultural center of America.”

“Scott attended Harvard,” said Murdoch. Johnny could swear his father sat a little taller when he said it. “You two will have to compare notes sometime.”

“Indeed,” replied Scott. “Columbia is an excellent institution.”

“I wish I could have gone to school back east,” Anastasia said. She had been quiet throughout most of the meal, and Johnny smiled at her encouragingly. Maybe she was shy. “But I did attend the best finishing school in the west, Mrs. Harmon's Pacific Female Seminary.” The smile must have worked, because she looked his way and asked, “What about you? Where did you attend?”

“Anna! Don’t embarrass the boy! He didn’t go to college!” Mrs. Sinclair put her hand on Anastasia’s arm and looked at Johnny apologetically.

“Oh! Of course not. I didn’t mean to...”  His angel looked at him like he was someone to be pitied. Shit.

“It’s okay. I ain’t embarrassed.” Just because he was obviously the stupidest person at the table. At least they didn’t know he hadn’t even gone to grade school, except for a few weeks here and there. Murdoch looked uncomfortable, like he was trying to think of something to say, but Mrs. Sinclair beat him to it.

“And there’s absolutely no need for you to be,” she said. “We are all born with different proclivities.”

Johnny looked at her blankly. He couldn’t figure out if she was talking about some sort of religion, or disease, or what. Sounded like one of them Scott words his brother was always throwing around like they were normal.

“Don’t worry about it, Johnny,” Ian said gently, which somehow irked him more than anything. Hell, irk, that was another of them Scott words, not the first time he’d caught one in his own head. “What my mother means,” Ian continued, “is that different groups of people are just naturally good at different things.”

“Tell me more about Mrs. Harmon’s Seminary,” urged Teresa, blessedly taking the attention from him. “Murdoch, maybe I could go!”

Murdoch smiled approvingly. “I think we should look into it. It certainly would make me proud, darling. I’ve always said a good education is the most important thing a person can have. Even for a lady.”

Johnny dropped his gaze to his plate. Hell, what about learning how to stay alive? It was no secret Murdoch didn’t count perfecting a fast draw as any kind of education. Next time Murdoch was in a gunfight maybe he should try quoting some of them dead writers him and Scott was so fond of, see if he could get to the end of a sentence before a bullet ripped his throat out. He felt Scott’s eyes on him, and quickly took another stab at his meat.

“Oh I don’t know, since I’ve come west I can’t tell you how often I’ve wished I’d taken classes in roping instead of Rome!” Scott quipped, quickly turning to Mrs. Sinclair. “So did you know Murdoch when he was just learning to ranch? How long did you know each other?”

Florence smiled at Murdoch, their eyes meeting before she answered. “Three years, eleven months, and nine days. Not that I counted. He’d been ranching for a couple of years by then, but Murdoch always seemed to know just what he was doing.”

“Scott, you were already born. But you two boys,” Murdoch gestured with his fork to Ian and Johnny, “were born within a couple of months of one another. We had hopes of you growing up together. Sort of like brothers.”

“That so?” Johnny said as he chewed. He already had a brother.

“Murdoch certainly talked about it. But then, I guess your mother was too unhappy up here, away from her own kind like she was, so that was that.”

Johnny stopped chewing. “That what she said?”

“Well, not in so many words. But from what I understand, she went back to Mexico, correct?”

Murdoch held his hand up. “Let’s not bore everyone with past history. The truth is, nobody but Maria knows why she left.”

And me, thought Johnny. At least she’d told him plenty of reasons, some more or less believable. Missing her ‘own kind’ hadn’t been among them.

“Besides,” Murdoch continued, “the important thing tonight is that you and your lovely family are here, and we’re all together, finally reunited. I feel truly blessed.” He raised his glass. “To friends and family!”

Scott drank to the toast before asking, “How long can we anticipate the pleasure of your company?”

“This is just a short visit. Now that my husband’s gone I’m thinking of selling that big house in San Francisco, maybe moving on.”

“I know a small town that could use some culture,” Murdoch said.

“Oh, you could come back to Green River!” Teresa exclaimed. “Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”

“It just might be, at that,” Mrs. Sinclair replied.

****

After dinner Anastasia and Teresa went to look at a fashion magazine Anastasia had brought, oohing at some of the newest styles. Scott and Johnny showed Ian first around the barn, and then around the collection of books in the library. The books were Scott’s idea. At that point Johnny wandered off to snag some milk and scraps from the kitchen for Rojo and rescue him from his stall.

Rojo wasn’t allowed inside the hacienda, but Johnny had become adept at sneaking him into his bedroom after dark and back out before dawn. So far Teresa hadn’t said anything about the stiff red hairs on the blankets. And Scott had pretended not to notice the couple of times he’d barged in unannounced and caught Johnny throwing a blanket over something that wouldn’t stop wiggling. The truth was, there was just something comforting about sleeping pressed against Rojo’s warm body, so comforting that the nightmares that had plagued him for most of his life seemed to have moved on to somebody else’s bed.

“Shhh,” he cautioned once he’d crept up the back stairs and into his room with him. Rojo finished lapping up the milk. “Yeah, you and me, got no manners I guess. Look at you, look like you’re foaming at the mouth,” Johnny whispered, making a grab for the dog’s milk speckled whiskers. Rojo dodged away and grabbed one of Johnny’s boots he’d just pulled off, shaking it with a mock growl. “You chew my boot up I’m gonna chew your foot off, see how you like it.” The dog let go of the boot and went for his foot. “Ouch! Mad dog, mad dog!” Johnny pushed him away, laughing as Rojo dove back at it again and again.

Rojo finally occupied with a bone, Johnny flopped backwards in bed. He was a little disappointed in how the evening had gone. The thing with Rojo sure hadn’t helped. Mrs. Sinclair’s pretty green dress had ended up with a dog paw design, although she seemed to get over it quickly after her initial outburst. Mostly, he’d hoped Anastasia would have warmed up to him more. Instead, if anything, she’d spent more time batting her eyes at Scott. Now that he knew she was such a fancy lady, he guessed he couldn’t blame her. He’d been so stupid thinking that just changing his name to Lancer was going to give him license to approach real ladies, but now it was obvious a name change wasn’t enough. “Culture and breeding,” Mrs. Sinclair had said at one point in the dinner, “that’s what makes a man.”

It was pretty clear he didn’t have culture. Heck, even the whole fork thing had turned into a fiasco. During dessert Scott had kicked him under the table and pointedly indicated the big fork in Johnny’s hand, subtly shaking his head. Scott had then picked up yet another of his clean forks and made it pretty obvious Johnny should do the same. Damn. Johnny couldn’t figure the need for switching forks, especially when he hadn’t dropped his. Even then, nothing a little wiping wouldn’t fix. Heck, he’d been fine eating off his knife for years. If culture meant making more work for Maria in the kitchen, he just plain didn’t get it. Sure didn’t see how that made a man.

As for breeding — well, it looked liked he’d failed that test about 22 years ago.

 

Chapter 4

Johnny’s hand automatically went to his gun as he heard hoofbeats approaching. He looked up from the creek bed, shading his eyes with his left hand as he strained to make out the rider framed against the sun. Only when he recognized Scott's posture in the saddle did he smile and relax. Rojo ran barking to greet their visitor, tearing straight up the creek bank to emerge practically under Scott’s horse. Scott had to grab the saddle horn to keep from being unseated as the horse shied violently.

“Rojo, get back here!”

“That miscreant mutt of yours is going to get trampled if you don’t teach him to quit doing that.” Scott dismounted and gave Rojo an affectionate swat with one of his gloves.  Rojo grabbed the glove and tried to pull it from Scott, growling fiercely.

“Don’t call him that.”

“What? Miscreant? Okay, your malfeasant mutt.” Scott picked up a stick and threw it for the dog so he’d let go of the glove.

“No, mutt. I’m tired of people callin’ him that.” And he was tired of people using words he didn’t understand, either. Seemed like it’d gotten worse since the Sinclairs had come.

“Oh? Does he boast some sort of illustrious heritage I should be made aware of?” Scott grinned as he tried to wrest the stick Rojo had retrieved from the growling dog’s mouth.

“Just no call to always be throwin’ off on him.”

Scott looked at Johnny curiously, then shrugged and gave a mock bow in Rojo’s direction as he gave up on the stick. “Okay. I’ll bow to his royal Rojoness.”

“And quit makin’ fun of him.”

“Alright, alright. I really do like him, you know.”

Johnny finally smiled faintly back. “Yeah, I know. Sorry to be all prickly.”

“And you know, you don’t have to hide him when I come in your room.”

Johnny grinned sheepishly as he waded farther out into the creek. “So I thought you was showing the Sinclairs around the ranch.”

“Mrs. Sinclair wasn’t feeling well, so we postponed it again until tomorrow. Ian took Anna and Teresa to Green River for some shopping and to pick up the rest of their belongings. So I figured I’d come help you.”

“Good timing. I’m almost done,” Johnny said, throwing another branch from the jumble of debris clogging the creek. Rojo barked and gave chase, laboriously dragging the branch back down into the water.

“Yes, I can see the progress you and your partner are making,” Scott said in that sarcastic tone he was so fond of using. He waded into the creek and grabbed the branch, Rojo still attached, to drag it higher on the bank.

“So whatcha think of Murdoch and Mrs. Sinclair?” Johnny asked as Scott returned to wrestle another branch loose.

“What’s there to think? They’re old friends.”

“I dunno. Don’t it seem kind of funny, her showin’ up here right when she’s a widow and all?”

“Grab that end. Oh, I don’t know. When did you want her to show up?”

“All I’m saying is she seems kinda pushy to me.” Johnny grunted as he strained to dislodge his end of the branch from the mire, then helped Scott drag it up the sandy bank. “Like she’s out to snag herself a replacement.”

They both waded back into the cold water. The recent rains had the creek rising, and they figured it still had more to go. Johnny had already littered the banks with the dismembered skeletons of trees caught in last year’s flood, the wood dark and waterlogged even in the afternoon sun.

“Murdoch’s managed to stay single for twenty years. I have a feeling he knows how to fend off any woman with a wedding on her mind.”

“What if he don’t want to?”

“Want to what? Fend her off?” Scott lugged an armful of smaller sticks to the bank. “Then good for him. He deserves to be happy.”

“Yeah, yeah, I guess.” Johnny looked hesitant, thrumming his fingers on his legs.

“You have something to say?” Scott climbed on the bank and began to tackle the debris alongside the creek that would otherwise just be sucked back in the next time the water rose.

“No.” He shrugged and bent to toss a stick up. “I don’t know. Just seems like he’d be past all that. Like maybe two wives would be enough.”

“I’m sure he’ll be happy to hear you think he has one foot in the grave. Besides, the woman’s been here two days. Aren’t you jumping the gun?”

Scott snatched up a heavy log, but stumbled back, stunned, as he saw Rojo launch himself, snarling, toward him. The dog’s snapping jaws barely missed his hands, instead clunking shut just in front of his ankles. The attack was over in seconds. Several quick shakes of his head and Rojo pranced around, tripping every few steps over the dead snake he triumphantly dragged behind. The rattles still jingled ominously with every bump.

“Scott!” Johnny scrambled up the bank. “He get you?”

Scott just stared at the rattler. At least a five footer. Never even had a chance to shake his rattle before Scott lifted the log off him and he struck. He shook his head slowly, still dazed. “No. No, it never touched me. Thanks to Rojo.”

“Let me see, boy.” Johnny tried to coax Rojo into giving up his prize, but Rojo was keeping it just out of reach. Johnny finally pulled a piece of jerky from his pocket and worked a trade, then knelt and started examining the dog carefully. “You okay, fella?”

“Did the snake get him?”

“I don’t know.” His voice shook. “I don’t see anything.”

He continued parting the wiry fur until he’d gone over Rojo’s entire body, finally satisfied he was okay. He sat back and Rojo jumped up, licking at his face. “Man, you see that, Scott? Snake never knew what hit him. Bam! Right behind the head, too! I bet that dog could beat me in a draw.”

“Rojo’s getting the juiciest steak on the ranch tonight!” Scott thumped the dog enthusiastically. “Good boy!”

“Dios, Scott, that was close. I don’t know what I’d have done if that snake had, well, if he’d bitten...”

“Well, don’t worry, it didn’t. I’m fine.”

Johnny looked confused for a second. “Oh, yeah, I’m glad you didn’t get bit either.”

***

The hacienda was deserted when they arrived, so they decided to feed Rojo his promised reward before everyone returned home and discovered what they were doing. No matter what the dog had done, Johnny couldn’t see Murdoch going along with feeding a dog a good steak. They were home much earlier than usual, so it was unlikely they’d be caught. Maria wasn’t even scheduled to be there for another hour. Nonetheless, Johnny kept peering out the back door for signs of Murdoch or the buggy. Rojo had pattered into the kitchen alongside them, holding his nose upward as he whiffed in the scents of past meals.

“Rojo, prepare to embark on an epicurean feast such as few dogs have ever experienced,” Scott announced.

“You said you was gettin’ him a steak!” Johnny called from the doorway. “And we don’t want him barking, just in case...”

Scott rolled his eyes. “I am. I just assumed a dog of Rojo’s high breeding and discriminating tongue would want his steak prepared and presented properly.”

“Oh.” He thought for a minute. “You really think Maria will cook it for him?”

“Ha ha. I’m sure I’m entirely capable of cooking a steak for a dog.” Scott pulled down a skillet.

Johnny looked doubtful. “I thought you was gonna give him a reward for saving your life, not poison him! Just give it to him raw.”

“I’ll have you know I’ve observed one of Boston’s finest chefs prepare steak on many an occasion.”

“Yeah, well I’ve watched ladies dance the can-can a few times, don’t mean I can do it.” Johnny did a poor imitation of clomping around.

Scott stopped what he was doing to make a show of scrutinizing Johnny, finally puckering his lips in a mock kiss. “Oh, I don’t know, you look like you might be pretty good at it.” He dodged as Johnny tried to elbow him.

Together they managed to get the skillet over the fire and the steak in the skillet. They let it emit a satisfying sizzle until the kitchen was choked in a fog of smoke and Scott declared it done to perfection.

“They like it black like that in Boston?” Rojo was jumping up and down as Johnny suspended the still-smoking meat by a knife.

“Looks like Rojo thinks it’s just fine.”

“Maybe we better give it to him up in my room, before anyone comes to see if the place is on fire. Smoke in here’s burnin’ my eyes.” Johnny grabbed a rag and started fanning the smoke around.

“Yeah, well let’s get it done fast, before Murdoch comes home.” He gestured for Johnny and the dog to go ahead, shaking his head. “You going to cut it up for him?”

Johnny ignored him, coughing on the thick haze of smoke filling the back stairway. Once upstairs, Scott grabbed Johnny’s arm. “Mrs. Sinclair!” he hissed. “I forgot she stayed in her room today!”

Too late, a shout of “Smoke!” came from one of the guest room they were passing, the door flying open. Scott and Johnny stopped in their tracks. Rojo took advantage of Johnny’s sudden lapse in attention to grab the steak and begin wolfing it down.

Mrs. Sinclair took a step back, her hand to her chest where her blouse had fallen just slightly open. Murdoch stared at Rojo and hastily shoved in his shirttail.

 

Chapter 5

Johnny hadn’t been fooled, not then, not now. Not by Mrs. Sinclair thanking Murdoch for retrieving the brooch she’d dropped behind her dresser, not by Murdoch bellowing about a dog in his house and eating his steak. Johnny could have sworn the woman smirked at him then.

Murdoch had been in her room, plain and simple. With the door closed.  If that had been him in some woman’s room he could just imagine the scene. Instead he’d been the one in trouble for having the dog inside. To Scott’s credit, he’d taken the blame for the steak. Murdoch had barely listened to the tale of Rojo’s heroics as he’d demanded the dog be thrown outside immediately.

Johnny had chosen to eat in the barn with Rojo and Barranca. Better company. Better drink, since he’d had some tequila stowed out here for just such an occasion. Better food, too, since he’d managed to get something with some bite to it from the bunkhouse. From the look on Mrs. Sinclair’s face last night, he might as well have suggested they’d serve skunk guts instead of one of Maria’s Mexican dishes. Mrs. Sinclair had said she just couldn’t stomach Mexican food, but Johnny had a pretty good idea she just couldn’t stomach Mexicans. He’d seen the way she recoiled from Maria’s inadvertent touch when being served, noticed how she didn’t mind being close to Scott or the others but moved away if he stood too near. It wasn’t like she made a big deal of it or anything, just a small shift of position, but he’d experienced it enough before in his life to recognize what was going on.

Truth was, he just wished they’d leave, angel and all. Murdoch had no business fooling around with a woman. If he wanted a poke, he could go to town and pay a working girl like the rest of them did. He sure didn’t need to move some snooty old woman, and her whole family, into their home, carry on right under their noses. So maybe it had just been one time, and maybe they hadn’t really done anything, but Murdoch still had those thoughts, he was pretty sure by the way he acted around her. What was the old man thinking, that he should maybe get married again, have some more children? Maybe some he’d keep for a change?

“Missed you at dinner.” He’d heard Scott coming. Had expected him, actually.

“Felt like something a little spicier.” He picked up his bottle of tequila and waved it. “Want some?”

Scott grimaced, then accepted the bottle and took a swig, shuddering afterward.

Johnny grinned at his reaction. “You tell ’em all what Rojo did?”

“You bet I did. Everyone was suitably impressed. Even Murdoch seemed considerably more appreciative of him saving my life than he did earlier.”

“Yeah, well ol’ Murdoch seemed kinda preoccupied earlier. You believe that story of his?”

“Nope.”

“Me neither. I told you she was after him.”

“What makes you think he’s not after her? He was in her room, you know. She wasn’t in his.”

“Mean old biddy like that? No way. Murdoch’s got better taste than that.”

“I don’t know. She seems pretty nice to me.” He slapped the side of the bottle on Johnny’s leg. “And you better watch what you call her. She might be your mother one day!”

“Hey Scott! Are you in here?” They both turned to the door at the sound of Ian’s voice.

Shit. Ian always seemed to be hanging around Scott. And Scott didn’t seem to discourage him. They pulled down books, talked about people Johnny never heard of, and generally bored the hell out of him. Ian had been to lots of fancy places, not as many as Scott, but a hell of a lot more than Johnny. The two kept trading stories about their travels; last night, after Murdoch and the women had gone to bed, they’d even compared the prostitutes from different places, finally agreeing on Paris as having the best. Johnny figured he’d share some information that was a bit more helpful, seeing as they weren’t likely to get to this Paris place any time soon, and suggested the border towns were the best place for a wild time and a good deal. Ian had quipped he’d sooner have his dick fall off than stick it into a border girl. And that it probably would soon after, anyway. He’d laughed pretty hard at that one before turning back to Scott and Paris. Johnny hadn’t laughed. He knew a lot of nice girls who worked the border. Heck, his mama had been one of them.

“Ah, there you are!” Ian pulled up when he saw Johnny and nodded. “Johnny, missed you at dinner.”

“Grab a seat, have a drink.” Scott held out the bottle and motioned to the remaining hay bale where Rojo snoozed on one corner.

Ian looked at the bottle and made a face. “Scott, surely you’re not drinking that! Now perhaps if you had some brandy hidden away...”

“You ever tried it?” Johnny asked.

“I meant no offense. I’m sure it’s an acquired taste. I just don’t care to acquire it.” Ian waved the bottle away and turned to the hay bale, stopping to study Rojo. “Don’t tell me this is the miracle mutt himself!”

“He ain’t no goddamn mutt!” Johnny jumped to his feet as Ian stumbled back in surprise.

“Whoa, Johnny! He didn’t know.” Scott turned to Ian. “We don’t call Rojo a mutt anymore.”

“Oh? You’ll have to excuse me for my ignorance, but I’m surprised my mother didn’t identify his pure breeding immediately. She’s somewhat of a canine connoisseur.”

As much as he shared the sentiment, Johnny was stunned Ian would refer to his mother as some kind of sewer. But before he could follow up, Scott asked, “Mrs. Sinclair likes dogs?”

“Well, not dogs, per se. She dabbles in the blue-bloods of the dog world. In fact, she has a rare pair of Peking palace dogs back in San Francisco. Their pure breeding can be traced for centuries.”

“I can’t say I’ve ever heard of such a beast,” Scott said.

“Little yappers. Anyway, I’m not here to discuss dogs. I wanted to challenge you to a game of chess.”

“Sounds good. Johnny? How about it? Play the winner?”

Ian looked surprised, then recovered. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to exclude you, Johnny. We don’t have to play chess. Perhaps you’d be more comfortable playing checkers. I’ll play the winner.”

“Nah, you two go on. I got things to do.” Hammerin’ a nail in his own ear hole would be better than listening to Ian and Scott start spoutin’ all their book talk again. He took another swig and leaned back, allowing his lids to relax. Checkers. Asshole.

***

The rumbling in Rojo’s chest beside him awakened him. Johnny had listed over, leaning against the side of the barn, the near emptied bottle at his fingertips. Rojo had joined him. “Shhh...” he whispered, prepared to go back to sleep. Then he heard the voices.

“Anybody here?” That was Murdoch. Johnny didn’t feel like facing him. Not with a good part of a bottle of tequila in him. Especially not when he recognized her voice as well. He could just see that. Imagine what she’d say about the drunk Mex sleeping with the livestock. He grabbed Rojo to keep him still. Maybe they’d leave if they didn’t know he was there.

Murdoch called out again. The sound of horses rustling their straw was the only answer. “It looks like we’re alone.”

Johnny could hear the creak of the barn door closing as his father spoke. Dios. Maybe he should say something after all if they planned on staying. He leaned forward to call out, but the view of Murdoch and Mrs. Sinclair embracing silenced him. Maybe they just wanted one quick kiss and then they’d leave.

“When I think of how much time we’ve missed…”

“We’re together now,” Murdoch answered. Then more silence as they locked their lips together.

“My God, I’ve missed you. I don’t ever want to let you go again.”

“I don’t plan on letting you.” They were kissing again, more passionately, grinding their bodies against one another, making little moany and slurpy sounds. Johnny wondered if he could make it to the rear door unnoticed. Or before he started puking. Maybe he could plug up his ears and scratch his own eyes out. They pulled apart before he could decide. Or rather, she appeared to push Murdoch away.

“Darling, what’s wrong?” He was pecking at her cheek, her chin, her nose.

“I want more this time, Murdoch. I don’t want to sneak around in barns. I don’t want to hide our love.”

“I want more, too,” he heard his father say. Johnny peeked out and could see him pulling up her dress, reaching between her legs. Dios, he should have poked his eyes out. He squeezed back closer to the wall and held Rojo tight.

“Stop it, Murdoch. I’m serious. I want all of you this time.”

Murdoch chuckled. “I’ll give you all of me…”

Johnny prayed somebody would come out to the barn. Maybe if he caught it on fire.

“Murdoch, be serious! There’s no reason we can’t get married now. Brice is gone, and that tramp of yours is long gone. We don’t have to sneak around. Not that that awful woman was ever worth sneaking around for.”

Rojo squirmed as Johnny’s fingers bit into him, his knuckles white. His mama had told the truth. This was the bitch who’d done it. The one who’d ruined his mama’s marriage, the one who’d made her take off. Rojo yelped and wriggled loose, rushing off toward the voices.

 

Chapter 6

“Oh! Get it away!”

Damn! The dog just had to go greet Murdoch and that bitch. And she was already complaining.

“Go away!” Murdoch shoved the dog away with his foot. So much for Murdoch’s appreciation of him. Johnny was already shaking with rage over what he’d just learned. He’d kill the old man if he hurt that dog. No, he couldn’t wait to find out. He jumped to his feet and started toward them.

Before he could yell out the pounding of hooves and the shouting of a rider outside intruded into the barn. Murdoch strode to the door, flinging it open as the rider again shouted. This time it was clear what he was yelling: he had an injured man. Johnny could see two mounted men silhouetted against the moonlit sky, one slumped precariously in his saddle.

By the time Johnny ran outside, men had rushed from the bunkhouse and gathered around. Several of the hands were helping pull the injured man from his horse as Murdoch directed them. Rojo ran into their midst, eager to be part of the excitement.

“Get that mutt out of the way!” Murdoch bellowed, shoving Rojo away with his foot forcefully. He never saw the blow that threw him to the ground.

Johnny stood over Murdoch rubbing his fist, staring at what he’d done. He didn’t know who was more stunned, his father or him. He shook out his hand, scooped Rojo up under one arm, and headed for the privacy of his room. His dog could sleep where he damn well liked, and screw it if Murdoch didn’t approve. Johnny didn’t exactly approve of Murdoch’s sleeping habits.

He could see Mrs. Sinclair run to Murdoch’s side as he sat up, could hear her shrill voice in the distance. “Oh my god! I knew he was dangerous! They can’t control themselves!”

Light spilled from the front door of the hacienda as Scott and Ian ran outside to check the commotion.  “What’s going on?”

“Pedro got hurt,” Johnny answered without slowing.

“Pedro’s hurt? How bad?” Teresa stood in the doorway.

“I don’t know. He looked kind of bloody.” He felt a pang of guilt for not noticing more about Pedro’s condition. Pedro was a good man, someone he was proud to consider a friend. He looked like he had plenty of help, though. Johnny continued on inside, depositing Rojo on the floor once he crossed the threshold. He started toward the stairs, then stopped. He needed a drink. Goddamn right he needed a drink. He turned and strode into the great room, poured himself a whiskey, then another.

Teresa ran back into the kitchen, emerging with a handful of bandages and blankets. She threw a blanket at Johnny, telling him to spread it on the sofa.

He’d gotten it into place when the hands came in supporting Pedro between them, followed by Murdoch and Mrs. Sinclair. Johnny looked away when he saw the blood trickling down Murdoch’s chin. Scott was asking Murdoch what happened, but Murdoch only stopped in front of Johnny and stared.

“He attacked him!” Mrs. Sinclair pointed at Johnny, then made a face. “He smells like a distillery, too!”

Pedro was helped onto the sofa. Mrs. Sinclair glared at the bloodied man and looked as though she would say something, but Murdoch pushed his way toward a chair and sat heavily in it. Teresa started dabbing a cloth into a bowl of water and cleaning Pedro’s wounds as Josh explained he’d been cut and trampled while extricating a panicked steer from some downed barbed wire.

“What about Murdoch?” Mrs. Sinclair pushed between Teresa and Pedro. “He has a bloody lip, thanks to him!” She gestured toward Johnny again. Murdoch was too busy glaring at Johnny to pay attention to her. Shit. Johnny tried to calm himself with some deep breaths. He’d fucked up now for sure.

“Pedro needs tending to first,” Teresa answered, rinsing the cloth in the bowl. “But here, you can start with this.” She wet another cloth in the bowl and handed it to Mrs. Sinclair.

Mrs. Sinclair recoiled as though Teresa had handed her a dead rat. “That’s been in the same bowl as the cloths you’ve been using on that Mexican!”

Teresa looked confused, but simply answered, “You can get another bowl in the kitchen.”

Mrs. Sinclair glared at Pedro, then stomped toward the kitchen. Rojo jumped up, pouncing back and forth at her clomping feet. “I thought Murdoch said to keep this mutt out of the house! The place is being taken over!” She kicked at him with her pointed boot, catching him in the ribs so he gave a surprised yelp.  

“You don’t touch that dog, you bitch!” Johnny crossed the room in three unsteady strides, snatching Mrs. Sinclair by both arms. She screamed, a tight little screech that reminded Johnny of a chicken being strangled.

“Johnny!” Murdoch was out of his chair, storming across the room. “Have you lost your mind?” He spun Johnny around, Johnny losing his balance and staggering. Murdoch’s eyes narrowed. “You’re drunk. Get out. Get out of this house until you can sober up and act like a civilized human being. And get that mutt out before I throw him out. And apologize to Mrs. Sinclair!”

Johnny just glared at Mrs. Sinclair before turning and lurching out the door, Rojo prancing behind.

***

“Johnny!” Scott had watched the developments in the great room with disbelief. He knew Johnny was touchy about the dog, but assaulting Mrs. Sinclair like he did? And apparently hitting Murdoch? There was something more. He started after him.

“Scott, wait up!” Ian trotted up beside. “I don’t think you better confront him by yourself, not drunk like he is. You know, I wondered about letting him drink like that!”

“Thanks, Ian, but I better handle this myself.”

“Damn! His kind and booze, like nitro and glycerin. I guess he can’t really be blamed, not really. But Scott...” He put his hand on Scott’s shoulder, stopping him. “I don’t want him around my mother when he’s been drinking ever again, and I plan to make that clear to him.”

“What? Listen, don’t... no, just, just go back inside. Whatever happened, I need to talk to Johnny alone.”

Ian shrugged. “Have it your way. You just be sure to remind him what I told you.”

Scott continued to the barn alone, mulling over Ian’s ramblings momentarily but quickly returning to the mystery of Johnny’s behavior.  Sure, he’d been drinking, but that wasn’t too unusual. Maybe a little more than usual, from the unsteady way he’d been walking when he left the house. He pushed open the door and peered into the gloom, feeling his way over to the lantern. Once lit, he saw Johnny squatting, leaning back against a stall, head back and eyes closed. Rojo was sitting next to him.

“Just leave me be, ’kay Scott?”

Scott couldn’t help but be impressed. Even drunk and with his eyes shut, Johnny didn’t miss much. But Scott wasn’t about to leave him alone. “What’s going on?”

Johnny opened his eyes and lifted the bottle of tequila to his mouth. Scott noticed it was considerably depleted since the last time he’d seen it. “Whoa, there, Johnny, why don’t you ease up there?”

Johnny wiped his mouth with his sleeve, then looked at Scott unsteadily. “So how was your checkers?”

“We played chess.”

“Figures.”

“Okay...”He wasn’t quite sure what that was all about. Probably one of Johnny’s infamous change-the-subject ploys. It wasn’t going to work. “Are you going to tell me what happened?”

“Why dontcha ask Murdoch? Or that snooty-ass bitch of his?”

Scott decided not to say anything about Johnny’s choice of labels. “I’m asking you.”

Johnny lifted the bottle again.

“Come on, Johnny, stop it.” He reached for the bottle. “Give me that and tell me what’s eating at you.”

“Go play chess with your buddy.”

Scott sat down on the bale beside him. Surely this wasn’t because Johnny was jealous of Ian? No, that wouldn’t explain accosting Murdoch and Mrs. Sinclair. Besides, it was Johnny who had chosen not to come with them earlier. Still, it was all he had to go on. “Ian’s our guest. It’s only proper we entertain him. Both of us.”

Johnny snorted. “Proper, eh? Guess that lets me out.”

“Listen, I know you think Mrs. Sinclair is a little stuffy. But she’ll be leaving soon, along with the others. Just bear with it.”

Johnny held the bottle to his lips, then pulled it back, studied it, and hurled it across the barn to shatter against the far wall. “Bitch’ll never leave! Got her claws out f’Murdoch.” He slumped back, closing his eyes and mumbling, his voice trailing off. “Bitch stolem, stole m’ole man... Stole everything... Shoulda killed the damn bitch. Kicked my dog, she kicked my dog, Scott. Nobody kicks my dog...”

“Okay, come on, let’s go get in bed.” Scott tugged on Johnny’s arm.

“Leave me here.”

“Fine.” He found a horse blanket and tossed it to him.

“Ain’t gonna sleep inna same house with zat bitch. Ain’t gonna to no weddin’ neither.”

Scott rolled his eyes. “The Sinclairs are going to be gone soon, and there’s certainly not going to be any wedding.”

It was the next evening, at dinner, with everyone but Johnny sitting around the table, that Murdoch proudly announced his engagement to Florence Sinclair.

 

Chapter 7

Scott had just sat there for a second, stunned, before he regained his composure and offered his congratulations and a toast. Ian and Anna didn’t seem surprised; Mrs. Sinclair had no doubt already told them. Teresa wasted no time in rushing to hug Murdoch and Mrs. Sinclair. Johnny’s chair sat empty.

He was still unaccounted for, but Scott wasn’t surprised. Not after last night. Jelly had said he’d found him in the barn that morning, looking like something a buzzard gagged up, and that he crawled up on Barranca and headed out.

Murdoch stood to offer another toast. “To my future family: Florence, Anna, Ian, Teresa, Scott.” Murdoch looked at the empty chair. “And Johnny.” He raised the glass and drank.

Murdoch’s smile stretched his face as he sat back down and shared his vision of the future surrounded by his new wife and family. Scott tried to catch his enthusiasm. He really did like Ian and Anna. Anna especially would be good for Teresa. And Mrs. Sinclair wasn’t nearly the witch Johnny had her pegged for. The truth was, Murdoch deserved to be happy, and she certainly seemed to be the ticket. But why couldn’t Murdoch have waited to announce this until whatever was eating at Johnny was settled?

Then again, Johnny had spoken last night as though he already knew they planned to wed. Perhaps Murdoch had sought him out ahead of time, knowing that Johnny might need some easing into this new family situation. That may have accounted for Johnny’s surly mood, even the drinking. The slamming of the front door interrupted his thoughts. He glimpsed Johnny heading for the kitchen.

“John!” Murdoch called. “Come in here, please. I have some good news to share with you.”

Damn, Johnny didn't know. Scott watched as his brother scuffed to the doorway, wearing an expression of indifference as he casually shuffled to a stop. Only his eyes betrayed his intensity. Scott had a fleeting image of his brother facing off in a gunfight, one that would surely end in Johnny being wounded.

Murdoch stepped next to Mrs. Sinclair, taking her hand in his. “Mrs. Sinclair has consented to become my wife.”

“Isn’t it wonderful, Johnny?” Teresa went to Johnny’s side and took his arm, but Johnny pulled away, stomping back toward the stairs with only the chinking of his spurs for an answer.

***

“John! Get back here!”

The old man could go to hell. He heard steps hurrying behind him before he even reached the stairs. Scott. He’d figured on that.

“Don’t do this, Johnny,” Scott said quietly, slowing him with a hand on his shoulder. “You have Teresa all upset, she looks like she’s about to cry. Just go back and say a few nice words, act happy, get it over with, give it a chance. You might just find out she’s not so bad, you know.”

Heavier footsteps pounded toward them. Johnny glared beyond Scott to see Murdoch bearing down on him, Mrs. Sinclair following. “Have you been drinking again?” Murdoch hissed. “Because that’s the only thing I can think of to explain your behavior.”

“Murdoch, please! Let me talk to him,” Mrs. Sinclair said, catching up and placing her hand on Murdoch’s arm. “I’m sure this is quite a surprise. We really should have given him a little more time to get to know me, adjust to the idea.” She extended her hand to Johnny, smiling. “I think John and I just need to talk, heart to heart. Just the two of us. Please, sweetheart?”

Murdoch shifted his gaze from Johnny to Mrs. Sinclair, finally nodding and saying “Thank you, darling. I knew this family could benefit from a cooler head.” He turned to Johnny. “It’s up to you, son. What do you say?”

Johnny knew what he wanted to say. But language like that would surely get him kicked out and labeled a filthy-mouthed Mex, play right into the bitch’s hands. Did Murdoch really think he’d ever welcome the woman who ruined his mama’s life? But he nodded, hating himself for doing so. And he followed her into the great room, turning to watch her quietly close the door behind them once everyone else had left.

He eyed the glasses of wine still on the table. He felt like downing every one of them. But no way would he give her the satisfaction. So he simply stood there and waited, leaning against the big chair and watching her pour herself a fresh glass. She took her time, swirling the wine and holding it so the light from the candles on the table shone through it.

“You do want your father to be happy, don’t you?” she finally said.

Johnny didn’t answer. He knew when he was being set up.

“I make him happy. I expect he would be happier with your blessing, but don’t think by acting like a spoiled child you can make him change his mind.”

He finally spoke. “You ain’t ever getting my blessing.  That’s all I got to say on the matter.” Otherwise, he’d let loose and say a lot of shit he’d most likely regret.

Her snooty smile turned to a frown momentarily, but then she seemed to remember to plaster it back on. “Thank you for being so honest. I think that’s the best way we can reach an understanding.” She sipped her wine, set the glass on the table, then leaned toward him. “And because I really have no interest in hearing anything out of you. You’re here to listen to me, and to listen up good. You’ve already ruined your father’s life once. I have no intention of allowing you to do it again.”

Johnny had planned on not rising to any bait, not saying anything, but he couldn’t sit there and ignore what the bitch had done, not now. “I know what you and Murdoch did back then. You ought to be ashamed, both of you married folk and carryin’ on.”

For a brief second he thought she was going to throw her wine on him. Instead she took another sip and acted all casual. “You have no idea what you’re talking about. Murdoch and I were in love, then and now, long before that Mexican strumpet got him drunk and enticed him into her bed.”

Johnny forced himself to chuckle. “Hoo boy, lady, you sure ain’t got no room callin’ names.”

This time she did fling the contents of her glass at him, but there were only a few drops left. “Your mother was the one who jumped into his bed! Murdoch and I were in love, we’d planned to marry as soon I divorced, but then she came along, a one-night fling when he’d been drinking too much down in Mexico, and she used his mistake, you, to get a ring on her finger because she knew he’d feel obliged to give his mistake his name. I told him he wasn’t doing anyone any favors, there was no way of even knowing if you were his mistake or any of the other men’s she was sharing her bed with. But he didn’t find out I was right until it was too late. You can’t blame good people for not wanting to do business with a man who brings a Mexican tramp and her halfbreed bastard right into his home, and sure enough, he started losing business right off. To the woman’s credit, she did finally realize what a millstone she was and left, and thank God took you with her.”

Johnny thought he might rip the stuffing out of the chair, he was gripping it so hard. But it was either that or grip her neck that hard. “She have any help making that decision?”

“I helped her see what she was too ignorant to see for herself.”

“Yeah I bet you did, you goddamn bitch.”

She smiled sweetly as she picked up a fork to examine. “I should have expected language like that from you. I’ll be speaking to Murdoch about it. It won’t do to have Ian and Anastasia exposed to that kind of foul talk.”

“Yeah, you go right ahead and try it.”

She rose and walked to him. “You get this straight. Murdoch loves me. He always has. If you do anything to interfere, you’ll be hurting him. Is that what you want?”

Johnny could think of nothing to do but glare at her. Could Murdoch really love this bitch? More than he’d loved his mama?

She raised her brow like he was too stupid to answer. “Don’t you think you’ve done enough harm already? Murdoch’s losing business all over again because of having you here. Did you ever think of that?”

“That’s a lie.” Yeah, he’d thought of it. Plenty.

“Oh? Ask Murdoch. Ask him about Mr. Sweeney and why he’s not doing business with Lancer anymore. But while you’re asking him you’d better keep one thing in mind. I know who you are. Murdoch told me all about your past. All about how you’re trying to keep it quiet so none of your old buddies will know where to find you. So here’s the deal: If you do one thing, just one thing, to jeopardize my relationship with Murdoch, I’ll plaster Johnny Madrid’s whereabouts in every paper from here to Mexico. You think about that.”

“You’re bluffing. Talk about hurtin’ Murdoch’s business, puttin’ everyone in danger…”

“Only if you stayed.”

Johnny stood up, doing everything he could to keep from strangling her. “You’re a fucking bitch.”

She cocked her head and smiled again. “Shall I tell Murdoch you said that?”

 

Chapter 8

Scott had sat outside with Murdoch, talking over the logistics of moving the Sinclair belongings down from San Francisco. Murdoch was anxious for the wedding to take place as soon as possible; he said they’d waited long enough.

Every so often they both fell silent. Scott imagined Murdoch was listening for the same thing he was, the sound of Johnny shouting, Mrs. Sinclair screaming, or dishes flying. To their relief, all they could hear was the muffled sound of voices so low they were almost drowned out by the chirping of crickets.

It was during one such lull that Scot suggested what he thought might explain Johnny’s behavior in a way that Murdoch could accept. “I expect he just needs time to get used to the idea of a bigger family. You know, he’s just getting used to having a family at all.”

Murdoch nodded, said, “I hope so, but I don’t see why he has to take it out on Flo. I’m just thankful she’s been so understanding.”

Scott actually had another, simpler, theory. Johnny was jealous. He had finally found a father, and now a strange woman threatened to steal his father’s attention. He was behaving like a child.

He turned toward the doorway as he heard the inner door clunk open and Johnny’s distinctive clomp and jingle head toward the foyer, stop, then turn toward the stairs. A good sign. When Johnny was upset he was more likely to head to the barn, another reason Scott had chosen to guard the door, so to speak.

Murdoch rose and announced he was going to go check on “the future Mrs. Lancer.” His words. Scott wondered what he was supposed to call her once they were married. Mother? No, he didn’t even call Murdoch “father.” And that’s when it hit him. Maybe Johnny’s resentment of Mrs. Sinclair was because he felt she was taking his mother’s place. Hopefully she had set him straight about that.

***

Johnny paced back and forth in his room. The bitch! The fucking bitch! The only reason he hadn’t lit out on Barranca was because that’s exactly what she wanted. He heard footsteps coming down the hall, a knock at his door. He tried to calm himself as the door edged open.

“I found somebody outside the kitchen door,” Scott said, offering up Rojo. “He looked lonely.”

Johnny couldn’t help but smile and relax a bit as the little dog frisked and weaved between his legs as though they’d been separated for months. “You miss me, fella?”

“Oh, a little bit, I guess,” Scott quipped. “But I got over it pretty fast.”

Johnny smiled sheepishly, caught off guard and figuring Scott was maybe still a little rankled about that snake comment. “Thanks for bringin’ him up.”

Scott wandered around the room, running his fingers along Johnny’s empty dresser top, finally just leaning back against it. “Did you and Mrs. Sinclair get things settled?”

Oh sure, she hates my guts, she ruined my mama’s marriage, and now she’s blackmailing me to shut up about it all. Yeah, we got things settled alright. That’s what he wanted to say. If anyone would believe him, it’d be Scott. Maybe then they could both convince Murdoch to dump the bitch. Snatch away the old man’s happiness. Destroy Lancer. Get everyone killed.

“Yeah, we got it worked out.”

***

The next couple of days were filled with making plans for the wedding, as well as the trip back to San Francisco. Murdoch had suggested they combine their honeymoon with the trip to collect the Sinclairs’ belongings, but Mrs. Sinclair said she wanted him all to herself when that time came, not supervising movers. So it was decided Mrs. Sinclair and Anastasia would go. They’d also purchase what they needed to make the wedding “an affair,” as she put it. As he watched the dust obscure the buggy headed for town and the stage, Johnny wished they’d never come back.

Ian was staying behind so he could learn more about the ranch and ranching. Johnny begrudgingly admitted he was a quick study and already a pretty good rider, adept at jumping fences although sharing that sort of funny straight posture Scott had. And he didn’t seem to mind getting his hands dirty when the situation called for it. Since his mother and sister had left, he’d helped Scott and Johnny unload hay, fix the pump handle, and even work on some fence mending one day. Ian still had plenty to learn, though, like remembering to never ride off without his canteen. Johnny had noticed Ian eyeing his canteen while he was drinking and had offered it to him, surprised when Ian declined. Fence mending was hot work, and Johnny had figured Ian must be tougher than he looked until he overheard him asking Scott for a sip from his a few minutes later.

Ian had freely admitted he wasn’t much of a roper, and since Scott wasn’t very good at it either, Johnny had gritted his teeth and volunteered to teach him. He was immensely relieved when Ian said he’d already made arrangements with Buck for some lessons. But then Ian had surprised him by pulling out a shiny new pistol and asking for some shooting pointers.

“I simply never had much reason to become overly proficient in the finer points of gunplay before, but if I’m to live amongst the uncivilized, I need to beat them at their own game,” he’d explained.

He’d smiled amiably when he said it, but Johnny had a feeling Ian was once again throwing off on him. Still, he recognized the truth in what he was saying. And the danger. “I can get you better, but you ain’t gonna be beatin’ anyone at their own game. And you gonna get yourself killed if you think you can.”

Ian had laughed at that. “I assure you, I have no intention of engaging in gratuitous shootouts with riffraff. I merely need to be able to defend myself credibly.”

So early one morning they’d ridden out, Scott too, and blasted the hell out of everything they could hit. Which turned out not to be much, in Ian’s case. When Ian had finally insisted his new gun must have a problem, Johnny asked to try it and promptly shot six out of six targets, handing it back without comment.

He could see Ian eyeing his own well-worn gun, once again in his hand, could have almost predicted what he was going to ask before he did: “How many men have you killed with that gun?”

“I don’t keep notches, if that’s what you’re lookin’ for.” Johnny quickly added, “Time to go.” He wondered who had told him about Madrid.

Murdoch had seemed pleased to see the three of them ride in together, until Ian told him what they’d been doing. “He doesn’t need a fast draw,” he’d said to Johnny, as though it had been Johnny’s idea to fashion his dear stepson-to-be into a gunslinger. Johnny hadn’t been able to resist flinging back that there was no worry of that. Ian had even agreed.

Later that afternoon Johnny had to get a new shirt from his room after the one he was wearing got drenched. He glanced in the great room and stopped when he saw Ian at Murdoch’s desk, hunched over the ledgers. Ian assured him Murdoch had gone over the ranch’s finances with him, and that in fact he’d asked Ian to study them. “He suggested I take over for you, Johnny, since you’re not comfortable with this sort of job.”

Johnny had left the room seething. True, he hated bookkeeping. Every number fought him. But it wasn’t right to just hand Ian his duties, wasn’t even right for Ian to be privy to their business affairs. He’d mulled it over the rest of the day, finally deciding he’d say something to Murdoch when he could.

To his surprise, Murdoch gave him the perfect opportunity after dinner when he asked to speak to Scott and Johnny alone in the great room. Johnny was still working on a polite way to tell him to keep Ian’s nose out of their business when Murdoch opened his drawer and removed some papers.

“Boys, I have a request of you. I want you both to know that having you as my business partners has made running Lancer more rewarding than it ever could have been for me in the past. Sharing it with the two of you, my family, it’s always been a dream of mine. Now, well, now I’m asking you to help me expand my dream just as I’m expanding my family.”

He shoved the papers in front of them. “I’d like you to sign this, and welcome Ian not only as your brother, but as our new partner in Lancer.”

Johnny thought he must be hearing things.

 

Chapter 9

The room was so clogged with smoke she wondered more than once if the building was ablaze. Such a shame to treat fine draperies this way. But nobody seemed alarmed, not that half of them would notice if their own clothes caught fire. They were too engrossed in various games of cards, studying their hands, counting chips, or simply trying to bluff their opponents. She tried not to get too near any of them, or to touch anything. She did not condone gambling.

She stood as close to the ornate bar as she dared without risking touching it, bent forward and spoke to the man behind it. “I was told I could locate a Mr. Clive Edmund here. Could you please direct me to him?”

The barkeep motioned toward a table in a dark corner, the dull light from its lamp casting the single man seated there in harsh relief. The man at the table was bone-poking thin, but he was clean-shaven and dressed in a neat black coat. A half-empty bottle and a very few chips kept him company. He was leaning back in his chair, but stood and pulled a chair out for her as she approached.

She hated having to take care of business like this on her own. But some things were best done with few confederates. Looking about furtively before she spoke, she decided to get right to it. “I’m told you can take care of unwanted people for a price.”

The man studied her for a second, his face never changing expression. “How unwanted?”

She wasn’t quite sure how to answer that, surprised at his question. “Most unwanted. He’s a bad man, but he’s been able to avoid the law.”

He seemed amused at her answer. “No, I mean how much money’s worth unwanted is he?”

She looked around again. With all the racket of cards, chips, and laughter she practically had to shout. Either that, or lean in close, which, as uncomfortable as it made her, she chose. “I can make it well worth your while. Five hundred dollars.”

She saw the monetary gleam in his eye. “Just supposing, how would I find this bad seed?”

“He’s on a ranch near Morro Coyo. He’s half Mexican, with dark hair and blue eyes.”

“Lady, I’m not planning on courting him. How do I tell him at a distance?”

“The ranch he’s on is called Lancer, and he’s the only one there who rides a big palomino, and wears concho pants and always some kind of audaciously colored shirt.”

“Morro Coyo, huh? That's a good trip. Gonna need travel expenses.”

“That’s all I have. One hundred and fifty now, the rest when the job’s done.” She’d worry about the other part later. But the man was staring at her expectantly, so she pulled a ring off her finger. “I can give you this, too.”

Edmund examined the ring. “This ain’t much, but it’ll take care of travel money.” He flipped it from hand to hand, as though contemplating. “This fella, he any kind of shot?”

She’d learned her lesson with the first man she’d asked. This one she wouldn’t scare away. “No. I mean, he can shoot, but nothing special.”

***

“No.”  Johnny’s answer, given with quiet determination, would have been obvious even had he said nothing. He looked like someone was threatening to steal his last meal.

Scott was still trying not to look shocked. He’d never once considered Murdoch might give Ian a share of Lancer, but he was trying to see the situation from all angles. He wondered just how invested his father was in this idea. “This is rather sudden, sir,” he said slowly. “Have you discussed it with Ian?”

“I know it seems sudden to you, but I’ve been thinking about it for some time.”

“Some time?” Johnny blurted. “How’s that, when you ain’t been engaged for hardly more than a week?”

Murdoch ignored his outburst. “And to answer your other question, I’ve not discussed it with Ian yet. I wanted to see how much interest he had in staying here before giving him that incentive. I think you’ll both agree he’s been working very hard to learn the business.”

“Yeah, well Jelly and Cip know a hell of a lot more than he’ll ever know, I don’t see you giving them a slice.”

Murdoch leaned forward, hands on his desk as he looked Johnny in the eye. “Jelly and Cip, as valued as they are, are employees, not family. Once Florence and I marry, Ian will be as much a part of this family as you are, and I don’t intend to treat him any differently.”

“Hell, then, just split it into six pieces, deal that bit... Mrs. Sinclair and Anna in for a cut. Give the whole ranch away!” Johnny clomped in a small circle as he spoke, finishing with a kick that sent the corner of the rug tipped back on itself.

“Johnny, don’t be childish. Florence will share my part and if I go before her, will inherit it. Anna, I expect will marry and share in her husband’s prosperity. But Ian’s father had nothing of substance to leave him, nothing he could make a business with. I won’t have him living here without the future my other two sons enjoy!”

“Other two sons?” Scott raised his brow. Funny, Ian was more like the brother he’d always imagined having when he’d wished for one as a child, but now he had a hard time imagining the Lancer brothers as a threesome rather than a pair. Apparently Murdoch planned to welcome him on an equal basis.

“You know what I mean. I don’t plan to treat him any differently just because he’s a stepson.”

“Seems to me you’re treatin’ him plenty different! We had to work for our shares.” Johnny sounded mad, but he looked more hurt. “What the hell he’d do for it? You wanted our guts, remember? For a third, that was the deal! I got shot in the fucking back earning my third!”

“Johnny! First of all, there’s no need for that kind of language. Florence has asked me to speak to you about it, and I agree. Second, it’s hardly Ian’s fault that the ranch isn’t under attack any longer. Scott managed to stay out of the way of any bullets, and he got his share. Getting shot was not a requirement, and if you’d followed orders, you probably wouldn’t have even been hurt!”

“Hold on, both of you!” Scott tried to think of something to diffuse the situation before Johnny did his storm-out-the-door act, or Murdoch did something more to encourage it. Or they both killed each other and solved the whole problem.

Before he could speak, though, Murdoch held up his hand. “No, no, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that. But I do want you to know I’m giving up part of my share, and I hope you boys will do the same, welcome him as an equal.”

“Fuck if I will,” Johnny mumbled, adding more loudly, “You go ahead and give him whatever you want, I ain’t signing nothing!”

“Just hold on a minute,” Scott said, once again feeling himself thrown into the role of arbitrator. “Murdoch, this is a pretty big surprise. You can’t expect either of us to agree without thinking about it, and as much as I want Ian to feel at home and be part of the business, I think this seems premature at the moment. I’m not saying never, but I think we should wait. On the other hand, Johnny, before you get too upset, remember, this is a huge ranch. Quite honestly, none of us is going to notice the difference between owning a third of it or a quarter of it. I’d be willing to bet you’d have agreed to fight for a quarter share in the first place, am I right?” He knew he was right. Johnny probably would have done it for whatever the going rate was for his gun, and that was probably closer to the price of a few steers.

“You goin’ along with this, Scott?” Johnny now managed to look both hurt and incredulous. It was true Scott didn’t really care whether he owned a third or a fourth. He had enough assets in his trust fund that the difference was inconsequential. But besides Johnny’s horse, saddle, and paltry assortment of loud clothes, his Lancer share was all Johnny had. As much as Johnny pretended not to care about possessions, Scott knew he was passionate about the few things he owned.

“No, I’m not, not as is,” Scott replied, adding to Murdoch, “Sir, while I agree it’s thoughtful to provide for Ian equally, Johnny is right. We did make a bargain, and asking to change the terms of the agreement now isn’t really fair. Perhaps you could arrange a buy-out, so that we’d be financially compensated for giving up some of our shares.”

“I ain’t sellin’ my share.”

“Not the whole thing, Johnny. You’d have some spending money, and you could reinvest the rest. You could even buy stock if you wanted, diversify.”

“I got plenty of stock with my third already. Why would I sell ’em and then buy more, ’specially when I had less land?” Johnny looked at him like he was an idiot.

“I meant stock, as in stocks and bonds. Shares of companies...” The blank look on Johnny’s face stopped him. “You could buy horses.”

“Lancer is not going into the business of horses,” Murdoch growled. “Besides, I don’t have that kind of cash. All our money is tied up in Lancer. I can’t very well sell off parts of it in order to buy back parts.”

“Then I’d say you got yourself a problem.” Johnny smirked when he said it. It reminded Scott of that first meeting, when he’d said pretty much the same thing, the same way, about Pardee.

Damn those two. Not an ounce of budge in either one. It wasn’t like Johnny to be selfish, and it sure wasn’t like Murdoch to be giving away land. “Murdoch, what would be the harm in waiting awhile? Make sure Ian really wants to stay, make sure he’s really cut out for this. Then if he does, let him pay for it, or work it off. I know he’s going to be your stepson, but really, you, we, scarcely know him. Maybe this isn’t the life for him.”

“If you’ll recall, I scarcely knew you and Johnny before I offered you your shares.”

Scott held back from reminding him whose fault that was, at least in his case. “True, but Johnny and I had been your sons for more than twenty years. Johnny was even born here. I’d hazard to say that makes a difference.”

Murdoch paced to the other side of his desk, then back. “I saw Ian the day he was born. Actually knew him for longer than I knew Johnny, certainly longer than I knew you. He was like a son to me.”

“He ain’t gettin’ what’s mine.”

Before Johnny and Murdoch could get into a battle of raw wills, Scott figured he’d better step in with some reason. “That’s all well and good, but it’s still different. Nobody expects you to turn over part of Lancer to him just because you’re marrying his mother, no matter how long you’ve known him or much you liked him when he was a child.”

Murdoch’s pacing increased, his boots pounding on the floor like the heartbeat of an angry man, until he stopped before his desk, pursing his lips and staring from Scott to Johnny. The three stood, each refusing to look away, until the room’s sudden quiet was abruptly shattered by Murdoch’s fist slamming on the desktop, the glass lamp dancing with the impact.

“Goddamn it! Ian was named after my father!” He looked at them as though that was supposed to mean something. When neither responded, he fell back in his chair, his voice almost inaudible. “He’s my son. Flo’s and mine.”

 

Chapter 10

He hadn’t signed. But he hadn’t hit the bastard, either. It had taken everything he had in him to just walk out of the room without jumping over the desk and slamming Murdoch’s face into it, over and over and over. Hell, it’d taken everything he had not to look like he’d been kicked in the nuts. Judging by the way Scott gaped at him, he probably hadn’t been so successful there.

God damn Murdoch to hell. Mama had been telling the truth. At least some of the time. The story she told about Murdoch trading them out for a gringo woman and boy. About how the husband she’d loved had betrayed the two of them, how he and his gringo woman had made it impossible for Mama and him to stay. She didn’t tell the story too often, only when she was really drunk, and then she always ended up crying so much he could scarcely understand her, hadn’t really wanted to. Hell, he almost felt like crying himself right now. He picked up his pace, putting as much distance between him and that fucking son of a bitch as he could before he changed his mind and killed him.

He flung open the barn door, letting it bang back and forth behind him, sucking in the comforting aroma of hay and horses like a drowning man. Rojo danced around his legs, practically tripping him, but even the dog’s exuberance couldn’t entice him to stop. He hurried into the stall and just gripped Barranca’s neck for a moment, leaning his head on the warm body, before finally bending down to gather up Rojo. Rojo licked his face then squirmed loose.

“We’re gettin’ the hell outa here, fellas,” he said, grabbing his saddle and flinging it on the palomino’s back, just as Rojo rushed to the barn door. Sure enough, Scott.

Scott wasn’t too often at a loss for words, but he didn’t say anything as he entered the stall, and when he did say something, it was, “I don’t know what to say.”

“I do. He’s a goddamn son of a bitch.” He bent under to grab the cinch, jerking it tight until Barranca stomped and fidgeted in protest. “He can keep his fucking ranch—give the whole thing to his fucking new son for all I give a damn!”

Scott put a hand on the horse’s flank. “Come on, Johnny, I know this is a shock, but running off isn’t going to help anything. We need to sit down and discuss this, the three of us, give Murdoch a chance to explain.”

“What’s the matter, you don’t know how that works? He stuck his dick in that bitch and they had a baby. There’s your explanation.”

Scott sighed. “You know what I mean. Maybe there were circumstances we don’t know about. I’m just not sure it’s our place to judge so quickly.”

“There were circumstances, alright! Like being married to my mama! And he better hope I don’t judge him, cuz I tell you what, I’d give the bastard a death sentence. Along with that fucking slut of his!” He grabbed Barranca’s reins and yanked him from the stall, the horse throwing back his head at the rough treatment.

“Johnny!” He reached for him but Johnny pulled from his touch. “I know he was wrong, but it happened a long time ago. This is not the answer! Come on, we need to talk, all of us!”

“You want to talk, go talk.” He led Barranca to the door, mounted and started away, then jerked the horse around and spoke quietly. “Cuz I tell you one thing, if I see the son of a bitch, I’m gonna kill him.”

***

He could tell by the retreating sound of Barranca’s hoofbeats that Johnny slowed down after he disappeared into the night, probably to let Rojo catch up. Scott kicked his toe into the ground, finally trudging back toward the light that still burned in the windows to the great room. Sometimes he wished he could stay out in the dark forever.

Murdoch should have known better. Should have known better than to have an affair, and then a child. Should have known better than to break it to them, to Johnny, that way. But that was Murdoch’s way. It was easier to get him to shout something he didn’t want to tell you than to whisper it. Well, he’d sure shouted this plenty loud. Or at least it had seemed like it.

Scott wasn’t sure how he felt about the whole thing. Yes he was; he was disgusted and angry and sick to his stomach. But if Ian really was Murdoch’s son, then Ian deserved his share as much as he and Johnny did. He liked Ian, and if he had to choose a brother, besides Johnny, Ian would be near the top of the list. It was just going to take some getting used to, but that had been the case when he’d come to Lancer and discovered he had one brother. Another shouldn’t be that different. Maybe Johnny would come to that conclusion once he slowed down to think. Granted, Murdoch had apparently had an affair while he’d been married to Johnny’s mother, but that was over twenty years ago. He pushed open the door, noticing his father was still seated behind his desk. He needed some answers.

When he left an hour later he’d been surprised at how forthcoming Murdoch had been. Yes, he’d had an affair when he’d been married to Maria. It had started even before his marriage, but Florence was married at the time. They’d planned on getting married after she divorced, had even chosen names for the children they planned to have. But before she divorced he’d met Maria on a trip, and when he found Maria was pregnant, he married her. He’d known it was wrong, but he hadn’t given up Florence, couldn’t, even though he couldn’t marry her now. Ian was born only a few months after Johnny’s birth. Florence’s husband learned of the affair, and that he wasn’t Ian’s father. He divorced her, sold the bank, left Green River, and was never heard from again. Murdoch had vowed to take care of Florence and her children, and had hoped Johnny and Ian would grow up like brothers. Florence had tried to convince Murdoch to divorce Maria, but he refused. Then one day Maria just left on her own. Florence had expected they would marry then, but Murdoch was preoccupied trying to find Johnny and they ultimately drifted apart. They’d argued, she’d left and the next thing he knew, she’d married somebody else and moved to San Francisco. Ian knew his stepfather wasn’t his father, but didn’t know Murdoch was. Her new husband was prosperous enough, but Murdoch wanted Ian to have the best education. Besides, he’d made a vow to take care of his son. So he sent him money and funded his tuition over the years, funneling it through a trust fund. He’d financed his trip to Europe, which is where Ian was when the ranch was attacked. That was why he hadn’t sent for him then, as he had Scott and Johnny. That, and the fact Ian had no idea who Murdoch was. That would change when Florence came back tomorrow.

He knew he’d been wrong in having the affair when she was married, and continuing it after he was married. But he did not regret the fact that it had resulted in a fine young man.

Murdoch’s dream was to bring his sons together. He told Scott how he was enjoying watching him and Ian together, how much they reminded him of himself and his own brother growing up in Scotland. He confessed he’d hoped that Johnny would be getting along better with the Sinclairs before telling him of Ian’s relationship. At the same time, he couldn’t cater to Johnny’s whims forever. Although he didn’t blame Johnny, it had been the search for him that had ultimately prevented him from marrying Florence after Maria left; he wasn’t going to let her slip away again.

Yes, he’d loved Maria. Yes, he’d loved Florence. And still did.

Scott reluctantly consented to be his best man.

***

By the time he’d made it to the closest line shack he’d emptied the flask of tequilla that he kept in his saddlebags. He did a slipshod job of getting Barranca settled in and proceeded to take the place apart looking for some whiskey. He knew the hands always had some hidden, usually in places where the other hands couldn’t find it. He opened every bottle he found in the shelves, tossed the cot, pried open loose floorboards, and generally flung things around enough so that it made finding anything nearly impossible. Ian was probably sitting in the great room, sipping brandy with Murdoch and Scott, talking about books, playing chess, and laughing his ass off at how he’d replaced his stupid halfbreed half brother. Murdoch was no doubt proudly watching his two fair-haired sons, happy he finally had the right pair under his roof, looking forward to his wedding where he could officially replace his Mexican wife with one he could show off around town.  He could just imagine their reaction when they saw what he’d done to the line shack in his ranting. Good. He picked up a bottle of oil and flung it to shatter against the wall, the shards and oil tinkling and trickling to the floor. It was then he noticed Rojo huddled next to the door, scratching to go out, flinching when Johnny reached for him.

“Shit, fella, I ain’t mad at you.” He sat on the floor and leaned against the wall, closing his eyes as he felt Rojo creep into his lap and tentatively lick his arm. Damn. All he’d managed to do was scare a dog.

Murdoch could have his slutty new wife and his perfect new son. Johnny didn’t need him, never had. But as much as the shouting in his head told him to keep on riding and never turn back, that was bullshit. That’s what Mama had done. In the end, that’s why Mama had died. And that’s why he’d grown up stupid, without the education Murdoch was always harping on. No, he wasn’t leaving, wasn’t giving up his share of the ranch— not even a part of it. He’d make a new home right here, in the line shack, him and Rojo. And Barranca. That’s all he needed. And his stuff from his room. And some supplies. They were his, too. Tomorrow he’d go back and take what he wanted.

But damn, tonight he wanted some goddamn booze! Where the hell was it? He thrust himself up and starting looking more methodically. He thought of Murdoch’s expensive scotch and brandy again, of the three of them toasting one another. Thought, even, of riding all the way back and grabbing every bottle he could carry. Problem was, if they really were in there, he knew he’d be wanted for murder once he left.

 

Chapter 11

He was halfway down the hall to his room when some sort of a strange varmint scuttled out of Murdoch’s bedroom and began yapping at him. Johnny jumped back, his hand on his gun, when another one joined it. They sounded like dogs, but they looked like scalps come to life. Whatever, they were the last thing his throbbing head needed. Anastasia came out of her room and squealed, “Don’t touch them!”

“What the hell are they?” Johnny was still backing, the things nipping at his boot toes.

Anna rushed to gather them up, managing to heft one in each arm and kissing each on what looked to be some sort of smushed-in face. “Now, now, it’s alright, sweeties. You can let him in.” She turned to Johnny. “These are Peking Palace dogs. They’re Chinese. Aren’t they something? We brought them back with us from San Francisco.”

“Dogs, huh? You find them runnin’ in Chinatown?” It was about the most Anna had ever said to him at once. She must share his soft spot for dogs in need. “That’s good of you, cuz they was probably gonna be somebody’s meal.”

Anna gave him a pained look. “Hardly. Ian brought them back from London several months ago. Their grandparents came straight from the Empress of China’s palace. They’re extremely rare and valuable blue bloods, and we plan to have puppies in the near future.” She kissed the dogs again, cooing to them, “Isn’t that so?”

Johnny wondered if Anna knew how Murdoch was about dogs in the house. Had it been Ian, he wouldn’t have said anything, but he decided he better warn Anna. “Murdoch know you got ’em inside? You might want to hide ’em.”

“Of course. He’s the one who suggested it. He’s already very fond of them. This is Ming, and this is Tang. It’s almost time for them to marry.”

Johnny hadn’t registered much after she claimed Murdoch was fond of them. He looked closer, taking in their twisted legs, flattened faces, bulging eyes, and tousled hair, wondering what his father liked about them. “They good ratters?”

Anna practically made a face. “No. They’ve never touched a rat in their life, and I hope they won’t encounter one here. She let Tang down and held onto Ming, bouncing her in her arms. Tang barked at Johnny then leaped up at Ming, at least leaped as best he could, which wasn’t much. He snuffled and wheezed with the effort.

“Jelly can probably get you something for what’s wrong with him, fix up his breathing some.”

“There’s nothing wrong with him,” she said, giving him a look that plainly said she thought he was stupid. She called Tang to follow her downstairs.

Johnny watched them for a few steps, then headed back toward his room. If those were blue bloods, he’d take his mutt any day. It figured his old man would let them in the house, no problem. Just like that fucking Ian. Opening his door, he made for his dresser. He wanted to get his stuff before Murdoch came home. He hadn’t counted on Mrs. Sinclair and Anna being back yet, but at least Anna wasn’t too bad. Still, the fewer Sinclairs he met up with the better. He pulled open his top drawer, grabbing his favorite shirt, next to the one he was wearing. His other drawers were empty, but he opened the bottom one and pulled it all the way out. Behind it he kept his prized possessions: his old working gun, a hiding gun, a stick knife, a Bowie knife, and spare ammunition. Along with some old gun he’d been meaning to work on one of these days. Things he didn’t want Murdoch and Scott to know he still kept. If he was going to live at the line shack he wanted most of his stash there with him. He placed them into the saddlebags he’d brought along, stuffing the shirt on top. He gave one last look at the room he’d called home for longer than any other in his life, not counting a couple of cells, at the sun streaming in its open window, the curtains billowing softly, the little Indian rug, the bed with its quilt and pillow. It was certainly the nicest room he’d ever had. Maybe he’d haul the bed out to the shack eventually.

He thumped down the stairs, intending to grab one thing from Murdoch’s desk—his mother’s picture, since it was damn sure his father didn’t appreciate it—when he heard the dogs yapping from below. Damn. There was Anna and the dogs in the great room. He changed directions and headed for the pantry, figuring he would stock up on some food. He found a sack and filled it with some coffee, flour, salt, and tins of beans. It wasn’t much, but since he couldn’t cook much, it would do. He found some cooked biscuits and sliced meat in the kitchen, and helped himself to as much as he could without fearing that Maria would have to cook more.

The door opened and shut, and it sounded as though Anna had taken the dogs out, so he hurried into the great room. The picture wasn’t in its place on the desk. On a hunch, he rummaged through the drawers and found it pushed to the back of one. It was all he could do not to take his hand and hurl everything off the old man’s desk. Instead he strode to the cabinet where Murdoch kept his fancy booze and crammed every last bottle he could fit into his bags. See how much fun they had toasting with rotgut tonight, them with their hoity-toity tastes.

He almost dropped the last bottle when the screaming started outside.

***

Scott had started out right after breakfast. He figured Johnny hadn’t gotten far, probably only to one of the line shacks. He’d checked a couple before he hit pay dirt. As soon as he opened the door he stopped in his tracks, awestruck by the scene of destruction within. Everything tossable—cans, bottles, tools, bedding, even furniture—had been tossed. A few cans had even made it through the window and lay in the dirt outside. If vandals hadn’t done it, and it seemed unlikely they had, then it had to have been Johnny. Johnny had a temper, yes, but Scott had never seen evidence like this of just how violent it could be. And now he was gone. Scott remembered his parting words of the night before. He jumped on his horse and galloped back to the hacienda, praying his brother had calmed down. Or at least hadn’t met up with his father.

He tried to ignore his mount’s first hobbling steps, then hoped it was just a stone in a shoe. But when he dismounted, there was no stone to be found, only a shoe that was too loose to hammer back in with a rock. Cursing his bad luck, he walked the last mile home, leading his horse.

He had just made it to the Lancer barn when he heard a woman’s screams.

***

The screaming was coming from Anna’s mouth.  At first it looked like she was swatting at her dogs, but soon Johnny realized she was mostly swatting at Rojo, who was trying to play with one of her dogs—which one, Johnny had no idea. They both looked like something a cat would gag up. Rojo was standing with his head high, neck arched, his tail wagging in a blur. Johnny couldn’t help but think how handsome the dog had become, standing there like a little stallion.

“Get him away!” she shrieked, obviously unimpressed by Rojo’s good looks.

“He’s just playing,” Johnny said, before he realized Rojo was looking stallion-like because he was trying to act stallion-like. Rojo gave the other dog, he was pretty sure it was the girl one, a doggy embrace that made his intentions clear. Ming bucked and tried to squirm away. Anna shrieked again.

“It’s rape!” she yelled as she ran forward and started kicking at Rojo. “Get off!”

Johnny reached them and pushed her away, holding her back while she screamed and kicked at his dog. “Stop! I’ll get him,” he said as he held her back, trying to keep from getting angry. “I can’t get him if you don’t stop kicking!” That’s when he heard the steps run up behind him, right before the crash to the side of his head. He staggered, one side of his vision going black.

“Get your filthy hands off her!” It was Ian, fists up and ready to do battle. That was fine with Johnny. He shoved Anna back, away from Rojo, and lunged toward Ian, landing a good blow to his gut that sent him doubled up to his knees. Then he stepped over and dragged Rojo off Ming before Anna could start her kicking again. She’d fallen when Johnny shoved her and was screaming like a stuck pig. Ian pushed himself up and lunged at Johnny again, but Johnny, still holding Rojo under one arm, sidestepped and caught him in the jaw, this time knocking him on his back. He was ready to pummel the shit out of him when Scott’s voice made him stop.

“Johnny!” Scott had appeared around the corner, staring with mouth agape. Johnny brushed by him to gather up his stuff from where he’d dropped it.“Johnny, stop! What’s going on?”

He didn’t trust himself to speak right now, so he flung his saddlebags and sack over Barranca, mounted with Rojo in front of him, and spurred the horse out of range of the whole bunch of them. He could see Anna hugging her dogs, could see Ian getting to his feet, could hear him telling Scott that Johnny had attacked Anna and then flown into a rage, could hear Scott once again calling after him.

Murdoch was nowhere in sight, but he could also hear what he’d have to say.

 

Chapter 12

It couldn’t have happened at a worse time, with the wedding the very next day. Ian’s jaw was purple, as was Murdoch’s face when he heard what had happened. Murdoch had planned to go up to the line shack and have what he called a serious discussion with Johnny about his behavior. Scott figured the wedding would definitely be canceled if that happened, what with Murdoch being dead and all. So he volunteered to ride up there, which he’d planned to do anyway, and talk to him.

Johnny’s behavior was troubling. No, Scott didn’t for a minute think he’d attacked Anna, although he could see how Ian might have jumped to that conclusion. And thankfully, Murdoch didn’t believe it either. But as Murdoch pointed out, several times, he could have just calmly removed Rojo and explained to Ian what the mix-up was. Anna reported it had been Johnny’s dog that started the whole thing, that Johnny had gone crazy when she yelled and tried to get Rojo off of Ming. That didn’t do much to ease Murdoch’s temper; after the last incident when Johnny went after both Murdoch and Florence for the way they treated Rojo, Murdoch had been, if anything, less tolerant of the dog and Johnny’s excuses for it. It certainly didn’t excuse Johnny shoving a woman to the ground, or beating Ian to the extent he had, not in Murdoch’s eyes. And while Scott knew Johnny doted on that dog, he had to agree with Murdoch on this one. Something else must be eating him.

Judging from how he’d wrecked the line shack before heading for the hacienda, Johnny had been in a volatile state of mind from the outset. He certainly hadn’t taken the news of his new half-brother well at all. Sure, it was a shock, but no more so than discovering they were each other’s half-brothers that first day. Why did Johnny have to be so churlish about Ian?

Johnny’s inebriated state when Scott got to the shack only reinforced Scott’s convictions. Scott couldn’t help but notice Murdoch’s expensive bottles of sipping liquor set out in a row, nor the one Johnny held to his lips as he waved Scott in. Told him to close the door behind him, so he could let go of Rojo. Apparently the dog wanted to head out and play with his new friends back at the ranch.

The place was still a wreck. He had to step over a bottle that was rolling toward him, kicked by Johnny. His gaze stopped at a new addition: Johnny’s saddlebags thrown on the bed, assorted guns and knives spilling out of them. Johnny was ranting about something.

“Bitch thinks Rojo ain’t good enough t’court that bitch,” he slurred. “Fuckin’ he’s fifty times, no, a hundred times the dog that dust mop is.”

Scott reached down and patted the dog on the head. “I know he is. It’s just, well, they want to make sure they have pure-blooded puppies. So they’ll be worth a lot.”

“Worth a helluva lot more if they’s Rojo’s.” He grabbed at the dog but missed. “C’mere, boy!”

Scott really hadn’t ridden all the way up here to discuss the merits of dog breeding. “The wedding’s tomorrow, you know...”

Johnny appeared more interested in stumbling after Rojo, finally catching him and clutching him to his chest as he fell back on the cot. “Murdoch really alright with them dogs in the house?”

“What? Yeah, I guess, I don’t know. Look, you need to be there early, it’d be best if you came back and stayed in your room.” And stop drinking, he added to himself.

“She said he was ‘fond’ of ’em. You really think he is?”

Scott stared at him, trying to figure out what he was talking about. “Fond of... who?  The Sinclairs? Yeah, I’d say so.”

“Fuck th’ Sinclairs. Them dogs! Why would Murdoch like them dogs?”

Back to the dogs. He threw up his hands. “I don’t know! I guess, uh, maybe because they’re purebreds. You know how he is about his blooded bulls, his stock, how he’s impressed by the best blood. Maybe that’s it. Who knows. Now, back to the wedding, Teresa has your clothes ready...”

Johnny let Rojo jump down from the cot. “Ain’t going.”

It wasn’t a complete surpise. “Johnny, I know you’re having some problems with this Ian thing, but don’t let your feelings right now make you do something you can’t make up for. It’s going to really hurt Murdoch if you don’t go.”

“Fuck it will! He just wants his purebreds, like you said. Me and Rojo, we’re stayin’ here.”

“That’s ridiculous!” He got ready to say more, but the image of Rojo wreaking havoc at the wedding overwhelmed his thoughts. “Uh, I don’t really think any dogs are going to be at the wedding, but you could put him in your room. Get him a bone to occupy him. But you really have to go. Murdoch doesn’t want to get married without you.”

“Then tell him not to get married.”

Was he talking to a drunken 12-year-old? “He’s getting married, whether you like her or not. You’re not the one marrying her, you know. All you have to do is be cordial to her. What happened between her and Murdoch and your mother was their business. It’s over.”

“Who the hell’s business is it when they killed my mama, sure as sticking her themselves!”

Scott felt an icy tingle in his spine. Johnny had never spoken of his mother’s death, but it wasn’t exactly like he wanted to encourage him right now. “Come on, Johnny, just come.”

Even through the slurred words Scott could recognize some of the more colorful Spanish profanities he’d learned. By the time he tried to drag him out forcibly, only to get a fat lip from it, and figured out Johnny probably couldn’t ride in his condition anyway, he was about done with it. Between incoherent rants about “that bitch” and “that son of bitch,” Scott reminded Johnny what time to be there, threw up his hands and stomped out the door, slamming it behind him, leaving Johnny practically passed out on the cot. Scott had briefly considered lugging him back home unconscious, but decided it wouldn’t look good if he had to be tied in his chair for the ceremony.  Or if he continued threatening Murdoch and the future Mrs. Lancer.

***

He couldn’t breathe. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t get the suffocating weight off his chest. And he couldn’t open his eyes. But he had to open them. No, he knew better, he’d done it before. Dios, if only he could scream, but he couldn’t, couldn’t suck in enough air to make more than a gurgle. He was gurgling, only he wasn’t, he knew he wasn’t, it was her gurgles, her weight. No, please make it not her. He opened his eyes, saw her, saw his hands. And screamed. Screamed to make her go away, make it all go away, screamed because maybe this time it was real, screamed until he woke himself up and lay there shaking. He brought his hands, still trembling, to his face, turning them over and over, checking, wiping them on the sheets. Dios, it was back. It had found his cot at the line shack. At least this time he didn’t have to hear Scott’s steps paused outside his door, or worse, feel his hands waking him up. Damn, that was embarrassing. Rojo might think he was crazy, but at least he wouldn’t tell.

He sat up, swaying a little still from the effects of last night’s drinking, his head starting to throb. Had Scott been there? His skin was glistening with sweat, and his hands were still shaky enough he sure hoped he wouldn’t have to shoot at anything. Last night’s bottle still sat open on the floor next to the cot, the few inches of amber liquid at the bottom promising to fix him right up. A couple of swigs later he was pushing himself to his feet, wondering just where Rojo was, exactly.

Hell, he wondered where his boots were, exactly. The front door was sitting open, so that probably explained Rojo’s whereabouts. He figured maybe he’d better follow his example and shuffled through the door, then hung onto a post while he relieved himself off the side of the porch. Still didn’t see the dog, but his boots were out there. The sun was well up, its rays too bright for comfort. Good thing Murdoch wasn’t around to yell at him for sleeping late.

He called for Rojo then ambled back inside. Damn, the fire was out. He got it going, fortifying himself with a few more swallows of whiskey while he was waiting for the coffee to get ready. He rustled around until he found some hardtack and jerky, all he could manage to cook that morning. Rojo could share. Where the hell was that dog?

The damn dog must have abandoned him early on. Maybe Scott had taken him with him. Yeah, now he remembered he was there, tryig to get him to do something. He wasn’t quite sure when he’d finally given up on him and left. Johnny went to the porch and called again, gentle fingers of unease tickling at his gut. This really wasn’t like Rojo. If he’d found trouble, he’d be barking. Then what the hell could he be doing?

Shit. He’d had to just about drag him away from Lancer yesterday. Damn! He grabbed his boots and started shoving them on his feet. So much for a leisurely hangover. Damn dog was probably halfway to the hacienda by now.  He’d probably hear screaming any second. He scooped up his saddlebags and rushed out to ready Barranca. Damn dog!

 

Chapter 13

“Some sort of shindig goin’ on, for sure.” Deeter lowered the spyglass and spit. He’d been perched along with his partner on this ridge for going on two hours.  The sun was getting high in the sky, and he was starting to sweat, but he wasn’t complaining. It was fun seeing all the people duded up.

“No shit.” His partner was lying down, his hat pulled over his eyes so just his gray streaked stubble gave a clue to his age. Deeter had been providing a running commentary of all the buggies heading to the Lancer ranch, enough so he’d never get to sleep. “Just let me know if you see our boy. Wake me up then.”

“Ain’t seed him yet, Vom.”

“I figured.”

A buzzard circled far overhead, and Deeter turned his attention to its fingered wings until it was too far away for even the spyglass to capture.  There were no more buggies on the road. Nobody left to spy on. “Maybe we should go lookin’ for him.”

“This is the main road in and out of the ranch. Whatcha gonna have us do, just ride around ’til our butts fall off? Better off just relaxin’ here. Sides, this is where Clive knows to find us, if’n he ever gets his ass up.”

“How come he gets to sleep all day?”

“Cuz he’s the one outta the goodness of his heart give you this job. You got some other way to earn fifty bucks?”

***

Every step Barranca took pounded his head down to the insides of his teeth. The sun was going to make his eyeballs pop like bloated corpses if it beat down on him any harder. At least, that was the case before lady luck took him in her arms and led him to discover there was still one sweet bottle left in his saddlebags. He knew it wasn’t the answer, not long term, but right now he couldn’t face riding to the ranch feeling the way he did. By the time he rode under the Lancer arch he was actually feeling pretty good.

At least he was until he spotted all the buggies and horses tied outside. Shit. The stupid wedding was already underway. Fuck ’em. He was just here for his dog. He stopped Barranca and dismounted, falling backward with his left foot still in the stirrup before catching himself. The horse turned his head and looked at him, twitching its tail. “Yeah, I’d like to see you do better,” he said, slapping the animal affectionately.

Looking around, he quickly stole into the barn. “Rojo? You in here, boy?”

No dog. A bunch of horses, but no dog. Maybe he was in the house. He tried to stay behind things and creep there without being seen, but one of the guests spotted him. “Hey Johnny! What are you doing sneaking around? Better get in there, the ceremony’s about to start.”

He thought of pretending he didn’t hear him, but when he tripped on a wood pile and sent it and him tumbling, he decided he’d better wave. The man waved back, and Johnny lurched toward the back stairs.

Rojo wasn’t in his room. Maybe Scott had him in his. But he wasn’t in there either. Johnny kept calling for him, trying to be quiet. He stumbled down the hallway and started opening doors and calling into each room. Maybe he was in with those funny looking new dogs. The pure-bloods. That’d be funny. The two yapping hanks of hair tumbled out when he opened Anna’s door, taking him by surprise. By the time he collected his wits they were heading down the stairs. Shit, shit, shit. He ran after, calling, “Here, boys!”

He half toppled down the stairs behind them, catching himself on the banister at the bottom and swinging around before stumbling toward the great room. It was only when he found himself surrounded by people all gussied up, all staring at him, that he figured out where he was. “Lookin’ for m’dog,” he mumbled, backing out.

Damn! He could have told himself Scott would be right there before he could get out the door, getting on him like a flea on a dog. Scott was looking at him funny, but all he said was, “Glad you could make it. I’ll show you your seat,” and tried to take him by the shoulder.

Johnny slapped his hand away. “Ain’t made it nowhere. Lookin’ for the damn dog! Seen Rojo?” He started looking under the table, lost his balance and fell against a chair.

He could hear murmuring in the other room, and suddenly Murdoch appeared beside him. “Johnny, come sit down. Now. The wedding’s started.”

Johnny tried to level his best glare on him, although it was hard keeping him in focus. Hell if he was going to any wedding. “I ain’t goin’ to no wedding ‘tween a couple of cheaters. You cheated on my mama!”

Damn, how the man could expect him to sit there and watch them get married after what they did. He shouted, “You fuckin’ killed her! You and that whore bitch!”

That was when he felt Murdoch’s fist against his jaw, and saw the floor come spinning toward his face.

***

If Scott had ever seen his father angrier, he couldn’t recall when. It’s not like he could blame him, though. Johnny had shown up drunk and belligerent on one of the most important days in Murdoch’s life. If that wasn’t enough, he’d been loud enough that everybody knew it, and worse, that everybody heard what he said.

They’d taken a break while Murdoch calmed down and Val helped Scott settle Johnny into a downstairs guest room. With luck, he’d still be passed out when Murdoch and his bride left to start their San Francisco honeymoon.

The rest of the ceremony went ahead without any interruptions. Scott poked his head in a couple of times during the ensuing festivities, but Johnny was still dead to the world. The rest of them danced and ate and drank and talked in hushed voices about the scene with the wild son. After a few drinks himself, his interests left his brother and settled on Louisa, a local girl who suddenly looked prettier than he remembered. They waved goodbye to the newlyweds as Murdoch drove their buggy toward town and the stage. Louisa was looking prettier all the time.

***

He could hear music and laughter. Even when he tried to blot it out by smashing the pillow over his head. His eyes cracked open. Where the hell was he? It wasn’t the line shack, and it wasn’t his room. Gradually the furniture of one of Lancer’s guest rooms registered. He sat up, groaning, then winced as he rubbed his face. Shit, now he remembered. Somebody hit him. He thought. Whatever, he sure as hell wasn’t staying here.

Rojo! That’s why he was here! He was looking for the damn dog. He pushed himself to his feet, wobbling as he tried to balance. Had to find Rojo. Give the damn dog a piece of his mind.

A bunch of people were in the courtyard. He tried calling Rojo, but all he got were a few odd looks and he could swear people seemed to scurry away. Kind of reminded him of walking into a saloon in the old days. He’d never really liked that. The dog didn’t appear to be here, so he decided to leave. He’d never liked crowds to start with, sure didn’t like this one.

He stumbled back to the barn, veering off to the side before he got there. Figured he hadn’t checked behind it yet. Besides, he had to piss.

“Johnny!”

It was Jelly, running after him. Damn, he sure didn’t feel like talking to anyone right now, not even Jelly. He turned the corner and walked faster, catching himself on the side of the barn every few steps.

“Johnny, stop!” The old coot sure was persistent.

He was turning to avoid the manure pile when he caught sight of Rojo’s leg. Should have known he’d be there. It was one of his favorite places to lounge, soaking up the sun’s rays as well as all the heat rising from the fermenting manure. Damn dog, just lounging around and ignoring all of Johnny’s calls. “Dammit, Rojo, get your sorry ass over here! You know what kind of trouble you caused me?”

When he ignored him Johnny sighed and tried a nicer voice. “Boy, you know how worried you had me, runnin’ off like that? Put a fright in me. Come on, we’ll go some place we can have our own fun.” He bent down to scoop him up.

His rear half looked fine. It was his front half that had Johnny falling to his knees and gasping for breath. The dog’s side was matted with blood, and his lifeless eyes looked out from his bashed and splattered skull. “Oh, Dios, no!” Johnny clutched him to him, his eyes stinging, throat choked down too tight to say more.

 

Chapter 14

“Johnny!” Jelly was behind him. “Dang, Johnny, I’m sorry. I didn’t want you to find him like this.”

He twisted around and grabbed the older man by the collar. “Who did this?” he shouted hoarsely.

“I know that dern dog meant the world to you, Johnny. I was gonna bury him, get him a real nice marker even, jes as soon as everyone left out, and, you know, you was in a better state, have us some private time.”

“Who did it?” he shouted louder.

“She come up on him, he was stuck in one of them furballs of hers, she jes went crazy and grabbed a shovel, took it to him ’fore I could even get in shoutin’ distance. I’m sorry, Johnny, I’m real sorry, he was passed by the time I run up.”

“Who did it?”

Jelly looked scared. “I don’t think you’re in a state of mind to be knowing that just now, Johnny. She said it were accidental, I gotta believe that, and you do, too, if you know what’s good for everybody. It ain’t gonna do nobody no good flying off the handle.”

Johnny let go of him and put Rojo down, tried to stand, then leaned over and puked until he thought his heart would come up with everything else. “God damn them all to hell,” he whispered. “And Murdoch too, for bringing them killers here. They killed him jes cuz he weren’t fancy blooded, like them and theirs.”

“Johnny, you watch what you’re saying, now...”

“Just like they did my...” He stopped as he caught sight of his hands, smeared with Rojo’s blood. He scrubbed them against his pants, then got up and staggered away. “I’ll kill ’em, the whole fucking lot! See how they like it!”

Jelly rushed after and tried to turn him. “Now, Johnny, don’t you go doin’ anything rash minded. You been drinkin’, you ain’t thinkin’ clear.”

“I ain’t never seen so clear.” He reached Barranca and swung up. “Just do me a favor, Jelly, take care of Rojo.”

He could hear Jelly yelling for Scott as he spurred Barranca mercilessly into a full run.

***      

“Buggy comin’!”

“Mmmm.”

“Looks like a man and a woman.”

“Uh huh.” Vom figured Deeter wasn’t going to let him sleep in peace no matter what. They’d been there for several hours now, Deeter managing to be into something almost the whole time. Vom wondered how a body could find that much to entertain himself with just a spyglass and the contents of a saddlebag. Then again, maybe he’d been like the kid once, with big ambitions and an itch for excitement like he’d rolled buck naked in poison ivy.

Vom, he’d had his ambitions. Seen where they took him, and it weren’t far. But he’d always liked seeing his old spark in kids like Deeter, had taken more than a few under his wing over the years. Maybe that weren’t always such a good thing, not in this business. Some of them got killed even with him showing the way, some turned badder than even he was, and some just drifted away and he never heard from ’em again. Them was the ones he held out hope for. He pushed his hat back and ran his fingers through his hair. Clive hadn’t ever showed up, and neither had their target. May be time to just head back, report in.

“Rider comin’!”

“Damn, Deeter, you shoulda just joined the army the way you like to announce things.”

“Yeah, well, this feller’s ridin’ like Satan hisself is after his tail. Wanna see?”  He started to lower the spyglass then jerked it back up. “Vom, it’s him! Big palomino, shiny shit on his pants...”

Vom was next to him in a second. “Lemme see.” He raised the glass and honed in on the moving trail of dust approaching below. He could make out the horse as well as the glint of sun off the silver conchos of its rider. “Yeah, yeah, I’d say that’s most likely our boy.”

Deeter got up and pulled his rifle from its scabbard. Vom gave him an exasperated look. “I know you ain’t planning on shooting that rifle at him from here.” When Deeter didn’t reply he continued, “Cuz first off, you’re gonna miss from this distance, and second off, all you’re gonna do is clue him in that somebody’s shootin’ at him. What we’re gonna do is go down around that bluff on the other side of that pond, so when he comes around the corner, bang! Pistol sound won’t carry far. You think I picked this place by accident? Jesus.”

“We better git hoofin’, then, way he’s riding.” Deeter was already cramming the rifle back in its scabbard and mounting his horse.

Vom took a last look at his money on the hoof and stuck a foot in his stirrup. Hell of a way to make a living.

***

The horse was flecked with lather, his sides heaving, but still Johnny spurred him on. He didn’t really know where he was going—just running away, putting as much distance between him and the ranch as he could. Making sure his horse was too tired to turn around, because so help him, if he saw Murdoch or a single one of his so-called new family, he was going to enjoy killing them more than was healthy. Bash their fucking heads like pumpkins! Jesus Christ! They’d killed his dog! His mama, too, that was their fault, not his, and now his dog! It’d been years since he’d been so completely wrapped in hate. God damn them! God fucking damn them all to hell!

Barranca was heaving, fighting him, and he knew he had to let the horse rest. He let him slow to a canter. He’d ended up on the road to town, opposite direction he’d come in from the line shack. The pond was around the bend, a good place to stop and get hold of himself. He felt like he was going to heave again. His stomach hurt. He doubled over on the horse’s back, squeezing his eyes shut, trying to hold it in until he got to the pond. Only when Barranca snorted did he snap them open, just in time to see he was almost on top of the parked buggy.

It felt like he was in a nightmare that wouldn’t let him go. Murdoch and that bitch were staring right at him, Murdoch with his arm around her, and he could swear the murdering bitch was smiling, gloating. His ears roared with fury, and all he could see was that smile, Rojo’s limp body, the blood, Dios, the blood, and he didn’t remember how he got off his horse and wrapped his fingers around her throat, just that that’s where they were. He vaguely knew Murdoch was grabbing at him, shouting, heard the shot, felt his hand leave her neck to instinctively reach for his own gun, heard another shot, felt like he’d been thwacked hard in the head, and then another, like it was far away now, saw Murdoch pitch forward on him, spewing blood. Lifted his hands, saw them glistening with his father’s blood, heard the rattling of bloody breathing, felt himself slipping away and wondered how much of the blood was his.

***

“Yeehaw!” Deeter was off his horse and running to the heap of bodies. Damn kid had no caution. Vom kicked his horse and trained his gun on the two men and a woman, although they didn’t look in any danger of stirring any time soon. Truth was, it’d be good enough for the kid if one of them came to life and shot the fool idiot. Killing bystanders was never a good idea. They should have turned right around when they saw the buggy was still there, but Deeter was already blasting away. Too late now, though.

“That’s him alright! Look at them pants!”

“Yeah, sure seems like it is. Course, the time to figure that out would’ve been before you starting sticking bullets in him.”  The bodies lay twisted together in a death orgy. The big man had landed face down right on top of their target, and they were both bathed in blood. The woman also lay face down, her hands still at her own throat.

He shook his head. “Damn, Deeter, what a fuckin’ mess!”

Deeter had scrambled into the buggy. “I’m gonna see what they got!”

“Why’nt you see if they’re dead first?” When Deeter just kept nosing around, Vom finally sighed and dismounted. He nudged the woman with his foot until he could see both her hands were empty, then bent and felt for a pulse. Her neck was reddened where their target had been choking her; no wonder concho boy had been unpopular enough to warrant a kill price. Attacking a woman. There was just no call for that. A thready pulse surprised him. “Woman’s still alive!” he called.

Deeter jumped down from the buggy. “Really? Bet the others ain’t.” He kicked at their target’s limp hand. “Hey, we got to get a souvenir, don’t we, prove we got him? How about this bracelet he got on?”

Vom nodded distractedly. He was bent over the old man, who was still face down on top of the younger one. “This one’s got a pulse too, boy.”

“Oh. Well, I didn’t feel no pulse on Mr. Fancy Pants. You want I should finish them two off?” He pulled his gun, cocked it, and stuck it to the back of the gray-haired man’s head.

“Shit, Deeter, what sense would that make? You trying to just make sure they get a posse after us? Now your fancy pants boy, from what I’m hearing, nobody’s gonna much care when they find him with a bullet, but these folk, they’re trouble. That’s why you don’t take nuthin’ from ’em. Maybe when folks come on ’em they figure they just managed to shoot each other. But if stuff’s missin’, how’s that gonna work?”

Deeter still looked like he wanted to shoot them. Vom sighed, wondering if Deeter was another that was going to fall into his failure category. “Look at it this way: maybe they got enemies, enemies who might pay good money for you to snuff ’em one day down the road. So why you wanna do it for free now?”

That seemed to convince Deeter. He holstered his gun as Vom continued, “Now check Fancy Pants’ pulse proper, on his neck. Wrist ain’t good enough. You can be my guest and off him if’n he’s still pulsin’.”

“He’s dead. Sides, he’s all bloody, I don’t want to get all sticky.” Deeter wandered off toward the roadway, something catching his attention.

“Goddamn it!” He was going to have some serious lessons for that kid. Like for starters, maybe keep his fifty bucks if he couldn’t do the job proper. Vom kicked the older man off so he could reach the younger man’s neck, and was half bent down to him when he froze. He used the man’s sleeve, his limp arm flopping, to wipe the blood from his face so he could make out the features. Lifted a lid and looked at one eye. For a second he just stared, gape-jawed. Then he groped for a pulse.

“Shit, Vom, there’s a rider coming!”

This time he paid attention.

 

Chapter 15

Scott spurred his horse to gallop faster, even though he knew the animal was at its limit. He could just see Ian up ahead now, or at least, the dust billowing from his horse’s hooves. Ian had gotten a head start when Jelly came rushing to the party to tell them about Johnny storming off with murder on his mind. Scott had been in the garden with Louisa, but he’d heard the commotion when Ian started shouting for everyone to go after Johnny. Jelly hadn’t made much sense, but he’d gathered Rojo had been killed and Johnny was raging against Murdoch and Florence. This was bad any way you looked at it.

Scott wasn’t sure how Johnny knew Murdoch and Florence were even gone, but he’d apparently gone racing off after them. Johnny had been drunk and combative earlier, and he probably still wasn’t in his right state of mind. Scott was surprised he’d even gotten up, much less that he could hang on to his horse. He could imagine another unpleasant confrontation if Johnny caught up with the newlyweds. Maybe he’d fall off first.

Ian seemed ready to think the worst, calling for the men to help avert a disaster, reminding them all of Johnny’s earlier behavior and his dangerous propensities. Not surprisingly, that hadn’t done much to convince anyone they wanted to be up front, so they had mostly milled about at first, and those who had reluctantly joined in the chase had ridden slowly enough they were now well behind Scott. He had a feeling every one of them wished their horse would go lame. Ian had finally headed out on a guest’s saddled horse nobody seemed to want to claim, and Scott had followed as soon as he and Jelly got his mount saddled. Val had managed to get himself so drunk at the party Scott half hoped he’d pass out before he remembered to strap on his gun, but he was hanging on his horse and not too far behind.

He was mad at Johnny for his behavior that day, mad at Murdoch for hitting Johnny no matter Johnny’s behavior, mad at Ian for assuming the worst of Johnny, and mad─no furious─at whoever it was that had killed Johnny’s dog, even if it was an accident. He’d kind of liked the little rascal, and Johnny had doted on him. The whole blessed day could not have gone worse.

At least, that’s what he thought until he heard the gunshots, three pops in short succession, echoing in the distance.

***

Vom started tugging on Johnny’s arms. “Deeter, help me get him on the horse!”

“Huh? Vom, we don’t need the whole body. Thought you said his bracelet would do.” He dangled the bracelet from his fingertips.

“He’s alive!”

“Oh.” Deeter pulled out his gun. “Better stand back.”

“Goddamn it, put that away! Listen, we was hornswaggled. This ain’t no cowhand─it’s fuckin’ Johnny Madrid! Now help me!”

It was Deeter’s turn to go slack-jawed─and pale. “We’re fuckin’ dead men if he gets well! Jesus, Vom, we gotta finish him, get outta here quick!”

“You’re a fuckin’ dead man if you don’t get over here and help me get him on that horse!”  Vom strode over, grabbed Deeter by the collar, and thrust him toward the prostrate man.  Thinking fast, he added, “Think, boy, Johnny Madrid, bounty! Big bounty!”

Deeter jumped to his job, and in no time they’d dragged and shoved the limp body until it was hanging over Vom’s saddle, then Vom mounted behind and started away, every step making the dangling limbs dance.

“That rider’s gonna be here in no time!” Deeter called, a scrape of panic in his voice. “You want me to go shoot him?”

“Fuck no! Let’s just go! Grab his palomino!”

They’d almost made it over the rise when the rider rounded the bend. Vom saw the man stare at them momentarily before he half fell from his horse and rushed to where the bloodied man and woman were sprawled. Shit. He hesitated, wondering if he should send Deeter back down to shoot him after all.

No, road was too busy to chance it. He jabbed his spurs into his horse, too late realizing the limp body was slipping off to one side. He grabbed at  Johnny’s pants, but couldn’t hold him, and Johnny flopped to the ground like a rag doll. “Watch it, Deeter!”

Deeter’s horse tried to avoid him, but its attempt to jump to the side was pulled short by the palomino pulling back against Deeter. One of its hooves thudded against the fallen man’s head.

“Goddamn!” Vom was off his horse after only a few strides.

Both men again shoved and pushed Johnny back up. Deeter looked at the nasty gash and the bump already bulging on his head and asked, “Is the bounty dead or alive?”

***

Ian was holding his mother when Scott rounded the bend and came upon the carnage. He leaped off his horse and ran to Murdoch. There was so much blood, he was sure he wouldn’t feel a pulse, so he actually blurted his thanks to the Lord out loud when he felt a tingle.

“She’s hurt!” Ian sobbed, raising Florence’s head in his shaking hands. He looked like he had no idea what to do.

“Ian! Where’s she hurt? Put pressure on it to stop the bleeding!” He was doing the same with Murdoch, figuring from the blood the wound was on his chest. Oh Jesus, how could this be happening? He ripped Murdoch’s blood-sodden shirt open and slid his fingers over his bloody chest until he found the wound, then he took the shirt, wadded it up, and pressed it as firmly as he could over the hole. He looked over and saw Ian was frozen, looking at his mother’s dress wet with blood without daring to touch it. “Ian! Find the wound!”

The thrum of hooves announced the arrival of the other men, who rushed to Scott and Ian amid shouts and whispers. Two men jumped back on their horses and turned the tired animals back to the ranch to fetch Sam and to get a buckboard out there. Several others gently guided Ian out of the way and began tending to Florence. Scott refused to relinquish his pressure on Murdoch’s chest, but he did let another man check for more wounds.

Ian stumbled around, a dazed look on his face, before stopping and pointing up the rise. “I saw him, I saw the bastard riding off!”

Nobody paid much attention to him and he sank to his knees, beating his fist in the dust.  “It was that damn Johnny! Oh God, I should have known! Somebody go get him, kill him!”

Scott felt even sicker. So far he hadn’t allowed himself to think the obvious. But Ian had seen him. Oh Jesus, please, please, please make this all a bad dream...

 ***

This time they’d quickly tied Johnny to the horse so he wouldn’t flop off again, and Vom was able to get his horse to maintain a rocking lope. He tried to block out Deeter’s excited chattering so he could think. Johnny! He couldn’t believe it. Couldn’t believe even more that somebody had set them up to kill the killer.

How far had the confabulation extended? Clive had stayed conveniently in town all day, well out of range of even Madrid’s guns. But Vom had worked for Clive before, and that was the general plan. He’d stay in town, catch up on what was going on, pass any pertinent information to Vom, and make sure he spent the day very visibly gambling so as to have an alibi. Sometimes he’d make it to the lookout site, sometimes not. And to be fair, the plan had been to just check things out today, not go ahead and blast the target. That was damn Deeter’s enthusiasm tilting out of control again.

Clive just told him it was a job he got in San Francisco, which was weird, because Vom never thought of Madrid having much to do that far north. Still, he’d be bound to have far-flung enemies. He’d also mentioned it was a lady who was paying, which wasn’t all that unusual when it came to hiring somebody to do men’s work. Clive hadn’t given him a name; didn’t need one, not what with the physical description. It wasn’t like he and Deeter planned to go make how-de-dos before they shot somebody. So that was the question: did Clive know?

“How much you reckon the bounty is, Vom?” Vom was vaguely aware of Deeter repeating himself, more insistently.

That brought up something else that didn’t make any sense. He’d heard Madrid had met his end down in Mexico a few months ago. Nobody had heard from him since. As far as he knew, everyone thought that, and he wasn’t aware of any bounty on him north of the border.  Not that he kept up with bounties all that well, but he liked to keep informed. You never knew when it would be financially advantageous to put a bullet in somebody you met on the trail. But if Madrid hadn’t died down there, and if the rumors were true and he’d been fighting against the rurales, then it was possible he had a Mexican bounty on his head. Still, if Clive knew that, he would have wanted the whole body, not just a souvenir. He wondered what Deeter had done with the bracelet. They might still want to give it to Clive.

Deeter was asking again about the bounty. He figured he better answer before the fool kid decided to ride on over to the sheriff’s office and ask. “Don’t rightly know the amount. Just know it ain’t for dead.”

That last part he was sure wasn’t true, but no use giving the kid ideas. He reached down and felt Madrid’s clammy skin again and figured it might not matter.

 

Chapter 16

Florence had given no sign of regaining consciousness even when she was being loaded into the straw-padded wagon. She’d been shot in the chest, and Sam feared the bullet had lodged in the lung. Every breath wheezed, and Scott didn’t even want to look at what the wound was doing. Murdoch had also been shot in the chest, but higher up and to the side, and the bullet had passed all the way through. As far as Sam could tell, his main problem was extensive blood loss. He at least moaned and stirred some when he was moved, although part of Scott wished he hadn’t—at least wished he hadn’t said anything. There was no mistaking the look on everyone’s faces when the words he mumbled were “Johnny” and “no.”

He still had a hard time believing Johnny would actually shoot them, but Ian claimed he’d seen Johnny fleeing the scene, and now Murdoch seemed to confirm something bad had happened. Then there was Johnny’s behavior before the wedding. And he could no longer ignore all those threats Johnny had made over the past couple of days to kill Murdoch and Florence. Even Jelly had said those were his parting words.

Val, still feeling the effects of enjoying himself a little too much at the party, had returned from galloping up the hill in the direction Ian had pointed. He hadn’t seen anything, and the ground was so rocky there it was going to take a much more sober Val to follow. Meanwhile, he staggered around looking for clues, although Scott suspected the clues he really wanted to find were ones that would exonerate Johnny. So far that hadn’t happened. There were so many tracks from all the traffic that day that nobody could tell how many horses had been there, much less which way they’d gone.

The hands were taking care of driving the buggy back, and Scott tied his horse to the back of the buckboard so he could ride with Murdoch, Florence, and Ian. He kicked at the blood-soaked sand, trying to cover up the most gruesome reminder of the tragedy. His kick unearthed something that caught the sun, perhaps a bit of Florence’s jewelry, that had been just under the trodden surface. He bent to retrieve it, hoping it might point to a robbery attempt. His breath caught as he recognized Johnny’s bracelet.

 

***

He couldn’t breathe. Something was pounding on his chest, squeezing him. Was she back? He tried to lift his hands to shield his face, even though he knew they’d be bloody. Dios, wake up, open your eyes! He tried, finally cracked them open, pushing himself to escape from the nightmare again. It didn’t work. When he opened them he could see his hands, dangling strangely below him, red and brown with blood. He squeezed his eyes shut. He still couldn’t breathe, and there was somebody on his chest, only this time it was a gray-haired man, and there was blood, blood everywhere. He tried to yell, make himself wake up, but it was frozen in his throat.

***

“He’s makin’ some funny noises, Vom!”

Vom had heard them, too. He pulled up to check on the man across the saddle and had just noticed his back heaving when he saw he was spewing all down the side of his horse. Damn! He pulled Madrid’s head up by his hair, and at least managed to keep his horse from getting further soiled. Madrid seemed to lapse back into unconsciousness, or maybe he’d never been conscious. Whatever, he sure didn’t look too good.

He knew transporting an injured man like this wasn’t helping, but he didn’t have much choice. They had to put as much distance as they could between them and the people who would almost surely be coming after them. They’d been riding over rocky ground, doing a pretty good job of hiding their tracks, at least until that puddle of puke, but they weren’t making near as good time as he’d like. Plus he needed to figure out how to handle Clive, and he couldn’t exactly go trotting into town like this. So he’d decided to head back to the cave they’d scouted out earlier. He didn’t like it, but the other choice was to dump Madrid and keep on going. If Deeter didn’t get a firm answer on that bounty soon, he knew that would be the boy’s choice.

The smart thing would have been to just leave Madrid back there, let him take the blame. Heck, from what he saw, Madrid was well on his way to killing that woman even without a gun. That didn’t make any sense. If Madrid was on a job, why wouldn’t he have shot them? And if this was some sort of range war, it was the darndest one he’d ever seen, one side hiring a top gunslinger to choke a woman, the other side hiring old Clive to kill Johnny Madrid and not telling them who he was.  No, the way Madrid had hurled himself from his horse he’d looked like he was killing for satisfaction, not for money. He shook his head. Johnny Madrid should have known better than that. Vom had taught him that lesson early on.

And Johnny had been pretty good about sticking to it. Sure, he had a temper — a dark temper — but Vom couldn’t remember him really wanting to kill too many people. His mother’s men — Johnny had never said so, but Vom figured that out pretty easy from things Johnny hinted at awake and screamed asleep. But mostly, his old man — what was his name? An American, had a California ranch, kicked Johnny and his mother off it when the kid was real little. Johnny had vowed to kill him more than once for what he’d done.

“Shit, Lancer,” he mumbled. No wonder that had sounded familiar.  “It was fucking Lancer.” Huh. Johnny had finally done it. Or almost. Until he and Deeter screwed things up.

“Deeter, we gotta get some things straight ’bout what we’re gonna say to him when he comes to.”

“Like ‘please don’t shoot me?’” Deeter managed a nervous grin.

Vom couldn’t help snorting. “Sort of. You know, if he finds out it was you who shot him, that’s exactly what you’re gonna be sayin’, for what good it’ll do you. So we ain’t gonna tell him. We gonna tell him it was them folk who done it, and we ain’t gonna tell him it was us who done shot them neither.”

“Alright.” Deeter rode some more, studying. “Why not?”

“Cuz them was his targets. You want to take the credit when it was his job to do? You think he’s gonna look too kindly on that?” Vom didn’t necessarily want Deeter to know Madrid’s personal details, but one thing he did know: if Johnny had finally come all the way up here to finish off his old man, there was no way in hell Vom was going to let him find out he hadn’t succeeded because of their interference.

“Listen, Deeter. If it comes up, you just be sure to tell him he killed ’em, least the old feller. Course, that’s assuming he’s around to ask.”

***

Sam looked solemn as he checked Murdoch’s vital signs. “It’s the blood loss,” he said. “The bullet must have nicked an artery because I can’t see any other reason for it.” Murdoch lay unnaturally pale, his breaths shallow and rapid. A large white bandage was wrapped around his chest, but lines of crimson were already seeping through it, like the talons of death clawing at him.

Sam squeezed Teresa’s hand. “He’s strong, you know it.”

Scott nodded, his throat too tight to speak. He caught his breath as Ian burst in the room shouting Florence was worse, sending Sam and Teresa rushing across the hall. Ian had insisted Sam spend most of his time with Florence, so Scott wasn’t particularly surprised he’d come up with this latest alarm. But it didn’t matter now. Sam had done what he could for Murdoch.

He caught sight of himself in the mirror, remembering how the day had started out, him in his finest suit, his father and new stepmother radiant. They’d all been so excited about the day, the future. Now his suit was covered in blood, and the newlyweds would spend their first night as a couple in separate rooms — fighting for their lives. The future of their family was dead.

Dear God, Johnny, what have you done?

No matter how he looked at it, there was just no excuse for his brother’s violence. No matter how threatened Johnny felt about having a new stepmother and brother, no matter how resentful he was of her role in the breakup of his own mother’s marriage, no matter how much he didn’t like Florence, no matter how drunk he was, no matter how upset he was about his dog — he’d ruined everything. Scott felt the fury rise within him like boiling oil. Johnny and his temper and his drinking and his violence and his chaos had almost killed his father and the woman his father loved! He’d shot them and rode away, left Scott to deal with the disaster in his wake. Scott felt in that instant that he had never hated a person that intensely in his life.

His thoughts were interrupted as he heard his new brother crying out to Sam from across the hall to do something more. When he got to the hall Anna ran from Florence’s room sobbing hysterically.

 

Chapter 17

A few fire pots still burned along the main street of Morro Coyo as Vom walked his horse into town.  He hated leaving Deeter in charge of Madrid, but sending him to talk to Clive would have been a worse idea. As it was, this was going to have to be handled with finesse. The deal was that Clive would pay them $125, once they’d finished their job. Only they hadn’t exactly finished their job. And he had no intention of finishing their job.

He could tell that to Clive, ride away, go look for another job. Problem was, he and Deeter were dead broke. This job had been the answer to a prayer: an easy target and a big pay off. They’d ridden all the way here in good faith, spent time scoping the area, sat up on that damn ridge all day, shot the target—would have finished him off if Clive, or whoever was responsible, had been straight with them and the fellow was who he was supposed to be. Of all the screwed up luck.

Nobody saw him turn into a shadowy alley, tie his horse to a tree, and toe his way up the back stairs of the hotel. Clive had told him the room number, but hadn’t really invited him up. His soft knocks were answered by the click of a gun and a suspicious voice.

“It’s me,” he whispered, “Vom.”

The door opened and allowed him in, shutting silently behind him. “We got him,” Vom said with more confidence than he felt.

“Damn it, what the hell happened? I been hearing people talking all night about some sort of bloodbath out there.” Clive lit the lantern but kept the flame low, his gaunt features appearing skeleton-like in the flickering light.

“What was the name of the target?” Vom asked.

“Why you want know, you plannin’ on sending a condolence note or something?”

“I just like to know these things.” He’d decided against asking about a bounty, figuring that might tip Clive off to thinking Vom was holding out to collect it himself. He had to wonder if Clive was planning to collect one himself, without telling them.

Clive didn’t answer, whether because he was busy rolling a cigarette or because he’d thought of the bounty angle himself, Vom couldn’t decide. He finished rolling it and turned his attention back to Vom. “Lancer, like the ranch,” he said slowly. “Johnny Lancer.”

Vom tried to hide his surprise. Johnny had apparently been working on some sort of a long-term scheme to get to his old man. He wondered just how badly Deeter had messed it up. But maybe somebody had suspected. “Who wanted him dead?”

Clive struck a match and lit the cigarette, the flame illuminating his face long enough to warn Vom he’d overstepped. “You writin’ a book?” he asked as he shook the match out. “Thing is, I heard your target shot up two other people, then rode clean aways. Now you come in here telling me you got him. You got some proof?”

Deeter had somehow managed to lose that bracelet he’d been showing off. As much as Vom hated pulling the medallion from Johnny’s neck, he figured he needed everything he could to pull this off. He opened the sack he was carrying and pulled out the gaudy bloodied shirt Johnny had been wearing, presenting it and the medallion to Clive. “He didn’t make it far.”

The other man barely glanced at the items before tossing them disdainfully on the dresser. “Thing is, this isn’t the way I do things. It’s messy, and I don’t like messy.” He took a drag on his cigarette, the tip glowing orange briefly.

It was starting to sound like Clive was trying to weasel out of the fee. “Dead is dead,” Vom said. “It ain’t always like a church picnic.”

“I hear they’re out looking for him. When they find him, you’ll get your money, assuming I get mine.”

“What do you mean, assuming you get yours? Damn it, Clive! I can’t hang around here! You know that!”

“Yeah, how ’bout that? Wouldn’t be no problem if you hadn’t fucked things all to hell like you did. You got a problem, come see me in San Francisco in a week or so, assuming they got a body here. And assuming them other folks don’t die. How you know one of them weren’t the one paying?”

Shit! “We need supplies. We gotta have the money.”

Clive fished in his pocket and tossed a coin at Vom, who missed it in the dark. He groped around on the floor until he felt it. Holding it to the light he could make it was a $20 piece. He weighed his options. Clive was a big fish, likely to call on him for more jobs if he didn’t piss him off here. And truth was, Deeter’s twitchy finger had made a damn mess of things. Hell, they hadn’t actually done the job. Problem was, if Clive figured that out they’d never get paid.

Clive made up his mind for him when he casually waved his gun at him. “Now get the hell out of here before somebody sees you. San Francisco. You know where to find me. And Lancer better be dead, or you gonna have lead on you like buzzards on rot.”

***

It was a man this time. When had the woman changed to a man?  Falling on him, suffocating him, accusing eyes staring, the blood—oh Dios, the blood—covering him until he was sucking it in, drowning in blood, heaving and retching to get it out of him.

The man’s hands were grabbing at him. He tried to fend them off, but the movement had him gasping in pain, and he gave in. He puked until the pain chiseled into him, forcing a moan. It was then he realized the hands were still on him, holding him on his side. His lids fluttered open in alarm.

He did his best to focus on the arm leading from him to a shape, a man—or no, more like a kid, maybe. His eyes danced from one direction to another, but everything was dark except for a tiny fire. Where the hell was he?

“Mr. Madrid, uh, you awake? Jesus, I can’t believe you got any more in your gut to squeeze out. I been turning you so as you don’t choke to death on it.”

Johnny looked at him dully. “Blood?” he rasped.

“Yeah, you got a bullet tried to slice your skull in two. I didn’t shoot you. The old man did it.”

No, the old man was a dream. This was a dream. The blood would be all over his hands, like always. He dragged his hands to where he could see them, hissing at the pain in one shoulder. They were brown with dried blood. Dried? That was different. He wanted to rub it off, but it was just too hard to move so he gave up. He tried harder to wake up, but nothing changed.

“Name’s Deeter,” the shape said. When Johnny didn’t respond he just kept on talking. “Me and Vom, he’s my partner...”

“Vom?”  Vom. Why did that sound familiar?

“Yeah, Vom, he’s my partner, we come on you fighting with them folks. Thought you was a goner at first.”

What the hell was he talking about? “Wha’ folks?”

“You know, the old man and that lady. Yeah, you shot ’em up good.”

Wait...the old man was just in his dream, right? But the woman—how could this kid know what he’d done all those years ago? He really needed to wake up.

 

Chapter 18

By the time he reached the cave where Deeter and Madrid were holed up Vom felt like he could break his own rule and kill somebody for free. He just wasn’t sure if it was Clive or Deeter. The kid better not start whining about the lousy twenty dollars or it might help him make up his mind.

They sure couldn’t stay where they were. Vom was one of the best when it came to covering his tracks, and the rocky ground had been a godsend, but eventually all any posse would have to do would be start checking caves. It might take a while, but in the end it would just be a matter of time. He didn’t want to abandon Johnny, but he sure couldn’t be foolish and stay holed up while he waited for him to recover. Getting him and Deeter arrested wouldn’t help anybody, and every hour they stayed made that a greater possibility.

Johnny had acted like he might be coming to a few times while he was still flung over Vom’s horse, but each time it was just to puke more. He wasn’t quite sure why his injuries would lead to that much puking. When Vom finally got a good look at him in the cave it appeared he had a graze to one side of his head, and then another wallop on top that left a big knot and a gash. Probably had a concussion. That made a lot of fellas puke.

Course, there was no denying he reeked of alcohol, and it wasn’t like Vom hadn’t seen Johnny do his share of puking from drinking in the past. Vom prided himself on being a thorough teacher, and learning to hold your liquor was important when a lot of your job meant hanging out in saloons. Many a night he’d spent plying Johnny with whiskey, and the kid had hurled like a champ at first. That’s when Johnny had told him all about his plans to kill his father. Found out a few other things, too, although even as drunk as he was Johnny never did go into much detail about how he came to be on his own. What was he, maybe 13 or so when he met up with him? Vom still didn’t know what possessed him to step in that day. He’d managed to land himself in jail for a while, and a few days later the sheriff pushed some snot-nosed half Mex kid in the same cell with him and some other fellas. A couple of them, big ones, started telling the kid he couldn’t have whatever cot he tried to sit on, then when he sat on the floor they kept telling him he was in their spot, until the kid was pressed into a corner near Vom. Vom didn’t get involved; he’d figured the kid would live and maybe he’d learn not to get hisself thrown in jail next time if he had an uncomfortable stay. Maybe send him running back home to mommy and daddy, grow up a respectable citizen. Besides, one of Vom’s rules was to mind his own business.

He wasn’t sure what time it was when he’d been awakened by noises and the bumping of his cot. The lanterns were dim, and all he could make out were shadows at first. It was the kid, fighting like a wildcat, for all the good it was doing him. He’d been gagged, and one man was holding his arms and trying to shove his shoulders down. The other had already managed to get the kid’s pants pushed down around his knees and was unbuttoning his own, deftly avoiding the kid’s kicks, which were restricted from the pants being so low. All the while the both of them were taunting the kid with what they were going to do. Vom clamped his eyes shut, turned over in his cot, and smashed the pillow over his ears, but there was no way he could avoid hearing the ongoing skirmish and the kid’s muffled curses. Goddamn it! He’d broken his rule about not sticking his neck out and ended up jumping out of bed and pulling the man off, all the while yelling at the top of his lungs for the deputy. He ended up with a bloody nose and a black eye for his trouble, but in the end it had worked out since it was clear neither Vom nor the kid was safe in there anymore. Since there was no other place to put them, the deputy cuffed them to the outside of the cell for the night and the next morning the sheriff sent them both on their way. Vom had headed straight to the cantina for breakfast, and on impulse asked the kid if he had any money to eat with. From the way the kid put away the food Vom bought him, he hadn’t had money to eat with in a long time. Found out he’d been arrested for trying to steal food—and Vom knew they hadn’t fed him in the jail. When Vom told him to get on home where he belonged, the kid finally admitted defiantly he had no horse, no home, and as far as Vom could tell, no hope. Vom couldn’t do much about the home and the hope, but when they rode out together, the kid had a horse.

Now here he was sticking his neck out for the damn kid again. Shit. Something about Johnny seemed to make him break those rules he’d so carefully set out for himself years ago. The ones that had ensured his survival all this time. He felt a tingle of apprehension as he approached the cave. Right before he heard the screams.

***

They buried Florence in the plot on top of the hill, with the sun turning the western sky orange and throwing long shadows from the handful of mourners. Anna broke down sobbing and Ian had to support her back to the buggy. Teresa’s cheeks were shiny with tears. Scott stood numbly. He still felt like he was in the middle of somebody else’s nightmare. He’d pulled himself away from Murdoch, but was anxious to resume his vigil. Murdoch hadn’t yet awakened, still didn’t know.

His attention was caught by a small mound of turned earth over to the side. So Jelly had buried Johnny’s dog there after all. Scott still wasn’t sure just what had happened with the dog; he’d caught snippets from Jelly’s initial alarm, but it hadn’t exactly been at the top of his list since. Given all that had happened he wasn’t so sure he wanted the dog to remain where it was. His attention was pulled back to the open grave as the preacher finished his blessings, and the first handfuls of dirt were sprinkled into it. Scott trudged to the buggy to the thump of shovelfuls of Lancer earth covering her coffin. Teresa caught up to him, and he wrapped his arm around her.

The winding road back to the hacienda was one of the prettiest routes on the ranch, but right now it just seemed full of dead brush and skulking shadows.  They tried to make small talk, but it was hard with Anna sniffling like she was, so everyone pretty much gave up after a while. Scott was relieved when they pulled up at the front door.

Ian asked Teresa if she could help Anna, then motioned to Scott to join him in the great room. “There’s still no news from that sheriff.”

“Yes, I’m aware of that. But Val is good, and it’s only been a day.”

Ian poured a drink, offered one to Scott. “I heard he was friends with Johnny.”

“Yes,” Scott said slowly, not sure where this was headed. “That should give him an advantage in finding him.”

“Assuming he wants to find him.”

Scott pursed his lips. He knew Val had to have mixed feelings about bringing in Johnny, especially since the charge was now murder. “He’s a good lawman. Give him a chance, I’m sure he wants him as much as we do. And with Val, it’s less likely anyone will get hurt.”

“Yeah, I see how Johnny refrains from hurting people he knows,” Ian said disgustedly. He eyed Scott, then sat on the edge of Murdoch’s desk. “How badly do you want to find him?”

Scott had wrestled with that question over and over as he’d sat next to Murdoch. He’d loved having Johnny as a brother. But even Johnny had warned him not to be so trusting, and he’d obviously been much too trusting of the man he’d thought of as his only brother for these past few months. He’d chosen to ignore his dark past, thinking it was just that: past. Because of that their father lay on the brink of death, and their father’s love lay in the cold ground. And Johnny just rode away, not even bothering to face what he’d done, leaving Scott to fumble with the pieces that could never be picked up. Not even apologizing to their father and begging him for forgiveness. Not even looking Scott in the eye and explaining himself. More than anything from him right now, that’s what he wanted. “Very badly,” he said, almost in a whisper.

“Then I think we need more help. Bounty hunters.”

 

Chapter 19

Damned if he wasn’t at it again. “Goddamn, Johnny-boy, wake the fuck up and shut the fuck up!” Vom smacked his face enough it should do either. Johnny’d never been this bad before. Vom’d told Deeter it was the fever, and maybe it was. Deeter had looked scared to death when Vom had run into the cave and found Johnny yelling and thrashing, Deeter pressed against the cave wall fingering his gun. Most of what Johnny was babbling was in Spanish, but Vom had heard similar things from Johnny before. He leaned in and said firmly, “Boy, stop your shit. Wake up.”

Johnny opened his eyes. He’d done it a few times before, always looking disoriented. Johnny studied him like he’d done every time, blinking his eyes like he was having a hard time focusing. This time he licked his lips as though he was trying to muster up the strength to speak. Vom didn’t want to give him any more water; so far it hadn’t stayed down for long, and the heaving just seemed to make him weaker.

“Johnny? You awake? It’s me, Vom.”

Johnny looked confused, blinked his eyes several times more, but finally whispered hoarsely, “Vom?”

He smiled. “Damn, boy, if you ain’t a sorry sight for sore eyes.”

Johnny’s eyes darted around the dim cave. He looked again like he was going to speak, but didn’t.

Deeter spoke, though. “You know him? You know Johnny Madrid, for real? That’s really Johnny Madrid, right? You know that for sure?”

The kid reminded him of a fucking bee the way he buzzed sometimes. “Yeah, that’s really Johnny Madrid, and yeah, we go back a ways.”

Johnny’s eyes were closing as Deeter looked from one to the other. “What do you mean go back? You never told me that. You got him for the bounty, didn’t you?”

Nope, he never had told Deeter. Some subjects were still too sore, even after all these years.

***

The nightmare was different. He was pretty sure there didn’t used to be a bloody old man on top of him before. And it seemed worse now, more real. He’d tried his hardest to keep his eyes open. He didn’t want to face it again, and whenever he woke up, there was some kid staring at him all bug-eyed. But he hadn’t been that successful, and his eyes had slipped closed again, and the blood and the terror and the guilt had poured over him again.

This time he’d awakened to a new face, one that seemed familar even though the fellow kept smacking him in the face. Maybe because the fellow kept smacking him in the face. If he had the strength, he’d reach up and grab his hand next time, pull him down close and smack the shit out of him, see how he liked it. Only all he could do was stare at the face. That must be a dream, too.

Vom. That’s what he said. Vom. Vom? He wasn’t sure if he’d asked it out loud. Vom. That didn’t make any sense. Vom had been, what, somewhere, somewhere bad, and Johnny, he’d been, damn, where had he been? Mexico, he thought. Dios, he had a bad headache, way too much of one to work on puzzles.

The kid was saying something now. A bounty? Shit! They were bounty hunters?

***

“No.”

“Listen, the longer you wait the farther away he gets. You want him to get clear to Mexico? He’ll blend right in and we’ll never find him then. I say we put out a bounty right now, plus go ahead and hire some bounty hunters flat out.”

“I don’t trust bounty hunters. Give Val a chance.”

“What do you mean, you don’t trust them?” Ian was pacing the room. “They bring us Johnny, we pay them. No money up front, except maybe a retainer for the ones we actually hire just to go after him.”

“I mean I don’t trust their methods. Even when the bounty isn’t for dead or alive, they’ve been known to incapacitate their prisoners by permanently crippling them so they can’t escape.” Scott stared into his glass. “Val won’t hurt Johnny unless he absolutely has to. And Johnny wouldn’t make him.”

“Are you kidding me? My mother is dead! How much more incapacitated do you want her? You think Johnny absolutely had to hurt her? Hell no!” He swiped his arm across Murdoch’s desk, sending papers flying.

“I’m sorry about your mother! You know I am. But we don’t know what happened out there. We’re not getting bounty hunters!” He emptied his glass and thumped it on the table before stooping to pick up a sheaf of papers.

“Don’t know? I saw him! You saw him at the wedding! He threatened her, killed her!”

“I need to talk to him. And to Murdoch,” Scott said, stacking the fallen papers on the desk top. “And if he did it, and I say if, he’ll have a chance to explain and if he’s really guilty, you can bet he’ll be prosecuted, but we’ll do it legally, how Murdoch would want it.”

“That’s easy for you to say, that’s not your mother in that grave! Maybe if Murdoch had been more discriminating about who he laid with we wouldn’t have had to deal with a damn hotheaded halfbreed, and my mother would still be alive! So don’t lecture me about what Murdoch wants!”

Scott whirled to face Ian, the last paper he’d just picked up crumpled in his grip. When he spoke his voice was quiet but forceful. “I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear what you just said because I know you’ve been under a lot of stress. Now if you will excuse me, I’m going to go check on Murdoch.” He flung the paper to the desk and stomped up the stairs.

After Scott left, Ian flopped in Murdoch’s chair. He didn’t need Scott’s blessing to hire a bounty hunter, or put out a bounty. It was his mother who was killed, not Scott’s. And he intended to do everything he could to punish her killer. He fished through the desk drawers until he got to the locked bottom drawer. It seemed kind of silly to keep the key in the top drawer. He turned it in the lock, smiling as he saw the document his mother had told him about sitting right on top: a booklet with the Pinkerton emblem and the words John Lancer (AKA Johnny Madrid).

***

Val knew he should turn in. It was way too dark to be out here. He couldn’t see any tracks even if there were some. Which there weren’t. Johnny was way too good at hiding his tracks if he wanted to, and he obviously wanted to. Val felt sick about what had happened. It just wasn’t like Johnny. He snorted at that, realizing how stupid it sounded. It just wasn’t like Johnny Madrid, gun for hire, to shoot somebody? Yeah, right. But damn it, it wasn’t! Not a woman, not his old man!

He’d checked out the line shacks, hoping maybe Johnny had just gone back and passed out. No luck. The one he’d been staying at was disturbing, though. It looked like Johnny had had a full fledged explosion in there. And from what he could gather, he’d done that even before he’d shown up at the wedding drunk, or got in the fight with Murdoch, or found out his pup got killed somehow. Apparently that had been what really set him off. Johnny always had been kind of funny when it came to his horses, treating them better than he treated most people. The dog probably fell in the same category.

The caves were a pretty obvious hideout, assuming Johnny hadn’t kept on riding. Probably too obvious. He’d check a few, then maybe bed down in one himself and start early tomorrow.

***

Snores echoed in the deep cave. Johnny opened his eyes carefully. Bounty hunters.  He rolled onto his stomach and slowly pushed himself up, careful not to scrape his boots—or fall down. He leaned against the wall once he was on his feet, trying to get his bearings. It was a big cavern, but he could see a slightly lighter shade of dark that indicated the entrance. He’d long ago figured out where the horses were just by listening to their snorts and scuffling, just a bit toward the front. He took a couple of steps at a time, partly to listen for the bounty hunters’ snores in between, and partly because he couldn’t manage any more. He’d also already figured out his gun wasn’t in its holster. With luck they hadn’t gone through his saddlebags and discovered the extras he always carried. He stopped when he got to the horses. His was missing! Damn! He’d loved that pinto! He had to put it out of his mind, at least for now, get away, get better, then maybe come back and hunt him down. He chose the handsome palomino in its place, feeling somehow drawn to it, noting with surprise they’d tied his saddlebags to its saddle. Strange for bounty hunters to mount a prisoner on such a fine animal. Probably something wrong with it.

He felt around inside the bag and smiled as he hefted his working gun and placed it in his holster, then checked the horse’s cinch. They’d left it tight, like they was ready to run. If they were really sound sleepers he might be able to lead the horse out without awakening them. If they weren’t, he’d be better off slapping the other two horses into a run, but he’d surely be shot at.  They were still snoring pretty heavily, so he decided to loosen their horses’ cinches and try to sneak out. He wasn’t in the mood for a gunfight. His head was splitting. He had to lean on the palomino as the cave floor swam, finally forcing himself to get walking toward the entrance. Once outside he again leaned heavily on the horse, grasping the stirrup strap. The stars were spinning slowly above him. He was mustering his strength to mount when a movement to his left caught his attention. That, and the voice commanding him to stop. He spun and shot, noting with relief that the shadowy figure fell, but enjoying only a moment of victory before he lost his balance completely and the stars were spinning, really spinning now, spinning out of control.

 

Chapter 20

Vom’s first thought was that Deeter was shooting, being that he’d been the one on watch. When they banged into each another in their haste to get to the entrance he figured out that was wrong, and when he saw Johnny’s empty blanket he had to admit he was relieved. Johnny shooting in the dark was a lot better than Deeter shooting in the dark. Problem was, Johnny wouldn’t be shooting at shadows. Something real was out there.

They both paused when they reached the cave entrance, Vom cautiously peering out. His heart sank as he saw Johnny, fallen, his horse off to the side. What the hell was the kid thinking? They waited, straining their ears to pick up any clue about the location of the shooter. The strange thing was, he’d only heard the one shot, and it sounded like it had come from right outside the cave. His attention was caught by Johnny’s arms and legs moving. At least he was alive.

“I’m gonna crawl out there, see if I can drag him back. You see anything, you shoot the place up until I’m clear, you hear?” He started out, thought better and added, “Making sure not to shoot me and Madrid, of course. Or the horse.”

By the time he reached Johnny, having crawled between boulders and over sharp rocks on his knees and belly, he was starting to chastise himself for not sticking to his rules better. Hell, for all he knew the shooter had a bead on his head right now. He strained his hearing, although he realized he didn’t have to in order to hear a gunshot. So far all he heard was the yapping of coyotes singing their praise of the night, his own throaty breaths, and Johnny’s boots scraping the gravel as his legs tried to gain a purchase.

“Where you hit, boy?” At least his eyes were open, but he had that same confused look in them.

“Fine...”

Vom couldn’t help but grin. The kid remembered his lessons. Still, this wasn’t helping—any fool could see he was lying. “That don’t exactly work when you can’t stand, Johnny-boy. And it sure as hell don’t work with ol’ Vom.”

“Vom?”

Damn, he hadn’t aged that much, had he? Sure, it’d been a few years, but the boy should still recognize him. “Yeah, it’s me, Vom, gonna take care of your no-good hide just like old times.”

“Vom?” This time he said it different, like he’d recognized an old friend. Vom could see Johnny’s eyes relax, his mouth twitch up. “I ain’t shot, really. Head hurts somethin’ fierce, though.”

At that moment all hell broke loose as a barrage of gunshots filled the air. Johnny and Vom both pulled their guns and fired to the right, where Deeter was firing, even though they didn’t know what they were shooting at.

***

It didn’t take Vom long to decide they needed to get out of there. Damn Deeter and his twitchy finger had done it again. He’d claimed he’d seen something, but when Vom went to look all he found was a little bunny rabbit tenderized to a pulp with bullet holes. At least the kid’s aim was improving—if he’d even been aiming at it. Whatever, anybody in earshot was definitely keyed into their position now. He couldn’t be too mad, though. It was past time to hit the trail, and he’d just as soon ride at night. Besides, Johnny’s shot had apparently been a false alarm, too, since he just looked blank when Vom questioned him about it.

Johnny wasn’t really in condition to do any fancy riding, but he’d managed to sit his horse once Vom helped him up, and Vom was keeping an eye on him in case he started slipping to the side or anything. Johnny still seemed kind of out of it, but the sheen on his skin suggested it was from a fever. He’d get better. His injuries weren’t all that bad, just a couple of conks on the head.

He still couldn’t quite figure what Johnny was doing outside the cave with his horse all ready to go. But then, fever could make a fellow do strange things. He chuckled to himself as he remembered Deeter’s expression when he’d gone to mount and his saddle slid right off on top of him. Fool kid should have checked the cinch; even so, Vom knew they’d left them tight in case they had to make a quick exit. Had to be Johnny. That boy never forgot a trick, not even near passed out with fever.

They kept to the rocky shale that lay strewn across so much of the land. The moon was out, covered intermittently by clouds so it wasn’t difficult to pick their way between the rocky crags and occasional sage. The coyotes had finally started singing again, after a long silence following the gunfire. Vom always liked listening to them, liked the way they kept in touch but at the same time, stayed apart. The night would have been almost peaceful were it not for Deeter’s buzzing. Did he see how fast Madrid drew? Did he see the gun he used? How many men did Vom suppose Madrid had killed? Where did he think he learned to shoot like he did? Why didn’t he say more? Vom had gotten pretty skilled at just grunting in response at the right time, which he’d found out early on was as good as an answer to Deeter on most things. Finally, though, he did figure he’d reply when Deeter kept on asking where they were headed.

“South.”

“Mexico? That where the bounty is?”

Vom looked at him sharply. Johnny may not be at his keenest, and in fact right now his head was flopped forward and he looked to be asleep in the saddle, but no need to take chances. “We’re headin’ south on account of it’s safest. Not so crowded, more places to hole up.”

“But how we gonna get the rest of our money from Clive?”

Vom worked his jaw. He knew he shouldn’t blame Deeter for the mess they were in; after all, it wasn’t him who had accepted the job from Clive in the first place. And if he’d been a better shot, Johnny would be dead. Still, the whole situation was a sore spot with him, and Deeter was like a fly on that sore. Clive might be sickly, but he wasn’t too sickly to pull a trigger now and then, or to hire somebody else to make an example of hired guns who crossed him. He’d been the best there was before the coughing started getting out of hand. “Listen. We’ll be lucky if we don’t get a belly full of lead from Clive. That’s partway why we’re goin’ south. Clive don’t like being lied to, and he don’t like not finishin’ a job. I’m just hopin’ we’re not his next job.”

Deeter looked from Vom to Johnny, then rode up close beside Vom. Leaning over, he whispered, “We could still finish it.”

***

“Scott!”

Scott’s feet were on the floor before his brain could even get oriented. He’d finally agreed to sleep in his room, once Teresa promised to wake him if there was any change. Sam had made a trip to another ranch to check on a sick kid, leaving them to tend to Murdoch without him for the day. Anna had turned out to be a capable nurse, and between the three of them, Murdoch was never alone. Scott ran across the hall, still trying to get his shaky legs working properly, noticing with alarm the sun was already firing through the windows. He couldn’t believe he’d slept so long.

“He’s moaning. I think he might be coming to!” Teresa was pressing a wet cloth to his head. Her hair was disheveled, and the dark circles under her eyes showed the strain she’d been under.

Scott was kneeling by the bed in an instant. Murdoch’s color reminded him of a gray Boston sky. It didn’t seem possible he could be any better. “Murdoch? Murdoch, can you hear me?”

His father’s breathing accelerated, and he started to move his head. Finally his lids cracked open and his eyes seemed to drift around the room. Teresa grasped his hand, almost sobbing as she said, “Oh Murdoch, we were so worried. You just be still now, I’m going to get you some water.”

He licked his lips feebly, and Scott lifted his head up so Teresa could place the sipping cup to his cracked lips. Most of it ran down his chin, but he was trying to swallow. “Not too much, now, or you’ll get sick,” she said. “Wait a few minutes and you can try some more.”

His bleary eyes turned to Scott, and he was obviously trying to form words, finally rasping out, “Wha?”

“You lost a lot of blood,” Scott said, reluctantly adding, “from being shot in the chest.”

Murdoch seemed to be assimilating this information. Scott hoped it might be enough. He didn’t want to break the news about Florence now.

“Flo...John... Oh, God...Why?”

Scott and Teresa exchanged glances. “Shhhhh,” said Teresa. “We’ll talk later. You need to save your strength.”

“Flo?” he said weakly, a look of pleading despair in his eyes that too plainly said what he was asking.

No one had noticed Ian quietly entering the room. “She’s dead,” he said bluntly. “Johnny killed her.”

 

Chapter 21

They’d finally rested beside a river. Near the end Johnny had used all his concentration just to hang on to the saddle horn. Now that he was in the shade, leaning against a tree, he had time to think on his situation more.

First off, he was not in Mexico. That was very clear.  There was too much green, not just here, around the river, but even in the rocky areas they’d been in. How the hell’d he get here?

He could tell from the way his sweat still reeked of alcohol, not to mention the pounding in his head and the taste in his mouth, that he’d been drinking heavy, but that didn’t explain ending up way north of where he last remembered being. Sure, he’d come to his senses wondering how he got places before after a heavy bout, but it was usually in some whore’s room, within staggering distance of where he started. Somehow he’d gotten on a horse, ridden maybe hundreds of miles, and didn’t remember a damn thing about it. Could he have done that drunk?

Then there was Vom. He’d spent almost two years of his life with him. But not recently. Vom had gone to prison and left Johnny on his own, long time back.  But here he was, riding along like the old days, like he didn’t hold what happened against him. Had a different horse, of course, a gray. Then there was this other fellow, Deeter he called him. He didn’t recollect him from nowhere.

Hell, he had a couple of bumps on his head he didn’t even remember getting. Course, that could have happened when he was drunk, but still, a thing like getting a bullet graze to your scalp, that’s a thing a fellow ought to recall, drunk or not.

He squinched his eyes together and tried to figure out the last thing he remembered. Mexico. He was damn sure he’d been in Mexico. He remembered fighting. Of course, that didn’t narrow it down much. He’d been fighting his whole life. But no, it was a big fight, not your regular range war. And—oh shit, he’d been captured. A firing squad! Yes, he’d been waiting his turn in front of a firing squad. Then... what? He dug through his mind, clawing frantically at the mud that was his memory, but that was it. He was there. And now he was here.

A firing squad. Was this what it was like to be dead? Riding along with Vom through eternity? That would mean Vom was dead, too.

Vom knelt beside him and handed him some jerky. “You doin’ alright?”

He wanted to scream hell no! He didn’t know where he was or how he got here or what the hell happened to him and maybe he was dead and this was hell and he thought he was losing his fucking mind! “Yeah, Vom, doin’ fine.”

“Well, we gonna take us a little siesta, ’bout an hour or so, let the horses rest up. Better try to get some shut-eye. You look like a cold turd, boy.”

Johnny grinned feebly. Vom always could see through him. Dead or not. But there was no way he could let on even to Vom he didn’t know what the hell was going on. Vom had taught him that himself. First time he’d ever whined about a bullet graze, Vom had promptly punched him right on it. Told him that’s what happened when you showed your weakness.

He tried a tentative bite of jerky. He still felt kind of queasy, but figured you probably didn’t eat in hell, so he better try eating. Vom settled back and nudged his hat over his face. The kid Deeter was throwing rocks in the water, the plop, plunk interrupting the shallow river’s soothing hum. Johnny leaned back and closed his eyes, but as soon as he did he was overcome by apprehension. His visions had been bad, real bad, bad enough he didn’t want to visit them again. Then again, maybe he was in a bad dream now, and all he had to do was wake up.

“So Johnny,” Vom mumbled, “see you finally got around to sending your old man to meet his maker.”

***

The sun was high overhead, throwing stubby shadows from the people of Green River as they went about their business, which mostly consisted of talking about the awful thing at the Lancer ranch. A good many shook their heads and lamented how they’d always known Murdoch taking that wild son of his in was a big mistake. Now look where it’d gotten him. Murdoch’s beautiful bride was in the ground and rumor had it he wasn’t far behind.

A few stopped talking when the riderless horse ambled down the main street. It detoured to take a drink from the closest trough before jumping away and trotting determinedly on to the stable when somebody tried to catch it. They all knew such a sight was never good news, and a few men trotted after the animal until it reached its stall. It wasn’t long after that they were mustering the town’s men together. One man galloped out of town toward the Lancer ranch. After all, it was their situation that started all this.

***

Murdoch had squeezed his eyes closed and shakily told them all to leave him alone. They’d peeked in on him several times since but he just lay there with one hand over his eyes. Scott thought he was choking once, and was ready to run in, when Teresa put her hand on his wrist and shook her head. That was when he realized he was more likely silently sobbing.

Teresa went in once to try to get him to drink some laudanum, but he waved her away. Scott was almost grateful that the man was so weak he finally slipped off on his own. He just couldn’t believe Ian had told him the news so bluntly.

Ian had gone downstairs to the great room, and Scott decided to talk to him. He poured them both drinks, shoving Ian’s next to him. Somehow it rankled him that Ian was sitting at his father’s desk, in his father’s chair, although he seemed hard at work on some sort of business.

“Don’t ever do that again. It’s not your place to break bad news to Murdoch,” he said, sitting on the sofa.

Ian met his gaze. “Then whose job was it? Was it your mother who was killed?  Was it I who sired her killer? Besides, he was there when it happened. He already knew.”

“We don’t know what he saw.”

“You heard him say it. He knows exactly what happened.” He straightened his papers and stood, walking to Scott. “Look, I’ve been working on this. A list of all Johnny’s known haunts and associates. Chances are he’ll head south to some of them, maybe join up with some old buddies. We can give this to the bounty hunters.”

“What?” Scott snatched the paper. “I thought we agreed there would be no bounty hunters!”

“Nope. I never said that. Listen, you may not give a damn about justice, but I sure as hell do, and I’m not letting that killer cur get away with this! I’ll hunt him down myself if I have to!”

Scott was busy scanning the list. “Where’d you get this information?”

“From this.” Ian tossed a booklet at him. The Pinkerton report. Scott knew it existed, but he’d never actually seen it. “You might want to read this, if you haven’t already. I can’t believe Murdoch allowed him in this house.”

Scott felt the heat rising to his face. “Where did you get this? This is personal information!”

Ian stood, leaning forward over the desk. “I don’t care what it is as long as it helps wrap a rope around a killer’s neck! Now are you going to pussyfoot around and worry about who read what, or are you going to get some gumption and help me?” He shook his head and pointed his finger at Scott. “You know, I can’t decide if you’re just so lily-livered you’re afraid of catching him, or if you just don’t give a damn about your own father! Who knows, maybe you’re thanking Johnny, figuring to cash in on your inheritance sooner!”

Scott leaped half over the desk, smashing his fist into Ian’s jaw and sending Ian flopping back into the chair. “You don’t know a damn thing about what you’re talking about! He’s my brother, and that’s my father, and I’ll be the one who decides what’s going to be done, not you, and I say let Val handle it!”

Ian twisted his head back and forth while rubbing his jaw. “Seems I hit a nerve.”

Scott shook his hand out, appalled at his loss of control. “Look, I, um, I’m sorry...”

“Apology accepted, brother.” He put his hand forward to stop Scott from speaking. “Yes, Murdoch and my mother told me all about my parentage. And while I refuse to claim Johnny as my brother, Murdoch’s my father, and I have just as much say in this, and in Lancer, as you do.”

Scott was too stunned to speak, although he didn’t know why he was so surprised. Of course they’d told him.

“Personally, I wish the cursed report didn’t exist. My mother, dear trusting soul that she was, told me she told Johnny she knew all about his past. That she could forgive him, but, of course, that he had to prove himself trustworthy around Anna, for one.” Ian sighed and shook his head, his hand still cupping his jaw. “I think that’s why he killed her, he didn’t want anyone to know his secret past.”

“It wasn’t a secret,” Scott said icily. But he felt a cold lump in his gut. Johnny had done his best to keep his past quiet, fearing it would catch up to him. The way he hadn’t trusted Flo, it would have been one more reason to wish her...well, gone, one way or the other.

“Is that why she said we weren’t to tell anybody?” Ian raised one brow to show he clearly did not believe Scott’s assertion. “Regardless, even though my newfound brothers did not see fit to give me my share of the ranch, my father did make provision for me through my mother, so I am a part owner now. That’s not what’s important to me, though. What’s important is that that’s my mother lying in her grave, and my father lying in that bed, and God help me, I plan to set things right!”

Scott was trying to imagine what Murdoch could have done. It didn’t matter. “We’re leaving it to Val,” he said more forcefully. He was going to say more, but a knock on the door interrupted him.

When he answered it, a man from town burst in, out of breath. “Scott, we figured you should know. Val’s horse came into town. Val wasn’t on him. We got a search party up, but I got a bad feelin’ about this.”

 

Chapter 22

It was a good thing Vom’s hat was over his eyes when he told Johnny about his old man, or Vom more than likely would have seen right through the impassive mask Johnny tried to plaster on his face, right through to the explosions the news set off in his head. So he’d finally done it. He couldn’t count how many nights the only thing that had kept him going was his pure hatred for the man who had spawned him, then kicked him and his mama out in favor of some gringa witch. The gringa story—he paused for a second, unsure of when he’d become convinced that particular tale was true. No matter, gringa or not, he’d wanted to live just to spite the old bastard, just so one day he could go there, spit in his face, and burrow his bullets deep into him. Maybe a gut shot, yes, so he could leave the bastard to die, let him see how it felt to be abandoned. Let his gringa see what it felt like to lose someone you loved.

Damn, he’d finally done it, and he’d missed it! Or might as well have; he couldn’t remember a damn thing about it.

Strange, though, because he hadn’t really been thinking so much of that lately. Sure, it was still on his list, but that was killing for free, and as Vom had always hammered into him, you took care of business before pleasure. He’d always sort of figured he’d get around to it, but it just hadn’t seemed so pressing of late. Guess he’d found some spare time.

Funny thing, it just wasn’t filling him with the sense of triumph he’d always thought it would, and he wasn’t sure it was just because he couldn’t remember it. He had that same queasy puke-in-your-mouth feeling he used to get after his first gunfights, when he’d dwelled too much on the man’s death-rattle breaths, or the blood slowly spreading on his shirt, or even the look of eternally dead surprise. He rubbed his face, leaving his head buried in his hands. No mystery to that; he’d been puking something awful of late. Pretty much anything would make him feel queasy now.

He wondered what his old man had said when Johnny had identified himself. Wondered if he begged for his life, or for forgiveness. Damn, he’d missed the whole show! And it sure wasn’t like it was something he could do over. He’d have to figure out if there was some way Vom could fill him in on the details, some way he could do it without letting on he didn’t recall if Vom was there or not. Dios, there was that sick-in-his-gut feeling again. He pulled his hands from his face, searching them for traces, rubbing them against each other, wiping them on his pants, over and over.

***

Scott hadn’t thought it was possible for Murdoch to look worse than he’d looked when he was unconscious, but now that he was half awake sometimes, he somehow looked even closer to death. It was his eyes, he guessed. Maybe because they’d been closed before so he just couldn’t see how weak his father’s usually intense gaze was. Or maybe he really was closer to death, allowing himself to be sucked downward into a whirlpool of hopelessness without trying to swim out. He wouldn’t eat, wouldn’t speak, just stared at the ceiling in the darkened room. Teresa had tried to open the curtains and let some cheer into the room, but he had turned away from the light, just as he did anything that might have made things better.

They’d called in Sam, but he said there wasn’t much he could do but put in a feeding tube. As weak as Murdoch was, they could probably hold him down and do it, but somehow Scott thought the indignity would do more harm than the food would do good. Besides, he’d just pull it out once they let go his hands. And that wasn’t really his problem. Nor was it the fever that still burned at him. That was the only fire he had left. It was as though he’d lost that inner spark that usually made him shine when obstacles darkened his path. Like he was lost in the shadows of sorrow and wasn’t even looking for the light.

Scott had tried to ask him what happened, but it had earned him only Teresa’s glares and Murdoch’s barely whispered statement that he’d lost his dear Flo. Anna had brought him a picture of Florence, which he looked at when he wasn’t staring at the ceiling.

Now Scott sat in Val’s room. He’d had about all he could take of Murdoch’s room. The air was thick with anguish, and after awhile he just felt like he couldn’t breathe when he sat there, like he was inhaling tears. Teresa and Anna weren’t helping. Half the time they were in there they were crying. They were in there now.

After a day of looking, the search party had found Val hobbling around the cave area, a bullet wound through his inner thigh. Since Lancer was between the caves and town, and since Sam was spending time at Lancer anyway, they brought him to the ranch. No, he hadn’t seen who shot him.

Val was sleeping, having been dosed with laudanum much earlier. Scott was nodding off, one leg sprawled across the arm of the chair, when he heard a quiet tapping on the door and Jelly walked cautiously in.

The man looked curiously at Val before turning to Scott and starting to talk rapidly. “Scott, thought you might wanta know, but Ian, he took off outta here like he was dynamite and his nag’s tail was a lit fuse!”

Scott clambered to his feet, hiding his irritation. Why couldn’t the man ever just get to the point? “Did he say where he was going?”

“Well, nobody ever tells me anything, so why should he be any different? No, no need to tell Jelly where you’re goin…”

“What did he have with him?”

“Well, not that I’m the nosy type, but I did happen to notice he was stuffing his saddlebags with some kind of little book and some papers.”

“Damn!” It was no mystery what he was up to, especially since it was obvious Val was out of commission. “Jelly, go to town and see if you can find out what he’s doing.”

“Sure, got nothing else better to do with my time than go traipsing around the countryside spying on folk.”

“Thanks, Jelly.” But he’d already left, anxious, Scott knew, to get started on anything to be helpful.  He only wished he could go in his place, but he just couldn’t leave Murdoch, not with him in the condition he was in. Even if he did catch up with Ian, he wasn’t sure how he could legally, or even justifiably, stop him from his plan. Without Val on the trail, it only left townsfolk, and they weren’t about to face off against Johnny. True, if he rode to another town, many of them didn’t know he was Johnny Madrid, but Scott couldn’t exactly ask them to bring him in and leave out that little fact. He plopped back in his chair, leaning forward to study Val, only then noticing the man’s eyes staring back at him.

“You’re at Lancer,” Scott said, sensing his unspoken question.

“Johnny...”

“Take it easy.” He poured some water for him and helped his head up so he could drink. “Nobody’s seen him.”

He took a long sip before wearily wiping his mouth. “Saw him,” he slurred.

Scott leaned forward. “Did you say you saw him? Where?”

“Caves.” He focused his unsteady eyes on Scott. “Keep secret? Shot me. Damn Johnny shot me.”

 

Chapter 23

Clive had heard just about all he needed. Vom had lied to him. He hadn’t killed the target. The whole town was abuzz with talk of Johnny Lancer, apparently alive and well, if on the run. Yet Vom had sauntered right into his room that night, lied right to his face, and stuck his hand out for payment for a job not done. That wasn’t the way Clive did business, and he’d make damn sure Vom wouldn’t being doing business like that in the future.

He gulped down the rest of his whiskey, letting the glass thump on to the table. He should be relaxing in San Francisco now, enjoying his regular haunts. Instead he was still in this mud hut town, drinking fresh whiskey and winning stingy pots. And listening. Lots of peculiar rumors going around, but that was to be expected when something like this happened in a town like this. Most of them you had to discount. The way they talked, Johnny Lancer wasn’t just some rancher’s spoiled son, but according to some overheard whispers, was in fact a ruthless gunslinger. Clive couldn’t help but chuckle at that bit of hyperbole. The rich kid had probably fancied himself a fast draw, won a shooting contest or two, maybe even stirred up some trouble. Trouble enough so somebody wanted him dead.

The thing with Murdoch Lancer and his new bride was a more curious development, one he didn’t quite understand. He had to wonder if Vom and that idiot boy he had hanging onto him had anything to do with it. It was definitely an unwelcome complication. Johnny Lancer had been spooked, apparently scared underground. That was going to make ferreting him out a headache. And killing extras just wasn’t clean work. Any moron could do that. Clive was a professional, and when people hired him, they expected a certain amount of professionalism, which to his way of thinking, meant killing the target clean, leaving no extra victims and no witnesses. The idiot twins had managed to do both, and to let the target get away in the bargain.

That was the problem these days. If you wanted something done right, you had to do it yourself. He’d done his share of hired killings, hell, he’d been one of the busiest in his prime, before the coughing fits slowed him down. Now he was at the stage in his life when he felt he could pick and choose which jobs deserved his personal attention. This one had just moved into that category. His business depended on delivering what he promised, and he’d promised Johnny Lancer with a bullet in his brain.

It was time to start doing something. He rose slowly, adjusted his jacket, his hat, and his gun belt before pushing through the doors to the unnaturally bright day outside. Only when his eyes had ceased being dazzled did he notice a group of men staring at a poster he hadn’t seen before. He pushed his way to it, read it once, and again, before walking away trying to make sense of this new information, his hand absently caressing his gun.

***

It had been Johnny’s idea to ride in the middle of the river, knowing the waterway split only half a mile upstream and figuring out which fork they took would slow down any trackers. The curious thing was, he didn’t know how he knew about the split. How could he, when he didn’t even know what country he was in?  Oh wait, he did know. Old man Lancer had lived in California. He must be there.

Vom had ridden ahead along the right fork so he could lay a false trail from it a ways down. He hadn’t actually said who was trailing them, or why, but Vom was generally pretty careful about such things. Johnny wondered how long he’d been out of prison.

Meanwhile Johnny had taken the left fork. He was feeling better, actually enjoying the sound of splashing and the sight of water rushing against his horse’s legs as he stepped against the current. It was the sort of day and place that made you wish you were alone on the trail. The sky was that kind of blue you’d see—well, you’d only see in the sky on a day like today. There was plenty of green squeezing out of the ground all over and the river was running clear and friendly, dancing over the rocks and sparkling in the sunlight. Only he wasn’t alone. The kid Deeter was riding alongside him. Johnny could see him staring at him, his gaze tracing down his arm to linger on his gun hand, and then settling on his gun. It was the sign of someone who hadn’t necessarily known him long, but knew who he was. If he could get him to talk, the kid might be a good source of information.

He figured he’d better start digging at him before Vom caught up. Vom could see right through him if he started asking questions he oughta know the answers to. The problem was, he didn’t know which questions those were. Except, of course, where the hell was he and how had he gotten here and what the fuck was going on and was he losing his goddamn mind?

Instead he asked, “Something I can help you with?” He fitted the kid with a cold gaze.

The kid actually jumped in his saddle. Heck, he looked so rattled for a second Johnny was worried he was going to go for his gun, assuming he could figure out which side it was on. Either that, or fall in the river. “Um, no, I mean, nothing, Mr. Madrid.”

Mr. Madrid. Another sign the kid didn’t know him. Johnny waited a second, then said, “Folks who don’t think I’m aimin’ to shoot ‘em generally call me Johnny,” as he picked some burrs out of his palomino’s mane. It only took a few seconds for the invitation to work.

“You bet, Mr., I mean, Johnny! Hey, that horse of yours sure is a beaut!” So the palomino was his. Things were looking up, because the kid was right about one thing: he really was a beaut. He begrudgingly admitted he was a better horse than the pinto he remembered owning, but damn, he’d loved that horse, and he still planned to find him if he could. It’d be nice to keep this one, too, though. He continued to neaten its flaxen mane, running his fingers through it, hoping the kid was a talker.

“How much he run ya? Or’d ya steal him, maybe from some dead guy? Or, I know, you got him as payment for a job, right?”

Johnny nodded slightly. “Somethin’ like that.” Hell, he was wondering how he’d ever afforded such a horse, himself. Either one of the kid’s choices sounded like a good possibility.

“Me and Vom, we hire out, too. I do most of the shooting.”

Johnny raised his brow. “That so, huh? You must be pretty good, then.” The kid was telling him stuff you’d say to someone who didn’t know you, so Johnny must have recently joined up with them.

“I reckon I am. You want a see?” The kid suddenly drew his gun and made as though to fire at a tree.

“No!” A shot would have sent Vom galloping back, ruining all his work.

“Aw, I wasn’t going to shoot, just funning with it!” Deeter twirled the shiny pistol deftly and plunged it back into his holster, all the while smiling broadly at Johnny.

“Yep, that wasn’t bad, not bad at all.” And it wasn’t, either. Maybe that was why Vom kept the kid around, because so far Johnny couldn’t figure it out. His chattering was sure making his headache come back.

“You’re pretty fast, too. I seen it, when you was after that old man and that lady. Only, how come you did it the hard way like that?”

Johnny tried to look calm, but his gut was starting to twist. And what was this about a lady? “Like what?”

“You know, jumpin’ off your horse and chokin’ on the lady first. Somebody pay you extra to do that?”

Johnny sucked his breath in hard, even though he tried not to. Dios! What the hell had he done? Killing his old man was one thing, but he’d never killed a woman before, not for pay or for pleasure. And choking, that just wasn’t his style. The splashing behind him announced Vom’s return just as he was trying to figure out how to ask if the woman had lived. Dios, if he’d killed a woman—no wonder he kept feeling so queasy.

He started to take a swig from his canteen but realized that wouldn’t settle his stomach, so he reached back and fumbled through his saddlebags, alarm rushing through him as he felt the hollow weight of his flask.

 

Chapter 24

It was some time during that night that Murdoch started to slip away. Teresa said Anna had been with him earlier, and hadn’t reported anything amiss when Teresa came to spell her around midnight. Teresa just assumed he was finally sleeping well, so she said she’d tiptoed around, kept the lanterns down low, and decided not to wake him for his scheduled broth. It wasn’t until he started to thrash and moan that she realized he was delirious with fever, and by then, all her efforts to cool him with wet cloths were like spitting on coal in a bucket. It helped, but not much.

As soon as Teresa shouted for him, her voice quavering from across the hall, he knew something was very wrong. He’d jumped from bed, barely touched Murdoch’s forehead, and rushed to get some hands to help him carry Murdoch outside. He sent another hand to town for Sam.

He ran back up the stairs three at a time and started stripping Murdoch’s bedclothes from him. When he was through he poured the pitcher of drinking water right over him. As soon as the men rushed in he directed them to grab Murdoch’s feet, and they hastily carried the feverish man down the stairs and outside, where they immersed him in the nearest water trough. It wasn’t pretty, but it was quick. As the cool water gradually wicked the heat away, he seemed less flushed and even started to shiver a bit. At that point they carried him back up to his bed. Scott had a washtub brought up and filled in case they had to cool him again.

When Sam showed up and examined him he looked grim. The wound had turned ugly. He opened it back up, a putrid flow of greenish pus oozing from it. Murdoch scarcely flinched when he cleaned it out with carbolic acid. Sam went ahead and put in a feeding tube just so they could get some willow bark tea down him. Murdoch hadn’t protested nearly enough about that, either.

Now Scott just sat there, numbly staring at his father, watching his chest rise and fall, listening to his labored breaths. Scott prided himself on being decisive, on weighing the pros and cons of any situation, and taking quick action. But right now he felt paralyzed. Jelly had come back with his report late last night. Ian had really done it. He’d made posters up offering $1000 for the capture of Johnny Lancer, AKA Johnny Madrid, wanted for the crime of murder of a woman. He’d paid the stage driver and several other men to post them in adjoining towns. Word was he’d tried to find some bounty hunters to hire, but as far as anyone knew, he hadn’t had any luck. Last seen, he’d ridden south. But not before walking up to Jelly, who was spying from behind a wagon, and telling him to tell Scott he’d gone hunting on his own, and when Scott grew balls, he was welcome to come join him. Jelly had looked kind of embarrassed when he relayed the latter, assuring Scott he knew Scott had heavier concerns right here at home.

And that was the problem. How could he leave Murdoch like this?  What if his father didn’t pull through? What if he asked for his son in his time of death? Scott rubbed his face in his hands as though he could massage his brain into thinking of a solution. It didn’t work. If he left now, Murdoch would have no son left to reach out to. The man’s fevered shouts of ‘Johnny’ and ‘No!’ when Scott had been stripping his bed clothes had been enough to convince him he wouldn’t be asking for Johnny to hold his hand in his dark hour. At least Ian wouldn’t be here for him, either. Scott wasn’t sure why that gave him some satisfaction.

The problem was, if Ian caught up with Johnny, chances are Ian wouldn’t be anywhere—except in the ground. And that didn’t give him any satisfaction at all. His father apparently loved Ian, and Murdoch had already suffered enough loss at Johnny’s hand. When they’d first come to the ranch, Scott and Johnny had fought in front of Teresa, and she’d shamed them both. “Brother against brother—fighting!” she’d admonished, and made it sound like the most despicable thing on earth. Yet now, it would be Ian and Johnny fighting, and they’d be using guns, not fists.

And what if bounty hunters caught up with Johnny instead? Ian would be safe, but Johnny—well, the outcome of that would depend on numbers, more than likely. Even Johnny couldn’t hold off a well-placed group of sharpshooters. He’d probably take out a few, but the bounty hunters would win in the end, and they’d be certain to take out their losses on his brother.

That was the problem. Johnny was still his brother. He didn’t want him dragged, crippled, through the street, a rabid dog on display for the town’s entertainment. Murdoch stirred and moaned, his breaths rasping as he feebly called out Flo’s name. The fury rose within Scott as the immensity of what Johnny had done once again struck him. He’d shot Val, killed their father’s wife, possibly killed their father, and killed the brotherhood Scott had held so sacred. Damn him, damn him! He hated him for what he’d done, and damn it, he wanted to see him brought back to face his brother, his family—and the law. He rubbed his eyes again as he admitted what he’d not wanted to before. He wanted Johnny Madrid brought back. He wanted him punished. 

***

Clive rolled a cigarette as he studied the ground, finally dismounting to get a better look. He had to grin. Sneaky bastards. Just not sneaky enough. They laid traps for all levels of trackers. Easy false trails so even beginners could think they’d outwitted their quarry, until they ended in dead ends. Clive didn’t fall for those, or for the ones aimed at mid-level trackers. It was the ones like this one that were aimed at the likes of him, and he’d ended up backtracking enough to keep him on his toes.

He wondered what the hell Vom was trying to pull. There were clearly three riders: Vom, his idiot boy—and who? Johnny so-called Lancer? He pulled himself back on his horse, waited for the damn coughing to stop, then lit the cigarette and turned his mount down the rocky path that fell to the left. No. Johnny fucking Madrid. Somebody was running a con, and he aimed to find out who. Nobody in their right mind would take a job on Johnny Madrid for $500. Actually, weren’t too many would take a job on him for any amount of money.  Didn’t matter how much it was if you was lying there bleeding out. Lucky thing Clive wasn’t much of a bleeder.

No, this had to be something Vom and Madrid had cooked up between them. But he just didn’t get what they were up to, unless it was to get the killing money from him. But Madrid could do better than that on his own. Unless maybe something was wrong with him, maybe his gun hand wasn’t working so good anymore. Might make sense. Now that he thought about it, he hadn’t heard any news of Madrid killing anyone in months. So maybe he got crippled up and went tail-tuckin’ it back to ol’ Vom for protection. Yeah, Clive remembered the kid when he clung to Vom like a flea on a dog. He was just surprised Vom took him back, after what Madrid had done. The whole thing was most perplexing.

And then there was this Lancer thing. Johnny Lancer? Murdoch Lancer was the rancher who’d been shot. And there was a dead woman. He squeezed his brain for a while ruminating on that, then gave up. Some things you didn’t need to know. Some things just worked out for the best, and you just didn’t sit around puzzling about them. He’d taken a $500 job to kill somebody, and now there was a poster out making it a $1000 job. With luck, he could collect twice. And regardless, Vom and whoever else involved was going to be damn sorry they thought they could snooker Clive Edmund.

 

Chapter 25

The funny thing was, the kid actually looked surprised when Vom sucker punched him. Johnny’d seen it coming just as soon as Deeter came back from town and admitted he’d lost most of their money playing poker. Vom had sent him there to pick up some whiskey and other much-needed supplies. It shouldn’t have taken long, but it did. By the time he returned, Vom had been ready to ride in after him. At least he’d bought a couple of bottles before he lost the rest of the money. Johnny sat back against a tree, wrestled the cork out of a whiskey, and waited for the entertainment.

Vom didn’t even look upset when the kid explained how he’d spied some surefire suckers at the poker table, and how he was winning all the hands at first, but then just had a run of really bad luck. Could have happened to anyone, and after all, he’d just been trying to improve on their financial situation. Which wouldn’t have been necessary if Vom had collected the rest of their money. That was when the punches came, first to his gut, then to his gun arm, then assorted places too fast for the kid to hardly protect himself. Vom was good at that. He could look calm as a mud puddle one second, then the next, he was on you like a mudslide. And when it came to whupping up on somebody, he knew how to put a hurt on you so you wished you’d die, but you’d like as not be walking around within the hour.

Vom left Deeter curled in a ball, whimpering, and joined Johnny under the tree. Johnny couldn’t help but tense. You never knew when you’d done something to deserve a Vom whuppin’—only this time he knew he had. He just wasn’t sure if Vom knew.

“Don’t make ’em like they used to, eh, Johnny-boy?” He gestured for the bottle and took a swig, finishing with a long sigh.

“That really all the money?”

Vom took another drink, wiped his mouth and handed the bottle back. “Yep. Damn fool kid.” He looked at Johnny. “You got any?”

Johnny shook his head. He’d already been through his saddlebags, his pockets, and his boots. Whatever he’d been doing, he hadn’t been doing it very well.

“Any jobs comin’ up?”

He tried to concentrate, but damned if he could think of anything he’d had planned. Last job he could recall was trying to escape from a Mexican prison, dammit! For a second he heard a voice offering a thousand dollars for an hour of his time, then it was gone. Yeah, right. Whiskey was working. He’d be lucky to get a dollar for a day. He took another drink, watching curiously as Deeter pushed himself up to his hands and knees. Kid looked like he was going to puke. “No, ain’t got nothing.”

“Shit.” He picked up a stick and started drawing lines in the sand. “I heard there’s a range war over around Hardpan, figure ’bout two, three days west. Might still be hiring. Ain’t my first choice, but, hell, starvin’ ain’t either. You got other plans?”

Not a plan in this whole fucking mixed-up world of his. Except maybe to see the bottom of this bottle, pass out, and wake up in front of that firing squad. At least there, he knew where he stood.

***

The land here was undulating, Johnny thought, looking at the rolling hills covered by long, swaying golden grass. Undulating? What kind of a highfalutin word was that? He couldn’t remember ever having heard it, much less used it, in his life, yet here it had popped into his head like a gussied-up whore expecting a dollar just for showing up and parading around. And he even knew what it meant.

It wasn’t the first weird thought that had just made itself at home in his mind over the past couple of days they’d been riding toward Hardpan. More than once they’d come across streams choked with brush and he’d calculated how long it would take a couple of men to clear it, or a nice big area and he’d volunteered how it was prime grazing, or a gully that for some reason led him to cursing at how stupid cattle were. It wasn’t like nobody knew these things; it’s just he’d never given a damn. But not to worry. All simply part of the new, crazy-out-of-his-head Johnny Madrid.

As it did so often when life swirled around him in a confused storm, his hand went to his hip. Just feeling his gun, faithfully by his side, always seemed to bring sense to his world. It was the one thing you could always rely on, the one friend that never lied.

“Wanta do some shooting?”  It was the stupid kid. He’d been itching to get Johnny into some kind of a shooting match. Must have noticed his hand on his gun.

“Nope.” Thing was, Johnny just wasn’t sure how fast he was right now. Not with all the other strange shit going on. And he sure wasn’t going to find out with some trigger-happy kid looking on. Deeter hadn’t been shy about showing off his draw. The kid wasn’t bad. Not bad at all.

“Wanta race?”

“Nope.” Although he had little doubt this palomino of his could run like a hurricane. That was another thing. He’d never taken to a horse like he had to this one. Barely had to tell him what to do, and it was almost like he was reading his mind and just doing it. Not that he was what you might call complacent. The beast could be downright mulish when it had the notion. It’s just that Johnny always seemed to sense his shenanigans before they came. Shenanigans? What the hell kind of word was that?  Shit, he really was losing his mind.

He knew someone once, fellow back on the border, started complaining of headaches, then just started acting peculiar-like. Kept holding his head and screaming. Acted like he didn’t recognize anyone near the end, right before he tried to eat sand. Johnny reached up to touch his head. It still pounded regular. And he was starting to wonder if it was just from them bumps. The cuts had pretty much scabbed over, and the knots had gone down considerable. Headache was still there. This fellow he knew, his head hurt, and he didn’t have a mark on him. Least ways, not ’til he took his own gun and shot hisself through the eyeball. Damn. He just hoped if that was the way he was heading, he’d shoot hisself a lot sooner than that.

He’d been able to fish a fair amount of information out of Deeter, and some from Vom, too. He hadn’t been riding with them, that much was clear. As far as he knew, Vom hadn’t seen him since Vom got out of prison. That whole thing was still a little dicey, and since Vom hadn’t seen fit to talk about it, Johnny figured maybe he wouldn’t either. Vom and Deeter had been together about six months. Deeter was from Kansas, had a mother and a father and a farm and a future and somehow didn’t think that was good enough for him. He really was an idiot. Vom and Deeter had been working odd hire-outs. Funny thing, they’d both gotten real quiet when it came to the subject of what job they’d been working around Morro Coyo. Vom had just said it was something that hadn’t worked out, but the way he said it didn’t feel right to Johnny. But hell, what did?

He still didn’t have a clear idea of how his head had ended up looking—and feeling—like it’d been under an avalanche, although he was pretty sure it had to do with killing his father. Guess the old coot must have put up a fight. Damn, he’d give anything to remember it! All his life, he’d had no greater goal, and now he’d done it and couldn’t remember it. The whole thing left him feeling empty inside, like maybe he had nothing left to aim for.

The part that left him barely able to speak, though, was this: Vom happened to mention it was September. That didn’t make any sense, because Johnny remembered knowing he was going to die on April 1. He remembered that date because he’d been sitting in his cell, thinking how if he had a tombstone, which he wouldn’t, and if he knew what day he was born on, which he didn’t, that both of those dates would go on it. But if he’d died back in April, what the hell was he doing walking around here in September?

He couldn’t wait to get to Hardpan. Nothing like a good range war to clear your head, get your mind focused like it ought to be. His hand crept toward his gun.

 

Chapter 26

Deeter screwed up their entrance to Hardpan, as far as Johnny was concerned. He’d done everything short of shooting his guns off to attract attention. Even got his horse to rear a couple of times. So much for subtlety. Subtlety? Shit. Another one of them words. The whole snotty sentence echoed around in his head like he’d heard it some place before, more than once. ‘So much for subtlety.’ He shook it out of his thoughts. Anyway, Johnny preferred to slide into a town, get a feel for it. Ride in so dead easy it sucked the calm right out of folk.

Not that it mattered much here. The streets were unnatural quiet for this time of evening. A couple of shopkeepers poked their faces to their windowsills, a drunk weaved down a side street, and a group of women scurried out of one shop and into another. Only the saloon seemed alive, with voices jumbling out into the street from it. The sort of town you could make some money in, if you were in Johnny’s line of work.

That was good, because they sure needed this job. They’d managed to shoot a few skinny rabbits on the way here, but not enough to keep them all from sucking real hard on the bones and thinking about them while they rode. Usually, he’d stop in the saloon, wet down his thirst, find out what he could. But they couldn’t exactly go plopping down at a table and have to admit they couldn’t afford a beer between them. That just wasn’t good for the image.

Hell, they couldn’t even leave their horses at the livery. Johnny gave Deeter a disgusted glance, not for the first time. The palomino had earned a good rub down and some oats. Weren’t right to treat a good horse this way. He knew Vom felt the same about his gray, always told him you take care of your horse and your gun first. But it wasn’t like this was the first time he’d ridden into a town dead broke. Just hitch the horse and stall a bit. Something was bound to happen. ’Specially if you helped it along.

 

They dismounted and stretched, the palomino taking the opportunity to shove him with his muzzle while Johnny’s back was turned, sending him scrambling to regain his balance. Damn horse was as bad for his image as Deeter! He glared at the beast before turning toward the general store.

He was distracted, though, by curses flying from the meat market next door as a dog yelped and slunk into the street, followed by an irate shopkeeper brandishing a broom. The dog took refuge under the shade of a wagon. His haunches poked up from his scruffy manure-colored coat, and Johnny found himself staring at the hungry-looking animal until Vom prodded him impatiently.

Once in the general store, the shopkeeper scurried out from behind the counter to follow them nervously about, quickly volunteering that he was just closing up. None of them paid him any nevermind, just kept picking up stuff and looking it over while the man hovered around them. Johnny tried to avoid looking at anything edible; drooling wouldn’t help them make their point. Deeter, though, was hanging over the candy bin. Johnny noticed Vom nudge him away and toward the ammunition. Johnny found some knives to examine, holding a particularly fierce looking one up so the light rays filtering in through the window glinted off its blade. It really was a beauty, small enough to stick in a boot, big enough to stick in a body. He already had two knives, but you could never have too many. Maybe if they made some money he’d come back for it.

“We be on our way, once we get directions,” Vom was saying. But the shopkeeper never had a chance to reply before the door opened and four men, all with guns tied low, clomped into the store. The short one stood by the door, while the other three did about as good a job of pretending to shop as Johnny and his group had done. The largest of them, a man with a beard about as full as a cactus, and almost as well groomed, sidled up next to Deeter and pushed him away from the ammunition. Deeter, miraculously, moved aside. So the man shoved him out of the way again. This time Deeter shoved back, snarling, “Watch it, asshole!”

The only sound in the place was the shopkeeper running behind his counter. Vom walked quietly to Deeter’s side and tried to pull him away, but the stupid kid’s balls were bigger than his brain. He wouldn’t budge.

“You got about three seconds to crawl out of here, boy,” the big man was saying, “or I’m gonna put a bullet where your mouth is, see how much lip it’ll be doing.”

“The boy didn’t mean nothin’ by it,” Vom said, still pushing on Deeter. Johnny knew they were getting themselves in a fix. If they let on they were looking to hire on, whatever side this fellow was on might be full up, and he’d like as not just prefer to shoot the three of them now before they could join up with the other side. If Deeter backed down, it would hurt his chances of getting signed on, and that would eat into their finances, might even prevent all three from getting hired. If Deeter didn’t back down—well, he was fast, but as far as Johnny knew, he’d never been in a gunfight. And the way Deeter talked, he’d have told Johnny all about it if he had. Johnny noticed the telltale bead of sweat on his brow, the hitch in his breath, the tremor in his hand. The kid wasn’t ready. He could tell Vom knew it, too, the way he kept pushing at him. Vom was practical, though. Vom wasn’t all that fast, and he knew it. He couldn’t take the heat off Deeter without jumping into the fire himself.

There really wasn’t much choice. “Ain’t nobody crawlin’ nowhere, ’less it’s you into your grave.” Johnny moved the knife into his left hand and stepped away from the table, clearing his gun hand.

“No, no, please, no fighting inside! I was just closing up!” Nobody looked at the shopkeeper.

The big man studied Johnny, then turned his attention back to Deeter. “This is between me and this scrawny dickless wonder. You got any balls, boy?”

“Why, you wanna court him?” Johnny asked, an amused smile crossing his face. “Deeter, be sure you don’t go bendin’ over in front of Nancy, here. Think he’s got notions about you.”

That worked. The man turned murderous eyes on Johnny. “Who the hell you calling a Nancy, you pretty boy? I’ll splatter your fuckin’ guts all over the fucking place, paint your lips with your blood!”

Johnny had seen the man’s friends easing their guns out of their holsters, saw them pointing at Deeter and Vom.  “I ain’t lookin’ for a fight,” Johnny said calmly. “Leastways not one I ain’t gettin’ paid for.”

One of them walked over and ran his gun barrel along Deeter’s body, who was the stillest Johnny had ever seen him. Johnny figured he might have to remember that trick. If Deeter lived. The gun finally stopped at his crotch. “How ’bout I just shoot his nuts off, Charlie?”

Shit. He didn’t really think the fellow would shoot off Deeter’s nuts. He didn’t really much care, actually. But if Deeter, or any of them, backed down now they’d never get hired on. He sauntered to the door. “No need to bloody up this fine man’s store. But I warn you, I ain’t gonna be aimin’ for your nuts. Kinda outta practice, gonna need a decent size target.”

He could hear the man’s buddies snickering as he walked into the street, heard the heavy pounding of the irate man’s steps following him. Good. He’d got him riled. He needed every edge he could get. Damn, damn, damn, he should have taken Deeter up on his shooting challenge. How long had it been since he’d practiced? He’d been with Vom about a week, hadn’t shot except at some rabbits. He never liked going longer than that without practicing, but hell, he couldn’t even remember what he’d been doing for the last four months! He limbered his fingers, conscious again of the calluses he’d discovered on his hands. Had he been sentenced to hard labor? If he’d been in prison all this time, it was a good bet he hadn’t been shooting, except maybe to escape.

Oh wait, he’d shot at a person at least once. He shot his old man, maybe a woman too, remember? No, goddamn it, he didn’t! And besides, he’d managed to get himself shot in the process. By an old rancher and a woman. Shit. He was going to die. Goddamn it stop it! Them kind of thoughts now is exactly how fellows did end up dead!

Several more men filed out of the saloon, beers in hand, ready for the show. A few called out shouts of encouragement to Charlie, giving such needed advice as where to aim on his opponent and which way to jump, all the while laughing and slapping each other. A few others taunted Johnnie with tales of Charlie’s past kills, gut shots one and all, they assured. Charlie never took his eyes off Johnny.

Johnny swallowed, his mouth and throat both sucked dry. He figured he’d try one last time. At this point there was nothing to lose. “You know, I hate to be doing away with somebody I was plannin’ on fighting next to,” he said, forcing the words through the cotton in his mouth, hoping they didn’t sound too dry. “We come down here to hire on, help you out.”

“Don’t need no help,” Charlie sneered. “Specially from somebody trying to weasel out of a fight.” The bunch of men laughed heartily. Except for one who stepped cautiously into the street, studying Johnny.

“Hey! He’s the one who turned on Day! Day Pardee! Joined up with him, lied to him, shot him dead! It’s Madrid! Johnny Madrid!”

Johnny sucked in his breath. That wasn’t true. It couldn’t be. After Vom, Day had been his biggest influence growing up. Dios, he hadn’t betrayed him, too. He couldn’t have. Suddenly his mind filled with the image of Day’s face, Day filled with confusion over something Johnny’d said, Day clutching at his chest and falling, then he was an old man clutching at his chest, falling on Johnny, the blood, everywhere the fucking blood, Dios, he couldn’t breathe, he had to get it off his hands, wipe them clean. Charlie reached for his gun.

 

Chapter 27

Val wasn’t sure who he was more upset with. He was sitting at his desk, back in his sheriff’s office, his bum leg propped up on another chair. It still hurt like hell, but only if he moved it.

Johnny was near the top of his list. Shooting his old man. Killing the new Mrs. Lancer. Damn, shooting him in the leg! He hadn’t told anyone else, and he’d tried to brush over it with Scott, but he remembered every detail. Johnny had swung around, pointed his gun at him. That had happened before, but Johnny always looked before he pulled the trigger. He looked this time. Stared him right in the face. And still pulled the trigger.

As much as his leg hurt, that part hurt more. He’d played the scene over and over. Yes, it had been getting dark, but it wasn’t that dark. He’d been able to recognize Johnny. He’d been able to see his face clearly enough to see not only his features, but the fact that even though they were all where they were supposed to be, something was wrong. It wasn’t even the Madrid cold mask he’d seen on occasion, although that might have been part of it. There was a blankness, and—almost a fear, or confusion—a look that was totally alien to Johnny.

Then there were Johnny’s brothers. He shook his head at the thought of that. Brothers. No wonder Johnny had snapped. The new one, Ian, was real high on Val’s shit list. He looked like Scott, he half talked like Scott, sometimes it seemed like he acted like Scott. But now he’d upped and done this stupid stunt. Val picked up the flyer once again, although there was no need for it. He’d memorized it, the description, the reward. He was only surprised it wasn’t for dead or alive. Not that that always made much difference in the condition of their quarry once bounty hunters got them subdued enough to bring in. Johnny was good, but with this kind of reward, bounty hunters could afford to group together and go after him.

And just to complicate matters, Ian had ridden off in search of bounty hunters to recruit, or maybe after Johnny himself. That brought Val back to cursing Johnny for his leg. If he wasn’t stuck behind this damn desk he’d be out there trying to save his friend’s ass. At least Val would bring him in with as few holes as possible.

That left Scott. What the hell was he doing? Sitting beside his old man’s bed. Sure, he was worried, and sure, it was noble. But damn it, Sam and Teresa and that new girl, Anna, could take care of Murdoch without Scott’s help. Scott sitting there, day after day, wasn’t going to spell the difference between whether his father lived or died. But it could mean the difference between whether his brother lived or died. Or maybe Scott didn’t care any more. Maybe now that he had his new twin brother, he had no more use for the black sheep brother. He’d heard the bitterness in Scott’s voice when he spoke of Johnny. Maybe he just didn’t give a damn if bounty hunters caught him. And that’s why Scott held the top position on Val’s shit list.

No, that wasn’t quite right. Val put himself in that top position. For sitting here behind his desk when he should be hanging onto a horse, somehow, finding his friend. Goddamn bum leg.

***

Another dilapidated tumbledown town. It came as no surprise to him that the farther south he traveled, the more primitive the people and their excuses for civilization became. And to think, he’d thought Green River was roughing it. Still, he was on a mission to avenge his mother, and if that entailed certain hardships, so be it. It wasn’t as though he’d expected to find Johnny or his ilk in any but ignominious surroundings.

As usual, he first checked with the sheriff’s office to confirm they’d received the bounty flyer. As usual, they had not. It appeared at least half the vagrants he’d paid to distribute them had never made it farther than the saloon in whatever town they’d stopped in first. He’d see to them when he returned to Lancer.

Nor had the sheriff here seen Johnny, although he certainly had heard of Johnny Madrid. Ian never admitted to any relationship to the gunfighter. Like all the other sheriffs, this one advised Ian to turn around and leave Madrid’s capture to the professionals. And like the others, this sheriff made no move to assemble a posse and go on the hunt.  It was hardly any surprise. Half the town looked to be Mexican.

He walked across the street to the saloon, careful not to let his guard down as he hammered a flyer to the outside of the building. One never knew what men accustomed to such squalor would resort to when faced with the opportunity to steal. Several Mexicans crowded around, exclaiming at the reward. A few started talking rapidly, in Spanish. Ian could make out Johnny’s name, but that was it. They made Ian nervous.

As expected, nobody stepped forward to volunteer their services as bounty hunters. That would require initiative, and courage, both in short supply among Mexicans. He’d find him himself, if need be.

Ian’s only guide on his hunt was the Pinkerton report. He’d studied it until he knew every town Johnny had ever visited, which ones he couldn’t dare show his face in again, and which ones he seemed to gravitate back to. Maybe those were the ones with those cheap Mexican whores he’d once spoken of. He probably had one for a girlfriend, probably couldn’t wait to get back to her disease-ridden cunt. Anna had told him how Johnny had approached her in town when she and their mother had first arrived. It turned his stomach to think the filthy halfbreed thought he could consort with his sister, and he’d warned Anna never to be anywhere that Johnny could catch her alone. But they’d also all had a good laugh over it, and had things not ended so tragically, they’d have still been chuckling at the fool’s audacity.

He steeled himself to dine at whatever establishment might be masquerading as a restaurant here. The food seemed to be getting hotter, and he was sure, less sanitary, the farther south he rode. Giving a resigned sigh, he walked resolutely toward a sign with an American-sounding name, hope springing within. He heard heavy footsteps behind him, and gauged his chance of making it to the entrance before he was overtaken. He’d almost made it when a heavy hand clamped down on his shoulder, and he whirled to face a burly man who looked like he’d never seen a bath.  A weedier, even filthier, man stood behind him. Or was it just that their skin was dark?

“That bounty for real?” the big one asked.

***

Deeter watched nervously as Johnny stood in the street, where he knew by all rights he should be standing. At least now he’d know. He’d tried his best to tempt Madrid into a shooting match, trying to gauge just how fast he was. Madrid wouldn’t play. Which made Deeter wonder what he was hiding.

Vom shouldn’t have done what he’d done.  He didn’t have to go and beat on him like he did just because Deeter’d lost that money. And then he and that damn Johnny Madrid had sat over under the tree, drinking, probably laughing at him while he tried his best not to cry, not to puke. In the end, though, tears had spilled from his eyes, and vomit had spilled from his gut.

Well, the last laugh was going to be on them two. He may have lost that piddling amount of money in town, but he’d found out something there that more than made up for it. He would have told Vom, too, but after that, fuck him.

The problem, though, was that the bounty was only good if Madrid was alive. And the way he was kind of swaying like that, Deeter wasn’t so sure he was going to be able to collect.

 

Chapter 28

Something wasn’t right. Johnny’s voice was strained. His steps were faltering. He looked unbalanced. Vom had seen Johnny in many a gunfight, hell, he’d arranged his first few— unknown to Johnny—and even pure green the kid had looked better than this.

Vom felt his gut jump. Jesus, if Johnny lost…well, there was the practical matter that none of them would likely get hired on then, but that didn’t explain his gut twisting like this. He’d lost jobs before and still managed to eat, would do so again. And yeah, if Johnny lost, so much for that bounty down in Mexico, but Vom hadn’t decided yet what to do about that. Having Johnny ride with him and Deeter would probably pay off better in the long run than any bounty, depending, of course, on how much it was for. Assuming Johnny planned on staying, which he hadn’t really said yet. One way or the other, Johnny wouldn’t be earning anything dead.

But even that didn’t really explain his gut bucking like a bronc. Hell, as much as he hated to admit it, he had a soft spot for the kid. Well, maybe not a soft spot. That kind of spot could get you killed in his business. But Vom was proud of what he’d made of the boy. He’d never had a kid, but watching Johnny gun down an opponent, he’d sometimes figured this must be how a father felt when his boy did good. Only right now Johnny didn’t look so good at all.

The fellows across the way were taunting him, but that shouldn’t bother Johnny. Vom had even set that up before. But Johnny did seem bothered, especially after one of them shouted something about Day Pardee. Pardee? Where the hell did that cocksucker fit in?

And Charlie had heard the fellow call Johnny by name, but he hadn’t backed down. No surprise, he was kind of committed by now, and he had a lot to gain if he could outdraw Johnny Madrid. And the way Johnny was acting, he had a very good chance of doing just that. Charlie was going for his gun. And Johnny still didn’t look right. Jesus, he was looking at his hands!

***

The damn blood always settled in the cracks, in all those little lines the gypsies called life lines. More like death lines, he thought. The sight, out of the corner of his eye, of Charlie’s hand snaking toward his gun did an amazing job of refocusing Johnny’s attention, of slowing down time, but even though he could see Charlie was by no means a fast man, he wasn’t the slowest around either. Johnny’s own hands blurred to their appointed positions, but by the time he was raising his gun Charlie’s was out and leveled at him.

That was when he noticed the ruckus just behind Charlie. Charlie heard it, too, the big man instinctively swinging and shooting at the figure hurtling toward him at almost the same time that Johnny squeezed his trigger. But Charlie’s sudden lurch to the side took him out of the path of Johnny’s bullet. Still, screams ripped the air as the dog that had been running toward Charlie, sausage links dangling from its mouth, fell. Johnny froze, inexplicably horrified at the sight, even as Charlie aimed again at the dog. Johnny shot without thinking, and Charlie yelped and dropped his pistol as he grabbed at his bleeding arm. Only a second later Charlie started raging at the fallen dog, kicking at it and yelling to get the goddamn mutt out of there.

Johnny didn’t remember running, just remembered cursing himself for missing Charlie’s chest. But he did clearly remember hurling himself on top of Charlie and throwing him to the ground, rearing back and pounding his fists into the man’s shuddering flesh with all his fury. The burly man shook him off, rolling Johnny to his back and driving his fist into his gut. The air exploded from Johnny’s lungs. He struggled to breathe, but couldn’t before Charlie was on top of him. Johnny pitched back and forth, trying to escape. He finally got a leg to move and kneed Charlie in the nuts. Charlie fell back, doubled-up and groaning. Johnny pushed himself up and practically fell on him, but Charlie rolled on top again. He managed to wrap his hands around Charlie’s neck and start choking him, his fingers squeezing until they ached, Charlie’s eyeballs growing so large they seemed to pop out of his head, until he started to look like a startled woman, blond and bloody, until he was an old man, falling on him, smothering him in his blood. Dios! He let go and struggled to pull himself from Charlie’s weight, until Charlie’s friends, no longer hooting and laughing, finally pulled the injured man away.

He blinked, trying to clear his vision, his eyes finally focusing on the fallen dog. He crawled to it, drawn there, finally kneeling beside it and pushing its tousled hair from its face. Its pain-filled eyes looked back into his, and its chest heaved in time to its labored breathing. It still held the sausage links clamped firmly in its jaws, despite sucking noisily for air. The butcher scurried up, holding his broom out ready to whack the beast, and reached to pry the sausage treasure from the dog’s mouth. Johnny’s hand shot out and grabbed the man by the wrist. “Drop the damn sausages or I’ll cram ’em up your ass,” he said quietly, almost soothingly.

The butcher opened his hand and almost tripped over his own feet stepping back, while Johnny reached down and tenderly cradled the dog. “Them’s yours, boy, them’s all yours,” he murmured. The dog only stared back at him with blank eyes.

He wasn’t sure how long he sat there, waiting for the breath that never came, feeling his eyes sting, before he gradually became aware of everyone staring at him. What the hell was he doing? He was kneeling in the middle of a street, in a strange town, on the verge of tears over a dog he’d never set eyes on, after almost killing a man with his bare hands because he’d somehow flown into a red rage. And that old man had been there again, bleeding on him, and now a woman, a new one. Not to mention how he’d almost been gunned down because he’d decided, right in the middle of a gunfight, to look at his own fucking hands!

He laid the dog’s body down gently and stood, noticing his hands as he did. His gleaming, bright red bloody hands. Had it been Charlie’s bullet that had torn into the dog’s flesh? Or his?  He tried to replay the scene, figure the path of the bullet once Charlie had leaped to the side. It could have been his. The dog had saved his life. And he’d likely killed it in thanks. He wiped his hands against each other, but it only smeared the blood, made everything redder, and he knew the more he wiped them, the bloodier everything would get. Everything he touched would be bloody. He couldn’t breathe. They were all looking at him. A hand clamped on his shoulder and he jumped.

“Why don’t you go find us some graze, Johnny?” He nodded as Vom’s hand pushed him toward their horses. Johnny forced his hands to his side to tap on his legs instead, a trick he’d learned way back.

He was losing his fucking mind.

 

Chapter 29

“That some new way of gunfighting you come up with?” Vom had finally found Johnny sitting beside his horse a mile or so out of town. He’d found some graze next to a almost-dry creek. The other horses joined the palomino nibbling at the sparse grass. Vom had put Deeter to the task of grooming both their mounts, but not Johnny’s. They’d found that Johnny’s mount tended to bite them when they tried doing anything to the devil, so he was Johnny’s problem. Actually, judging from how his coat burnished in the setting sunlight, Johnny’d already polished him up real good. Maybe the boy should get a job as a hostler if this was the way he intended to do his gunfighting.

Johnny had obviously been cleaning his gun and was now examining it.  He didn’t answer Vom, just stood, replaced his gun in its holster, and turned away to go to his horse. His hands were red, as though they’d been scrubbed raw with sand. Vom jerked Johnny’s elbow. “What the fuck were you doing, boy?”

Johnny jerked his arm back defiantly, so Vom knocked his hat off so it hung by its strings. His eyes almost looked rubbed red, too, like he’d managed to get sand in them. But he’d cleaned his face up, and all that was left was a glowing purple bruise along one cheek. “I asked you a question, boy.”

When Johnny still didn’t answer, Vom drove his fists deep, one after the other, just below Johnny’s ribcage, sending him doubled-over on his knees. “You wanta get yourself killed, you go do it somewhere else. I don’t need this shit.”

He went to help Deeter with the horses, leaving Johnny looking green. He always hated it when he had to reprimand one of his boys, but it was for their own good. He prided himself on never punishing out of anger. He was more like a judge, he reflected, impartially meeting out sentences for crimes. And what Johnny had done back there was sure as hell some kind of a crime. Playing with his hands when he was supposed to be drawing his gun. Fist fighting when he was supposed to be gunfighting. Going all weird in the street right in front of everybody. This was not how he’d raised his prize pupil to act. Damn. He didn’t really want to collect the bounty on him, would rather have Johnny Madrid by his side, but if this sort of thing kept up, what choice did he have?

At least they’d managed to get hired on, although the wages weren’t great. Why would they be? An old man, a green kid, and a crazy gunfighter. Yeah, surprised they didn’t just shower the three of them with money.

***

Johnny staggered over to where his horse was tied for the night, pausing to lean on it before clambering unsteadily into the saddle. Damn, how he loved this horse! Now the two of them was going for a little ride. Three, counting the jug. They’d joined up with the camp earlier that evening, just as soon as Johnny could pick himself up and ride without puking. Since he’d puked before Vom hit him, actually right after he rode out of town, it really hadn’t been so tough.

It was a small camp, with just a few hired guns, most of them has-beens or never-gonna-bes. They were gathered around a sheep on a spit, peeling its flesh off and popping it in their mouths as the outer layers cooked. Johnny was starving, but for some reason when he’d put the meat in his mouth he could hardly swallow it, and when he did, it felt like it was going to come back up. The damn sheep kept looking at him, accusing him of killing that stupid dog. He’d finally given up and focused his attention on an untended jug of whiskey.

They’d ended up with the group that Charlie wasn’t with. From what he could figure, it was the poor side. Big surprise. Their job was to stand up to a rancher named Martin Fremont, fuck him over as best they could. Fremont was well-connected, so they couldn’t just kill him or do anything too stupid. Fremont needed to leave voluntarily, so to speak, and do some deed-signing in the process. The pay was bad, but they’d keep them supplied in food and drink. Johnny liked being on the side against the big rancher, maybe because he knew his old man had been one. But he weren’t that particular. Hell, he thought, sucking on the jug, he’d shoot for anyone as long as they kept him liquored up.

They were being paid by a group of smaller ranchers and homesteaders. As usual, it was over water, this time some puny trickle called Crawford Creek. Or Cripple Creek. Some kind of crappy creek. That he was pretty sure about. It dribbled out of the hills, through the rough hills where the homesteaders had settled, then through Fremont’s big ranch, and on westward, or somewhere, through yet some more small ranches. Only in dry weather, which was most of the time, the creek was down to dust by the time Fremont’s cattle had slurped it all up. Most of the downstream ranchers had given up and left, sold out to Fremont, but a few were hanging on.  Now he was trying to buy out the surrounding ranches, but they weren’t selling. And he was trying to run off the homesteaders and their sheep altogether. He’d started hiring people to help persuade them. And they’d started hiring people of their own. Or maybe it was just the opposite. Whatever, he was supposed to make trouble for somebody, and that he could do.

The men hadn’t seemed all that kindly disposed toward the new guns, which suited Johnny just fine. He was glad to stay clear of the whole bunch, and they seemed to make it easy, going out of the way to find something else to do whenever he came close. He’d seen the way some of them looked at him, like he was liable to just go loco on ’em for getting too close, and that was good with him. That’s how he’d ended up with the jug. The fellow who’d been nursin’ it had just up and left it when Johnny came strolling over. Johnny thought that was real hospitable of him.

He’d taken enough swallows from the jug to get rid of his hurts—both Charlie and Vom packed a heavy punch—and headed out on that damn pretty palomino to find himself a peaceful place to rest. Tomorrow he was supposed to cut some fences, burn some fields and maybe a few line shacks. Kid stuff, but a paying job.

Once he’d found a sheltered area, he decided to practice his draw some, but it was hard when he had to steady himself against his horse with his other hand. When, after a few draws, he tried to return his gun to his holster and missed it, so his gun fell and hit him on the boot, he figured he’d better quit before he blew a toe off.  Tomorrow he’d work on it, maybe find somewhere to do some target practice.

Meanwhile he was tired, so he spread his bedroll out between some rocks and flopped his saddle down, almost going down with it. The saddle was another damn mystery, along with the horse and the bedroll. All good stuff, top quality, nothing like he’d ever be able to buy. Sure, he could have afforded it a couple of times, after big jobs, but it just wasn’t smart to put all your money into a saddle you might get shot out of the next week. He must have gotten them all off a dead person, he thought, running his hand along the fine leather. He bent closer, sucking in his breath as he noticed a tiny L in a circle tooled into the saddle’s leather. Lancer. He didn’t know how he knew it, but he knew it. That pretty much explained things. Murdoch Lancer was the dead person it had all belonged to. So he’d gotten his inheritance after all.

Hell, big fucking deal. A horse and a saddle. All the wealth his old man had, and he’d been so damn stingy he’d thrown him and his mama out penniless. Or what was it his mama had told him sometimes? Oh yeah, that the old man had been fucking some gringa, got rid of his Mexican wife and her mestizo son on account of he got a fancy new family to take their place. Dios, there was something he hadn’t thought about in a while.

Thing was, he’d had a hard time thinking of his mama at all. His memories of her were fading, and hard as he tried, he could barely conjure up her face anymore. Except for in those damn visions that jumped him in his sleep. And now she seemed to have friends come to haunt him alongside her. He raised the jug to his mouth and sucked on it, hard, gulping until he hit air. If he was drunk enough maybe she’d stay away.

That didn’t turn out to be the case. She came, and the old man, and the ugly woman, and the damn dog from the street, and Day, damn, there was Day, looking at him all confused, telling him he weren’t no Lancer, shit, he knew that, and then they all bled on him, each and every one, until he was sucking in their blood. Fortunately, he was far enough from camp that nobody heard him scream.

 

Chapter 30

He’d known he was making a mistake, insisting on accompanying those two miscreants, one a Mexican at that, even before they’d started out. But they’d made a fairly convincing case to him that he was headed in the wrong direction. It was the Mexican who pointed out Johnny Madrid would be foolish to head back to Mexico, where he happened to know there was a bounty on him for dead or alive. It was the American—although Ian hated to claim kinship with him—who suggested it was more likely Johnny would be looking for easy money north of the border. He said the two of them planned to check out a place called Hardpan, north of where they were, because there was a nasty range war that just might attract the likes of Madrid.

Had he been sensible, he would have bid them good luck, made sure they knew where to bring their captive, were they so fortunate, and continued on his way. The thing is, he wanted to be there, see the look on Johnny’s face when he was captured, see his expression when he looked up and saw Ian sitting there smiling while the bounty hunters tied him up. That moment was going to be second only to seeing the look on his face when they put the noose around his neck. Ian planned to be there smiling for that occasion, too. So he’d told the men—Hank and Hector were their names—that he was going with them. They’d objected, but when Ian pointed out he would arrange for hotel lodging along the way, that changed their minds in a hurry. Ian had no intention of camping with them anyway, since he wouldn’t have gotten a wink of sleep with a Mexican surely ready to slit his throat. It was going to be difficult enough riding with them.

However, he’d determined to watch them carefully lest they make a move to rob him. Unfortunately, he was unable to watch them while he was asleep in his own room the very next night, and they were downstairs drinking and fighting in the bar, and pulling a knife on the sheriff, and getting locked up in the jail. Ian had investigated their bail the next morning, but when it became apparent the sheriff was considering incarcerating him alongside them, he tipped his hat and quietly left town.

Once again he was without a bounty hunter. Only now he had a destination.

***

Val felt like a damn fool riding around in a buggy. But he still couldn’t set his horse without a hive of hornets feeling like they was inside his leg stinging to get out, and this was all the livery had to lend him. Besides, he didn’t care how dandy he looked, he had to get out to the Lancer ranch. So here he was, the sun just now sending orange streaks across the gray sky, riding in a fancy buggy at this unholy time of day when he should still be snoring in his bed.

Not that he’d gotten any sleep last night anyway. Johnny’d been spotted. Val had been sitting in the saloon, keeping an eye on some shady looking fellows who’d just arrived in town, when he’d overheard one mention Johnny Madrid and Day Pardee. Val hadn’t been here back when Day and his men had made their headquarters over in Morro Coyo and tried to take over the local ranches, but from what he could gather, this fellow had ridden with Pardee. At least he’d lived to talk about it. From what Val knew, he was one of the lucky ones.

Anyway, being so close to where it happened, the fellow was telling the other fellow about Pardee, and how Johnny Madrid had turned on him and caused this big massacre. That much wasn’t all that interesting, but it was the next part that made Val catch his breath.

“And now that double-crossing Madrid just went and joined up with the bunch I was riding with down south,” he’d said. “I tried to warn them, but they hired him on anyways. So I quit. Got my ass outta there quick, afore he turned on us and got us all killed. I ain’t got the sort of luck I’d make it out twice.”

Then they’d had a discussion about Johnny and where they’d seen him in various gunfights before, half of which Val knew were bullshit tales, until the fellow came up with something curious. It was probably bullshit, too, but he’d said, “He ain’t right in the head, either, I tell ya that much. Plumb loco, that’s what he is.”

The two had kept on drinking, moved on to other topics, and Johnny’s name never came up again. Val waited until they were swaying out the door, and then did the only thing he could. He arrested the talkative one on a trumped-up charge. Then he spent the rest of the night grilling him about Johnny. The man had accidentally fallen against Val’s fist a few times in the process.

Lights already shone in the windows of the hacienda as he clucked the horse under the arch. It was possible the lights had burned all night. When he’d been staying there after his leg was first injured the hacienda never slept. Murdoch had seemed so close to death at times that he’d heard Maria rushing down the stairs sobbing on several occasions. He hoped he wasn’t coming during another crisis.

His knock was answered by Scott, who looked as though he’d been up all night. His hair was disheveled, his shirt tail out, and his eyes bloodshot. Val hobbled after him into the great room, thumping along with his damn crutch, finally easing himself onto the sofa where he could raise his leg.

“Johnny’s been spotted.”

Scott didn’t say anything, but for a second Val was sure he was going to pour them both drinks. He’d walked to the sideboard, laid his hand on one of the bottles, then must have realized it was just barely dawn. “Where?” he said dully.

“A place called Hardpan, three, maybe four days southwest of here. Word is he’s mixed up in some kind of a range war.”

Scott sat behind his desk, in his father’s chair, gesturing to the mound of papers and receipts. “I’ve been going over the books. There’s money missing, a fair amount. I’ve traced the discrepancies to Johnny’s entries. Quite frankly, I’m surprised he needed a job.”

It was Val’s turn to be silent. He looked around the usually immaculate room, noticing for the first time the crumpled papers strewn about on the floor. “How’s Murdoch?” he finally asked.

“I don’t know.” Scott rubbed his face in his hands. “If I say he’s better, he won’t be, the way his condition fluctuates. But, no, I guess he is better. The fever’s down, mostly, but sometimes it spikes, and Sam can’t figure out why. Teresa’s gotten him to eat some. He’s still mostly sleeping, not talking to us even when he wakes.”

Val nodded. The only sound in the room was the slow ticking of the big clock. He took a deep breath and continued. “The thing is, I talked to this fellow who saw him there, and he seemed to think Johnny wasn’t acting right.”

Scott’s head jerked up, an incredulous look on his face. “You think? Let’s see, he’s shot Murdoch, Florence, and you, he’s stolen Lancer funds, and oh, by the way now he’s in a range war, and I’m supposed to take notice because somebody says he not acting right? Well, I hope you’ll pardon me if I don’t sound too impressed at this revelation.”

Val took a slow breath to keep from replying in kind. “No, I’m saying this fellow thought he was acting kind of loco-like. Like there was something wrong with him.”

“You’re damn right there’s something wrong with him! I guess Ian was right about that.”

“Listen, Scott, you or me, we need to go get him, and my leg ain’t gonna let me ride there.”

“Look around you. Does it look like I can go riding off, leave my father, leave the ranch in financial straits, all because Johnny’s not acting right? We can’t even pay our bills!”

“Ian put that bounty out on him. He’s gonna get hurt unless we bring him in.”

“Goddamn it, Val! I’m tired of pulling Johnny out of whatever scrapes he gets into! I’m just plain tired of it! Maybe if I hadn’t covered for him so many times he wouldn’t have figured he could just do what he pleased, go kill some people, go steal some money, go destroy two families, go ruin everybody’s lives!” He slammed the ledger shut.  “No. He got himself into this fix, and this time I’m not going to bail him out. I just can’t handle dealing with him anymore. I can’t!”

Val pushed himself slowly to his feet, levering his crutch under him. “I just hope you can deal with him when they got him propped up on a plank in the middle of town, flies buzzing all around. Cuz that ain’t something you can change your mind about.”

***

Damn that man! Who did he think he was, coming here and practically lecturing him about his own brother? It wasn’t Val’s father who lay upstairs lacking the will to fight, wasn’t Val’s stepmother who lay cold in the ground, wasn’t Val’s money that jingled in Johnny’s pockets.

Scott tipped the coffeepot to his cup then slammed it back down in disgust as he remembered it was empty, compliments of him spending the whole night laboring over the ledger. He’d been willing to go after Johnny until he’d discovered the thing with the books. Before then, he’d just thought Johnny had snapped, acted in his typically impulsive if violent way. But now it was clear this was something Johnny had been planning for a long time. Damn him. If he’d wanted money that badly, he could have simply sold his share of the ranch and left without killing anybody in the process. But Scott guessed Johnny didn’t know any other way. Murdoch had once confided in him that he worried Johnny couldn’t be brought back from his violent past, and Scott had disagreed. Well, Johnny had been right about one thing: Scott always put way too much faith in people.

A gentle rapping at the door roused him. When he looked up, Anna walked in quietly. She’d been a godsend to them when it came to caring for Murdoch, pitching right in even when she’d been so stricken with grief from her own loss. “What did the sheriff want?” she asked, placing a hand tenderly on his shoulder.

Scott sighed. He’d come to avoid mentioning Johnny around Anna, knowing how it must hurt to be reminded that the man who’d killed her mother was still at large. And as much as he knew he wasn’t responsible for what Johnny did, he couldn’t help but feel that way. Johnny was his brother, and Florence would still be alive had Johnny not been here, had Scott not always vouched for him and smoothed the often rocky road he was traveling at Lancer. But there was no avoiding it. “Val thinks he knows where Johnny is.”

“I see.” She checked the coffee pot, found it empty. “I wonder if Ian knows.”

Ian had assured them he would keep them apprised of his progress by way of telegrams, but they hadn’t received one in several days. “I think he’s well south of there,” Scott said.

“But what if he finds out where he is? Johnny will kill him...” Her lip quivered as she leaned in toward Scott as though for comfort, and he couldn’t help but pull her close, let her hide her face in his shirt.

“I think Ian’s headed even farther south,” he said, patting her back soothingly. “I wouldn’t worry.”

But he did worry. He’d already lost one brother.

 

Chapter 31

This was one of the best jobs he’d ever had, thought Deeter as he got off another shot at the Fremont supply wagon headed for town. He drew a bead on the driver, who had thrown himself into a ravine alongside the road. He could probably hit him, but there was too good a chance he’d have to move closer and take a chance of getting hit himself. Mostly, though, there was too big a chance Captain Figg would find out. He didn’t think any of the fellows was around, but you never knew. And he’d already seen what the Captain did if you disobeyed him. Deeter hadn’t made a lot of friends in camp, but he’d sort of gotten to know a boy about his own age named Jimmy Moss. One morning Jimmy didn’t get out of his bedroll when the Captain told them all to get moving. The Captain never asked him again, and Jimmy never had to get out of his bedroll for the rest of his life.

Both Vom and Johnny had warned him about the Captain, but he hadn’t believed them until then. Johnny had protested when he found out who was in charge, but he’d ended up staying anyway. Deeter noticed Madrid mostly stayed away from everyone else. That was probably for the best. A lot of the fellows figured Johnny wasn’t right in the head after what he’d done in the fight with Charlie, but nobody wanted to cross him. Deeter wasn’t so sure about Johnny himself, and he still didn’t have a good feel for how fast he was. He’d been fast, very fast, once he’d gone for his gun, but he’d been actually looking at his hands when Charlie drew on him. What he’d done had upset Vom enough that he’d punched Johnny later on. It was all Deeter could do that day not to break out snickering.

The driver waved a bandana in the air and cautiously climbed back to the road. He stayed afoot, keeping the wagon and horses between them, slowly easing the team around until the wagon was facing the way it came. Then he walked alongside the off horse and led them back toward the ranch. Damn! Deeter had wanted an excuse to kill somebody. This stupid chicken shit knew they weren’t supposed to shoot—yet. Well over a week and nobody dead, unless you counted Jimmy. Personally, he thought Captain Figg was wrong about the no killing the enemy thing. If he were in charge he’d kill as many of the other side as fast as he could, make his point and move on. But he wasn’t about to share his opinion with the Captain.

The man wasn’t even a Captain, according to Vom. He just called himself that. Still, he looked like he could have been. He was a big, tall man, with a full black beard. He tended to walk around with a quirt, which he liked to tap on his leg, sometimes hit people with it. Deeter had seen cavalry officers, and Figg looked like Deeter thought one should look. Only meaner.

Deeter aimed his rifle carefully and squeezed the trigger, yipping gleefully as a puff of dirt spat up in front of the near horse, making it half rear in surprise. The man tried to settle it, but both horses fed off each other and started to trot nervously toward home, dragging the man along with them. He thought of shooting again, seeing if he could get the horses really running. If one of the horses stomped the man, or dragged him to death, would that count as killing him? Deeter pondered on that, then not wanting to risk a bullet like Jimmy got, watched them go down the road without shooting again.

When the wagon was finally out of sight, he stood and stretched, disappointed the fun was over. He leaned his rifle against the only tree around and started throwing stones at other stones, but after awhile lost interest. Too bad there weren’t any birds to aim for. He was seeing how far he could throw the rocks down the hill when he caught sight of a lone rider heading from town. Shit! Had he let one get through? This part of the road was supposed to be his responsibility. He waited for the rider to get closer, but still didn’t recognize him as one of Fremont’s men. His finger twitched as he leveled the rifle barrel to aim at the man’s head, then with a sigh of disappointment, he lowered his aim and shot at the horse’s front feet. The horse reared and bolted to side, throwing the rider, who lay still on the road.

Deeter jumped on his horse and scrambled down the rocky hillside, dismounting cautiously as he neared the fallen man. Shit! Figg might blame him if the fellow turned out dead. But while he was looking for a place to stash the body the man started coming to, so Deeter jumped to his side and removed the gun from the man’s holster. It was a real beauty, the sort of pistol Deeter had only seen in catalogs or from a distance, in the hands of fancy hired guns. His eyes narrowed at the implication, and he jumped to tie the man’s hands before he could come fully to his senses. One of Fremont’s hired guns!  The Captain would surely be pleased with him for this.

He shoved the awakening man to his feet, eager to get off the road and back to cover.

“What? What are you doing? How dare you! Who are you?” the man asked, now fully alert and jerking against his bindings. Deeter thought he looked like an unlikely hired gun. He seemed almost prissy, with his blond hair and fancy clothes. Then again, he might just be an expensive gun who could afford such fineries. Deeter had heard stories.

“I’m the one what asks the questions here,” Deeter said, shoving him toward the horses. This job just got better and better. He was definitely going to wait until it was over before collecting that bounty.

They walked along for a ways before the man spoke up again. “Very well, do you intend to ask one?”

“I’ll ask when I’m good and ready!” Deeter was seldom at a loss for words, but he wasn’t sure what you were supposed to ask a fancy hired gun from the other side. “You’re my prisoner, you’re gonna go see the Captain.”

The man let his eyes roam over Deeter dubiously. “You’re in the army?”

Before Deeter could fashion a reply to the man’s ridiculous question he spied a rider coming over the bluff and recognized him as Vom. Good. Vom would know what to do.

But when he got there and Deeter filled him in, Vom looked just as confused. He sat on his horse and stared from one to the other while Deeter explained the man was one of Fremont’s hired guns. Finally he turned to the man and asked, “You working for Fremont?”

“I don’t know who this Fremont is, but I assure you I’m not in his employ. Now, I would appreciate speaking with your Captain. I’m offering a bounty for an outlaw I have reason to believe may be lurking in this vicinity. If you’ll look in my saddlebags you’ll see some posters for him.”

Deeter rustled through the man’s saddlebags until he found the flyers. His heart sank as he read one. Damn, damn, damn! He should have made his move sooner. He reluctantly placed them in Vom’s outstretched hand.

 

Chapter 32

Vom was an unhappy man. He should be happy, he knew that, what with a handful of flyers promising him a thousand dollars to turn over Johnny. Instead, he felt like beating the shit out of Deeter. Deeter was babbling away over how he’d caught this fellow, had started in on Johnny until Vom had given his shut-the-fuck-up look.

Damn kid, why couldn’t he just think before he did something, for once? There was no telling what Figg was going to do when they came prancing into camp with a prisoner—one that it turned out wasn’t even working for Fremont. It wasn’t so much that he thought Figg would shoot them. He knew Figg liked to shoot one person at the start of every big job just to get the point across to the new men. After that, the men tended to pay attention to what he said, and even tried to follow orders—not easy with these kind of men. It hadn’t escaped Vom’s attention through the years that whoever Figg chose to shoot was usually someone who wasn’t pulling his weight anyway. He hadn’t mentioned that to Deeter, though, figuring if anyone could convince Figg to make an exception and shoot two, it’d be Deeter.

He’d thought of just telling this dandy to ride away, no such person as Johnny Madrid here. But the fellow didn’t seem like the riding-away type. Thought of shooting him. But that would be burning the bounty bridge, and Vom still wasn’t sure what he’d eventually decide to do. This new bounty certainly tipped the scales more in favor of collecting. It’s just that he didn’t like being pressured into a decision. He’d briefly thought of hiding the man, keeping him as their private prisoner, but if anything would drive Figg to shoot some extra people, being caught at that would do it. He wondered who else knew the man was here.

“So, Mr. Sinclair, is it? I take it you’re not from around these parts?”

“That’s correct, this is my first foray so far south. I can’t say I find your customs very hospitable.” He held up his bound wrists and glared.

“I’m right sorry for that, but what with outlaws lurking and all, we got to be careful, you understand,” Vom said. “Now speaking of outlaws, what is it got you so fired up you’re offering such a sizable personal reward for this Madrid fellow?”

“He murdered my mother and tried to kill my father, who still may not survive.”

“Bad business, that.”  Looked like Johnny had gotten over his refusal to hurt women, what with killing this one and choking that one back with Lancer. Vom couldn’t say he approved, least not as a regular habit. Sometimes, of course, it just had to be. Then again, maybe Johnny had just let himself get sucked down deeper and deeper, like a lot of men who sold their guns. Sooner or later, they all sold their souls.

“How come you don’t just want him dead?” For once, Deeter asked what Vom was going to.

“Because I’m a civilized man, and I live by civilized rules. To do otherwise would be to sink to his level, and I refuse to have him dirty anything else in my life.” The man seemed like he sat even straighter as he said that. He sounded real fine saying it, too. “Until he’s convicted, it’s only legal to have him brought in alive. I plan to see him convicted of murder and then hanged by the neck, legally.”

“You got many bounty hunters after him, or you planning to take him yourself?” Vom asked. He’d noticed how shiny the man’s pistol and holster were, now in Deeter’s possession. Neither one looked like it’d seen much use.

“I did know of some, but they’ve been waylaid for a short time. I expect they’ll catch up eventually. Regardless, I hope to engage additional help.”

Once word got out Vom expected the man would have to beat off the help. “What makes you think Madrid’s here?”

“The bounty hunters I made acquaintance with suggested it was a likely destination for him. Then when I stopped in town, a shopkeeper confirmed my suspicions. Apparently he was involved in an altercation right in the middle of the street.”

So much for telling him he wasn’t here.

Vom rode silently for a while before saying, “If you don’t mind a bit of friendly advice, Captain Figg ain’t exactly what you call a tolerant fellow. He don’t abide by bounty hunters, ’specially ones after any friends of his. And Madrid’s a special friend. You know what’s good for you, you don’t mention what you’re here for. Don’t mention Madrid at all. Not to no one.”

“I don’t see why I should hold my tongue. It’s not against the law to hunt a murderer.”

“Listen, me and the boy here, we’ll get your man. But we ain’t going against all Figg’s men. And if you tell any of  ’em, it’s gonna get back, and either Madrid’s gonna run, or they’re gonna protect him—or they’re just gonna kill you flat out. And there goes our money.”

It was the blond man’s turn to ride in silence, mulling things over. “I see,” he said finally. “But what I don’t see is why you don’t just turn me loose, then.”

Vom was wondering that, himself. If the fellow would just wait in town, keep his trap shut, things might work out. Him and Deeter could turn Johnny in if the mood suited him, or all three could ride out in the night before the fellow caught on.

***

He gave the palomino his head, watching the ground below him blur as the horse leapt forward. Things were falling into place. Sure, he still had that big hole in his mind, but he was learning just not to worry about it. It didn’t do him any good, and only ended up giving him a headache. And yeah, he had that lunatic Figg for a boss, but Johnny knew how to skirt out of his way. Unfortunately, Figg had objected to Johnny sleeping out of camp, which had been a worry at first. But he’d found that if he drank enough to pass out at night, he’d usually sleep so soundly he didn’t scream out loud. At least, nobody had said anything, so he figured he’d been quiet.

During the days he kept busy burnin’, beatin’, and botherin’, as Vom put it. Today he’d cut some Fremont fence, scattered some Fremont cattle down into a ravine where it’d take at least a week to pull them out, and tailed some Fremont hands until they lost their nerve and took off for parts unknown. Then he’d snuck off and practiced his draw as much as he could get away with. He didn’t know how the hell he’d gotten this slow. But it was coming back.

The best part of the day, though, was just being outside on this palomino. He’d never had a horse like this, not even his pinto he’d loved so much. He knew he ought to name him, but the names that popped into his head never seemed right. He’d caught himself calling him “Bronco” a few times, but that was stupid; he clearly was no mere bronco. And “Rojo” was just as dumb; he wasn’t exactly red, but it still kept pushing its way to his lips. So he was just calling him his palomino for now. Anyway, he sure could run.

Now he was on his way over to see how Deeter was doing keeping the road clear. He finally pulled the horse to a lope as he approached a narrow part of the trail that snaked around a hill. He’d taken the long way there. If anyone asked, he was scouting. Only he and the palomino had to know the truth, and if he was lucky, he’d miss Deeter and get to keep riding.

So he was really disappointed when he rounded a bend and came head on into Vom and Deeter. And some other fellow who was staring at him like he was shit he just scraped off his boot.

 

Chapter 33

He couldn’t peel his eyes off the blond man. There was something about him that made his head and his gut both start swirling. The man was shouting something, but Johnny was so busy staring at him it took a moment for him to realize what he was saying. Even then, it made no sense.

“Get him!” he was shouting, gesturing at Johnny with bound hands. It made no sense at all for a prisoner to be talking that way, not about him, not to his friends. “That’s him, get him!”

Then Deeter did something insane. He went for his gun. He jerked his eyes from the shouting man to Johnny and kept them there, signaling that Johnny was his intended target. Johnny had been stuck pondering this crazy man when he was caught off guard by Deeter’s unexpected move. He’d been foolishly holding his reins in his right hand, but now he dropped them and reached for his gun, even as Deeter was already raising his. Shit! He’d screwed up again!

Deeter was just taking aim when Johnny’s gun cleared his holster. Johnny saw the look of triumph glide over the boy’s face as he realized he’d outdrawn Johnny Madrid, saw his finger tighten on the trigger even as Vom kicked his own horse into Deeter’s, sending the bullet wild, then reached over to grab Deeter’s gun hand. Johnny pulled his own shot as he held his gun steady on Deeter.

Deeter had aimed an expression of outrage at Vom at first, but it quickly changed to terror as Johnny kept his gun leveled at Deeter’s head. “I weren’t drawing on you, Johnny! I swear!” He looked from Johnny to Vom. “I was just funnin’, seein’ how fast you was!”

Johnny rode over to him and placed the barrel of his gun to Deeter’s head. “You wanna see fun? Let’s see how fast your head blows apart.”

He hadn’t really decided what to do with Deeter when the blond stranger suddenly kicked his horse and took off galloping back toward the road below. Johnny slammed his gun butt into Deeter’s head and spurred his horse after the escaping man. He didn’t know who the hell he was, but he wasn’t getting away.

After awhile, though, Johnny realized he was losing ground. His palomino was still winded from the run they’d had, and the stranger’s horse was obviously fresh. Still, he urged his horse faster, trying to get close enough for pistol range. The palomino was heaving as he barely pulled into range. He took as careful aim as he could on the man and fired, missed, fired again. The man curled down a hill and was lost from view for a second, but Johnny was determined he’d not escape. Not until he knew what the hell was going on. Rounding the bend, though, he saw he’d lost the race. The man was riding hell-bent toward a group of Fremont’s hired guns surrounding a Fremont wagon headed to town. Several of the guns surrounded the blond man, holding him at gunpoint, while another group split off and came galloping after Johnny. He whirled his horse around and spurred him back up the hill and around the bend, hoping they’d give up after they’d chased him away.

They didn’t.

***

Vom paced back and forth, finally kicking his boot into the dirt, hard enough to send rocks flying. “Damn, boy, I could kick your ass! Only Johnny’s going to do it better!”

“What the hell were you doing? I had him!” Deeter was still sitting on the ground, rubbing his head and wincing as he felt the knot already rising. He pulled his hand away again to look for blood.

“You had him?” Vom shoved Deeter down. “You had him? What exactly did you plan to do? Or did you plan at all?”

“I had him in my sights!”

“Yeah, and he about had you in his. So you could have shot him, wounded him, only then he’d shoot you and kill you, or you could have shot him and killed him, only then the bounty weren’t gonna be any good on account of him being dead! So come on, genius, tell me exactly what part of your plan I’m missing!”

Deeter glared at him, then finally said, “I was gonna shoot him in his gun hand, so’s he’d be wounded but couldn’t shoot back.”

Vom burst out laughing. “Yeah, right. I’ve seen you shoot, remember? You may be fast, but you ain’t accurate enough to hardly hit a whole body, much less be picking out pieces to aim for.”

“You coulda helped, you know,” said Deeter, slowly standing.

“That’s exactly what I did, boy. I saved your ass. Cuz if Johnny didn’t shoot you, I would have.”  He slapped his horse’s shoulder, sending dust swirling, before mounting. Once up, he looked down at Deeter and asked, “I’m curious, boy, as to what you think you’re gonna do now to save yourself. Johnny’s comin’ back, and in case you didn’t figure it out in that half-wit brain of yours, he didn’t fall for your lame excuse.”

They were interrupted by gunshots from down the hill. “Somebody else is gonna get all that money!” Deeter said, looking toward his horse. “We could still go after him, get part of it.”

Vom shook his head. “We go down there now, not only is whoever’s shooting at Johnny gonna shoot at us, but Johnny is, too. Cuz that’s just what he’s gonna think, we’re coming after him. Thanks to your great plan.”

Deeter wobbled over quickly and grabbed Vom’s leg. “Vom, we gotta work together. Maybe get him while he sleeps tonight, overpower him, tie him up.”

Vom snorted and kneed his horse. “Boy, you ain’t gonna live that long.”

***

A bullet dug into the ground to his right. At least that answered the question about whether they were in pistol range. Johnny swung around in the saddle, took as careful aim as he could under the circumstances, and shot. He missed with his first, but his second shot found a man, who clutched at his shoulder and fell. That left two riders. And two bullets. Now he wished he hadn’t wasted two chasing that prisoner.

“Come on, fella, run!” Johnny urged, but the palomino had already given it everything he had. The animal was already wheezing, his steps less sure. To push him any further was to risk a fall, or damaging the horse. More shots echoed from behind, but there wasn’t any close cover. There was good cover in the hills ahead, but the wind was whipping down the hillside, making the going even tougher. To get there he’d surely ruin the finest animal he’d ever had his hands on. He spent another bullet, missed again. He pulled him up sharply and pushed out of the saddle before the horse had a chance to really slow, rolling toward a low outcropping that lay to his left. A bullet pinged into the rock, barely missing him, as his pursuers scrambled to slow their mounts before they were on top of him. Johnny took careful aim, fired, and held his breath as the man sat still on his horse for a minute, then fired his gun as he slowly toppled from his saddle. Before he could celebrate a bullet plowed into the rock next to him, sending shards flying into his face and eyes. His eyes stung and watered, reducing everything to shadows. The shadow of a mounted man loomed over him. Johnny pulled his knife from his boot and lunged, the rider’s shot going wild as Johnny pulled him from his horse and gutted him, the man’s falling weight driving the blade higher and deeper until the man shuddered and sagged.

He pulled the bloodied knife out and wiped it on the dead man’s pants, pausing for a moment to stare at the blood on his own hands before wiping them too. No, there was no time for that. He fell back against the rock to reload, meanwhile glancing to make sure that was the last of the riders. Damn, it wasn’t. Another rider was galloping up from the road. He couldn’t see him that well, not with his eyes still blurred from the dust and shards, but as he rubbed his eyes and watched, Johnny was pretty sure it was the same prisoner he’d chased down there. He could make out the light hair and the fancy way of sitting a horse he had. The man had sand, he had to give him that. Most fellows wouldn’t have slowed down yet after being chased by Johnny Madrid.

Johnny pushed himself up and ran to where his horse had stopped. Sand or not, the man needed to learn what a bad idea this was. He pulled the rifle from his scabbard and shot, twice, missing both times. Damn eyes. But that seemed to be enough to convince the man how foolhardy he was being. He pulled his horse up and just sat there, though, not turning tail like any normal fellow. Even looked like he was shouting something, but in this wind his voice was carried straight away. Johnny didn’t have time to worry on him. His horse was still tired, but he mounted and loped off, hoping the animal had enough in him to just get the hell away from here.

Then he wanted to have a little chat with Deeter.

 

Chapter 34

Jesus. He really hadn’t thought Johnny would shoot at him, no matter who else he’d turned against. But he had, twice. Looked right at him and pulled the trigger. Scott sat numbly on his horse and watched the man he used to consider his best friend and brother lope away on the familiar palomino, his rifle balanced across his saddle.

Reluctantly, he turned his horse back to the wagon. Even had it been safe to go after Johnny, even if he hadn’t felt so sick to his stomach at what had just happened he could have wept, his own horse was faltering from being pushed past its limits, having made the trip from Lancer in an exhausting two days, followed by the sprint toward the rifle shots. The animal wasn’t going much further, and Johnny was already vanishing over the ridge. Thanks, Val. Great idea to go ahead and leave Murdoch and the ranch to head out on some wild goose chase after his wild brother. Sure, shame him into racing south to Hardpan, make him think there was something amiss with Johnny. Yeah, there was something amiss alright. Scott was just lucky Johnny amissed his head.

Scott had been on his way out to the Fremont ranch when he’d heard gunshots ahead. He’d galloped into sight just in time to see Johnny chasing Ian down the hill, shooting at him. He hated facing Ian’s told you so look.

“You see? He shot at you, too!” Ian said after greeting him. He was rubbing his wrists where they’d just been unbound.

Scott just nodded, so deeply disappointed he felt he could weep. Somehow, somewhere along the marathon ride here, he’d gotten it into his head that he and Johnny could talk, that Johnny would turn himself in, and no blood would be lost. That it was all just a giant misunderstanding. He could see some of the men up on the hill now, loading bodies over the backs of their horses. He was suddenly very tired.

“You were tied up?” he asked, nodding to the discarded rope.  That didn’t fit in.

“Yes, as I was telling these men, I was accosted right here on the roadway and was in the process of being taken to somebody called the captain.”

One of the men snorted. “He ain’t no captain. Just a nutcase.”

Before anyone else could speak a man casually held a gun to Scott. “I don’t believe we’ve been introduced.”

Scott looked irritated. “There’s no need for that. My name is Scott Lancer. Ian here is my brother, and we’re looking for Johnny— well, Johnny Madrid.”

“Looks like you found him,” one of the men said, chuckling.

“You looking to ride with Madrid or something?” asked the first man.

“I’d prefer to discuss my purpose with Mr. Fremont. My father, Murdoch Lancer, and he are acquaintances. I was told this road leads to his ranch.”

“Then you won’t mind if I take your gun while we all go see Mr. Fremont.” Scott did mind, but right now he’d trade his gun for a hot meal and a soft bed. And he bet Fremont had both. Besides, these men didn’t look like the negotiating type.

Ian and Scott rode abreast of one another, flanked by several gunmen. The rest of the men had gone on toward town, still protecting the supply wagon.

“How’s Murdoch?” Ian asked almost hesitantly.

“He’s hanging on. He’s had a couple of fevers since you left, but I think he’s coming around. Anna’s been helping with him a lot.” He glanced toward Ian. “She’s worried about you, you know.”

Ian smiled. “She always is. Is that why you came?”

“Partly.” They rode in silence for a while. The sun was setting behind them, throwing long shadows that their horses perpetually chased. “Why was Johnny chasing you?”

“Why do you think? I suppose he wants to finish off the whole family, whoever stands between him and inheriting the ranch. You’re probably next.” He buttoned his jacket against the cool evening air. “This is the first I’ve seen him since I left. Only saw him for about five seconds before he took off after me, trying to shoot me in the back.”

“Who tied you up?”

“A couple of his friends. Only,” and at this he bent close to Scott, “at least one of them might be willing to work with us.”

***

“Where is he?” Johnny stomped around the camp, kicking at Deeter’s bedroll more than once. “Where is that sniveling piece of snake shit?”

“He ain’t here, Johnny,” Vom said, his voice surprisingly quiet.

“I can see that! Where the fuck is he?”

“I said he’s gone.”

Johnny stared at him, breathing heavily. “What the fuck went on up there? And who the hell was that blond-headed fellow?”

Vom reached in his saddlebag, and Johnny reached for his gun. “Easy, Johnny-boy. I’m just getting you this,” he said, throwing the stack of bounty flyers toward him, “and this.” He took out a flask and handed it to him.

Johnny read the words over and over, like they were about somebody else. He really had killed a woman, and here was the proof. He rubbed his face. Dios! When had he sunk that low?

“The fellow we had, he’s the one who put this out. Claims this woman was his mother. Name of Sinclair. You know him?”

How the hell would he know? A fleeting image of the man’s face floated through his mind, and out again, leaving him feeling uneasy, like an enemy he knew was hidden behind a rock. Just no idea which rock.  He opened the flask and drank several deep swallows, letting the burn in his gut soothe him. “No,” he said, shaking his head partly to clear it. “No, never saw him.”

“Deeter’s young, and he’s stupid. He saw that kind of money, and he didn’t think. He’s thinking now, Johnny, thinking real hard. He ain’t gonna fuck up like that again.”

“That’s for damn sure.” Johnny drained the flask some more, then studied Vom as he wiped his mouth. “What about you, Vom? What happens when you see that kind of money?”

Vom reached his hand out for the flask, and after some thought, Johnny handed it to him. “I think you already saw the answer to that, son,” Vom said, then lifted the flask to his mouth.

***

Deeter sat on his horse looking down at the campfires below. Madrid had ridden in a while back. He cradled his throbbing hand, barely biting back a sob as another spear of pain surged up his arm. Goddamn Vom didn’t have to break his hand. But he was pretty sure he had. The cocksucker’d bent down from his horse like he was going to shake hands, only he grabbed Deeter’s fingers, shoved them between his stirrup and his boot, and stomped, grinding his boot into them and twisting his fingers up until Deeter was hanging there screaming. Then he’d told him he’d just done him the biggest favor of his life, and to go home to his parents’ farm, meet a girl, get married, and live a long life.

His goddamn gun hand. Ruined. He was going to make a living with it, make a name. Not rot his life away begging some stupid plants to grow out of the dirt, watching his seeds go to dust or his plants go to locusts. Now Vom had ruined everything. Him and that Johnny Madrid. They was probably laughing right now. Well, the last laugh was going to be on Madrid. It was clear enough Vom just wanted the whole bounty to himself, figured he’d get Deeter out of the way, then take care of Madrid.

But no, the last laugh was going to be on Vom. Deeter sniffed again, wiped his face on his sleeve, and turned his horse toward the Fremont ranch.

 

Chapter 35

“Johnny Madrid? Believe me, I wish you would take him off my hands.” Martin Fremont poured drinks for Scott and Ian. Fremont was a slender man, younger than Scott expected, with a rakish moustache and disarming smile that instantly made you feel like a special confidant. His home, if anything, was even larger than Lancer, and definitely more elegant, with velvet chairs, satin drapes, and a quiet audience of mounted animal heads. “I thought we’d about run off the troublemakers until word was he joined up with them. Now I’m going to have to hire even more guns, and we’re likely to have more bloodshed by the time this is all done and settled.”

“It seems Johnny leaves a trail of blood wherever he goes,” said Ian, throwing Scott a look of disdain.

“Well, I wish he’d go leave it somewhere else. He’s been here just over a week, and half my men act like they don’t have a set of balls between them when they hear his name.”

Scott suddenly knew how Murdoch felt when others brought up Johnny’s exploits as Madrid. Having a family member who excelled at murder and mayhem was nothing to be proud of, even if he was at the top of his trade. He decided to follow Ian’s suggestion and not mention a relationship unless pressed. Fremont was an important friend of Murdoch’s, an influential member of the state cattlemen’s association. Murdoch probably would not appreciate having his association with Johnny Madrid advertised, certainly not under these circumstances. “Has he actually done anything, or is it just his reputation that has your men spooked?”

“Oh, Madrid’s done things, alright. You saw for yourself how he just shot and knifed three men, three good men, just today, and that’s not half a day’s work for him. I don’t think a day has gone by since he’s been here that we haven’t had some kind of a catastrophe. We’ve had cattle stuck in all sorts of places, bridges dynamited, fields burned, barns burned, horses run off. We can’t even get to town for supplies unless we use all the men as a guard force—and then we leave ourselves vulnerable elsewhere. My men tell me Madrid’s been in gunfights, knife fights, and fist fights. We’ve been lucky no deaths until today.”

“Has he been hurt?” Scott blurted. He noticed Ian gave him a curious look at that.

“No such luck. Only...”

Scott waited. “Only what?”

“Well, I didn’t see it myself. But they came close to getting him, at least once. A couple of men in town saw him in a gunfight when he first got here. They said he acted... I don’t know, addled, or something. Like he wasn’t right in the head, they said.”

 

Ian snorted. “I could have told them that.”

“No, wait,” said Scott. “What else did they say? What happened?”

“That was about it. One of them had seen him before, down on the border. Said he didn’t think he was as fast as he used to be. Thought he was going to lose the gunfight. Would have, except for a lucky break.”

“Or unlucky, I suppose, depending on how you look at it.” Ian finished his drink, examined the empty glass, and set it down.

“Lucky,” Scott said firmly, fixing his gaze on Ian. “We agreed we didn’t want him hurt, right?”

“Don’t want him hurt?” Fremont refilled Ian’s glass. “Listen, Scott, if I may call you that, Madrid is out to ruin me, pure and simple, only it’s not just me. If this ranch goes under, a lot of good people go under with it. Now, your father would understand what I’m talking about. We have people here who think because they’ve cobbled together some shack, gathered a few head, they can do what they want with the land. Hell, some of the Mexicans are even running sheep! You know what sheep can do to grasslands? And they’re upstream! That sort of thing is one reason men like Murdoch and I banded together to form the cattlemen’s association. The problem is, you get enough of these peons together, they gang up like a swarm of locusts and destroy everything in their path.”

When Scott didn’t answer Fremont shook his head. “Sorry for the speech. You just need to understand, I’m not a violent man, but if a few lowlifes like Madrid get killed in the process, I really don’t care. Not when so many good people’s lives depend on it. When a man makes the choice to kill people for money, he gives up the right to mercy. And quite frankly, after he’s done to your father and stepmother, I can’t imagine you would.”

Ian shuffled his feet and shifted in his chair. “I would prefer to take Madrid in alive, if possible, to stand trial. However, it’s true that if the alternative is his escape, then I’d have to agree with you.”

Scott glared at him. “No. Alive. It has to be alive.” But Fremont was already busy pulling out some maps.

***

They’d enjoyed one of the best meals Scott had had since he left Boston. For the first time in months, the food was blissfully bland. Ian looked even more appreciative of the lack of jalapeños. They were joined by Mr. Fremont’s wife, Jessica, and daughter, Leah. Scott made a mental note to think of an excuse to visit again when all this was over. Although the way Ian was smiling at the girl, he might have to race him back.

They were savoring a dessert of crème brulee when a knock on the door made everyone pause. Mr. Fremont rose to answer it, and Scott could just make out the figures of three men standing outside in the gloom.

“You know better than to come to my front door,” he overheard Fremont saying.

There was a mumbled reply, then Fremont strode back in the room. “Dear, I wonder if you’d excuse me while I attend to some business.”

“We were just finished, anyway,” his wife answered, rising along with Leah.

“You ladies best use the other way,” Fremont said. “I don’t want you exposed to these type.”

The women nodded and left using the rear way. “Some of the hired guns are at the door,” Fremont explained to Scott and Ian. “A necessary evil, but that doesn’t mean I’ll expose ladies to that sort of scum.”

Ian nodded solemnly, and Scott knew what he was thinking.

The three men had just walked into the house, standing nervously just beyond the door, when Ian jumped up and pointed to the one in the middle, the one the other two were holding. “That’s him! Madrid’s associate!”

The older gunman explained they had caught this kid riding into the ranch waving a bandana on the end of his rifle. He’d given up his guns without a fight, and said he had information about Johnny Madrid.

“I think we can trust him,” Ian said. “He’s the one who drew upon Madrid, and had that other man not hit him with his horse, likely would have shot him!”

Scott looked the kid up and down. This scrawny kid outdrew Johnny?

Fremont must have been thinking the same thing. “You got the drop on Madrid, with your hand all swollen like that?”

“It wasn’t swollen then. And yeah, I got the drop on him. Only reason he’s not here and bleeding is because Vom—he’s the fellow busted up my hand—he helped him. Then he did this to make sure I couldn’t come gunnin’ for the both of  ’em. They’re in cahoots!”

“Vom?” asked Scott. “Who’s he?”

“Wait.” Ian chewed his lip before continuing. “I remember a Vomer Jacobsen or something like that from the Pink report. But if recall correctly, that was somebody Johnny rode with a long time ago, around the time of some of his first gunfights. Kind of a two-bit hired gun. I thought it said he was in prison, though. Like most of Johnny’s cohorts.”

They all looked expectantly at the kid. “Yeah, that’d be him. Vom’s, uh, I guess you’d say he kind of takes in kids sometimes, teaches them a trade. Took in Madrid, way back. Took me in, tried to tell me what to do, but I don’t need him no more!”

“So what’s this information on Madrid?” Ian asked.

The kid shrugged the gunmen’s hands off his shoulders. “I want that bounty, but with my hand bummed up, looks like I can’t do it alone. I can give you the information you need to catch him and convict him, though. In exchange for half the bounty.”

“Convict him?” Scott asked hollowly.

“Yeah. Madrid shot that Murdoch Lancer fellow and that lady. I seen him do it. Vom said he’d been planning on killing the old man for a long while.” Deeter stopped for a second, took a breath and continued, “Him and Vom, they was in cahoots on it. Had a scheme to make some money and kill Lancer at the same time.”

Scott squeezed the back of the chair he’d been standing beside. Somehow, he’d always held out the hope that Johnny hadn’t done it, that there was some sort of explanation, a mistake. That he’d explain it all, be freed, and go on to lead his life, even if it wouldn’t be at Lancer. But now—this meant they were surely taking him to the gallows. Dear God forgive them all.

 

Chapter 36

They were back. Pointing fingers at him, mouths opening and closing in silent curses, laughing at him as he tried to scramble from beneath their weight, grabbing at him with bloodied hands, one after the other, Mama, Day, the old man, the gringa, grabbing and falling and screaming and laughing and bleeding and fucking. Mama was calling him to join the fun, she was naked, blood-covered, screwing a line of men, and Dios, Ricardo was in line. He tried to call out to her, warn her, but he couldn’t remember what he needed to say, and the words couldn’t get out, and she laughed and lay back and spread her legs as Ricardo came to her. Only Ricardo was the old gringo, and he wasn’t fucking her, he was stabbing her, and Mama wasn’t laughing anymore, she was crying, and somehow all of a sudden it wasn’t her the gringo was fucking, it was the old blond gringa, and they slapped against each other’s blood, and Mama was watching and crying, and that blond fellow was there, watching and smiling, and a dog came up, and he shot him, just like that, only then Johnny realized it wasn’t the blond fellow that shot him, but he’d done it, the gun meant for Ricardo still smoking in his hand, and Mama was dead somehow, too, and the gringo, and Day, and he tried to fix them, push the blood back in their holes, but his hands just slid and the blood kept coming, and Ricardo was laughing how he’d killed his own mama, how he’d never get his mama’s blood off his hands, and Johnny aimed the gun at him make him quit saying it, only then he was the old gringo again, grabbing at Johnny’s hands to see what he’d done, like he was looking into his soul and knew how he really was, and Johnny tried to wipe away the blood, hide it from everyone, but they all saw it, saw him, anyone could look at his hands and know he was a killer, and the scream finally broke through and Johnny was yelling he was sorry, Dios so sorry, until they were all grabbing him again, shaking him, and he screamed louder.

He struggled to get away as a hand smothered his mouth, but something held him down. He stared into his attacker’s eyes for several seconds, chest feeling like a wildcat was trapped in there the way his heart was bucking to get out, before realization hit him. Shit, he’d done it again. He nodded slightly and Vom removed his hand and stood. Then he left him. Johnny could hear him close by, rustling around. When he returned he handed Johnny some whiskey in a jar. Johnny sat up and gulped it down without looking at Vom, mumbling an embarrassed “Thanks,” when he was through. He wondered if there was any more.

Vom answered that question by taking the jar and coming back with it full. Handing it to him, he quietly said, “You gotta quit that shit. I think some of the fellows heard you again.”

Johnny rubbed his face with his sleeve, as much to wake up as to rub the sweat off.  “Just one of those things. It’ll pass.”

“Uh huh,” Vom said, sitting beside him. “What’s the matter you can’t dream about a pretty girl like the rest of us?”

Johnny tried to smile, but Vom’s question brought back the image of Mama getting fucked. He figured that wasn’t what Vom had in mind. “Hell, Vom, I ain’t gotta dream about pretty girls. That’s called real life.”

“Yeah, right. When’s the last time you poked anything but your hand?” Vom nudged him at that, then cocked his head. “Or, I don’t know, you been riding out to where they got them sheep an awful lot...”

Johnny shoved him back, smiling. “Yeah, well I guess you probably know ’em all by name!”

“Well, I’ll be glad to point you to the pretty ones, if that’s your problem…”

“Hell, you couldn’t get a pretty one.” Johnny smiled more. Vom always seemed to know what to say to get him over his scream dreams. Not that anyone else had ever known about them. That thought stuck. Had they? The image of the blond man blurred in his head again. “Hey, Vom? You never told me who that blond fellow was.”

“I told you what I knew. And this flyer says his name is Ian Sinclair, from up there around Green River. Must be rich. I just hope nobody else finds out how much your worthless hide is worth to him.”

Ian Sinclair. Meant nothing to him, except that familiar twinge of danger he was used to living with. “Where’s Deeter?” Johnny noticed his bedroll was still empty.

“I sent him home. His gun hand had an unfortunate accident.” Vom smiled broadly at Johnny.

But Johnny didn’t grin back. Instead he was silent for a while, twisting and breaking a twig between his fingers. When he spoke, it was quiet, even for Johnny. “Listen, Vom, I ain’t got no desire to be taken in, but if it ever looks like it’s gonna happen, I want you to draw on me, collect the bounty yourself, you hear? I owe you that.”

Vom stared back at him, long enough Johnny figured he was finally going to bring up what happened. But instead he thumped him on the head and called him an idiot.

***

He’d been relieved when he finally heard stirring downstairs and felt he could legitimately get up and get moving. Not that he had any idea what to do. He’d been up most of the night turning that question over and over in his head. Somehow the thought of going and retrieving Johnny hadn’t seemed so drastic when he’d been back at Lancer worrying about his father, and Johnny had been somewhere far away, living his own life. Sure, he’d known Johnny had to be brought back, explain things, probably stand trial. But then, he’d always thought there was a real chance Johnny didn’t do it. Now there was pretty much no question. When Johnny stood trial he’d be found guilty. And then he’d be hanged.

Why on earth hadn’t Johnny just gone to Mexico? Gone anywhere but to the closest range war? It was as though he didn’t care about being followed or caught. Ian had said he thought Johnny was thumbing his nose at them, but that didn’t sound like Johnny. From what Scott knew, he was skilled at staying out of sight. Why then, was he so flagrantly visible?

He needed to talk to that kid Deeter some more. Scott hadn’t wanted to probe into details in front of everyone last night, but he wanted to hear more about what Johnny was doing, get a clue about what he was thinking. Find out why he hadn’t run better than this. And maybe, just maybe, figure out what he was going to do.

The smells wafting from the kitchen sent his stomach growling, but he wanted to get out to where the hired guns were camped before they got going. Scott had been surprised to learn they weren’t staying in the bunkhouse, but Fremont had laughed and said predators didn’t sleep indoors. The gunmen were camped just outside the ranch compound. Scott could see the remnants of their fires still burning, surrounded by sleeping men. A few of them were up, coming out of the bushes, tending one of the fires, putting on coffee. They looked at Scott suspiciously but didn’t challenge him, probably because he was coming from the ranch house.

“I’m looking for that kid that came in last night,” Scott said to the closest one. “Deeter.”

The man looked barely awake, more interested in scratching his crotch than listening to Scott, but managed to nod toward a huddled figure sleeping on the ground nearby. Scott looked over and caught his breath when he realized it was the same kid, only bruised and bloodied. “What happened to him? He didn’t look like this last night!”

“Just the boys’ way of welcoming him,” the man said, graduating from scratching to pouring a cup of coffee. “You don’t cause all the trouble his bunch been causing us and then think you can just priss in here, say you switched sides, and nothing’s gonna happen. Hell, anyone knows that. Otherwise you’d have fellows switchin’ back and forth whenever they felt like a change of scenery.”

Scott bent over Deeter and shook him gently, taking an involuntary step back when the kid jumped and suddenly had a pistol aiming right at him. The man at the fire was chuckling. “You gotta death wish?”

How many times had Johnny said something like that to him when he’d awakened him, only to have a gun in his face? Clearly, this was not the way to wake up gunfighters. But Deeter put his gun away and looked at Scott through one swollen eye, rubbing the other. Scott noticed his right hand was bandaged now. He’d held the gun in his left.

“I want to ask you some more questions.”

“Said all I need to,” Deeter said, running his good hand through his tousled hair.

Scott produced a twenty dollar piece and showed it to Deeter, making sure nobody else could see. “When’s the last time you had a soft bed, good meal, a little fun?”

Deeter eyed the coin before snatching it with a furtive look around. “What do you want to know?”

“Everything. Why Johnny’s here instead of Mexico. Why he shot those people. If he’s really acting strangely, like somebody said. How I can talk to him.” The question he didn’t voice was what it would take to get him away from here and out of range of Ian and his bounty.

 

Chapter 37

Johnny had drifted back to sleep after finishing that second jar of whiskey. Tomorrow, Vom figured he’d buy some decent whiskey to replace the rotgut he’d helped himself to out of Andy’s stash. Meanwhile, he’d settled into his bedroll and tried to get some sleep, but it wasn’t coming. The sun was already rising, but the camp was still filled with snores.

Too much had happened that day. Deeter was gone. After all the effort he’d put into that boy, Vom himself had ended up smashing his own work. It wasn’t as if Deeter hadn’t played a part in it. As usual, he’d acted without thinking, without waiting to ask Vom. It was a miracle either Deeter or Johnny hadn’t been killed. But now he was gone, and as irritating a little shit he was, Deeter had been entertaining. More than that, he’d been Vom’s last hope. At Vom’s age, he didn’t have too much left to hang on to. He was slow, too slow to depend on his own gun. And unless he got a new set of fast hands to train up, his days in this business were numbered.

Of course, there was always Johnny. He was fast. But he was different now. Sure, he’d always been moody, always been secretive. He’d even always had those night screams. But he’d been focused before, even as a kid. Now he seemed addled, like his mind was somewhere else half the time, like now that he killed his old man, his focus was gone. That could get the boy killed. Vom, too, if he depended on him.

And the drinking. Johnny had never shied from a drink, at least not after he’d got over the puking those first times Vom had poured them into him, but he’d never leaned on one, either. But it was clear now that Johnny’s most trusted friend had moved from his holster to his flask. Vom snorted aloud. As much as he’d almost like to think he was Johnny’s most trusted friend, he hoped he hadn’t failed as a teacher so much that Johnny would trust any person so completely. That was one of the first lessons Vom’d taught him. A lesson that Johnny had once failed with dire consequences.

Johnny did owe him. He was right about that. Now he had the chance to make it up. A thousand dollars. The one small problem was, Johnny didn’t kill that woman. On the other hand, Johnny had earned his bounty legit down in Mexico. A little digging had turned up his Mexican bounty was for five hundred dollars. Of  course, it led to a firing squad.

Shit. It was a damned ethical quandary. Turn in a man for a crime he didn’t do for a thousand dollars, or turn in the same man for a crime he did do for five hundred dollars.  The gallows or the firing squad? Either one led to Johnny’s death. And Vom’s ability to retire. More or less.

He tossed again in his bedroll, trying to find a comfortable position. Damn rocky ground. He was getting too old for this.

***

The plan was to wait until nightfall. Deeter said most of the men drank heavily at night, and Johnny was among the heaviest drinkers. He often dragged his bedroll away from camp after Captain Figg turned in, although Figg didn’t like it so Johnny’d sometimes drag it back close right before it got light. Vom sometimes went with him, sometimes didn’t. Deeter figured it just depended on whether he noticed him leave or not.

Scott was trying to choke down beef stroganoff for lunch. He assumed it was delicious, but he couldn’t get his mouth to confirm it. Now that capturing Johnny was so close at hand, he felt sick inside. Nonetheless, he tried to swallow the food and act appreciative. At least Ian was making up for his lack of enthusiasm. Scott didn’t think he’d ever seen him this excited. He almost spoke with his mouth full.

Deeter hadn’t really told him that much for his twenty dollars. Johnny had apparently joined up with Deeter and this Vom fellow right after the shooting at Lancer, but Deeter said Johnny and Vom had apparently cooked up this plan long ago, before Deeter knew either one. That’s why Vom was there to ride off with him right after Johnny shot Lancer and the lady. According to Deeter, Vom had told them that killing his old man had been Johnny’s goal since he was a kid. Only Vom didn’t abide by killing unless profit was involved, which is why Deeter figured Johnny didn’t just ride up there and shoot Lancer right off. Deeter looked blank when Scott asked him what Johnny had said about his life at Lancer—or his brother.

Anyway, Johnny was riding with his old teacher, or whatever he was. Scott had no idea there was such a thing as men who taught little kids to be gunfighters. Sick bastards. He hoped he’d have a chance to wring this Vom character’s neck for leading Johnny astray. Still, he was confused about what role the man was playing now. Deeter said Vom told him he was going to trick Johnny and turn him in for a Mexican bounty, but when Deeter got the drop on Johnny, Vom bumped Deeter on purpose and let him get away. Deeter was pretty sure now that Vom was protecting Johnny, that the Mexican bounty was something they’d cooked up, and that they might need to shoot Vom as well. When Scott reminded him they weren’t going to shoot Johnny, he just shrugged. Scott didn’t like the kid.

Fremont and Ian had eventually shown up to formulate the plans for the day with the man who seemed to be in charge of the hired guns, and then the gunmen had ridden out to deliver offers to all the ranchers to buy their land. Fremont said it was his responsibility, as the valley’s major landowner and wealthiest inhabitant, to help out the smaller ranchers.

Scott chewed on his meat, trying to be polite. Fremont and Ian were in the middle of a discussion about cattle breeding. Ian seemed excited about brokering a cattle trade, his first. He said it would combine some of Fremont’s new bloodlines, European stock he’d just brought in from Texas, with those of Lancer. Scott knew he should listen but his heart wasn’t in it. The talk of Lancer reminded him of his father. There was no telegraph office in town, so he’d had no updates on his condition.

He ended up letting his eyes wander around the elegantly appointed room, wondering what Murdoch would want him to do. Johnny had killed his beloved Florence. He had shot his own father. Scott knew Murdoch was a stickler for the law, and he’d often voiced his opinion that Johnny’s problem was that he’d never had to face proper consequences for his actions. But did that mean he’d want his own son hanged?

Scott knew one thing. He had no more appetite for capturing Johnny than he did for this meal. But there was no dissuading Ian, he knew that without trying. And the chance of getting to Johnny and begging him to ride away was slim. Deeter hadn’t told him where the camp was, and he couldn’t exactly just roam around the countryside with hostile gunslingers on the prowl. Besides, Johnny wouldn’t be in camp now, and the possibility of finding him in a random encounter out on the range was infinitesimally small. And judging from yesterday, very dangerous.

He was in the middle of trying to swallow when the furious clanging of a bell outside almost had him choking. By the time he reached the window plumes of smoke were already rising from the golden fields surrounding the ranch house. They all charged out the door, quickly taking note of the riders surrounding them, lighting the dry grasses on fire. Several hands raced out with buckets and shovels, but gunshots sounded and bullets dug into the ground in front of their feet. They skidded to a stop and watched helplessly as the wind whipped the fire and drove it toward the barn.

Fremont raised his rifle and fired at the riders, but it was a nearly impossible shot through the billowing smoke and shimmering heat waves. One of the riders must have known it. He had the audacity to wave at Fremont while rearing his horse. His palomino horse.

Scott stood frozen for a second, then ran for the barn. The hands were racing there, too. He hoped they could get the rest of the horses out by themselves.

 

Chapter 38

He’d been a little surprised when he’d seen a mounted man come galloping from the barn and ride over the smoldering field, his sorrel horse kicking soot like a locomotive, headed dead for him. As far as he’d known, there weren’t any guns left at the ranch. And no smart gun would come after him by himself. No matter. His palomino could outrun him, he was pretty sure, and it might end up being kind of fun. He’d let him get just into rifle range, but far enough away that it would take one hell of a lucky shot for any bullet to be in shouting distance to him. Just close enough to keep the fellow’s hopes up.

And what the heck, maybe he could combine business with pleasure. Keep him dangling behind him while he went about his errands. Maybe he’d go cut some fences over on the far side of Fremont’s range. That would be a nice ride. It was shaping into the the kind of day he loved. Black smoke billowing behind, dark clouds looming ahead, and the sun giving up trying. The air smelled different, the animals acted uneasy, and Johnny felt exhilarated. He pressed the powerful horse into a faster pace, and as he did he glanced back, shocked to see his pursuer had been gaining on him. And was now close enough that Johnny recognized that blond head.

That was when he came up with a better plan. If this was the fellow that was offering the bounty on him, he wanted to know why, know all the details. Sure, Vom had said he’d killed the man’s mother. Damn, he felt bad about that. Real bad. Even if he didn’t remember it. Hell, he’d done a lot of stuff he couldn’t remember when he’d been drunk. Didn’t mean he wasn’t responsible for it. Still, seems like he’d remember killing a woman, no matter how drunk he’d been.

He knew some hired guns didn’t really make a line, but he’d always had a sort of pride about who he chose to kill, or not. Well, maybe pride was the wrong word. Definitely wrong. Because no matter how he looked at it, there was no pride in what he did. No pride in killing folk for money. The best he could do was try to hold down the shame in it. Now he’d apparently failed at that.

He still couldn’t see himself doing it, at least, not sober. And maybe that was the answer to everything. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d spent a whole day sober. He wasn’t quite sure when the drinking had gotten so out of hand. Had a hard time accepting that it was, really. Sure, he’d always enjoyed a few beers on a hot day, some drinks at night with the boys. And yeah, in his line of work sometimes you needed some stiff ones to take the hurt out of whatever you’d done to your body that day. Or to your soul. Mostly, your soul. Once in a while, a morning swig could get the edge off a hangover, get you ready for the day. And if you did that a few times, maybe you could kill women folk, and maybe you could forget doing it, and if you did it enough, maybe you could even forget what you’d been doing for the last six or so months.

Maybe he should abstain from drinking. Abstain. There was one of them three-dollar words again. Maybe he’d been sent off to some fancy school like he’d heard about, and he’d had to escape. Hell, that could drive anyone to drink.

Anyway, he knew a place right up here where the path snaked around the base of this bluff, and on the other side, a dogleg with a thicket to the right. He could get the drop on the fellow there, hold him at gunpoint, pound the truth out of him. Keep at him until the man told him everything, how he’d come to kill the woman, what he knew about him. Maybe even how he killed Murdoch Lancer. He looked behind. There he was, still too close for comfort. A good shot and the fellow could take him down from here. But he hadn’t even tried. Must be a lousy shot.

So the rifle shot, when it did come, took him by surprise, had him slammed down on his horse’s neck at the same time he spurred him forward. He hadn’t been hit, hadn’t even seen where the shot went, but hearing it was enough. He’d gotten overconfident, sloppy. He hazarded a glance behind him, trying to see if the man was going to get off another shot. But the sorrel, skittering off to the side, looked riderless.

He pulled his horse up and swung him around, trying to figure out this change of events. The sorrel had calmed down and now stood uneasily. There was clearly no man on him. Was he on the ground, aiming his rifle at him? Johnny kept his horse moving, uncertain now if the man might be able to shoot well enough to put a leak in him.

He spotted the crumpled form on the ground right before he saw the figures rising to their feet on the bluff above. One of them called out, “What the hell you letting somebody follow you for?” Damn. Figg. That’s all he needed.

He trotted his horse back to the face-down man and sat staring, his gaze stuck on his back, before forcing himself to dismount.

“Lucky for you we saw this fellow following you!” Black Jack said as he and the rest scrambled down the hill. Black Jack looked like Figg, only even bigger and with an even blacker beard. At least he didn’t carry a quirt. “He done for?”

Johnny had his pistol drawn as he approached the fallen man. He felt all queasy and ripply, like important things were going fuzzy one second and stupid things were in too sharp a focus the next. His ears roared, but under the roar he could vaguely hear moaning. Johnny pulled the man’s gun from his holster, then pulled off his own bandana, the one he’d been using when setting the fire, then reached around the front of his head and gagged him tight from behind. The last thing he needed was for the blond to go mouthing off about the bounty. This bunch would sell their sisters for a bottle of whiskey.  He kicked him over. And felt the world go wavy again, this time like he was looking through a glass of water that wouldn’t hold still. Maybe it was the combination of black soot and red blood that colored the blond’s face, gave him a spooky kind of look.

“You gonna finish him?” Black Jack asked as he approached.

The man was groaning, reaching one hand up to cover part of his face, but blood still seeped between his fingers to meander down his blackened forehead, around one eye and across his cheek. More blood was coming out of his nose. As he watched, the man blinked open the eye Johnny could see and fixed it unsteadily on him. Johnny felt wavy inside now, dizzy. What the hell was wrong with him? He looked down at his hands, looking to see if he’d gotten any of the blood on them. He didn’t see any, but it was probably there. Blood was like that. Kept popping up all over the place. He started wiping them on his pants, juggling his gun, wiped his gun, too, but caught himself when he heard the man start to mumble through the gag. Probably trying to announce the bounty. And here he was playing with his stupid hands again, right when this fellow was about to get him hanged to death.

Quickly kneeling next to him, he whispered, “You better shut that flytrap or you’re going to be fly bait.” He cocked his gun next to his sooty ear to make sure the man got the point. From the astounded look in his good eye, he did.

“Could be worth something in trade,” he said to Black Jack and Figg as he stood back up to face them. Pig Eye Sam was there, too, and Ethan and Efram, the brothers. He could hear more horses approaching.

“That ain’t your call to make, boy,” said Figg. “Just shoot him, we’ll all vouch it was self-defense.”

“You see, that’s where you got it wrong.” Johnny stepped between the man and Figg. “It is my call to make, and I ain’t gonna shoot an unarmed man.”

“No, that’s where you got it wrong.” Figg tapped his quirt against his leg, like he always did when he was trying to look tough. “You got no calls to make, because I’m the one in charge. You may have been the fastest around once, but the only thing you’re fastest with now is a bottle—and your mouth. Maybe you learn to shut both, you’ll be better off on all counts. Now move aside, or shoot him yourself.”

“I ain’t moving, and I ain’t—” Figg’s quirt hit him across the face, taking his breath away and making his eyes water uncontrollably as he flung his arms up. Or tried to. Before he could move, his arms were grabbed from either side, and his gun wrenched away. Somebody shoved him forward, and somebody else grabbed him by the hair and twisted his head back at the same time.

“You address me as Captain when you speak to me!” A punch to his gut sent his legs out from under him. He sagged, hanging from his arms that were still firmly pinned. Another blow smacked into his ear. “And you don’t sass me, boy!”

Johnny’s legs crumpled when the hands finally released him, the sides of his vision pushing in black.

“Shoot him,” he heard Figg say. He didn’t know which “him” he meant, but his fingers didn’t care, they took over his head anyway at the words, were already fishing the stick knife from his boot. His legs went along with the plan, pushing the rest of him up and forward to fall into Figg, and his arms obliged too, plunging the knife into Figg’s guts. Legs and arms and guts, the words swirled in Johnny’s head like something stupid tugging for his attention, just when he fucking needed it. He ripped his attention away, back to Figg just as they both thudded to the ground. He grappled for Figg’s gun, wrenched it away, rolled and aimed it at Black Jack, didn’t even wait to see how surprised he looked dead. That left Pig Eye Sam, Ethan, and Efram, the whole bunch who’d been hooting for Figg to finish off Johnny. They got real quiet as soon as Johnny swung his gun to point at Pig Eye. Least ways that’s what he figured had them hushed up. It wasn’t until he heard the click of a gun being cocked and heard the voice behind him that he figured out different.

“Let’s everyone play nice, boys, put ’em down.” Vom! It was Vom! Johnny smiled big, his gun still trained on Pig Eye.

“You, too, Johnny. Sorry.” Vom?

That was when he looked in Vom’s direction and saw the blond fellow. How the hell’d he get there? No, no he was still on the ground. Shit, he was losing his mind. But there he was, with Vom, along with some others.

With guns pointed right at him.

 

Chapter 39

Scott blinked, still trying to get his eyes to quit swimming in his head, still trying to make sense of things. Johnny gagging him, threatening him, as though he were his enemy. Talking of trades. Was he trying to protect him from these men? No, because he could just as easily have whispered to him to stay quiet, to play along, instead of telling him to shut his flytrap.

And while he knew Johnny could be violent, had seen it from a distance yesterday, he’d never seen the cold look of a killer in his eye until just now. He was glad for it, in a way, considering Johnny had saved his life from these men. Still, the glimpse he had into what his brother could be chilled him. As for the men, he assumed they were Johnny’s fellow guns, and that the dead man was their boss. Captain, he’d wanted Johnny to call him. Scott could have told the man that was a mistake.

Then there was the gray-haired man who held his gun aimed steadily at Johnny. The one Ian stood behind, smirking.

The one Johnny wouldn’t look at, even as he finally whispered, “Vom?”

“Sorry, Johnny. You screwed up once too often. Put the gun down.”

Johnny didn’t. He just kept aiming at the man they’d called Pig Eye Sam. Pig Eye had beads of sweat popping out all over his face, dripping into his beard.

“Boy, I know what you did. Knew it all five years I was in that prison. Now you’re gonna pay me back. Don’t make me wing you. Cuz you know I don’t give a damn what happens to Pig Eye there.”

Johnny turned to look at Vom, but ended up looking down. “Damn. I’m sorry about that, Vom, can’t tell you how sorry. You know it weren’t on purpose.”

“Yeah, I know. Still, wouldn’t of happened if you followed orders. Told you not to trust folk, and next thing I know, you spilling your guts to some little girl.” He took a deep breath and let it out shaking his head. “And now look—you trusted me, where’d it get you? When you gonna learn, boy? Put the gun down.”

“Wasn’t like that,” Johnny mumbled, but he dropped his arm and let his gun clatter to the ground. The men behind Vom immediately surged in to pin Johnny’s arms back. Ian strode forward and clamped cuffs around his wrists, careful not to get between Vom’s gun and their prisoner. Then he stepped in front of him, stared him in the eye, said he was going to pay for what he’d done to his mother, and drove his fist into his face. He followed with another, and another, hitting harder each time.

Scott tried to yell for him to stop, but could only manage to make noises through his gag. Ian was going wild, beating on Johnny, pounding him all over, cursing him, finally bending and retrieving Figg’s quirt and whipping him frenetically while Johnny tried to twist away. Scott staggered to his feet, but kept falling to his knees after only a step or two. The beating continued, Johnny finally sagging between his captors. Ian brought the quirt back to strike again, but this time it was wrenched from his grasp.

“That’s enough,” Vom said. “You’re paying a bounty for him alive, so he better stay that way until you pay up. Now where’s the money?”

Ian stood over Johnny, his sides heaving, then spit on him as he turned to walk toward Scott. He called over his shoulder, “You’ll get your money, dead or alive.”

***

He tried to get to Johnny but the guns shoved him back, reinforcing their point by pulling their pistols. He’d had to give up his gun. Damn, he felt like dog shit. It’s not that Johnny didn’t deserve a good beating. Hell, he’d have probably given him one himself if Figg and Ian hadn’t done it. Maybe two. One for letting this other blond fellow follow him, another for letting Figg get the drop on him. Difference was, Johnny wouldn’t be bleeding and unconscious after his beating. Hurting, hell yeah.  Really hurt, no.

Pig Eye and the rest of the boys had given up their weapons. Somebody had definitely screwed up. Word had been all of Fremont’s men were well away on errands. Obviously, not all of them.

The bounty man, Ian Sinclair, was helping the other fellow, who looked enough like him to practically be his brother. He’d eased his gag off and was telling him to take it easy, just stay still, but the new blond—Sinclair was calling him Scott—was pushing himself up and lurching over to Johnny. Vom stiffened. Johnny sure as hell didn’t need another beating, and if this fellow started on him, he didn’t know how he could stop him, not without his gun. Bunch of spineless bullies, punching on a trussed man just for the hell of it. It’d be one thing if they were trying to get information from him, but they were just being vengeful. That didn’t set well with him.

Damn, if he’d known that, maybe he wouldn’t have turned Johnny in. Hell, who was he kidding? Johnny was going to hang. Shit. Johnny had been his masterpiece, the greatest source of pride of his life. He’d taken a hungry kid from jail and made him into Johnny fucking Madrid. And now he was turning him back into jail, taking his creation and shattering it. First Deeter, now Johnny. Not to mention the ones who got killed before they ever made it. Now what did he have to show for all his work? Why the hell had Johnny pushed him to this?

He wished he could go to him, explain.

The Scott fellow was almost on Johnny, who lay there way too still. Vom stepped forward. “You gotta beat on somebody, whyn’t you find somebody who ain’t tied up? Beatings weren’t part of the bargain.”

“Your concern overwhelms me,” he said somewhat snootily, in Vom’s opinion. “Sounds to me as though he trusted you.”

Who the hell was this uppity cocksucker to talk to him like that? Damn, it hurt, though, because it was true. As much as he had lectured the boy, shown him how misplaced it was, Johnny still trusted him. Right now Vom felt like he’d sent a puppy to fetch a stick of short-fused dynamite. And this asshole was rubbing it in. “Mind your own fucking business,” Vom said.

The blond didn’t answer, instead practically fell on Johnny. Vom got ready to yell at him, but stopped when he realized the man didn’t appear to be hitting Johnny. Instead, he was speaking softly to him, calling out his name, telling him to wake up, it was him, Scott. The fellow even lifted Johnny’s head and tenderly cradled it, calling out for a canteen and cloth. Vom stared, trying to make sense of what he was seeing. No, no it sure didn’t make much sense at all. At least he didn’t think it did. As far as he knew, Johnny had always fancied girls.

That had been what led to the problem, to the fucking catastrophe that sent Vom to prison. That, and too much trust. He tried to tell himself he had no choice. If he hadn’t spent five years in prison he wouldn’t be in this mess.

Five years of hard labor and hard guards had taken a toll on his hands. They were knotted and arthritic. Another year, he wouldn’t be able to shoot at all. Without Deeter, he had no way to protect himself. He’d prayed Johnny would stay, but Johnny wasn’t the Johnny he used to know. He was distracted, addled. Undependable. He’d get them both killed. Vom needed to get out of the business, alive, but he’d never saved enough to retire on. Never figured he’d live long enough to retire. Sure, maybe he could clean stalls for the rest of his life, but even then, one day somebody would recognize him, somebody with a grudge. He needed to go east, where nobody knew him. And he needed money.

He needed that thousand dollars, bad. It was a mystery to him why it had taken him so long to trade Johnny for it. Maybe not a mystery, no, just a mystery how he’d let Johnny get to him like he had. Johnny was more than his masterpiece—he was in a way the son his profession had denied him. As much as Vom had lectured against forming attachments, making friends, he’d grown to have feelings—fatherly feelings, he guessed—for Johnny. He hadn’t turned him in, couldn’t just for the money. Not until Clive showed up this morning, telling him exactly how he’d torture and cripple first Deeter, who was apparently still around, then Vom, then Johnny.

Vom knew he was a damned coward. If his hands hadn’t been so fucking worthless he could have taken Clive out. He glanced up to the bluff above, where he knew Clive was watching, his rifle aimed and ready. And Clive’s hands weren’t worthless.

 

Chapter 40

He’d thought he was fine. Just a bump on the head from when his horse threw him. Last he’d remembered, he’d been worried about Johnny. Wondering if parents around here really named their children Black Jack and Pig Eye.

Next thing he knew, Ian was bending over him, telling him to stay down for sure this time, refusing to take no for an answer. Prying open his lids, pointing to one eye and getting Fremont to come see, both nodding. He vaguely remembered them mouthing “concussion,” then he just remembered bits of this and that.  Being helped to his horse, having to stop to vomit. That had been humiliating. As had having to be helped to mount. The excruciatingly slow ride back to Fremont’s. Ian riding beside him, reaching out to steady him as need be. Occasional glimpses of the gunfighters they’d captured. The gray-haired one, riding next to Johnny. Johnny, slumped forward, relying on the old gunfighter to catch him when he slid to the side. Ian, pulling Johnny off once they got to the ranch house.

Scott had protested, tried to jump off his horse and stop him, but managed only in flopping flat onto his face. Now it was dark, a single lamp burning low next to his bed. He darted his eyes around the room, gradually recognizing the fine lace and satin of the guest room he’d stayed in the previous night. He let his throbbing head sink back into the feather pillow, thankful for its cushioning.

“There you are,” a soft voice said in the dark. A woman moved closer, and he recognized Mrs. Fremont. “Let me get you some water.”

“Johnny?” At least that’s what he meant to ask, but it came out as a low rasp. He embarrassed himself by groaning when he sat up for the glass she offered. He drank hesitantly at first, unsure he could hold any water down. But the cool liquid felt so good in his mouth, he chanced it and drank more. “Thank you,” he whispered as loudly as his head would allow.

“We didn’t think you were quite up for formal dining, so I brought some light dinner up.”  She revealed a tray with soup, fruit, and dessert, helped him sit up and fluffed some pillows behind him. He thanked her again.

“Johnny? Is he alright?”

“Who?”

“Johnny, my—Johnny Madrid, the man Ian offered the bounty for. How is he?”

“The prisoner? I’m sure he’s being treated fairly.”

“No, no, I need to know. Please check.” It hurt his eyeballs to talk.

He winced from the slight pressure of her hand on his forehead, only then realizing he wore a bandage there. He should go check himself, but he wasn’t sure he could make it out of bed.

“We’ve sent for the doctor, but he may not be here until morning.”

“He’s hurt? What’s wrong?” He started to sit forward, felt the bed spinning.

“What? No, no, we’ve sent for the doctor for you. You have a concussion, young man, and that means you need the doctor’s approval before we can possibly allow you to get out of bed with a clear conscience.”

Scott laid his head back against the pillows, willing the bed to be still. No, he’d never make it to the door, much less to Johnny’s quarters. “Please find out how Johnny is for me.”

She shook her head. “You understand, my husband doesn’t expose me to such matters, but I will ask him to come up. He’ll want to see you anyway. And I know your brother is anxious to see you. Now you quit picking and eat your supper.”

Scott listened to her light steps fade down the hall as he forced himself to swish his spoon around in the soup. His head felt like somebody was stabbing it from the inside. He finally gave up, letting the spoon clatter to the tray.

Even the dim glow from the lamp made his eyes throb. He closed them, letting the soft sound of the falling rain outside lull him back to sleep.

***

The rain had started soon after they arrived at the ranch. Big, fat plops of water at first, pocking the dusty ground, until the drops came so close together the ground, and everything else under the sky, was drenched. The prisoners stood or sat shaking in the cold air, wet to the skin. Their captors had tied each one to a fence post while they themselves stood inside the barn and tried to decide what to do with them. They’d ignored requests from the prisoners for their oilskins.

Johnny didn’t look so good. He was slumped against his fence post, curled half on his side and shaking. He hadn’t said anything, even though most everyone else had been complaining, demanding their oilskins or to be let in the barn. But he was conscious, and it wasn’t anything that looked permanent. Vom had called to him, but he was several posts away, and Johnny didn’t respond. He might just be pissed off.

Vom wasn’t only worried and hungry and cold and miserable. He was disgusted. He was owed quite a bit of money, even if he was going to end up giving most of it to Clive. Nonetheless, this was a piss-poor way to treat the man who had delivered their thousand dollar prisoner. A piss-poor way to treat their prize prisoner, too.

Mr. Fremont had stayed only long enough to declare their kind wasn’t allowed inside his buildings, and suggest tying them to the fence. Ian Sinclair had told him the bounty money was in Morro Coyo, but he could get it wired to Wells Crossing. He’d hovered over the injured blond man, the one called Scott. That man was a mystery. He definitely seemed to know Johnny. That wasn’t always a good thing.  The peculiar part was that Scott got to go into the main house, with the proper folk. Then again, Fremont had been distracted by the gunmen earlier, seemed to purposefully look elsewhere when Sinclair had been beating on Johnny. He probably hadn’t picked up on Scott’s little exhibition. Vom wondered if that bit of information might prove to be worth something.

Light shone out through the ranch house door as it opened, then closed. Two figures sloshed across the yard toward the barn. As they approached he recognized them as Fremont and Sinclair. The men standing guard from within the barn stood to talk to them. After a while they splashed toward them, holding their hats against the wind.

Fremont spoke, raising his voice against the sound of the rain. “I expect you know you boys have caused me a lot of trouble. And now you’re still causing me trouble. You see, I could ride you over to Wells Crossing and get you locked up, on some charge or another. It’d be a nuisance, but I could do it. Or I could just shoot the bunch of you right here. From what I understand, you wouldn’t be missed. But then I’d have a bunch of bodies to dispose of. Again, a nuisance. Or, I could put you on my payroll, even pay you more than that bunch of squatters is doing, get this matter settled once and for all.” His smile was sincere looking enough to scare Vom. “There’s a hot meal signing bonus.”

As if there were ever a doubt. Efram, Ethan, and Pig Eye Sam were being marched into the barn within minutes.  They’d agreed to Fremont’s terms, which included serious consequences should any of them defect back to the other side. Vom knew there wasn’t any danger of that. They weren’t fighting for any cause except their own pockets.

They’d left him and Johnny. Leaving him was no doubt Deeter’s doing. He’d seen Deeter skulking around in the background. Too chickenshit to face him. He’d probably told Fremont that he couldn’t be trusted, not with Johnny being held. Idiot kid. Maybe he should let Clive get hold of him after all.

Vom was half surprised when they came for him and Johnny, but not so surprised when they left his wrists tied.

“I do truly apologize for your deplorable treatment,” Fremont said, offering him a towel once inside the barn “But you must understand, we must be cautious.”

He accepted it, rubbing his face and hair vigorously before looking up, expecting to see Johnny behind him. Instead, Sinclair was still out in the rain with him. He gestured toward them. “He need help with Johnny?”

“I understand your friend killed Mr. Sinclair’s mother,” Fremont said, pulling the barn door shut, muffling the sound of the rain. “No, I doubt he’ll need any help.”

 

Chapter 41

The lace curtains billowed slightly as the breeze flowed under them. Mrs. Fremont had opened the windows earlier, telling him the fresh air would help him feel better. That, and some scrambled eggs, strawberries, and biscuits with honey. The breeze did help. The rain, which had stopped some time during the night, had left the air cleansed. The food did not help. Still, he tried to swallow a few mouthfuls. The Fremonts had gone well beyond their duty in caring for him, something he’d remember when he got back to Lancer.

Ian hadn’t shown up yet, but Mrs. Fremont had assured him he’d been by to check several times during the night. He’d found it frustrating to ask her about Johnny. She clearly thought it was improper for her to speak of him, most likely because he was a gunfighter. So he was almost surprised when she finally answered one of his his queries as to his brother’s whereabouts, assuring him his brother was sleeping in a guest room. It was only then that he could allow himself to succumb to full sleep. Scott had thought about searching for Johnny’s room on his own, but his dizziness and nausea helped convince him that vomiting or passing out in the Fremont’s hallways would not be the mark of a good guest.

He stalled a bit more with his eggs, but finally some stuck to his fork and he had to take a mouthful. He nodded appreciatively as he tried not to gag. He felt awful.

***

He’d shouted himself hoarse. All it had accomplished was to get him shackled by his ankle to a post, hands tied behind him. The storm almost drowned out any sounds from outside, but not quite. Once in a while, he’d still heard thuds and groans over the roar of the pounding rain. About twenty minutes later Sinclair had come in, out of breath, complaining of needing a hot bath to get the Mex blood off him. Fremont jumped to accommodate him, both totally ignoring Vom’s pleas to bring Johnny inside.

He hadn’t heard anything more from outside, even when the rain quit. Even when he called out several times in the dark.

A rooster crowed outside the barn, and soon after, the door opened and allowed in a streak of gray light, along with two men dragging a limp form between them. Fremont and Sinclair took up the rear.

“Jesus! What the hell’d you do to him?”

“Chain him up in that stall,” Fremont ordered, pointing to one of the sturdy ones reserved for stallions. They flopped Johnny down, then locked one hand cuff to a ring on the wall, so his cuffed wrist hung, raised above his head, from the short chain.

“Vile Mexican creature,” mumbled Sinclair.

“Well, looks like you made him sorry,” Fremont said, placing his hand on Sinclair’s shoulder and shaking his head. “But I know it’s never going to make up for what he did to your mother. I have to be honest, I hate having scum like that even under my barn roof. Be glad when you take him with you.”

“Well, we’ll be getting him out of your way today. You know, we can take him back outside if you’d rather.”

“No, the doctor’s coming by to check on Scott soon. I’d rather not distract him.”

Vom looked at Johnny’s bruised face and otherwise pale skin. “Johnny’s the one who needs a doctor! What the hell’d you do?”

Sinclair looked at him disdainfully. “When we require your opinion we’ll ask for it. You’ll get your bounty money. That’s all you need concern yourself about.”

“That sounds like it could be him now,” said Fremont, striding to the barn door and looking out “Yep, it’s the doctor. Would you like to meet him?”

“No, thank you. I think I’ll check our equipment, get things ready for the ride if you don’t mind. Perhaps I can help get our prisoner settled.” At that he smiled at Fremont, who smiled back and left to greet the doctor.

Sinclair turned to him. “If you make so much as a peep, you’ll be in need of medical attention yourself.”

Fuck the cocksucker. Vom peeped. He yelled, actually, right before he got hit in the head and gagged.

***

Mrs. Fremont cocked her head as though listening, right before Scott picked up on the voices downstairs. “That would be Dr. Morrow,” she said. “Let me show him up.”

The doctor proved to be a jovial man who immediately put Scott at ease. He prodded Scott’s wound, apologizing for making him flinch, and stared into his eyes for so long that Scott started to marvel at the tangle of hairs that made up the man’s eyebrows and sprouted from his nostrils.

“That pupil’s not right,” he said, cupping his hand over each of Scott’s eyes and pulling it away several times. “It’s sluggish compared to the other one.”

“What does that mean?” Mrs. Fremont asked.

“It means he has a concussion, definitely, and that he better stay in bed.” He was busy fishing a bottle from his satchel. “You hear that? Bed rest for you, son. Here, take this laudanum, because I’m sure you’ve got a headache to beat all there.”

Scott’s head hurt so much he gladly swallowed the vile tasting liquid. “I’m supposed to ride home today.”

“You’re not riding anywhere, unless you want to end up riding to the graveyard. I’ll be back to check on you tomorrow, then we’ll see.”

“My brother—how is he? Have you seen him?”

The doctor looked to Mrs. Fremont, obviously confused. She answered for him. “He’s fine, Scott. He’ll be in to see you soon, I’m sure.”

“He’s here?”

“Why, yes, you know that. I told you. You’ve just been asleep when he checked on you.” She looked at the doctor. “I told him that earlier, several times.” The doctor looked concerned, but nodded.

“Wake me up next time, please?” Scott’s lids were drooping.

The western sun was streaming in the window the next time he awoke. It was with some relief that he realized he was alone in the room. Unfortunately, nature’s call was being rather insistent. Looking around the room, he spied the chamber pot pushed into plain view. No. He’d make it to the privy. Then he’d look up Johnny.

The room still spun when he sat up, but not as violently as before. He found his shirt, freshly laundered, on the dresser. His toiletries were laid out, so he also shaved and neatened his hair. As long as he was a guest here, he was going to look his best before he roamed the halls.

He almost groaned when Mrs. Fremont stuck her head in the door. It didn’t take her long to start guiding him back to the bed. He insisted he was better, and she finally relented, no doubt realizing he needed to visit the privy. He asked for his brother, and she left, saying she was going to go fetch him, but when she returned, it was with Mr. Fremont.

“I couldn’t find your brother,” she said, “but Martin’s anxious to see how you’re doing. Perhaps you two would like to get some fresh air.”

Scott found it curious they would let Johnny wander at will when he was supposed to be their prisoner, but perhaps he misunderstood. Mr. Fremont would no doubt be a better source of information. “He’s alright, then?”

“Your brother? Yes, yes, just fine.”

“Really? Because he didn’t look so good out at the bluff.”

Mrs. Fremont touched his shoulder lightly. “Well, that’s the truth. He was pretty worked up, but don’t worry, Ian’s just fine.”

Scott felt a numbness crawl up from his belly. He’d slept all day, thinking his brother was fine. He didn’t think of Ian as his brother, and in his state it just hadn’t occurred to him they did. Oh Jesus. He barely managed to croak out, “Where’s Johnny?”

“You mean Madrid?” Mr. Fremont shook his head. “Don’t worry, he’s not going to be hurting anybody soon. We’ve got him trussed up nice and secure in the barn, and your brother showed him the errors of his way.”

Scott pushed his way to the door, staggering on rubbery legs. “No! He’s my brother! Johnny!”

Fremont grabbed him, preventing him from falling. “Hold on, son! That concussion’s got you confused.”

“What’s the matter?” It was Ian, who had just climbed the stairs. He hooked Scott under the arms and helped prop him up.

“It’s the concussion, I think, still has him mixed up. I’m not sure, but he acts like he thinks Madrid’s your brother or something. It could be the laudanum, too, maybe.”

Ian gently pushed Scott back to the bed. He curled his lip as though he smelled something bad.  “Madrid my brother? Hardly.”

 

Chapter 42

“Johnny? Goddamn it, Johnny, wake up, boy!”

Johnny did what he’d done all day in response. Nothing. That wasn’t quite true. He’d been shaking. Vom yelled again for somebody to come and tend to them. A ranch hand had come earlier and given them both buckets of water, untying Vom’s hands but not Johnny’s. He’d also given Vom a couple of blankets and a plate of decent food. The hand said Fremont didn’t cotton to gunfighters, didn’t even approve of sheltering them in his barn, but considering Vom had turned in Madrid, he would try to make him comfortable. He would make no such allowances for the prisoner, however.

After he’d left, Vom tried throwing both his blankets at Johnny, who was about fifteen or so feet away, but the best he did was to drape one partly over his leg. That’s why he’d been trying to wake him. If Johnny would just wake up he could pull both blankets over himself, maybe stop some of that damn shivering. Vom ate his beans, but saved his bread and anything tossable in hopes Johnny could eat it later.  Where the hell was everybody? The barn was deserted, apparently used more for storage than stock.

He wondered why they hadn’t left for Morro Coyo yet. Sinclair had been all eager to get going earlier. Maybe he figured out Johnny couldn’t exactly ride now after he’d pummeled him. Damn cowardly piece of shit. Vom had always preached to his boys that you didn’t beat or kill just for revenge or pleasure. It wasn’t productive. Yet that sniveling Sinclair had done just that to Johnny. Beat a tied man until he was unconscious. Probably kept on after that, being that it was safer still. Well, two could play at that game. When he got loose, he might just have to break his own rule.

***

“No! Let me see Johnny!”

Both Ian and Mr. Fremont had pushed him back in bad. Mr. Fremont looked particularly concerned, and he’d called for Mrs. Fremont to go send a man after the doctor.

“I’m not confused! Johnny Madrid is my brother! Now I want to see him! Now!” He pushed himself up on his elbows but couldn’t manage any more unless he hit Mr. Fremont, something he doubted would do much to prove his mental stability. He laid back down and spoke as calmly as he could. “He’s really Johnny Lancer.  He’s my, our, half-brother.”

Fremont looked to Ian, who responded, “Madrid showed up, claimed he was a Lancer, and Scott always wants to believe the best in everybody. Unfortunately, this time it led to disaster.”

“There’s not exactly a family resemblance, son,” Fremont said to Scott. “Not like you two boys.”

“We’re all half-brothers, different mothers. Now where is he?”

Fremont arched his brow. “Far be it for me to say, but if your father had a dalliance with a Mexican, that doesn’t really count. A lot of men sow their oats south of the border—doesn’t mean they have to claim every Mexican bastard that shows up on their doorstep as family.”

He bit his tongue to keep from declaring which son was the bastard. Knew it was uncalled for. “Johnny’s not a bastard. His real name is Johnny Lancer. Please, just tell me how he is.”

Fremont let go of Scott and stood up straight, glancing at Ian.

Ian looked from one to the other, cleared his throat. “He got kind of banged up from that fellow they said was the leader there, Captain Figg I think, and he had a fall from his horse, but he’s doing alright. You’re the one we’re worried about.”

“I need to see him. Can you take me to his room?”

Fremont shifted his weight back and forth, looked a little uncomfortable. “I’m sorry, son, but you understand we don’t allow his kind in the house. Not what with the ladies and all.”

“I’m in full agreement,” Ian chimed in, nodding. “Mexicans can’t control themselves properly.”

“Well, I really meant hired guns, not to mention murderers, but you have a point there, too, I suppose.”

“Where is he?” It was all he could do to keep from yelling.

“Well, we couldn’t put him in the bunkhouse, because the hands wouldn’t appreciate that too much, so he’s in the old barn, the one we use for storage. No animals in there. He’s there with that old man that turned on him.”

Scott was already headed out the door. This time, nobody tried to stop him or help him.

***

He was outside of a huge hacienda. Men were riding by, walking by, nobody stopping. He ran from one to the next, telling them what his mama would do for their pesos, but they kept on. He was going to be in trouble unless he could find somebody soon. Finally he looked up to see a huge gringo towering over him. The man said he had money, lots of it, he would pay for her if Johnny came too, a thousand dollars for an hour of their time. Johnny couldn’t believe it, and he hustled to take the gringo to her room, but he couldn’t find it, the hallways were endless, and he couldn’t remember which one led to his mama’s room, and the gringo was getting impatient, and they kept opening door after door, until behind one there was a gringa, and the gringo went to her, they were pawing one another, and Johnny begged him to come back, that he’d find his mama’s room, but the gringo said he didn’t want a Mexican whore when he could have a gringa, and pushed him out and closed the door and left him alone in the hall with the tears threatening to well up. Ricardo was going to be mean, and Mama would cry when Ricardo hit him, and she’d cry when he hit her, and he still couldn’t find her room, and if he did, then how would he find his way back to the rich gringo? Somehow he was in a big room, and two blond men were there reading books, there were hundreds of books, and he tried to get them to pay for his mama, but they said something about vile Mexican whores, and then they started laughing, and suddenly Ricardo was there, but now they were in Mama’s room, and she was fucking that gringo after all, and the gringa was watching, and furry little animals, sort of like dogs but not, were running around, and they started biting him, and they were biting his mama, and the gringo wouldn’t get off her, and she was crying, the things were nipping at her, and the gringa was telling them to bite, and he knew there was something he should remember about her, but he couldn’t, and the things, they were dogs now, were biting, blood was everywhere and he tried to pull them off, he grabbed one that had her by the neck, and it wouldn’t let go and when he pulled it back it ripped her neck open, and he tried to stuff the pieces back together, but the blood wouldn’t stop, she was gurgling his name, reaching her hand to him, grabbing him and pulling him down, and the dogs were biting at him and all he could do was scream.

***

Scott had almost fallen in his haste to get down the stairs, across the yard, and to the barn Fremont indicated. Pulling open the door and stepping inside, he scanned the dark for his brother. He let his breath out with relief as he saw the figure sitting, knees drawn up, in the middle of the barn. It only lasted a second though, as his eyes adjusted to the dark and he realized the pants didn’t reflect light from any conchos, and the hair was too light. It was the older man.

“Where is he?” He pushed his way toward the man, still didn’t see Johnny.  He noticed the man gather his feet under him, but Scott just hadn’t expected him to launch himself at him, wrapping his arm around his neck.

“You spineless asshole,” the man muttered as his arm tightened, right before Ian, who had been behind him, rushed up and punched the old man in the gut. Scott could feel the man’s breath let out in a whoosh at the same time his arm gave up its grip. He jumped away as the man fell to the ground.

Then he heard it, that harrowing half-scream only Johnny could muster in his sleep. Scott swung toward the sound, sucking in his breath at what he saw. At first he thought Johnny was waving, with his hand up in the air, but it took only a moment to realize his arm was hanging limply from a chained wrist. “Oh Jesus, Johnny...”

He knelt beside him, taking his head in his hands and shaking him gently, running a finger over the dried blood and purple bruises. Johnny was still murmuring, on the verge of another outburst. Scott pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and dunked it in the bucket of water just as Johnny started to flail weakly. “Johnny! Wake up! Jesus, what happened to him?”

Ian looked uncomfortable, but before he could say anything Johnny began struggling. Scott doused him with more water and called his name more urgently. Finally his brother’s lids popped open, and the two stared wordlessly into each other’s eyes for several seconds.

Then Johnny really started to flail.

 

Chapter 43

It caught him off guard, but even when Johnny’s fist pounded his chest, it wasn’t with enough strength to do more than push him back momentarily. He’d been mostly hitting blindly, jerking his cuffed hand ineffectively against its chain. Scott wasn’t so much stunned by his blows as he was by the expression on his face—one he couldn’t decide was fear or hatred. Hatred, he decided. Right before Ian knocked Johnny on the head.

“Jesus!” Scott shouted, pushing Ian back. “What the hell’d you do that for?”

“He was attacking you!”

“He’s chained up! And he wasn’t exactly overpowering me. Jesus, Ian, he didn’t need that.” Scott bent over him, prying open one lid, half relieved he didn’t respond. Then he noticed his hand, the one hanging in the chain.

“Oh my God, quick, where’s the key?” The hand was swollen so much that the cuff bit into it. He hadn’t noticed it in the dark before. Scott tried to prop him against the wall, take some pressure off the cuff, but he kept sliding. He jumped up and grabbed Ian. “Where’s the damn key?”

“He has it.” The voice came from the old man. He was pointing at Ian.

“Uncuff him.”

“Scott, don’t be foolish,” Ian said, calmly unclenching Scott’s hands from his shirt. “He’s a prisoner, a murderer. My God, he just tried to escape! I can’t uncuff him.”

“If you don’t he could lose his hand.” Scott was trying to keep his voice calm, but it was only barely making it.

“Yeah, the hand he used to shoot my mother. Pardon me if I don’t rush.”

Mr. Fremont had walked over and was looking down at Johnny. “Although I agree with Ian in principle, I suppose he could be cuffed on the other wrist.”

Ian looked irritated, but said, “Fine, fine. Here’s the key.”

Johnny moaned as Scott manipulated the key in the lock and eased the cuff off.  The entire hand was swollen and purple. “What happened to his hand?” he asked, his voice cold.

“I made sure he wasn’t going to ever hurt anybody again. Got the idea from that kid Deeter’s hand.”

The next thing he knew he’d barreled into Ian and shoved him against the far wall, pounding him against it over and over, as Fremont tried to pull him off.

***

“So, you queer for Johnny, or what?”

Vom had to give the Scott fellow credit for sticking up for Johnny, and especially for pummeling Sinclair. Now he felt bad he’d gone after him at first. He’d just confused him with Sinclair in the dark.  Scott was sitting over Johnny, trying to rouse him, even though Fremont had all but demanded Scott come back to the ranch house. Fremont had taken Sinclair to tend to his cut lip, cuffing Johnny by his other wrist before he left.

“He needs the doctor.”  Scott had already said that to Fremont, so Vom wasn’t sure why he was telling him. It wasn’t like he could go get him, what with his leg still chained.

“Yeah, good luck. Fremont ain’t getting no doctor for no gunslinger. Especially not to fix his gun hand.” He leaned back against the post and let his eyes half close, slitting them open enough to keep an eye on the blond. “Us hired guns, we’re just tools for folks like Fremont to use when they need us, then spit on when we done their dirty work. How it always is.”

“Who did this to him? That Figg fellow couldn’t have done it. Where was Ian, or Fremont?”

“Well, I’d say Figg did some, your friend Ian did some, then Ian did some more. A lot more. Fremont was in here, chaining me up, but he knew what was going on.”

Scott looked at him as though he didn’t quite believe, then lifted Johnny’s lids to examine his eyes. “Johnny, can you hear me? It’s Scott. Wake up.”

“I been calling him all day. Only thing woke him up was one of his dreams.”

Scott was quiet for a while, before tapping his fingers and asking, “What do you know about his dreams?”

“What? No, he was just sleeping restless, probably from getting hit in the head.” He hadn’t meant to let slip one of Johnny’s secrets.

Leaning back on his heels, Scott finally turned his full attention to Vom, scrutinizing him until he felt like a side of beef gone bad. “Are you the one they call Vom?”

He nodded. “Yep. What of it?”

Scott was still looking at him like he was a turd on china. “The one who turned a little kid into a gunslinger?”

“Which little kid...You mean Johnny?” He couldn’t help but speak with pride. “Yeah, yeah, Johnny Madrid, I made him what he is today.”

Scott gestured down at Johnny, his hand lingering on his arm. “What he is today is on his way to face a murder charge! Congratulations!”

“What he is today is alive for ten years more than he would have been if I hadn’t saved his butt—and I do mean saved his butt—in a jail cell, hadn’t given him his first goddamn meal in days, hadn’t given him something in life he was good at!” Jesus, Vom detested righteous assholes like this stupid cocksucker. He wondered what the blond’s interest in Johnny was. Actually, he was getting a pretty good idea. “And just so we’re straight, Johnny ain’t queer, so don’t go getting any ideas while he’s passed out there. I seen you feeling of him.”

“I beg your pardon, I’m checking for injuries! I can assure you I have no... I, well that’s absurd! He’s my brother!”

Vom raised an eyebrow. “That a fact? Yeah, you know, I don’t know how I missed that before. Like goddamn twins, the two of you.”

“Different mothers. Same father. We’re both Lancers. Or didn’t he ever mention his real name?”

“Oh, he mentioned the name Lancer, but he wasn’t about to wear it. Never mentioned a brother.”

“He didn’t know about me...we didn’t know about each other until a few months ago, when our father sent for us.”

“He still ain’t never mentioned a brother.”

He could almost swear the Scott fellow looked hurt. Thing is, he couldn’t figure out what his game was.

***

He wasn’t sure if he was dizzy from fighting with first Vom, then Johnny, then Ian, on top of his concussion, or just from looking at all the damage done to Johnny. Either way, he felt like he was going to keel over. He fell back against the stall wall, his hand resting on Johnny’s leg.

Vom’s assertion that Johnny had never bothered to mention him didn’t help matters. Had he really meant so little to his brother that Johnny didn’t see fit to mention him? Assuming this Vom had really been so important in Johnny’s life as that kid Deeter claimed, it just seemed peculiar.

“You really knew Johnny when he was a kid?”

“Hell, I’m closest thing to a pappy the kid ever knew.”

“Johnny has a father.”

“You mean Lancer? Oh yeah, some father. He told me all about him.” He shook his head.  “Never knew a kid so full of hate for somebody he’d never met. I always figured the main reason the boy got so good with a gun was to get ready to gun that son of a bitch down.”

The words hit Scott like a rotten tomato. Yes, Johnny had alluded to not caring about Murdoch, to perhaps even resenting him, that first full day back at Lancer, but to hate him like Vom claimed? To think of gunning for him? If that were the case, maybe the wonder was that it had taken him five months to finally attack him. No, that was nonsense. “He never knew him, not until this year.”

Johnny moaned and moved a bit. “Johnny? Come on Johnny, wake up. It’s me, Scott.”

“Get up, boy!” called Vom. Johnny slumped back down, quiet. Vom stared at him a few seconds, then turned his attention back to Scott. “He knew he kicked him and his mama out, made it so she had to whore down on the border to feed ’em both.”

“He told you that?” Johnny had never told him much of anything about his childhood, although Murdoch had hinted at some things that were in the Pinkerton report. And apparently, she’d ended up in that situation because of Murdoch’s affair with Florence. Maybe Johnny did have reason to hate Murdoch. Florence, too. Damn. “So do you know what happened to his mother?”

“Know she was killed. Don’t know how or why—them’s topics always sure to make him clam up. Just know she got dead when he was ten.”

“Was that when you took him in?”

Vom raised one brow. “I thought you said you was close to him. What the hell you trying to pull?”

“I am! It’s just...well, he just always changes the subject when it comes to his childhood. I thought maybe if you knew him then...” The other man narrowed his eyes. Scott gave an exasperated sigh. “Listen, neither Johnny nor I grew up with our father. I was raised in Boston, I guess he was in Mexico, but our father sent for both of us last spring, and we’ve both been living at Lancer since then. And, and Johnny, well, the two of us have become quite close since then.”

Scott noticed Vom’s gaze on his hand, still resting on Johnny’s leg. He snatched it away.  “As in close like brothers.”

“Uh huh. Funny all the time he’s been back with me he didn’t mention any of that. You sure you don’t want to change that story, boy?”

Scott pushed himself to his feet, strode over to Vom and stood looking down at him. “Listen! I’m not the one who sold him out! Remember that, next time you want to compare family values!”

The old man glared at him, then spoke icily. “You’re the one who came here looking to bring him in. So don’t preach to me about family values.”

 

Chapter 44

“I just don’t like seeing you gettin’ taking advantage of, Mr. Sinclair. That’s all. It ain’t right, not what with that bein’ your dear mother and all.”

Ian tapped his fingers on the veranda railing, pondering this new information. “How do I know you’re telling the truth?”

“I ain’t got no reason to lie,” Deeter said, rubbing his bandaged hand.  “I mean, I always got along good with Vom. That’s why he told me what he and Johnny done. They killed your mama together.”

“And you’re just now disclosing this because of what, a pang of conscience?”

“It just ain’t right, Vom not only gettin’ clean away with murderin’ a woman, but now her own son payin’ him. That don’t sit right with me.”

“Why would he do that? He didn’t even know my mother.”

“Johnny. Him and Johnny, they’re real knit, been together since forever. Vom, he’s the one taught Johnny gunfighting. He’d do just about anything Johnny asked.”

“Then why did he turn him in?”

“They had some kinda fallin’ out. I heard ’em, right before I left camp and come here. Besides, that’s a lot of money. Johnny did it, but Vom helped. How else you think Johnny got away? Why you think they’re back riding together?”

Ian gripped the railing until his knuckles turned white.

***

Scott smeared salve on the last of Johnny’s cuts. He’d asked Fremont for some medical supplies, and thankfully his host had supplied them without any lectures about gunslingers. The problem was, Scott was no doctor, and Johnny needed more than salve and bandages. He was still out of it, occasionally thrashing and moaning, refusing to join the real world. The hand worried Scott the most; he knew how upset Johnny would be over his gun hand, and although he realized, given what the future held for his brother, how foolish that was, it upset him too. Besides, there was no reason to make him uncomfortable, and there was still a trial to go through before his fate was determined.

A trial? Who was he kidding? Who else could have killed Florence? Johnny had blamed her for breaking up his parents’ marriage, justifiably so as it turned out, and he’d left that wedding in a rage, according to Jelly. Murdoch hadn’t said it in so many words, but it was clear he was distraught about what Johnny had done. And now Vom had said Johnny had wanted to kill Murdoch since he was a little kid. Then there was the missing money, traced back to Johnny’s ledger entries. Was it possible the brother he’d known for almost half a year had been living a lie? What did he really know about Johnny, about his past?

He needed more answers from Vom, but the man obviously didn’t trust him. He’d been overseeing Scott’s bandaging from a distance, occasionally telling him he was doing something wrong, but otherwise just glaring. Scott had been too angry at the man himself to try conversing any more, but this behavior obviously wasn’t getting him any answers.

“Listen, um,” he started, then checked to make sure his hands weren’t anywhere Vom could get the wrong impression. “I came with my other half brother, Ian, because Ian hates Johnny for what he did to his mother. I thought maybe I could protect him, Johnny that is, maybe give him some moral support at least.”

The man just stared, his expression closed.

“The thing is, I care about him. He’s my brother, and I hate what he did, but I can’t help worrying about him.”

“You don’t even know him.”

Scott wanted to tell him how wrong he was, but just now, he wasn’t so sure. “Then tell me what I’m missing. Tell me why he killed Ian’s mother.”

Vom gave him a disdainful look. “That ain’t hard. He’s a killer. And a damn good one.”

“Don’t call him that.”

“You just want to claim the good parts, stay blind to what you can’t handle, that ain’t knowing somebody.”

They both stopped as Johnny stirred. Scott refreshed the wet cloth around his hand as he urged Johnny to wake up. Johnny started to mumble something Scott couldn’t make out at first, but then realized he was calling for Vom.

Vom shrugged, called to Johnny that he was there and to wake his ass up, which seemed enough for Johnny to drift back off.

“So, “Scott asked, “how is it you and Johnny happen to have found each other after, what, months? Years?”

Vom still watched Johnny as he replied. “Years. I ain’t seen him since he was 15 or so.”

“So he was with you for five years? Why’d he leave?”

Now he looked back at Scott. “Five years? No, more like two or so. Found him in a jail, about to get himself butt fucked, so I—”

“What?”

“What’s the problem? We was both in this jail...”

“He was what, 12 or 13? What was he doing in jail at that age? And why was he in with men who could, well, men like that?”

“You really don’t know a damn thing about your so-called brother, do you? Listen, a halfbreed Mex kid down around the border, he’s gonna spend a lot of time in jail, chances are, with all sorts of men. He ain’t gonna get many handouts by Mexes or whites, he ain’t gonna get many jobs, either, least not ones where he ain’t bending over, if you know what I mean. The way he was fighting in that cell, I didn’t get the impression that was how he was eating, so that leaves stealin’, and that’s what he was in jail for.” Vom chuckled. “I reckon he got tired of the small stuff, cuz it came out he tried to run off with a watermelon from the market, found out he couldn’t run so fast like that. Stupid kid told me he’d just grabbed it because it was the biggest thing there and he was real hungry.” Vom shook his head, grinning slightly. “You know, I went and bought the kid a watermelon a few weeks later, after I found out he’d never had one, never even got to taste the one he got caught with.”

“Oh.” He was at a loss for how to respond.

“So, yeah, I fed that boy, and I taught him a trade. And yeah, that trade was killing, and if you gotta problem with that, then you gotta problem with Johnny being alive.”

Scott thought perhaps a subject change was in order. “Well, if you were such a wonderful teacher for him, why did he leave you when he was only 15?”

Vom sighed, looked at his lap for a moment before speaking. “Johnny fucked up. He got me sent off to prison.”

“What? Is that why you turned him in, to get even, on top of the bounty?”

He looked at Scott with clear disgust. “"No. I was gonna punish him in good time. We all gotta pay for our mistakes. But I don't do revenge. And it was a mistake, one I shoulda seen coming. I told him to stay away from nice girls, their kind’s off limits for our kind, pretty girls and gunfighters don’t mix, but he got his eye caught on this pretty little town girl, doctor’s daughter, I seen him making eyes at her, sneaking off with her a time or two. Shoulda put my foot down.”

Scott couldn’t help but to smile. “Yeah, good luck with that.”

Vom chuckled again. “Yeah, maybe you do know him some. Boy had a bad soft spot for the girls, always wanting the ones he couldn’t touch.” He looked at Scott pointedly. “At least, he used to. Anyway, we was there on a job, I got myself pretty shot up, sent Johnny to scrounge some supplies to fix me up, instead he gets this girl to give him some medicine from her daddy’s stock. The boy knew better than that; I can’t count the times I told him you don’t trust nobody, not even your mama, for sure not some gal. Problem was, it weren’t exactly what you’d call a real legal job we was on, and her daddy found out what was going on, told the sheriff, tracked Johnny to me. That part come out at the trial. Kid was gonna shoot it out with a whole posse, ’til I threatened to shoot him myself and made him ride out with some cock and bull story on how he could save the day. Might of worked, actually, but it didn’t.”

“I see. So that’s the last you saw of him?”

“No, the idiot kid showed up on the trail, tried to shoot up the prison wagon and bust me out, I guess, just ended up getting hisself shot instead. Last I seen of him his horse had run off and he was rolling around in the dirt grabbing at hisself. Guards just left him, reckon they figured him for dead or too close to it have to cart around. Then when I was in prison I started hearing about my Johnny from new prisoners coming in, Johnny Madrid making a name for hisself, and I knew he made it afterall.”

Vom looked like he was going to say something more when the barn door swung open. Ian and Fremont walked in, Ian striding over to Vom and looking down at him. “I understand you and Johnny are close.”

Vom didn’t answer.

“Exactly how did you two happen to be riding together here?”

Again, just an indignant stare.

Ian placed his hands on his hips and leaned over Vom. “Here’s the thing. I spoke to a young man who makes a pretty convincing case for you helping Johnny murder my mother. So once again, where were you?”

“Where was I when?”

“You know when! This is not a game, so you might as well know, you’re staying chained up and you’re going back with us until I find out the truth!”

“Had to go back anyway to get my money, remember? You didn’t bother bringing it.”

“You’ll remain my prisoner, and stand trial right along with Madrid. We’ll see about any bounty!” Ian whirled and headed for the door.

“What,” he called, “you ain’t gonna beat on me while I’m tied up like you did Johnny?”

 

 

Chapter 45

“Goddamn it, Deeter, you think you might try and miss one hole in this road?” The front wagon wheel climbed back to the surface, sending Johnny and Vom lurching to the side, just before the rear wheel clunked down into the same hole, throwing them back. Vom was pretty sure Deeter must be aiming for the deepest holes he could find. No road was this bad.

The little shit didn’t answer. Probably so scared to face him after what he’d done that his balls were lodged in his throat.

At least Scott had gotten some straw for Johnny to lie on. Ian had just planned to dump him in on the bare wagon bed. Not that the straw did much good. Johnny still moaned with every bump. And Deeter, driving the wagon, probably liked that.

He couldn’t figure the Scott fellow out. Claiming to be Johnny’s long lost Lancer brother was a new one. The thing was, it was so ludicrous he couldn’t imagine someone with half a brain making it up, and Scott seemed to have at least that. Vom still wasn’t totally dismissing the notion that Scott was queer for Johnny, but as far as he knew, Johnny’s eyes, and other parts, had only been focused on the girls. True, he’d known some men to become more open-minded during prison stays, but Johnny hadn’t mentioned being in prison, and Scott didn’t seem the prison type. But why hadn’t Johnny mentioned him? Why keep him a secret unless he wasn’t a brother at all?

Vom squinted up at the sky. The clouds had surrendered, leaving no defense against the sun’s heat. He fished a cloth out of the water bucket Scott had provided, and slapped it on Johnny’s forehead, already glistening with too much sweat. Johnny stirred again, his chains rubbing hollowly on the wagon bed’s planks. Scott had also managed to have them stop in the town of Hardpan on their way out, buying some leg irons from the sheriff to replace the uncomfortable wrist shackles. Not that either was exactly wonderful, but at least they didn’t have one arm stuck to one spot.

He heard a horse trotting up beside him, followed by Scott’s voice. “How is he?”

“Oh, dandy, just fuckin’ dandy.”

“Listen, I don’t care what you think, I’m on Johnny’s side. I’m doing what I can for him.”

Well, he supposed that was true. It wasn’t like anyone else in this party was exactly bending over backward for him. Ian Sinclair was itching for an excuse to beat on either one of them, and Deeter, the little butt licker, would be sure to help hold them down.  Ethan and Efram, who had been hired by Sinclair to help guard, would do whatever they got paid to do, and as far as he knew, Sinclair was the only one with money. He checked out Scott’s saddle and horse more closely than he had earlier. Fancy, all fancy. His eyes narrowed as he noticed the same little Lancer L on it that was on Johnny’s saddle. If Scott really was a Lancer, and it looked like he probably was, he might have money, too.

“His fever’s worse. The boy needs a doctor, sure don’t need to be thumping around in this wagon, not in this heat.”

“I know, I know. That doctor in Hardpan must have taken lessons from Fremont. He said he didn’t work on hired guns.”

“He wouldn’t fix my hand, either!” called back Deeter, holding up his bandaged hand to show Scott.

“Good!” Vom spat. “Remind me to bash your face in next time, break your jaw so you shut your mouth.”

Scott looked from one to the other, shrugged, and continued, “I’m hoping we can find a doctor to look at him in the next town.”

Vom shaded his eyes as he looked up at him. “I can’t figure you, Lancer, if that’s really who you are. If you care so much about his health, how come you’re helping take him to get his neck stretched?”

Scott didn’t answer, after a while slowing his horse so he rode near the rear of the wagon, where Vom, Johnny, and Deeter’s horses were tied. Vom pushed himself back to where he was. Scott finally spoke quietly, saying, “I followed him that day to talk to him, find out what happened. And convince him to ride away.”

***

It was dusk when they rode into Waycross, so most of the shops were already closed up and half the lanterns were glowing, sending an orange haze through the gray. Ian called to a boy who was lighting a lantern in front of the Grand Waycross Hotel, asking directions to the livery and sheriff’s office. Scott asked him where the doctor’s office was.

The boy had pointed left for the sheriff’s office and right for the doctor, and Ian directed Deeter to the leftward direction.

“Wait a minute,” Scott said. “The doctor is this way. We need to go there. Either that, or get a room and send somebody for him.”

“That’s what I’m doing, Scotty. Getting our prisoners a nice secure room at the local jail.”

“What? There’s no reason they can’t stay in a hotel room! I’ll share with Johnny, keep an eye on him. Deeter can watch Vom.”

“I don’t know what sort of establishments you’re used to frequenting, brother, but I would have thought they would be at least as nice as this one, and I seriously doubt that even the fine Grand Waycross Hotel would welcome shackled guests.”

“Exactly who put you in charge, Ian? Just because you’re paying a bounty doesn’t mean you own my brother.”

“Are you kidding? I can’t think of a better reason to demand he stay in a secure cell than my paying out a thousand dollars, can you?”

The boy rushed inside the inn, the ornate but chipping door left open behind him. The Grand Waycross Hotel was a step above what you usually found in small towns, but not exactly high society.

“This is ridiculous. Johnny’s feverish, and he needs a good bed and medical attention. Nobody needs to know. We can walk them in without shackles. Johnny’s certainly in no danger of running off, if that’s your concern.”

“The jail has a bed better than what he’s been sleeping on, and you can send the doctor there. There’s no way I’m taking shackles off murderers in a public place. It’s not safe. We have a responsibility.”

The inn door burst the rest of the way open, a heavy man wearing a burgundy vest standing in the doorway, the boy peeking out from behind him. The man craned his neck as he studied the wagon. “Gentlemen, may I assume you plan to spend the night with us?”

“Yes, some of us,” Ian answered before Scott could say anything.

“All of us,” Scott added firmly.

“Wonderful! You’ll find our accommodations extremely comfortable.” He paused, twiddling his fingers momentarily, clearing his throat. “However, if you are considering housing prisoners here, please reconsider. We are not a jail, nor are we a flophouse. Our clientele cannot be exposed to that sort.”

“I assure you, we have no such intention, sir,” Ian answered. “We are just now headed for the jail to house them. We’ll be back once we’ve taken care of that matter. Meanwhile, could you have baths drawn for two of us? The hands will be staying at accommodations more suitable to their station.” Turning to Deeter, he ordered him to take the wagon to the jail.

Deeter clucked to the horses without his usual enthusiasm as he set them in motion. Scott kicked his horse over to Ian, who had already taken the lead. “You’re making the hands stay somewhere else?”

“That’s what they’re used to. I mean, Scott, these are all gunslingers, in case you hadn’t noticed. Fremont was right. You don’t put them up in nice places. There’s probably some rooms over the saloon, or the livery will give them a stall. Besides, I’m not made of money.”

“Just how are you paying for all this?”

“My stepfather left me some money. And to be quite honest, I’m assuming Murdoch will want to reimburse me for part of it, once he gets better. By the way, did you see the telegraph office back there? You may want to check in on him.”

“I don’t need you to tell me to check on him!” Scott snapped. He saw Ian’s surprised expression, and added, “Sorry, I’m just tired and worried. I saw the office, but they were closed. I’m going to see if I can get them to open up once the doctor’s through with Johnny. And I’m getting both Johnny and me a room with the men.”

Unfortunately, word had already reached the saloon and the livery before Scott could even make a case for housing prisoners in either place. And reluctantly, he had to admit the jail was probably more comfortable than a stall, anyway. A light was burning inside the sheriff’s office, and Ian knocked and went in while Scott dismounted and walked to the side of the wagon. Johnny’s fever had gotten worse, and his periods of consciousness had not exactly been lucid. Vom had used the entire bucket of water cooling him, and Scott had added what was left of his canteen water, but he was still glistening with sweat. The door opened again and the sheriff, a tall mustached man, sauntered out with his hands on his hips.

“Johnny Madrid, eh? Let’s get a look at him.” He stood over Johnny and scratched his neck. “Looks kinda poorly.”

“That’s just it, Sheriff,” Scott said. “He needs a doctor. He really needs to be where somebody can care for him.”

“Uh huh. Well, not getting one now. Doc Whigham tends our prisoners, but not after hours. And you’ll have to pay, both for boarding the two of them at the jail and doctoring that one.”

“I’ll take care of the jail fee,” said Ian, pulling out a coin.

The sheriff indicated they should get the two prisoners, and Ian nodded to Ethan and Efram. Scott jumped in and hefted Johnny part way up, dragging him to the back of the wagon, where he finally consented to let the other men help get him down. Johnny was trying, moving his feet. It’s just they weren’t moving to places that would keep him upright, so Scott swung his arm over his shoulder and supported him as he reluctantly led him inside to a cell.

“I want to stay with him.”

“Not unless you get arrested.”

He thought about it.

 

Chapter 46

Clive was getting irritated. What had started as a simple job now had him traipsing all over the damn countryside. Sure, Madrid was finally in custody, and he should be able to collect on both the bounty and the job if he played things right. But here he was, once again, waiting on Vom and his idiot boy. Only this time it appeared Vom had managed to get himself tied up alongside Madrid. How the hell was he supposed to bring him bounty money if he was a prisoner himself? He wondered once again what had really happened back at Morro Coyo. It certainly had been coincidental that Vom and Deeter had been right in that area when Lancer and the woman were shot.

At least he had a better room than that hole that smelled like piss he’d rented back in Hardpan. He parted the lace curtain, watching down the road as they unloaded Madrid and Vom at the jail. Why was Vom in shackles while the idiot Deeter was free, driving the wagon? Deeter and the wagon, having deposited the prisoners, went on down the street and turned in where it said the livery was. Damn. He’d planned on getting a bath first thing. But maybe it was time for a talk with Deeter.

***

He’d had to walk away or he’d have hit Ian. The next time he called him Scotty, or brother, he would. “Brother.” That shouldn’t bother him, but it did. Bothered him a lot. Johnny was his brother, the only one who could call him that and get a “brother” back. Even if most of the time they were using the term when they were joking, or even mad at each other. It was Johnny’s word. Not Ian’s.

Of course, it was the jail and hotel thing that really had him infuriated. Yes, he was well aware it was not acceptable to house prisoners accused of murder in nice hotels. But all Ian would have had to do was keep his damn mouth shut. Well, and take the shackles off before they rode in.

And now the doctor wouldn’t be available until morning. A light was on over the telegraph office. He rapped on the door, rapped again and again until shouts finally came from inside. A voice behind the door called out that they were closed. Scott named a price that made it worthwhile for him to open, and soon found himself in a dark office with a man holding a fried drumstick. He decided Val might be the fastest person to contact, so he sent telegrams to both him and Lancer telling them they’d captured Johnny, and asking for an update on Murdoch. He asked they be delivered to their recipients immediately, watched the man send them, his greasy finger somehow still deftly pressing the key, then thanked him and left. At least one thing accomplished.

The saloon was getting lively, with music and voices drifting across the street to where Scott was. He jumped back on the boardwalk as a group of riders slid around a corner, whooping, pulling their horses to a halt in front of the saloon. More riders followed, obviously payday at a local ranch, maybe several local ranches, judging from their numbers. He racked his brain to remember what day of the week it was, finally remembering it must be Friday, and made a note to avoid the saloon. Not that he’d planned to go there, anyway. His plan was to find the doctor and pay him enough to come see Johnny now.

***

Deeter swiped the brush over the horse’s back, hard enough the horse moved away from him in the limited space of the stall. Demoted to a damn wagon driver and groom. Ethan and Efram had refused to help him take the wagon to the livery, saying they were hired on as guns, not hands. Then Efram had laughed and changed it to “hand” pointing to Deeter’s one good hand. Ethan thought that was pretty funny, too.

Goddamn Vom had ruined his life. Here he was, a fucking livery boy, while the likes of those two—who’d never had close to his speed—got to lounge around waiting for somebody to shoot. They were probably already at the saloon. He flexed his left hand. Maybe he could get good with it. Vom had always made him practice with both, but it was only for emergencies. It would take forever, and meanwhile he’d be stuck doing shit like this.

He’d planned on being respected, feared, even, but here he was, brushing a stupid horse, not even good enough to stay at the nice hotel. Sinclair was a dick. Well, when he got his part of the bounty, he’d be staying in fancier hotels than that. He’d get respect from waving his roll of bills instead of his gun.

“Where’s my money, boy?”

He about jumped out of his hide when he heard the voice behind him. Whirling around, his bandaged hand instinctively went to his gun, for all the good it did him. He swallowed as the man stepped into view. Clive Edmund.

“Money? Um, I don’t know. You have to take that up with Vom. He does the business. Only I ain’t riding with him no more, so I really ain’t got nothin’ to do with it.”

“Why’s he in jail?”

“Vom? Oh, that, um, he, uh, he confessed to helpin’ Johnny murder that lady. Or they think he helped. I’m not sure. I wasn’t there.”

“Is there a bounty for him?”

He shook his head.

“So let me get this straight. I hired Vom and you to kill Johnny Madrid Lancer. Instead, you say Vom helped Johnny kill some lady. Then he comes to me and tries to collect his fee for killing the wrong person. Then I find out the three of you are hiring out on the same side in some range war, riding together. Then Vom swears he’ll turn Johnny in for the bounty, which is by all rights mine. Now you say he’s turned himself in, which means he ain’t collecting a bounty, being that it’s for a murder they think he helped with. That sound right to you?”

Deeter figured he was safest not answering.

“So who’s getting the bounty?”

Deeter shrugged. “I guess nobody.”

“That’s where you’re wrong. I’m getting it. Vom owed me, so I guess you’ll have to pay up in his place.” He stepped closer. “You know, Vom wasn’t paying me my share entirely out of the goodness of his heart.”

Deeter shifted his weight. He wished Ethan and Efram would come check on him.

Clive’s expression changed as his eyes settled on Deeter’s injured hand. “That hand been looked at?” he asked, gesturing for Deeter to show it to him, his tone suddenly gentle. Deeter did, hesitantly. Vom had warned him about showing his weakness. Clive carefully took the bandaged hand in his own, then suddenly gripped it hard and bent it backwards even after Deeter cried out and sank to his knees. “You bring me that bounty or I’ll break your other hand and put a bullet in both knees. Only thing you’ll be good for is taking it up the ass.”

Deeter was still writhing in the straw, clutching his hand, squeezing his eyes shut to keep the tears in, long after Clive left.

 

Chapter 47

Shit. He felt like shit. He was shaking, shaking so much he was pretty sure he’d shaken himself awake.  He pulled his knees up to his chest and rocked. He was also pretty sure he was going to puke.

He listened, hoping to hear Vom somewhere around. The last thing he’d remembered clearly was being tied to the fence and that fucking blond asshole starting in on him. No, no, he remembered being inside a barn, waking up, fighting with the blond again, only the blond hadn’t really fought back much. He tried to figure on that some, but his head hurt too much and he let it drop. Actually, he had random images of being under the hot sun, having the blond fellow look at him, call to him. Probably trying to sucker him into waking up so he could beat on him some more. And Vom, oh shit, Vom. He’d turned him in. Sure, he’d told Vom to do it, but he was thinking more like if they were both cornered somewhere. He squeezed his eyes shut when he remembered more. Vom knew about what he’d done, knew it was his fault he’d gone to prison. So maybe this was his punishment. Or maybe Vom had just washed his hands of him. Lord knew he deserved it.

No, no Vom around. At least he didn’t hear him. He heard some sounds of horses, as though from a distance. A cot creaking. He cracked his eyes open, noticing a man hunched over a desk on the other side of the room, a lantern glowing before him. Then he noticed the bars that separated him from the man. Well, that was no surprise. In jail. He moved his head, wincing at his stiff neck. Nobody else in his cell. That was good. Dios, he needed a bucket. He fished under the cot, where they usually kept one, and pulled one out just in time to lean over it.

That was when he noticed his right hand, shaking harder than before. A bandage was wrapped around it, but the purple and black swelling extended up his arm. Dios, not his gun hand. He gingerly began to unwrap the bandage, gritting his teeth against the pain.

“Johnny! You awake?”

“Vom?” Johnny’s heart skipped in surprised relief. He hadn’t left him!

“Yeah, kid, I’m here, right in the next cell. Don’t unwrap that.”

He had to think on that for a minute. “You’re in jail?” His voice was still a croak.

“Yeah, we’re both headed back to Morro Coyo to stand trial for that murder.”

That required even more thinking. “The lady? But...” He realized he wasn’t in the right place to ask whether Vom was involved in a murder, not with the sheriff or whatever over there.

“You think you could drink something?”

“Yeah, I guess. My hand...”

“Your brother, or whatever, wrapped it, he’s trying to get a doctor to look at you.”

That didn’t make any sense. “What?”

“I don’t think nothing’s busted, and besides, the doctor don’t visit the jail at night. Or ever, probably.”

“Feel like shit,” he mumbled. Damn he was shaking. “I need a drink somethin’ fierce.”

“Well, you’re only getting water in here. Can you manage it yourself?”

The sound of a tin cup clattering to the floor answered that. “Hey, Sheriff! This boy here needs some help drinking. You think you might give him a hand, or let me in there with him?”

“This ain’t no hospital,” came the bored reply.

“Fuckin’ asshole,” Vom muttered.

***

He hadn’t meant to go to the saloon. But here he was, fighting his way to a dark table in the rear where he’d been told he could find Doctor Whigham. A drunk stumbled into him, ramming him into a table and sending it screeching and a man to his feet, spilling a girl from his lap. Scott smiled affably and ordered a beer for him from the girl, which seemed to assuage his anger. A haze of smoke in the dim light made it almost as difficult to see to the back as it was to get there. When he finally arrived, he was disappointed to find only an obviously sotted man guzzling from a bottle that a saloon girl held to his mouth.

Scott must have stared too intently through the smoke, because the thin man pushed the bottle away, the liquid dribbling down his shirt, and slurred, “What the fuck you lookin’ at?”

“Not a thing,” Scott answered truthfully, and started to turn away.

This apparently was considered offensive. The man pounded his fist on the table, sending an empty bottle to its side and then rolling to the floor, where it landed with a tinkling crash. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Wonderful. A belligerent drunk. He had a feeling the saloon was full of them. He turned back and assumed his most condescending voice. “It’s no concern of yours. I’m looking for Doctor Whigham.”

The man belched, blinked his eyes as though to focus, took another swig and thunked the bottle down. “Well, you found him. Want an operation?”

***

Scott opened the door to the sheriff’s office so the doctor could sway through it. He couldn’t believe he was bringing this derelict to look at Johnny. He’d debated it, long and hard, and finally decided that if the man brought his medicine along, then he could at least give something to Johnny to make him feel better. But Scott certainly had no intention of letting him stitch anything up. Besides, some people did their jobs pretty well even if they were a bit tipsy.

The sheriff raised a brow, shrugged, and pushed his chair back so he could open the drawer for the key. Vom sat up in his bunk, eyeing the doctor. Scott had to admit the doctor looked bad, especially since he’d refused to let go of his bottle of whiskey. Scott had thought the man would exchange it for his medical bag when they’d gone back to his office for it, but he held on to the bottle like a baby to a tit, shoving the black satchel at Scott to carry.

Scott tried to follow him inside the cell, but the sheriff stopped him. “We got a system.”

The sheriff strode in the cell and quickly attached a handcuff to one of Johnny’s wrists and to the cot frame. Then he attached another to the shackle that was still around his legs, fixing it to the bottom of the bunk. Johnny had been moaning, like he did sometimes when he was on the verge of one of his bad dreams, but he awoke groggily, gradually seeming to figure out what was happening. Blinking his eyes as though trying to focus, he pulled on the cuff, then stared at his cuffed hand, bringing the bandaged hand up beside it, still staring as though entranced. He started rubbing them together, Scott thought almost frantically, so hard it had to be hurting his damaged hand. Must be hurting, judging from the way Johnny was suddenly breathing far too quickly and deeply.

“Johnny? Are you alright? I’ve brought a doctor,” he called in. He turned to the sheriff again. “He’s cuffed. Why can’t I go in there?”

“Against jail policy. No visitors in the cells.”

Johnny was wiping at his hands even more vigorously. Vom walked over to the bars between them. “Johnny, quit acting like a fuckin’ retard. Doctor’s here, so cut that damn hand shit out!”

Johnny looked up, obviously surprised as the doctor lurched toward him. He tried to scramble away but his shackles held him on the cot, even as Whigham half fell on him. Whigham caught himself, twisting to sit down heavily on the cot next to him. He thrust his shoulders back and his chin in. “Now what seems to be the problem?”

Scott and Vom both proceeded to catalog Johnny’s injuries, although Vom focused mostly on his hand. Whigham held up his hand for them to stop, then unwrapped the bandage, swaying as he did, finally exclaiming, “Shit, will you look at that!”

He pushed on a finger and Johnny pulled his hand back, sucking in air. “Leave it!”

“Alright, alright, we’ll leave it for later. Leave it, leave it, leave it. Let’s take a look at them eyeballs,” he said, grabbing at Johnny’s face.

“Ouch! You’re pokin’ my eye out!” Johnny wrenched his head away and scrunched shut his eyes. “Goddamn, Vom, get him out of here! He blinded me!”

“Alright, this was a mistake,” Scott said. “Just leave him with some pain medicine!”

After Scott repeated his request a couple of times, Whigham fumbled through his satchel, finally holding a bottle of laudanum triumphantly aloft. Right before he dropped it, the glass shattering with a quiet tinkle on the floor.

“Give ’em the damn bottle of hooch, that’s what he needs anyhow,” Vom called.

“No drinking in the jail,” said the sheriff.

“Fine, but I gotta tell you, he don’t get any, you gonna be hearin’ him moanin’ and pukin’ all night. Your choice. I’m used to it.”

“Whiskey?” Scott asked incredulously. “You want to give a sick man whiskey? Johnny, I’ll find you something else. Some more laudanum.” But Johnny was curled in a ball again, shaking and rocking.

“It’s what he needs,” said Vom. “Trust me.”

“No more laudanum,” the doctor said, studying the broken bottle. “Nope, no more, that was it, all gone, busted. Unless he wants to lick the floor. Might get glass in his tongue. Cut his gut, hurt like a son of a bitch coming out, if you know what I mean. Nope, I wouldn’t advise it, nope, nope, not as a doctor.”

“I don’t believe this,” Scott said as the sheriff opened the door for Whigham and handed the bottle to Johnny. Scott disgustedly pressed some coins in the doctor’s outstretched palm. “Here, go buy yourself a new bottle, pass out so you don’t do any harm.”

 

He turned back to Johnny, who already had the bottle tilted up, gulping like a man stranded on the desert without a canteen. “I don’t believe this,” he said, this time to mostly to himself.

 

Chapter 48

“Who’re you?” Johnny slurred, his head lolling to the side as Scott nudged him up. Scott might have been tempted to answer that he was the same person he’d been the last four times Johnny had asked, but it wasn’t the time, and he held his tongue and just said “Scott. Your brother.” At which point Johnny started to laugh, again, like it was the best joke he’d ever heard.

The whiskey bottle lay on its side, sucked dry, no mystery about where its contents were now. “Why didn’t somebody stop him from drinking this whole bottle?” he asked as he tugged his brother.

“Ain’t runnin’ no church here,” said the sheriff from the open cell door.

Vom, who had already been led out, his shackles rubbing hollowly on the wood planked floor, just shrugged and asked, “Why?”

“Why, indeed?” Ian was there, directing the transfer of the prisoners to the wagon for the day’s journey. “He’s a drunk, I expect he always has been. I say give him some more, keep him passed out so we don’t have to put up with him.”

“He’s not a drunk!” Scott was tired of Ian constantly accusing Johnny of that, even before the tragic event. Johnny took too long a step, too long for the shackle around his ankles, and started to fall. Scott grabbed him under the shoulders before he could go all the way down, and Johnny started laughing again. Scott glared at Ian’s raised brow. “He’s drunk now, yeah, because he’s sick and nobody took the bottle away from him!”

“Sure, Scott, whatever you say.” Ian turned to Efram and handed him some coins. “Why don’t you go buy a couple of bottles for the trip?  The cheapest stuff they have. Oh, and, here, get some decent brandy, too.”

“No!” said Scott. “Do not buy Johnny whiskey!”

“Why? What’s the harm if he’s not a drunk? He looks kind of happy to me. Happier than he deserves to be, that’s for sure. Go on, Efram.” Ian waved him away with little flits of his hand.

“No!” Scott sputtered, trying to gather his thoughts, as well as Johnny, who was swaying and studying him, no doubt about to ask who he was once again. “For one thing, I want to talk to him, sober, about what happened.”

“Give him the hooch,” broke in Vom. “If there’s one thing Johnny don’t like, it’s talking about killing people when he’s sober. Hell, he don’t like it drunk, neither. Besides, Sinclair’s right. He needs it.”

Scott glared at the old man. “If you’re saying he’s developed a drinking habit, then that’s all the more reason to nip it in the bud before it gets out of hand.”

“Hell, that bud’s way past nipping,” Vom muttered.

“What are you thinking, Scott?” Ian asked, shaking his head and smiling as though chiding a foolish child. “That you’re going to cure his drinking habit? What, just before he’s hanged?”

Scott tried to think of a rejoinder, but he was distracted by Johnny blinking at him, trying to form some words.  Or maybe throw up.

“Who the hell are you?”

***

“Vom?”

Vom craned his head around, a little surprised at the quietly spoken words. The swaying wagon—which had miraculously managed to miss most of the potholes so far today—had lulled him into a light sleep, interrupted only by a persistent fly that seemed determined to land on his face. “What?”

“I, uh, I got a problem.” He could see Deeter was looking around, like he was checking to make sure nobody saw him talking.

Damn fly! He batted at it fruitlessly. “Seems to me you ain’t the one tied up.”

“They made me say that stuff. I’m real sorry, Vom, I can take it back.”

“Uh huh.” They rode along, Deeter amazingly silent, the creak of the wagon and the buzz of the fly the loudest sounds. He knew he should just put his head back down, cover his face with his hat, and go back to sleep. Shit. “What kind of problem?”

“It’s Clive, he’s here. He says he’s going to really mess me up if I don’t bring him the bounty money. Cept, my deal with them was never for all of it, since I just told them where the camp was, where Johnny usually rode.” The tremor in his voice grew with every sentence. “They said you was getting the rest. I asked, and it don’t sound like they’re gonna give me your share. And Clive ain’t gonna believe me!”

Johnny stirred beside him, bunching the straw between his arms until he looked almost as though he was hugging it. Vom picked up Johnny’s hat, swished it at the damn fly, and tossed it so it shaded Johnny’s face. He pushed himself back so he was leaning against the swaying side of the wagon, pulling his knees up and resting his forehead on them. Why should he help Deeter? Hell, how could he?

“Looks like you got yourself a problem.”

Deeter’s voice trembled more. “He said he’d break my hands and shoot my knees out. What could I do then? I couldn’t even be a damn farmer.”

Fuck. “You think you’re telling me anything, you damn idiot? Why do you think I turned Johnny in? Because Clive made it clear what he had in store for you if I didn’t, for one thing. Now it’s all for fucking nothing! I told you to go back home!”

“Jesus, I didn’t know, Vom, I swear. I would have gone if I’d known, or maybe we coulda taken Clive down together. Whyn’t you tell me?”

“Well, let’s see, maybe because I was tied up and I don’t exactly recall you comin’ visiting.” Asshole.

“They wouldn’t let me. I tried, I really did.”

“Boy, if you’re gonna fib, just shut your trap. You’re giving me a headache.”

He did, but not for long. Not long enough to prevent the throbbing in Vom’s head. “I was wondering, do you think if I just rode away tonight, Clive would follow me? Maybe if I went back to Kansas?”

Vom didn’t really know the answer to that. Clive had a reputation for being relentless, but whether he’d chase a kid to Kansas, well, who knew? What he did know is that Deeter running off wouldn’t do him and Johnny any good. “Fraid so, kid. He’d hunt you down, just on principle. Might even get your parents, too, if he followed you all the way to Kansas. Maybe get ’em even if he couldn’t find you.”

“Shit.”

The fly landed on Vom’s arm, stopping to do that little hand washing thing flies do. He aimed carefully, swatted, and smiled as he examined the fly guts on his palm. “I might have a plan.”

***

“Mr. Sinclair? Can I speak to you?”

Vom snapped to attention from his place next to the wagon, trying to peer through the darkness toward Deeter’s voice. He could see his shape, hands clamped behind his back, near the fire. They’d had to camp tonight, which suited him fine, even if the ground was slightly lumpier — only slightly — than the typical jailhouse straw mattress. Or at least it had until Deeter got the idea to say whatever it was he was going to say to Ian. They’d had a plan, dammit!

Ian, who had been squatting by the fire, rearranged the logs and stood, the ashes flaring in the dark behind him. “What can I help you with?”

“I, um, I made a mistake. You see, when I told you Vom helped Johnny kill your mother, that wasn’t true.”

Shit. He could just barely make out the words, but he heard enough to know this wasn’t going to work. When would that boy learn to follow instructions?

“Oh?”

“Yeah, I thought, um, I’d thought you would give me his part of the bounty if you thought he was in on it, but now seeing as you said you wouldn’t, well, then, I take it back.”

“I see.” Ian had crossed his arms and was simply staring at Deeter. Vom sighed. Stupid, stupid kid!

“So, I reckon you should just let him loose. Uh, sir.”

“Let him loose, huh? Because you don’t plan to testify against him, is that what you’re saying? Unless you get the rest of the bounty money. Well, let me tell you, I don’t deal with blackmailers. You’ll get your share, and not a penny more, whether you testify or not.”

“I’m not gonna testify.”

 

Chapter 49

The Scott fellow had come by a few times trying to talk to Johnny, but Johnny had always swatted him away and gone back to trying to sleep off his drunk. Vom took his booze away soon after his talk with Deeter that afternoon. Scott had actually thanked him for doing it, in defiance of Ian’s orders to “let him sop up all he wants.”

Scott wasn’t really such a bad sort. He’d talked a long time with Vom, riding alongside the wagon, Johnny snoring between them. Vom still hadn’t bought that cock and bull story about being Johnny’s brother. Sure, the fellow had some sort of thing for Johnny, the way he mother henned him and all, but Vom had to wonder if this brother tale was just a way to make it look legit. He talked funny, too, real persnickety like, and was kind of prissy about his clothes and stuff.

Ian Sinclair had that same uppity kind of talk, only not quite as peculiar sounding. Vom could almost believe Scott and Ian were brothers, or half-brothers actually, according to Scott. Which, if Scott’s story was true, made Ian also Johnny’s half-brother. If that was really the case, no wonder Johnny hated his father so much; the man must have dipped his dick in anyone that spread her legs. Well, there was no shame in that, but if you were going to give your name to the brats that came out, Vom felt you should go all the way and raise them up, not kick them out and go on to the next one. Unless it had just been Johnny’s mother he’d sent off. It was obvious neither Scott not Ian had Mexican mothers; Vom, beng polite, hadn’t asked if they were whores, too. Scott said his mother had died having him, but obviously Ian’s mother had still been around. If any of it was true at all. Maybe Scott and Ian had something going between them. Maybe Ian was jealous of Johnny on account of how Scott was mooning over him ... shit, it was all just too fucking strange any way you figured it

The thing was, Scott kept wanting to talk to Johnny about the shooting. Vom just didn’t see how that was a good idea. It could be the whole he’s-my-brother story was just a way to get to Johnny, get a confession out of him while he was still drunk. Johnny was fuzzy enough about what happened that he didn’t realize he hadn’t killed old man Lancer. And if Johnny had one dream all his life, it was killing that son of a bitch. If Scott quizzed him enough, who knew, he might figure out he hadn’t shot him after all. Hadn’t even shot the woman. Vom felt a pang of guilt about Johnny going to the gallows for something he didn’t do, but it wasn’t like he could change that. Johnny would have been caught anyway, the way he was going. If Vom pointed the finger at Deeter now nobody would believe him. He supposed he could lay claim to it himself, but he hadn’t really done it either. Besides, that’s what Ian already thought, that he and Johnny were in cahoots, and he planned to hang them both. Claiming it was only him wouldn’t change the man’s mind. He certainly hadn’t given Deeter’s change of story any credit.

From the shocked look on his face, he maybe shouldn’t have told Scott that shooting their old man was something Johnny had dreamed about. Vom had sort of expected Scott to share the same feeling, given their backgrounds, maybe be thankful to Johnny, or at worst, jealous that Johnny beat him to it. Instead, he’d looked all hurt, then huffy, said it couldn’t be true. There was no figuring some people. Unless, of course, Scott really wasn’t Johnny’s brother.

He could see Scott by the fire, pouring some coffee into a couple of cups, talking to Ian. Ian had opened the bottle of brandy, and Vom had seen Ian tilting it to his cup repeatedly since his chat with Deeter. Vom hoped Scott would bring some coffee over to him and Johnny. They hadn’t had any success getting Johnny to eat the hardtack and bacon the rest of them had eaten earlier, but Vom was determined to get the coffee down him even if he had to pour it down his throat. Johnny’d need it for the night ahead.

The sound of chain on wood distracted him. Johnny was starting to fidget and mutter in his sleep. Not that shit again.

***

“Juanito, dondé está el perrito?”

He couldn’t remember where he put the puppy. He was in a barn, with stalls, lots of stalls, and he kept looking in one after another for the puppy, but what puppy, he couldn’t remember. He couldn’t even remember how he got here. Mama was looking, he guessed, which was funny, because he’d thought she’d been dead for years, and he really should ask her about that, only when he turned to say something she was with Ricardo, and he would just hit him, besides, he thought he was dead too, knew he was, he’d done it himself. But now here they both were, maybe they’d forgotten. Or maybe they didn’t care, but that didn’t sound like Ricardo. Mama, maybe, she would forgive him, which made facing her harder. They were rubbing together, damn, he’d take up all Mama’s time now, and what if she was just visiting? Ricardo was calling him, and that was never good, and his gun was in the straw, and he started looking for it, and he saw a bullet, and he needed those, and another, and another, and he was picking up so many bullets, he was rich with them, stuffing them in his pockets, hoping he wouldn’t be caught, and then he noticed his hands, red, blood on them from the bullets, the bullets were all bloody, and the straw, too, and he kicked some away, and there was the puppy, hair like straw, like bloody straw, and now he remembered the puppy, the one Ricardo had shot, over and over, while Johnny watched, the puppy that had licked his face, slept outside with him. Ricardo laughed, except Ricardo was a gray haired man, older now, but a gringo, and Mama was crying, and the gringo didn’t care, not about Mama or the puppy, and Johnny grabbed the puppy, tried to fix it, run with it, but Ricardo was going to shoot it again, he was aiming but Mama pulled at his arm, sent his shot wide, and Johnny shot his gun just as Ricardo pushed Mama, and Mama fell on Johnny, a hole in her chest, blood flowing over him, while he tried to plug the hole, take the bullet back, and she asked him where the puppy was, why he killed her, and Ricardo asked too, only he was coming after him, and Johnny just shot and screamed, closed his eyes and pulled the trigger, over and over.

***

The hot coffee sloshed over his hands when he jumped up. Ian, who’d been drinking brandy and brooding ever since he’d talked to Deeter about something, looked at him and laughed. Scott threw one of the cups down, shaking his burned hand and glaring at Ian, only then placing the sound that came from the wagon. He could see Vom leaning over Johnny, shaking him, trying to muffle his screams with his hand. And Johnny, thrashing, pushing Vom’s hands away. All this he saw as he rushed over there. By the time he got to their sides Johnny had quieted, and he sat up against the wagon wheel, looking at his hands and wiping something off them, managing to loosen his bandage in the process. Vom slapped his left hand down and told him to cut that crap out just as Scott knelt beside him.

“Hey there, Johnny, good to see you back,” Scott said, trying to sound comforting. Something he’d noticed Vom seemed singularly inept at.

Johnny didn’t seem to pay any attention to him, though. He’d brought his hands back up, looking for something on them, what, Scott couldn’t imagine. Although they were pretty filthy, he’d never known his brother to be particularly concerned about hygiene issues. Johnny started mumbling, almost whispering, still not looking at Scott.

“I shot ’em, shot ’em both, Dios help me.”

Scott’s heart sank. Somehow he’d been hoping Johnny would deny it, have an explanation that would make everything right. Or at least, better. “Why, Johnny? Why?”

“Dog, he killed him, was going to kill us too.” Johnny had squeezed his eyes shut, but he opened them and looked straight at Scott, a look of confusion on his face. “Who the hell?”

“What?” Did he think Murdoch killed Rojo? It made no sense, he couldn’t think Murdoch was going to kill them. Johnny wasn’t drunk anymore, not that he could tell. He reached to feel his forehead, letting his hand linger on Johnny’s skin as he considered this new information.

He was still thinking when that damn Vom had to start chuckling and pitching in with his stupid ideas. “Watch out, there, Johnny-boy, your Nancy friend’s trying to fondle you some more while you sleep.”

Johnny twisted his head away, glaring at Scott. “What the ...?”

Scott could have sworn Johnny almost acted like he believed the old coot, and he would already have been at a loss for words even had Ian not suddenly appeared aiming his fancy gun at them.

 

Chapter 50

“Ethan, Efram,” Ian called, “get that rope from the wagon, put a noose in it.”

“My God, Ian! What are you doing?”

“Don’t move, Scott! Actually, Ethan, you come over here and cover my brother. He knows I won’t shoot him. If you do have to shoot, though, try not to kill him. Sorry, Scott, really I am. I just can’t let that murderer get away with it, and with Deeter not testifying, it looks like he might.”

This wasn’t like Ian! But now that Scott looked, Ian was swaying when he walked. How much of that brandy had he had? “You’re drunk. Put the gun down, go sleep it off, we’ll talk in the morning.”

Ethan had his gun on Scott, but looked apprehensive. Efram had been leaning over the side of the wagon, and having found the rope, walked back toward Ian. “Um, Mr. Sinclair, we hangin’ both of ’em? Because, uh, you hired Ethan and me for the whole trip, and I was just wondering, are we still gonna get paid for it if, you know, they’re not around to guard?”

“We’re only hanging one of them, so you’ll still get paid the same, for half the work.”

This seemed to satisfy Efram, who started fashioning a noose in the rope.

“Ian, think this through. You’re the one who keeps saying how you want everything to be legal. This is crazy. It’s illegal. And think of Murdoch...”

“Johnny’s still going back to stand trial. Everybody knows he did it, he’ll hang no matter. But this Vom fellow—without the kid’s testimony he could get away with it.” Ian looked around. “Deeter! Where are you? Get over here!”

“Ian, don’t do this.” Scott tried to figure if Ethan would really shoot him. “You’re not that kind of person!”

“I’m tired of trying to live by civilized laws in an uncivilized place. Get him over here.”

“Ian, dammit, no! If you do this you’ll be as bad as they are! Worse!” He took a step toward him, only to have Ethan cock his pistol.

“Efram, grab that rope off his saddle, tie his hands before you do anything else. Sorry, Scott.” He walked over and picked up the noose. “And Efram, find Deeter. We may need him.”

“You fucking hypocrite.” Vom sneered at him. “Yeah, the law’s easy to follow as long as it does what you want, huh?”

“I don’t need to hear drivel from the likes of you, so keep your mouth shut.”

“You get mighty brave with some booze in you, as long as you’re pickin’ on somebody tied up. Why don’t you try to face me like a man, one on one?”

“I’ll show you one on one.” Ian strode over to Vom and jerked him to the side, but  Johnny managed to reach out with his shackled legs together and kick Ian in the shin, sending him off balance. Scott took the opportunity to pull away from Efram, who was still tying his hands, and jump to grab Ian’s arms. He almost had them pinned when the shot went off and his leg collapsed beneath him. Scott was still writhing on the ground, clutching his leg, as Ian pulled himself out from under him and waved Ethan off.  Efram had hit Johnny on the head with his gun butt, sending him wilting to the ground.

“Oh dear God no, Scott, are you alright? Lord knows, I really didn’t want that to happen.” Ian looked at the blood soaking through Scott’s pants, his face going milky pale as he did. “I’m really sorry, Scott, but we’ll get you fixed right up, get you to a doctor as soon as we can. Darn, why’d you have to do that?” Ian stumbled to his feet and lurched a few steps away before he started to puke. After wiping his mouth on his kerchief, he turned back to Scott. “You’ll have to excuse me. I suppose I’m not so hardened to this way of life as our bloodthirsty relation.”

Scott gritted his teeth against the pain and hissed, “Can’t be helped. Now go sleep it off.”

Ian leaned against the wagon for support, saying, “That doesn’t mean I can’t be tough when I have to be. Efram, finish tying my dear misguided brother, gently now! I don’t want him getting hurt any more.”

***

Deeter had wandered away from camp, trying to decide what to do. He’d known talking to Sinclair was a long shot. But Vom’s plan would never work. All it would do would get him killed even sooner.

Damn Vom. It was all his fault. If he hadn’t bashed up Deeter’s hand, Deeter wouldn’t be here to start with. They’d still be riding, the bounty money bulging in their saddle bags. Well, they’d probably still have to go to Morro Coyo to get it, and Clive might still be a problem, but at least he wouldn’t be close to defenseless. The thought of Clive made him look around uneasily. He could be here, watching him. Maybe aiming at one of his knees right now.

He took a swig of the whiskey he’d taken from the wagon. Vom had assured him nobody would miss it. He’d also preached at him not to drink any. It was for Ethan and Efram, as soon as Sinclair and Lancer fell asleep. If Vom hadn’t fucked up Deeter’s hand he could have just shot everybody. The truth was, this was a stupid plan. At best, they’d end up with nothing. Just free from here, but with no bounty and Clive still on their heels. And it wasn’t like Vom was any great shot. He was nothing but a has-been; hell, he’d never really been a ... he stopped to ponder what a has-been used to be. Well, at any rate, he’d never thought big.  Always ignored Deeter’s suggestions that could have made them some real money. Well, he might just be in for a surprise, once Deeter did some more figuring. He took another long swallow and had just decided he’d better head back when he heard his name called. Damn.

***

“Ian, my God, don’t! They’re not going anywhere, what’s the harm in waiting until tomorrow, when you’ve sobered up? This is bad, Ian, a really bad idea.” Scott jerked at his ties, but Efram had pulled the rope so snug it bit into his wrists.

“I’ve never been so sober in my life, brother.”

“Goddamn it, don’t call me brother! I’ll take Johnny over you any day! At least he’s never hanged a man.” He tried to push himself to his knees, screaming inside at the fire in his leg.

“How do you know?” Ian quirked his brow up in a knowing way.

He didn’t, really. Scott looked at Ethan and Efram, helping Ian with the hanging. They’d been riding with Johnny. Maybe they’d all done this before, Johnny too. Ian had looped the rope over a sturdy limb, and Efram led a horse over to it, like he knew the routine without being told.

Ethan was trying to get Vom on his feet, but Vom struggled against him, pushing him toward Johnny’s slumped body, Ethan cursing as Johnny suddenly seemed to come to life and grab him by an ankle. Vom helped with a good push, sending Ethan crashing down just as Johnny spun around, still on the ground, so he could twist his shackles around Ethan’s neck, crossing his legs until the chain tightened. The man’s face started turning crimson as he clawed at the chain with his hands, but Johnny jerked it tighter. Scott stood transfixed at the brutal display, nonetheless hoping Johnny would succeed. But both Efram and Ian ran to help, managing to kick Johnny off and pull Vom away. Efram gave Johnny another kick in the head, after which Johnny lay still. Scott had a sickening feeling it wasn’t put on this time. Vom never quit struggling, all the way to the horse, where they realized they needed to tie his hands and unshackle his feet so he could sit astride the animal.

Scott had pushed himself all the way to his feet, his wounded leg buckling as he tried to walk, but he still hoped he could make it to his gun over near his saddle by the fire. Although how he would shoot with his hands tied behind him was a question he’d didn’t have an answer for. They’d already managed to get Vom on the horse but he wasn’t making it easy to get the rope around his neck.

“Deeter! Shoot ’em, boy!” Only then did Scott notice that Deeter had wandered up, and was just standing slackjawed. They got the noose around Vom’s neck.

Vom suddenly stopped struggling to look directly at Deeter, who’d made no motion toward his gun. A log popped in the campfire. “Son? Come on, boy...”

Deeter finally shook his head and looked at his feet. “Sorry, Vom, but like you always say, you gotta do it to them before they do it to you.”

Ian slapped the horse.

 

Chapter 51

He’d never seen a man hang before. Vom was swinging on the end of the rope, like a pendulum in a big clock, only instead of ticking, the branch was creaking, keeping time with each swing to and fro, and instead of just hanging there all shiny and still, Vom was twitching and writhing. He’d always thought when you hanged, you died right off. Not like this. Vom even seemed to be looking at him, his eyes bugging out.

Deeter had to drag his gaze away, try not to focus on Vom, try to figure out what to do next. Ian was standing there, sort of swaying along with Vom as he called him a murdering son of a bitch, told him he could never hang long enough for his crime, and Ethan and Efram were looking around, like they were trying not to see what was right in front of them. It was Johnny’s curses, as he came to and struggled, lurching, to his feet, that finally got Deeter moving.

He fumbled to pull his gun from his holster, balancing its awkward weight in his left hand. He didn’t know who to shoot first, or even if he could shoot anybody, but there was no time to ponder on it. Ethan and Efram were closest, and standing close enough together that he had a better chance of hitting one, even if it was the wrong one, so he pointed and shot, and it was Ethan who clutched his side first, and he shot again. Only nothing happened except Efram swung around and drew his gun, so he shot again and dove toward the wagon, landing half on top of Johnny, who must have fallen again, or maybe he knocked him down.

“Jeez, Johnny, don’t let him die!” He didn’t know what to do. “I didn’t mean it, they made me...” Vom wasn’t struggling anymore, but the rope was still swinging, and somehow didn’t that mean he was still alive? Scott had tackled Ian, he’d seen that just as he’d shot the first time, and the two were grappling on the ground beneath Vom, but Scott didn’t have much chance, not with his hands tied behind his back. Somebody was shooting, a bullet ripped into the wagon behind him, splintering the wood, but he didn’t know what to do, he couldn’t outshoot them left handed. He felt his gun suddenly wrenched from his hands, saw it in Johnny’s good hand, Johnny pointing and shooting, first Efram, then another for Ethan, who’d managed to aim his gun despite his wound. He wouldn’t aim it now, neither of them would.

“Get him! Go hold him up, fast!”  Johnny’s voice was shaky, kind of like it had sounded in that cave the first night, but he managed to give Deeter a good shove.

Deeter rushed to Vom, with every step feeling more numb. Vom’s eyes were still bugged, and his jaw was slack, his tongue lolling out. But the rope still had some swing in it, and Deeter scrambled to get his arm around Vom’s legs, trying to avoid tripping on Ian and Scott still tangling on the ground. He almost had them secured when his own legs were grabbed and he was pulled down into the same heap as the other two, Ian’s grip tight on his calf. He kicked at him, as he did his eyes catching something shining on the ground, something Scott seemed to be trying to reach with his tied hands, and that’s when he realized it was Scott’s gun, the one he vaguely remembered him grabbing for when this thing started. Scott must have been stupid to think he could shoot it with his hands tied behind him. He lunged, picking it from between Scott’s fingers, reeling back and aiming it at Ian’s head.

Ian looked up when he heard the click, along with Deeter’s command to let go or he would kill him.

“What are you trying to prove, Deeter?” Ian asked, slowly raising his hands. “It’s a little too late to change your mind about testifying. Now put the gun down, and you’ll still get your bounty.”

Scott lurched to his feet, reaching Vom just as Johnny did. Johnny grabbed his legs and pushed up, getting the pressure off his neck, but the noose was still tight.  “Get him loose!” Johnny shouted.

“I can’t,” said Scott. “My hands are tied.”

“Damn, Vom, I didn’t mean it to happen, please Vom...Oh Jesus, don’t die...” Deeter couldn’t help the tears stinging at his eyes, had to keep his gun aimed on Ian.

***

He couldn’t get his hands untied, but he wasn’t sure that it mattered. Vom looked pretty dead, his limp weight offsetting Johnny’s attempts to hold him up, and Johnny looked like he knew it was useless. Still, he had to try, if only to show Johnny they’d done everything they could. But Johnny had only one good hand, and he was struggling to keep Vom aloft, and Deeter had only one good hand, and he was using it to hold Ian at bay. And somebody with two hands needed to untie the rope where it was snugged around a lower limb.

“Do something, Scott!” That was Ian, still with his hands raised. “Take the gun away from him.”

Hands. “Sure, Ian, untie me!” He turned his back to him and winked at Deeter. “Deeter, if we agree to give you half the bounty money, will you back down?”

Deeter looked like he was seriously considering it, then nodded. Either he was a very good actor or Scott had other problems once he got loose.

“Good, then quick, Ian, untie me before he changes his mind.” Ian looked a little suspicious, but started tugging at Scott’s ties. As soon as Scott felt them loosen he pulled the rest of the way loose, yelling for Deeter to keep Ian covered, jumping for the rope. The knot had been pulled too tight by Vom’s weight, and after struggling for a few seconds he ran to his saddlebags and pulled a knife out, rushing back and using it to pry at the knot, finally easing the tension. Johnny staggered as Vom’s full weight fell into his arms.  By the time Scott got there Johnny had him laid out and had pulled the noose loose. Vom didn’t move.

“Please, Vom...” Johnny was mumbling, over and over, quieting only when he placed his ear to his chest, listening as Scott held his breath, afraid to make any sound, but the crickets didn’t care and they suddenly seemed deafening, as if talking about what had happened. Finally Johnny leaned back on his heels, said quietly, “Goddamn it, Vom,” said it again, then lurched to his feet and brought his gun to aim at Ian. “You son of a bitch!”

“Johnny, no!”

 

Chapter 52

“Johnny, no! Look!”

He looked, not because of that, but because he heard a loud gasp behind him, where Vom lay. Just a death gasp, he’d seen that before, wouldn’t get his hopes up.

Until he heard it again.

Johnny almost fell on Vom in his frenzy to get back there, actually kind of kicked him, at least once. But maybe that helped, because he breathed, he really breathed, or at least rattled, again!

“Vom! Come on, Vom!” He didn’t know what to do, ended up grabbing one arm and shaking it real hard. Vom didn’t breathe. He waited, and Vom lay there.

“Goddamn it, Vom, breathe!”  He couldn’t help himself, he grabbed him by both shoulders and shook him, over and over, with Vom’s head flopping back and forth, only stopping when the blond fellow tapped him on the shoulder and told him to stop.

And Vom breathed. And kept on breathing until his lids cracked open and he started flailing about. Johnny couldn’t help himself. He grabbed him to keep him still, but ended up hugging him.

“Dammit. Boy,” Vom rasped, one word at a time, “Let. Go. Can’t. Breathe.”

***

As much as he wanted to help Johnny with Vom, Scott figured he’d better devote his attention to Deeter and Ian. First, though, he quietly picked up the gun Johnny had let fall by his side. It was his gun, anyway. He took a step, almost falling as he was reminded of the wound in his leg, the dark splotch on his pants further driving home the fact he had a bullet hole in him. Now that the surge of excitement was past, he suddenly felt a little queasy.

Ian looked a little sick, too, whether from the alcohol he’d drank or having Johnny Madrid point a gun at him, Scott didn’t know. He’d laugh if the situation wasn’t so bad. Now what was he to do? Nothing had changed, not really, he thought, changing his mind as his gaze fell on Ethan and Efram, faces blank and bodies bloody. Things had sure changed for them.

But Johnny was still wanted for murder, was still their prisoner. Vom, well, he wasn’t either of those, technically, and could probably be let go, except that might not be the safest idea as long as they were holding Johnny. Ian was a problem. He’d tried to hang a man, and no matter that Ian was sure of the man’s guilt, that wasn’t legal, and it wasn’t right.

Vom was sitting up, leaning against the trunk of the tree he’d just been hanging from. Johnny had gotten his wrists untied, and he was rubbing his neck, which was purpling up. Johnny was hovering over him, asking him if he could breathe, over and over, until Vom swooshed him away weakly, telling Johnny to quit acting queer, leave him alone, let him breathe.

Johnny stood and started looking at the ground, like he was looking for something, probably the gun. Scott adjusted his grip on it. “Johnny, why don’t you go sit down?”

He didn’t. Instead he took little stumbling steps, his shackles catching and clinking, over to Ian, yelling what Scott knew were Spanish obscenities, hurling himself at him and punching his face so it made a smacking sound and Ian’s head, then body, jerked back. Ian recovered, pushed himself up, only when he did he had a log in his hand, and he struck at Johnny with it, until Johnny plowed into him and took them both down, his hands finding Ian’s throat.

“You want to feel what it’s like to be choked?” He grunted as he pushed harder, his bandaged hand not very effectual. “I’ll show you, you damn piece of shit!”

“Johnny, stop! I’ll handle this!” Scott pulled at him without success.

Johnny put his face closer to Ian’s, whispering hoarsely, “Or maybe I’ll just tie you up and beat the shit out of you!”

“Stop!” Jesus, he didn’t need one brother killing the other! It was the blast from Deeter’s gun that finally got the attention of everyone.

“Get back, Johnny,” Deeter said, holding the gun shakily in his left hand.

“Johnny, go back to Vom,” Scott said, trying to maintain his control of the situation. “Good work, Deeter, but be careful not to shoot anybody.” He honestly didn’t know what the kid was capable of.  He just hoped Johnny wouldn’t push him.

Johnny glared at Ian, but looked at Deeter’s gun and slowly complied, muttering that Ian was the one who should be in chains, and they’d better not try to chain Vom again.

Scott stepped back to where they’d dropped Vom’s shackles on the ground and picked them up. “Ian, give me the keys to the shackles.”

Ian was still heaving, on his hands and knees. He looked up at Scott. “Efram has them. But I still say we ought to just hang him, tie up Johnny better this time. My god, now he’s killed Ethan and Efram.”

“Go get the keys, Deeter,” Scott said, before turning back to Ian and answering. “They’re for you.”

***

Deeter didn’t move at first, fascinated as he was by how a man’s face could turn so red, almost purple, even in the dim light from the campfire, and how many words he could spit out so fast. And people accused him of talking too much? Sinclair had him beat, way beat

But he tore himself away and walked, not as fast as he could, to Efram’s dead body, trying to figure out what this meant. All he’d wanted to do was get Vom and ride out with him. Vom’d have to take him back after saving his life. Then they’d go after Clive, then, and this part he hadn’t mentioned to Vom, come back and collect the bounty he was owed by Sinclair. That’s why he’d sort of wanted Sinclair to think he was still on his side, maybe even work it so he’d look like he was chasing after Vom. That might have worked if Ethan and Efram had passed out drunk, like Vom had planned. That plan all of a sudden sounded better now. But it was the hanging. The hanging had just caught him off guard. At first he’d thought he could go through with it, that it might work out even better for him. But not once he saw Vom dancing at the end of the rope. He wondered where he stood with Sinclair now. Probably not so good.

He wondered what Scott was up to. Even though they had different last names, he and Sinclair were brothers, at least Sinclair had called him that several times. They looked like it, too. Why would one brother put chains on another? Scott had promised Deeter half the bounty, but maybe he was planning to keep it all for himself, or something, just what, Deeter couldn’t figure. Deeter just wasn’t so sure this was a good idea. Still, he fished through Efram’s pockets until he found the key, then brought it back.

“Um, Mr. Scott?” When Scott looked at him he continued. “What you said about the bounty. This don’t change it, does it?”

“You’re darn right it will change it, if you hand him that key!” Ian shouted.  “I’m not paying you to bring in me, you idiot! This is absurd!”

He had a point there. Deeter turned the key over and over in his hand, wishing he didn’t have it.

“All we’re doing is making sure there are no accidents before we get home,” Scott said. Deeter noticed he looked kind of mad. “You’ll get what’s coming to you.”

***

Johnny was not a religious man. It wasn’t that he didn’t believe in God, he just didn’t believe in prayer. For one thing, it had never worked before. For another, with all the stuff he’d done, he had the feeling he’d just piss off God if he asked for a favor, maybe make him so mad he’d do just the opposite. So he mostly tried to stay quiet when it came to talking to God, sort of sneak around and hope God didn’t notice him. Right now, though, he was babbling.

It was a miracle, nothing short of a God-given miracle, that Vom was alive. Johnny closed his eyes and crossed himself as he murmured his thanks, over and over, even promising to mend his ways in payment. He didn’t actually know any real prayers, but he remembered snatches of things from the few times his mama had taken him to Mass, and a few more from that priest, the one he’d tried to forget, so he just kind of ran them altogether, figured God would get the point.

He was vaguely aware of Deeter and the two blond fellows—damn, he knew them from somewhere—having some sort of discussion, with the one blond, Ian Sinclair was his name, the asshole, getting madder and madder. Let him try to get to Vom again. Johnny would kill him next time. Hell, he’d kill him anyway first chance he got.

Wait, he’d promised God. It wouldn’t look good if he killed somebody right off. God might even take Vom back, just to show him. Shit.

He prayed a little more, just in case God heard what he’d been thinking, hoping maybe this would drown it out. It couldn’t hurt.

Vom was resting pretty quiet. The night was getting chilly, and Johnny thought maybe he needed a blanket, so he stood and walked slowly toward the wagon, wondering if Blondie planned on challenging him for doing it. The blond fellow told him his name, he was pretty sure, but then, introductions hadn’t exactly been his first concern lately. He noticed how bad his hand was shaking as he reached for the blanket. His head was fucking killing him. Yeah, he’d played possum with the first whack to it, but it didn’t mean it didn’t still hurt like hell. And the second one, with the thwack from the gun, that one really had had him going black there, or at least gray and woozy. He needed a damn drink, bad, but they’d taken the bottles away earlier. Sinclair had one, though, something fancy, over by the fire. He made a detour, saw it lying on the ground, and picked it up, noting with relief it made a comforting sloshing sound. Didn’t take much to get that fellow drunk. He uncorked it and drank as long as he could, before anybody could have a chance to stop him, drank until he was only sucking air.

By the time he got back to Vom, he felt much better.

 

Chapter 53

The shackles were finally on Ian. Deeter had seemed strangely hesitant, but had finally complied, apologizing to Ian for doing so. That was fine. Scott apologized to him, too. One brother shackling another. It just wasn’t right.

Heck, now he had two brothers in shackles. He’d been aware of Johnny shuffling around the campsite, the clanking of his chains like a beacon to his whereabouts. Scott knew he should have demanded Johnny stay next to Vom, but instead he’d just kept one eye on him, hoping he wouldn’t have to step in if he got too near any weapons.

No, he knew Johnny wouldn’t shoot him. He was his brother.

Then again, Johnny wouldn’t shoot Murdoch. Or a woman. But he had. In fact, he’d shot at Scott himself. And hit Val.

Johnny hadn’t gone near any weapons, though. He’d retrieved a blanket from the wagon, and had wandered over to the fire, squatted with his back to him for a while, but Scott knew where the weapons were, and they weren’t there, so he’d gone back to devoting his attention to Deeter and Ian and the shackles. And Johnny had eventually gone back to sit with Vom. He was there now, leaning against the same tree, looking quite relaxed under the circumstances.

Scott and Deeter both helped Ian to his feet and back to his bedroll by the fire. Scott’s leg was starting to throb like he was being hit by a bat, over and over, so he let Deeter take over halfway there. The bottle of brandy, the one Ian had sipped his bravado from, was leaning half-kilter against a saddle. Scott wasn’t much of a drinker, but his leg needed it. But when he uncorked it, only a few drops trickled from its mouth. He shook his head in amazement at Ian, who already had his eyes shut.  No wonder he’d acted so out of character.

“Deeter, where’s that whiskey? Go get it.”  He sat, gingerly probing his thigh as Deeter scurried off, sucking in his breath as he found the wound. Okay, now he really did need the whiskey.

He gripped his other leg, hard, trying to take his mind off the one that really hurt. It didn’t work. When Deeter came from somewhere with the whiskey he tried to look nonchalant, like his leg wasn’t about to explode, at the same time waving him over and indicating that he should pour a cup for him. Deeter did so, then fished around and found a cup for himself. Apparently he thought they were celebrating together.

“Deeter, I just need this for my leg. You’re going to have to stand watch.” The kid looked crestfallen, but put his cup down. Then he just stood and watched, like he was ready for a show.

Scott emptied his cup, steeled his nerves, and poured some whiskey over the wound. The bullet had passed through, and it was near the outside, but, damn, it hurt. He swallowed some whiskey from the bottle, even though it wasn’t his style, but neither were bullet wounds, had Deeter cut him a bandage, and when he was done, he leaned back and tried not to puke. Tried not to think of the mess everything was.

He’d rested only a few minutes when he knew what he had to do.

***

Damn, his reflexes must be going. He’d just been resting his eyes one second, and next thing he knew, ol’ Blondie was easing down beside him.  His eyes locked onto Blondie’s hand. He’d brought a gift.

Or at least he had one with him, taking a good swig from the bottle. Johnny didn’t wait for him to offer, but reached out and snatched it from his hands, already taking a hefty gulp, the liquid chugging soothingly in the bottle, before Blondie could react.

“Hey, better take it easy. I want to talk to you about what happened.”

Johnny took another swig as Blondie pulled the bottle away, sending whiskey dribbling down his chin. He wiped it off and licked his fingers. “Not much to talk bout, that asshole buddy of yours tried to hang Vom!”

“He’s not my buddy, he’s our brother!”

Johnny wondered how much of that bottle Blondie had already downed. He tried to see how much was left in it, but Blondie wouldn’t hold it still enough.

“Anyway,” Blondie said, “I meant about Murdoch and Flo. The shooting.”

Johnny tensed. Murdoch Lancer? He knew he should feel good about killing him, but somehow he didn’t. He picked up a twig and started making shapes in the sandy ground, studying them as he did.  “Nothin’ to talk about.”

“I guess you know Flo died. Murdoch, well... I need to get back to him.”

This caught him off guard. “He’s alive?”

“Yes, but he has good and bad days. Johnny, I hate what you did, but I still care about you. And, well, damn, I missed you!” He put his hand on Johnny’s leg, suddenly reached over and hugged him, hard.

It caught Johnny off guard, but what really caught him off guard was the peculiar feeling it stirred inside him, like maybe he should be hugging him back. That’s when things starting falling into place, what Vom’d said started to make a sickening sense. Dios, what did this mean about himself, about his life during those missing months?

One thing was obvious: Blondie was queer for him.

***

One moment he’d been hugging his brother. The next he’d been pushed over on his back, Johnny jumping to his feet, telling him to get the fuck away. Telling him he was no faggot.

Vom had jerked awake, and was giving both of them that look of his, the one he’d given Scott back in Fremont’s barn.

“Easy, Johnny!” Scott took a step forward, forgetting about his wounded leg until he placed his weight on it and stumbled into Johnny, catching himself on him. Johnny jumped back, tripped on his shackles, and went down, Scott on top of him.

“Goddamn it, get off me!”

“What the heck’s your problem?”

Johnny pushed him off and rolled to the side, used the tree trunk to climb to his feet. He was swaying like one of its branches. “Vom, I ain’t no Nancy, I swear. I never even seen this fellow before now.”

What? “Johnny, what are you talking about? Come on, you’re my brother, no matter what happened, you can’t just throw everything away! Didn’t these last months mean anything to you?”

Johnny seemed unable to meet his gaze, kept shaking his head at Vom, then looking around like he was searching for something. He suddenly swooped down, grabbed the whiskey bottle, and smashed it against the tree, waving the jagged bottle neck in front of him like a knife. When he spoke, his voice was quiet, but shaky. “I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about, Blondie, but I ain’t queer, and I ain’t your brother, but one thing I do know,  I’m gonna cut you up unless you unlock these chains.”

Something was wrong here, badly wrong. He tried to think of a reason Johnny wouldn’t want Vom to know they were brothers. Scott had already told Vom they were. The thing is, he’d been planning on unlocking Johnny’s shackles all along. Even had the key in his hand. He knew it sounded lame, but he said, “I was going to take the shackles off. I just wanted to talk to you first, see if there was any chance a jury would let you go. Johnny, I can’t let you hang. Even if it means I’ll never see you again.”

“Throw me the key.”

Scott sighed and tossed it to him. “Johnny, just tell me why you shot them. I need to understand.”

Johnny handed the key to Vom so he could unlock the chains, then grabbed Scott by the elbows while Vom shackled him. Scott gasped as his leg was jostled, but this was his last chance. “Johnny, please, just tell me what happened!”

“How many times I got to tell you to shut the fuck up? I don’t know what happened! And I sure as shit don’t know who you are to be asking! So leave me the fuck alone!”

Scott didn’t have a chance to answer before Johnny brought the bottle crashing down on his head, sending him to the ground.

When he awoke, his head was pounding. He rolled to one side and the world spun around him. The fire was almost out, but Ian was still lying next to it. Deeter was stumbling back into the clearing from where he had been supposedly standing watch, yawning and stretching.  Johnny and Vom were gone.

 

Chapter 54

“Deeter, get over here!”

Deeter stopped midstretch, his arms still overhead. He was stiff from sleeping on the bare ground, where he’d snoozed off as soon as he’d gotten out of sight of camp. He’d offered to stand watch as soon as Scott had gone over to visit with Johnny and Vom. He hadn’t wanted to be left alone with Ian, and he sure wasn’t ready to face Vom. It looked like nobody had noticed the booze had caught up with him. “Nothing to report, Mr. Scott...”

His steps slowed as he took in the shackles around Scott’s ankles. He looked around for Vom and Johnny, under the tree, by the wagon, in the wagon. Their horses were gone. Shit, shit, shit! They’d escaped and hadn’t taken him! Now what was he supposed to do?

“Just come over here and help me look for the key! He couldn’t have taken it.”

After ten minutes of searching it looked more and more like Johnny could have taken it.

Ian was stirring, but stopped once he noticed his shackles. “Scott, come take these off,” he said calmly. He buried his face in his hands, shaking his head as he spoke. “I can’t believe I did that. Scott, I’m absolutely mortifed at my behavior. It was deplorable, and I...well, I can’t begin to say how utterly ashamed I am. I suppose I shouldn’t drink when I’m upset, at least not something that packs such an unexpected punch. Thank God nothing came of it.”

“Come help us find the key!”

“What?” Ian lifted his head and looked around. “Jesus, Scott, why are you...wait! Where are the prisoners?” He pushed himself to his feet, tripping on his chains as he rushed over. He glared at Scott as Scott explained how they escaped.

They looked some more, even in the wagon. Ian didn’t have an extra key. Nobody noticed when Deeter found it plainly displayed on the wagon seat. He got ready to yell out in triumph. But instead he pretended to still look while he thought about his predicament.

He moseyed back over to the others, cleared his throat. “Mr. Sinclair? Just because they run off, I still get my bounty, right?”

Ian glared at him. “Do I look like a charity? If you’d stayed awake like you were supposed to, they wouldn’t have escaped.”

Deeter chewed on his lip while digesting that information. “Does that mean no?”

“Yes! Or no. Whatever, it means no bounty! Unless you can bring them back.”

Deeter felt a surge of fear and anger. There was no way he could bring Vom and Johnny back. But without them, without the bounty, he couldn’t pay Clive. And if he couldn’t pay Clive, Clive would make him pay, would hunt him down and hurt him. “I bet you never even had the money!”

“Well, I guess you’ll never find out now, will you?”

Deeter eased the gun into his left hand and pointed it in Ian’s direction. “I guess I will, if both of you want to make it back alive.”

***

“Vom, I want you to know, I ain’t no Nancy. I swear I don’t know that fellow.”

Vom didn’t reply. His throat still felt like it had a noose around it. It was hard enough to breathe, much less speak. Hell, nodding or shaking his head was bad enough, unless he moved his whole body. So he just stared straight ahead, saying nothing, occasionally rubbing his throat, trying not to swallow.

“I mean it. I know you ain’t seen me with any women since we been riding, but that’s just because we been on this job.”

Besides, it was kind of amusing to see Johnny squirm. Vom knew he wasn’t queer, figured the blond fellow probably wasn’t either. At least he didn’t think they were. Of course, it was just as likely as the story about them being brothers. If they were, why had Johnny denied it? Was he trying to hide it? Or was Scott really lying?  Or was there more to Johnny’s outburst, the one where he said he didn’t know what had happened? Didn’t seem to remember Scott?

Maybe it was the booze. Or maybe he’d cracked. He’d seen it happen to gunfighters, especially ones not really suited to the job. And he’d known Johnny wasn’t suited to the job, known it for years. Johnny let things get to him. When you killed folk for a living, that’s something you couldn’t allow, not even a little. Vom had done his best to toughen him up, but Johnny would brood after every kill. Hell, the kid once brought an injured baby rabbit into camp, nursed it to health, grew it up. Went crazy when Vom cooked it up one night. Wouldn’t even eat it. Brooded for days.

“I been with plenty of women, Vom, lots of ’em.”

Anyway, it’d been a long time since they’d rode together. And there was no question Johnny was different now. Peculiar, even.  There was that little scene in the street with the dead dog. There were the screw ups, the ones that were going to get him killed. There was the drinking.

They slowed to cross a creek, letting the horses stop to drink. He didn’t know where they were headed, but now he was starting to wonder if Johnny had a destination. Truth was, things were worse than before. They had no money, no job, and thanks to Johnny’s bum hand, no prospects.

And they’d left Deeter. Shit, the kid was no good, but still. He was really in a fix, between Scott and Ian and Clive. Ian was probably holding him prisoner. And if he wasn’t, if they let him just ride away, Clive was going to hurt him. Vom had seen what Clive could do.

The horses drank their fill and they continued across the creek and down the trail.

“Next time we get to a town, I’ll show you. There’ll be some satisfied ladies, you wait and see.”

***

“You are making an egregious error, boy,” Ian said as Deeter clucked to the wagon horses, urging them up a steep slope.

Deeter had no idea what Sinclair was saying, so he just ignored him, as he’d been doing for the past few hours. He’d prodded both prisoners into the wagon, chaining them to the sides so they couldn’t jump him from behind, and Sinclair must have talked the whole time. He wished he’d shut up.

He scanned the ridges to either side of the path. Clive could be up there. And if he was, he must see that things had changed. Maybe he’d figure out what Deeter was doing, come to help him. No, not much chance of that. More likely he’d figure Deeter had helped Johnny and Vom get away, come shoot him. He still wasn’t sure if he should get on his horse and just ride away as fast as he could. But Vom had said Clive hunted people down. Said Clive might even go after his parents. He didn’t want that to happen. They were good folk, didn’t deserve him bringing bad down on ’em like that. Hell, they didn’t deserve a rotten kid like him.

Vom didn’t want him either, not that he could blame him. And now Vom’d left him, run off with Johnny. This whole thing was that damn Johnny’s fault. He’d ruined his life. Things were fine, just fine, before he showed up. Deeter took deep breaths, knowing this wasn’t the time to feel sorry for himself. He had two prisoners, and if he played his hand right, he could still have that bounty money. He could pay off Clive. Then screw Vom when he came begging for a handout.

First he had to figure out how to get a message to Lancer, and how to collect the ransom. It wasn’t so easy to do on his own, especially with Clive maybe lurking about. Damn, who could concentrate with that Sinclair going on and on?

“Goddamn it, do you ever shut up? You want me to come back there and gag you?”

“Please,” Scott said, half under his breath, which did make Deeter smile. Scott added more loudly, “But you know he’s right. You can’t get away with this. Don’t ruin your life.”

Nope, Johnny fucking Madrid had already managed that. “You just worry about your own life.”

“I’m not worried.”

He didn’t sound worried, either, which irritated Deeter. He should be worried, damn worried! Bet he’d be worried if it were Vom or Johnny holding him prisoner. “You damn well ought to start worrying, you want to get out of this alive!”

“Like I said, I’m not worried. You’re not the type, Deeter. You’re not a killer.”

“Not to mention you’re far too incompetent to carry off anything and get away with it for long,” Ian added.

“Neither of you got cause to be talkin’ like that! You don’t know nuthin’ ’bout what I can do! If you did, you’d shut your traps right now!” Goddamn it, what did he have to do to get respect?

“Oh, do be scared, Scott. We’re in the hands of a master criminal mind.”

“Shut the fuck up!”

“Deeter, it’s not too late,” Scott said.

“Give up, Scott. The little idiot probably aspires to be a cold blooded killer like his hero, Johnny Madrid. Only problem is, he’s even stupider.”

Deeter threw the reins down, whirled in his seat and aimed his pistol at them. He’d shoot them both right now and show them! Goddamn it, he would, but he couldn’t, not if he wanted that money. His hand shook with anger. What the hell did he have to do to get people to realize who they were dealing with?

“You don’t know what the fuck you’re talkin’ about! I’m as much a killer as Johnny Madrid! Hell, more of one! Who the hell you think shot that old man and that lady? Sure as hell not fucking Johnny Madrid! He’s a goddamn fake! I shot them! Me! All he did was take the credit! Cuz he’s too fucking stupid to know the difference! So shut the fuck up!”

He fell back down in the seat, breathing heavily from his outburst. The both of them were finally quiet. Guess that showed them.

 

Chapter 55

Anna applied the cold compress to Murdoch’s head, smiling at him as he opened his eyes. He smiled back, licked his lips. Helping him sit up, she propped some pillows behind him before she handed him a cup of water.

Before he drank any of it he forced out the words he usually did. “What day?”

She knew by now the answer he was looking for wasn’t simply the day of the week. It was how many days since the day their lives turned upside down. “Friday,” she answered. “A little over three weeks.”

She steadied his hand as she noticed the water sloshing from the cup. “I have good news, though. They caught him. Scott sent a telegram from a town a few days away.”

Murdoch started to say something, ended up coughing. She eased him up and patted him on the back. He usually grasped her arm and nodded his thanks when she did this. Over the past weeks she’d assumed the bulk of the nursing Murdoch needed. Teresa and Maria still helped, helped a lot, but it was Anna who could be found at his bedside almost any night, applying compresses, feeding him broth, changing his bandage. The infection had been stubborn, seeming to heal one day only to rage the next. And Anna was always there to get him through it. She’d told them it helped her to take her mind off the loss of her mother. And that was the truth, at least part of it.

Her efforts had not gone unnoticed. Murdoch had expressed his gratitude almost every time he awoke, Teresa had started to confide in her like a sister, and Sam had given her the most responsible nursing jobs. He’d told her she had a future as a nurse, and even left her some medical books to peruse.

She patted Murdoch’s back again, and helped wipe his mouth where he’d coughed up some water. Like she’d want to spend her life tending sick people.

“Johnny?” he asked, his voice a hoarse whisper.

“They have him.”

“He’s coming home?”

“Don’t worry, he won’t be coming here. He’ll be locked up where he can’t hurt anybody else.”

He looked confused. Which was how he’d looked most of the past three weeks, between the fever and the morphine and the laudanum. “Locked up?”

“Yes, for the murder. And for shooting you.”

“No...no, that’s wrong, Johnny didn’t...” He tried to push himself up farther.

“Shhhhh,” she said, gently pushing him back. “Don’t get excited.”

“Where’s Val? I need to talk to Val.”

“I can have somebody send a man for him, if you really want.” Anna had turned her back to him, preparing his medications. “But Murdoch, you’ve been awfully confused, and he may be getting tired of coming out here for another one of your fanciful tales. It’s the fever, I know you can’t help it. Why don’t you rest some, think about whether what you want to tell him is something you’re sure about first?”

When she turned back, she gave him the injection of morphine.

***

His leg was getting infected, of that he was pretty sure. The wound was hot and leaking more than blood. Every time the wagon lurched he had to hiss to keep from cursing. Still, it was far down on his list of things occupying his thoughts.

Number one was Deeter’s shocking confession. Ian and Scott had discussed it as much as possible, out of earshot of the little prick. They’d goaded him a little more, trying to get him to say something else that would prove his claim, but either he smartened up or he was, indeed, making it up. Ian thought the latter. Scott pushed for the former. In fact, he grabbed onto that thought and nothing short of an admission from Johnny himself was going to make him shake it.

No, even Deeter’s confession wasn’t actually number one. Number one on Scott’s mind was Johnny’s bizarre behavior. He’d denied any knowledge of the shooting, even acted like he didn’t know Scott. Sure, Johnny had a good reason for pretending he knew nothing of shooting Florence and Murdoch; after all, he was on his way to stand trial for it. But that didn’t explain why he’d try to say he didn’t know his own brother. And it wasn’t just what he said. It was the way he said it, the look on his face. You couldn’t fake that look. Something was wrong.

Was it possible? He’d known plenty of men in the war who’d been concussed, who upon coming to, didn’t seem to remember the events surrounding their injury, in some cases even blanking on the preceding days. One fellow couldn’t even remember what had happened in the past few weeks before. Of course, he’d sort of had part of his skull blown off, so that was the least of his worries.

But Ian had said he’d seen Johnny riding off from the scene. He couldn’t have done that if he he’d had a head injury severe enough to cause loss of memory.

“That day, the shooting, you said you saw Johnny riding away, up on the ridge. How did he look?”

“How did he look? I don’t know. How he always does.”

“Well, how far away was he? Could you get a good look at him? See if he was hurt?”

“He was too far away to shoot, even with a rifle, or else one of us wouldn’t still be alive.”

“Wait a minute. If he was that far way how do you know it was even him? How do you know it wasn’t Deeter?”

“It’s kind of hard to miss that palomino of his.  And yeah, now that I think of it, there may have been another horse, too, but Johnny’s horse was there, there was no mistaking that.”

“So...you’re saying you saw Johnny’s horse, maybe another, but you didn’t actually see who the riders were.”

“Well, no, Scott, I didn’t exactly have time to dwell on that. My mother and our father were there bleeding, in case you forgot. But sure, it’s possible Deeter was there with him.”

“Did you see Johnny or just his horse?”

Ian sighed as though he were tired of the whole affair. “Think, Scott. He was drunk out of his mind. He’d just had a fight with Murdoch. He’d just called my mother a vile name, and accused both of them of killing his slut of a mother. God, did Murdoch make a mistake there.” He stopped to shake his head at that. “Not to mention Jelly says the last thing Johnny said before he rode off after them was that he’d kill them both on account of that stupid mutt. You’re clutching at straws.”

“Did you see Johnny or just his horse?”

“No, Scott, for the last time I don’t have eagle eyes. I saw the horse. That was good enough under the circumstances.”

“The circumstances are my brother’s life is at stake! Goddamn it, I can’t believe this!” Scott banged his free fist against the wagon’s side.

Deeter called from the wagon seat, “You got some sort of problem back there?”

“Jesus, Scott, calm down, calm down. All I’m trying to do is make sure justice is done. We all know he did it; I’m not going to let him get away with it on some minor technical point.”

“Claiming you saw him when you didn’t isn’t a minor technical point!” If one hand weren’t chained to the side of the wagon Scott thought he’d be strangling Ian right now.

“Don’t delude yourself. Johnny Madrid is a born cold-blooded killer. My mother is just another notch on his belt, and if we don’t take steps to stop him, our father will be the next of many. And their blood will be on your hands.” He leveled his gaze on Scott. “It’s up to people like us to control people like him.”

“Don’t include me in your us.”

 

Chapter 56

Vom had balked about going to a town, at least as best he could protest without being able to talk much. Mostly he’d scowled, pointed to Johnny and whispered “bounty,” even stopped his horse and refused to budge, but in the end, Johnny had assured him he’d keep a low profile. They both needed a good night’s sleep in a real bed for a change, and they had money, courtesy of Blondie’s pockets, to pay for it.

White Springs was already thumping by the time they rode in, and nobody paid much attention to them as they climbed the stairs to their rooms above the saloon. Johnny had splurged on separate rooms, being that he had other plans for some of that money. He threw his saddlebags onto his bed and followed Vom to his room. Vom settled on his bed, which creaked and crackled.

“I’m gonna see if I can get us baths sent up,” Johnny said, “after I get a steak for me. You want me to bring you soup or something?”

Vom nodded imperceptibly.

“I’m gonna get us a couple of bottles, too. I’m gettin’ tequila. You want whiskey?”

Vom opened his eyes, shook his head, pointed to him. “Drink too much,” he rasped.

Johnny smiled broadly. “Hell, I don’t drink enough, that’s the problem. You neither. A little whiskey’s just what you need to fix that throat right up.”

When he got nothing from Vom but a roll of his eyes, Johnny started out of the room. He leaned back in with his hand on the doorknob. “Besides, you gotta have some company tonight. I ain’t gonna be available, on account of I’m gonna be having some company of my own. Female company.” He thumped his fist on the wall. “Hope these walls ain’t too thin. Wouldn’t want to keep you up.”

That got an even larger roll of the eyes, plus a pillow thrown at him. Johnny threw it back and shut the door.

By the time he’d lounged in his bath and emptied a good part of his bottle he didn’t really care if the girl he’d arranged for earlier came at the appointed time or not. He’d unwrapped his injured hand, which looked better than he would have thought, and it was feeling better now that it had been soaking in the warm water. Or maybe that was the tequila. He could feel the water chilling around him, but he felt plenty warm enough inside to make up for it. He closed his eyes and let his head loll back, luxuriating in the feeling of floating.

When he opened his eyes, a girl was standing in front of him. She seemed way too modestly dressed for what he had in mind. Young, too. “You’re Johnny,” she said, then spoke to someone else. “And you’re Scott Lancer.”

And there was Blondie, standing next to him, looking at him funny.

Shit! Johnny’s eyes jerked open. What the hell? Nobody was there. He looked around the room and reached for his gun, but when he saw nothing, he exchanged it for the bottle. Took another swallow, shook his head. Some sort of a stupid dream.

Blondie. Lancer? You’re my brother, that’s what he’d said. Kept trying to paw him. No, the fucker was queer, or something, trying to fuck with his head. Shit, but Blondie knew him, at least acted like he did. What the hell had he done with him?

Goddamn, what was taking that girl so long?

“Brother...” And Blondie was smiling, slapping him on the back, hugging him. And naked, Blondie naked in a tub, standing, the water trickling down. Oh shit.

When the knock came at the door he almost dropped his bottle. He took another big swallow, set it down as carefully as he could, even so almost letting it tip, and teetered out of the tub “Yeah?”

“You wanted company?” a feminine voice asked.

Damn right he did. He wrapped the blanket from the bed around him and picked up his pistol from its place beside the tub. Vom would yell at him if he knew he hadn’t pulled his pants on first, just in case trouble broke out, but hell, he was just going to take them off. He tripped over the blanket in his haste to get to the door, but lurched and caught himself without hitting the wall too hard.

When he opened the door a small, dark haired girl in an orange dress stood before him. He put on his best smile and motioned her inside, grabbing the blanket before it fell. She hesitated when she saw the gun in his hand, so he held it up, told her not to worry, and placed it on the dresser by the door. She introduced herself as Marissa and came into the room, stinking of cologne, cigarette smoke, and other men. For a second Johnny was reminded of his mama, but he smacked that thought out of his head as fast as he could. He shut the door behind them and fell back to lean on it as he took in the view.

She had already flounced on the bed and had one leg hiked up, unlacing a boot. “Dollar extra to do it in the tub,” she said, nodding her head sideways at it.

“How much extra to make a lot of noise?” he asked, remembering Vom in the next room.

“Dollar. No rough stuff.”

He walked unsteadily to the dresser, pulled out his money. “Two extra, make it real loud.”

She smiled, started working on the other boot. “Sweetie, I can wake the dead.”

Johnny picked up his bottle, stumbled to the bed and half fell on it beside her before reaching to unfasten her dress.

“No, cowboy, I don’t need my dress ripped. You just sit back there and enjoy the show.”

So he did, slid himself back to lean against the headboard, watched the dress, with its tasteful feathers, slide down to her waist, and when she stood and gave a little jiggle, fall to the floor. She folded it carefully on the dresser. Watched her remove her undergarments, revealing nubile breasts. Nubile? There was another of them fancy words jumping in his head. Hell, he didn’t even know what it meant. What the hell had he been doing to start using words like that? No, what the hell was he doing now, thinking about shit like words and how he knew them when a classy woman was undressing in front of him, going to be his any minute? He took another swallow from the bottle, licked his lips. Life was damn good.

She took some pins out of her hair and shook her head so the long brown tresses cascaded over her shoulders. “You’re Johnny,” she said.

He stared at her, finally stammered, “Wha’? Who told you my name?”

“What’s that, cowboy? I don’t need to know your name.”

How’d she know his name? Shit, was she after the bounty? Or maybe he’d told her, yeah he must have told her his name. She pulled off her stockings. Pulled down her pantaloons. He smiled as he studied her naked body, the body there for his amusement. No, he was definitely no poof, not that he’d had any doubts, and he’d be proving it to everyone in earshot real soon. He grinned as she climbed on the bed and straddled him, pulling the blanket away, reaching for his cock.

“Think of me like a sister,” she said.

What the fuck? That wasn’t right. He grabbed her hand. “Don’t talk.”

“You said you wanted me loud, cowboy. You changing your mind? Because I don’t give refunds.”

“No, just...just, not that kind of talk.” He let go of her hand and laid his head back, trying to let himself enjoy her touch the way he knew he should. Sister? Why would she say that? She leaned forward and placed her lips on his, her hair enveloping his face, her scent again striking him. His mama’s scent. Dios, how many times had he watched her with a man, hating what she did, hating the man she did it with, only now he was the man. No, no, this was not what he needed to be thinking about, not now. He pushed her away. No kissing.

“We both came for the same thing,” said a man. Blondie? What the? Johnny jerked up, searching the room for its source. Nobody was there.

He brought his gaze slowly back to her. “What the hell’s going on here?”

“Just trying to wake you up, sweetie,” she said, working on his cock more industriously than before.

What was his problem? A beautiful naked woman was straddling his naked body, stroking his cock, ready to fuck him and scream her head off. And his goddamn cock picked this time to just flop there. Dios, he had to concentrate. He reached up and fondled her breasts, noticing how pretty her hair was. Long, like his mama’s. No, shit, not like hers. But like somebody else’s, he just couldn’t remember. Dammit, this wasn’t helping.

It was the position, that was it. He sat up, coaxed her over on her back. Yeah, that was more like it. He could already feel himself waking up. Yeah, definitely. She’d be moaning soon, even without the pay.

“Think of me like a sister.”

God fucking damn it! He pushed her away, sat up on the side of the bed, taking deep breaths. “Don’t say that! Just don’t say anything.”

She was looking at him strangely, or maybe she just looked strange. He couldn’t tell. He was too busy grabbing the side of the bed while the room spun. He scrunched his eyes shut.

“You alright, cowboy?” He felt her shift her weight on the bed, felt the bottle pushed into his hands. “Drink?”

When he opened his eyes the old man from his dream was handing him the bottle. “Drink?” the old man asked.

Johnny squeezed his eyes closed again. “Get out.”

He felt her get off the bed. “What’s your problem? You’re not getting a refund. It’s not my problem you don’t like women.”

Fuck! What was his problem? What the hell was he doing? Johnny grabbed her and pushed her back on the bed, harder than he meant to. She started to scream. And she was right, she really could wake the dead.

 

Chapter 57

Johnny had to be the luckiest son of a bitch he knew. Lucky that Vom hadn’t decided to just ignore the fracas next door and had instead begrudgingly hauled his ass over to Johnny’s room and prevented the proprietor from knocking the fool around with that club. Lucky that Vom hadn’t taken the club from him and thumped on him himself. Lucky he was behind bars now so Vom still couldn’t hit him. Lucky nobody recognized him as the asshole worth $1000.

The whore said Johnny had attacked her. The sheriff, when he arrived, said they didn’t hold with men mistreating women, even whores, in their town. Vom didn’t either, and he was disappointed to think Johnny would. Johnny hadn’t said much, mostly just looked embarrassed as he dressed, falling when he tried to put his pants on while standing up. That’s when Vom noticed the almost empty bottle. This had gotten way out of hand.

Hell, he’d been so drunk that when they asked him his name at the sheriff’s office Johnny couldn’t come up with it or even a good substitute. Vom had jumped in and supplied it before Johnny had a chance to say something stupid. Even then he looked confused when Vom told them he was John Jacobsen. It wasn’t the first time he’d lent Johnny his last name. Vom just hoped Johnny would remember it in the morning.

He’d been relieved when Johnny had just passed out in the cell. No telling what he would have let spill to the sheriff, the way he was acting. And Vom didn’t have the voice to shut him up, although he would have managed somehow. Anyway, the sheriff had kicked him out and he’d gone back to his room. He was anxious to get a good night’s sleep.

When he opened his door, he saw that was going to be a challenge, what with Clive sitting in there.

***

“Shut up! I’m trying to listen.”

It was hard to hear anything over the crackling of the campfire and chirring of the crickets. “Deeter, if you’re so worried somebody’s out there, just unchain us so we can help. As it is, you’re going to get blown away if somebody comes.”

“Yeah, that’d do me a heap of good,” he said, adjusting the gun in his left hand. “Now just be quiet so I can listen.”

In other circumstances Scott would have been laughing at the kid jumping at every sound in the dark. But things just aren’t as funny when you’re chained up. “Have it your way. Just be sure you don’t point that gun in this direction.”

Deeter slowly turned his head, listening in every direction. “You make fun, you don’t know Clive. If he sees Johnny’s gone, I don’t know what he’ll do. Even Vom’s afraid of him. He’s crazy, and mean, too. He said he was gonna shoot out both my knees if I didn’t bring him the bounty. He might do you, too, just because.”

“I’m not giving him, or you, any bounty,” Ian said.

“You talk like that, he’ll hurt you plenty, I’m telling you. Clive’s one mean son of a bitch.”

“Are you sure you’re not imagining this? What does he have to do with anything?”

“He started it. Or whoever hired him started it. Somebody hired him to kill Johnny, and then he hired me and Vom to do it for him. That’s how he works.”

“Wait, wait, wait, wait.” Scott held up one hand. “Wait. You and Vom were hired to kill Johnny?”

Deeter looked irritated. “Yeah, only it didn’t go so good. And then Vom didn’t want to do it. On account of Clive didn’t tell us it was his damn Johnny Madrid, just said it was some rancher.”

“And somebody hired Clive. Who?”

Deeter shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess maybe somebody up north, where he’s from. Like San Francisco.”

Scott scowled. “Deeter, I really need to talk to this Clive. I’ll pay to do it.”

***

"What are you doing, Vom?” Clive lit a cigarette, the glow from the match illuminating part of his face.

Vom didn’t answer. There wasn’t much he could say, and being that it was hard to talk anyway, it seemed hardly worth coming up with any of the answers that were floating around in his head. So he pointed to his throat and shook his head.

Clive turned the lamp up and bent forward to peer at Vom’s neck. “Looks like you pissed somebody off almost as much as you did me. Difference is, dead people don’t bruise.” He took a long drag and blew the smoke out slowly as he sat back in his chair. “So tell me what I’m not seeing here. You’re here, with Johnny Madrid. Or Lancer, or whatever. The man I paid you to bury—you know, the one you come to me and said you killed, asked for your money, even? The dead man still breathing and walking around, not even a prisoner of the fellow offering the big bounty. Am I seeing that wrong?"

Vom didn’t respond.

“So what I’m sitting here wondering is, how am I going to collect the money I was supposed to be paid for killing this very much alive target, and how are you going to get the bounty money that was going to save all your hides?”

Hell, he didn’t know. But he noticed his gun on the dresser, its bullets strewn about it. He knew he should have worn it, but the sheriff would have taken it, so it had hardly seemed worth the effort. “They let him go,” he rasped. “Found out somebody else did it.”

“Oh, I see. Yes, they seemed like very reasonable fellows. And you haven’t killed him because?”

He knew he was toying with him. Still, he had to try. “Mexican bounty.”

“And to collect that bounty, you took him to an American jail.”

“Accident.”

Clive jumped forward and grabbed Vom’s neck with one hand, squeezing hard enough to make him feel like he’d swallowed a hot coal. “Don’t fuck with me. Just so happens I met up with Gimpy Joe. You remember Gimpy, right?”

Shit. Gimp had been in prison when Vom was there, had known him before, too. And Vom had bragged to him about who his boy Johnny had become. So Clive knew. Knew Vom and Johnny went way back. He nodded, at least best as he could with Clive’s hand around his neck. Clive shoved him back onto the bed and stood over him.

“So we’re clear, you have no intention of living up to your side of the bargain. Am I right?” He walked to the window, took another drag off his cigarette, played with the smoke as he exhaled. “Of course I am. So, I’m sitting here in the dark, and I’m asking myself, what to do? I can go over to the jail, tell them who they have in there, collect any bounty myself. Problem is, that wasn’t our bargain. And they may not see any reason to hand over the bounty since he’s already in custody. That means we have a problem.”

Vom sat on the bed, rubbed his neck then started to tug one boot off. “No, no problem. Johnny’s changed. No good to me. I... I’ll do it.”

Clive turned and looked at him. “You said that before. And here you are, and there Madrid is, and hell, you’ve fucked things up so much Sinclair is being held by that idiot boy of yours. You want to tell me how he’s going to pay a bounty like that?”

“What?”

“Don’t play dumb with me. It fits you too well.” He paced back and forth between Vom and the window. “So here’s what’s going to happen. I’m going to the jail to identify him and claim the bounty. And you’re going to make damn sure Sinclair is in a position to pay it. And then you’re going to bring me your idiot boy, and you’re going to kill him. Because you were paid to kill somebody. And if you’re lucky, you’ll live to do another job.”

Vom dropped one boot to the floor. The stick knife was back in his boot. Johnny had collected their weapons before they left Sinclair’s group, and he’d stuck the knife back in its place. He could stick it in Clive, be through with this whole mess.

“Oh, and one more thing. Gimpy Joe went on a little job for me. He’s heading out to keep an eye on idiot boy and his prisoners. And if I’m not back by sundown, he’s going to start shooting parts off your boy. And when the kid dies, Gimpy’s going to come do the same to you. Just in case you’re thinking of pulling a knife, or anything rash like that.”

He closed his eyes and nodded.

“Listen, Vom, I’m a business man. You’ve been a good asset, up until now. We get this settled, I’m willing to overlook it. Even have an easy job, you can make a lot of money. Let’s just get this done and move on. Deal?”

He nodded again. He waited for Clive to turn toward the window before pulling the stick knife, waited for him to turn back to him before he stuck it in his chest. Waited while Clive flailed his arms and tried to scream. He could still pull it back, maybe just put him out of commission for a while, let him live. He could use that easy job.

He shoved it in deeper.

Shit. Now there was a dead man in his hotel room.

 

Chapter 58

There were three things Johnny really hated to see when he opened his eyes in the morning: a homely girl, a gun pointed at his face, and iron bars. So in a way, he was lucky, because he only saw one of those. Yeah, the luckiest stiff on earth.  Damn. Another jail cell.

And he’d had another of his damn dreams. This one had his mother, and that whore, and some kind of plain dark haired girl, and he was in a tub with all of them, not at once, but one at a time, and Ricardo was there, and Vom, and his damn dick wouldn’t work, and they were all laughing, and so he shot them, or he tried, and the gun wouldn’t go off, so then Blondie was in there with him, telling him he appreciated all his help, only the way he said it, it was clear he didn’t, and wait, oh shit, shit, shit! The part about his dick not working was real. Shit!

He groaned and sat up on the cot, bending over with his face in his hands. He felt like hell. What was wrong with him? He’d never had that happen before. Of course, that was before that damn Blondie started messing with his mind. Or with whatever. Now he wished he’d killed him.

Dios, did Vom know? Shit, this just got worse and worse. He rubbed his face, wincing as his unwrapped right hand ached. He remembered Vom there, helping hold him up as the sheriff prodded him down the stairs. He remembered that whore talking about him. Hell, it was all her fault, saying that strange stuff to him. Vom was not going to be happy, not at all. Damn. His head throbbed in time with his stomach.

The keys rattling just about made his head explode. But they were attached to the deputy, and he was turning them in the lock, and that was fine with him. The whore wasn’t pressing charges, and Vom had paid his fine last night, according to the deputy. At least his luck was looking up. He glanced around for any belongings, figured they were still in his room, and stumbled toward the door.

He had definitely screwed up. What the hell was wrong with him? It was the drinking, making him hear things, making him so he couldn’t...shit, he couldn’t even think it. He needed to hire another whore, a different one, while he was sober, fix things right. It was kind of early though, and they were probably all still sleeping, and he wasn’t sure how long Vom would put up with staying here.

A few people were in the saloon eating breakfast as he passed through it on the way to the stairs. The smell of the food made him queasy. He was glad to see Vom wasn’t in there, hoped he was still sleeping. He crept into his room, recalling again what hadn’t happened in there. There was a sheet of paper on his bed, with Vom’s scrawl on it: J, GIT OWT OF TOWN NOW.  GON  FUR DEETER.

What? Dios, Vom had left him! Gone back to Deeter. Because of last night. Damn! But still, his note didn’t make sense. Why would he tell him to get out of town? He banged on Vom’s door, ignoring the looks of the two drummers who were going down to breakfast. He pushed the door open, thankful this dump didn’t have locks, snickering that Vom had apparently passed out in bed, covered head to toe. Johnny couldn’t resist whisking the blanket off, ready to make a hasty exit out the open door when Vom started throwing things. It was one of those things sure to piss Vom off. One of those things Johnny couldn’t help himself from doing.

Shit. Vom could at least have shoved the body under the bed, not just under a flimsy blanket. That way the drummers in the hall wouldn’t have started yelling like they were.

***

Anna patted Murdoch’s head with another cool cloth while Dr. Jenkins probed his wound. She didn’t know what else she could do. Teresa was nice, but she felt all alone in this big house with people she scarcely knew. Now that her mother was gone, was she even part of this family? Surely nobody had taken care of Murdoch like she had during these past weeks. But would he even remember what she’d done for him? If only Ian would get back soon.

She only wished he wasn’t bringing Johnny. Yes, she wanted him punished for what he’d done, but she’d just as soon they’d gotten it over with on the trail. But she knew what a stickler Ian was for doing things by the book. He’d never settle for less.

At least Scott would be coming back with them. She kicked herself for not being more forward with him before, but it just wasn’t her nature. A gentleman should make the first overtures. No, not brazen overtures like Johnny—and no, he was clearly no gentleman—had made. The thought alone made her feel violated. Not that she had anything against Mexicans, not at all. They had their own talents and their own place. But Johnny himself was a prime example of why their talents shouldn’t be diluted and their places should remain separate. Mother had been so right about that. How sadly ironic that with all Mother knew, she still couldn’t prevent her own death at one of their hands.

It was the knowledge that it was Murdoch’s weakness that had brought Johnny into the world, that had in turn led to Mother’s death, that steeled her to do what she was doing. No doubt Johnny’s mother had used her best weapon—one of those Mexican talents for which the women were particularly well known—to lure him into marrying her and claiming their mixed child.

“Anna?”

She jumped, wondering how long the doctor had been holding out his hand for the new bandage. She mumbled her apology and handed it to him.

“You’re working yourself too hard here, Anna. Even the best nurse has to take a break to stay in form. Teresa or Maria are more than capable of taking over.”

She smiled. “I know, I just hate to leave him.” Especially when there was any chance of him waking up and talking to somebody about what he thought had happened. Not after what he’d hinted at the other day. The truth was, he probably didn’t know. Neither did she, for sure. But any reasonable person could see it had to be Johnny, and throwing doubt into people’s minds, especially people like Scott and Teresa, who couldn’t see Johnny for what he was, would just confuse things.

The truth was, she didn’t know what to do. If only Murdoch had died instead of Mother. She blinked a tear away at the unfairness of it all. Johnny was Murdoch’s mistake, but it was her Mother who paid for it. There were the practicalities to consider as well. Had Murdoch died, Mother would have inherited his part of the ranch, and her children wouldn’t be wondering where their place was now. She knew he had made some sort of arrangement for Ian, but as far as she knew, Murdoch expected her to find a husband to support her.

That’s where Scott came in.

***

The first drummer shut up when Johnny hammered his arm into his neck. He didn’t only go quiet, he went limp. The second one tried to run, but Johnny was on him in about three steps, shoving his face into the wall and slamming his fist into his gut so he didn’t have the air to scream. Footsteps were pounding up the stairs, and he had only enough time to punch the man in the jaw and haul his unconscious body into his own room and slam the door. He rushed to close Vom’s door, then bent over the unconscious man in the hall just as a man topped the stairs.

“Had a fit or something,” he said, tapping the man’s cheek lightly as though trying to revive him.

The man looked familiar, and suspicious of him. “Get away from him. You already caused enough trouble here last night. Now clear out of my hotel.”

Johnny threw his hands back. “Fine, fine. I was just leaving. Let me get my stuff and I’ll go.”  He squeezed into his room, checked to make sure the man in there was still out, grabbed his saddlebags and gun, and tried to look like he was taking his time as he walked down the hall. With luck—lots of luck—the men wouldn’t come to, and the body wouldn’t be discovered, until he was galloping away from town.

He didn’t know why he should have expected his luck to change.

 

Chapter 59

They’d yelled, they’d run, they’d even shot at him, but one thing Johnny was good at was getting out of a town fast. The thought brought his spirits down as he recalled all the getaway drills Vom had put him through, until he could jump up from a dead sleep, saddle a horse and gallop away before Vom could count to 30 and pummel the shit out of him. How he’d gone from barely being able to drag himself from his bedroll to eventually spurring his horse just out of reach before Vom could get his hands on him. How Vom had slapped him on the back and offered him a swig of his whiskey the first time he’d managed to get away. Nobody had ever cared about him the way Vom had. And now Vom had left him. Because of last night.

Well, to be fair, the dead body probably had a lot to do with it.

The fellow looked familiar, but he’d only gotten a glance at his face before those drummers got all excited. Besides, the blood all down the front of his shirt had kind of been distracting. If it hadn’t been for that, the man just looked like he’d been drinking too much, the way he was sprawled on the bed, his head lazily flopped to one side.

Damn, he wished he had a drink. Something to take the edge off the gunshots going off behind his eyes. He pulled the flask out of his saddlebag, even though he knew it was dry. Just in case. Shit.

He topped a rise and turned to check behind him for the riders he knew were pursuing him. No sign, but they’d be coming. Especially if they ever figured out he was Johnny Madrid, the one with the big bounty on his head.

So Vom must have killed that man. And he must have taken off to get a head start on any posse that might come after him. Only he’d kind of stuck Johnny with his mess. Oh well, it wasn’t like Vom hadn’t had to clean up after him plenty enough. And really, if they stopped to think, they’d figure out Johnny’d been holed up in jail when the fellow was probably killed. Still, he didn’t want to hang around long enough for them to figure that out. They’d likely figure other stuff out.

Vom must have headed north, if he really was going after Deeter. Johnny didn’t understand that, unless Vom was so disgusted with him he decided to take the stupid kid back in his place.

He checked the position of the sun, made sure he was still heading due south.

***

Deeter stopped the horses. It hadn’t been easy thinking of a way to deliver his money demands and make sure he still had prisoners when he got through. He’d thought of sending a telegram with his demands, but he had no money to pay for it. Neither did either of his prisoners, a startling bit of news when it came to Mr. Moneybags Sinclair. Now he worried whether there was even money at Lancer to pay for their freedom.

Then he considered leaving a note where a hand would find it, but he worried that might take too long. Or he could sneak up to the hacienda at night and tack it on the door. They might have guards. Leave it at the sheriff’s office. That seemed particularly stupid. So he’d finally decided to send the message with one of the prisoners. He could hide the other one in one of the caves where he and Vom had first taken Johnny. He’d scouted around and found a place he could watch, and he’d have them leave the money there. Then he’d take the money and leave directions to where the other prisoner was being held. And he’d ride away, $1000 richer for his trouble. More money than Vom and his small time thinking had ever pulled in.

To make sure the prisoner he let loose didn’t just follow him, he left him with his hands still tied and with his horse tied half a mile away. And he’d assured him he’d blow off one of his balls if he tried anything. Vom had always said threatening to blow off a fellow’s balls worked better than threatening to kill him, and Deeter expected that was right.

He’d chosen to let Sinclair be the messenger. Mainly because he didn’t want to have to spend any more time with him. He gave him a headache.

***

Johnny leaned against the rock and took a long hard drink from the bottle. He knew it had been risky going into the last town for it, but hell, he didn’t know that he really gave a shit. What the hell did he have to live for? His hand didn’t work, his mind didn’t work, hell, even his dick didn’t work.

He’d put his dick to the test, alone, just a while ago, tried to think of that girl he’d had once down on the border, the things she’d done, but he couldn’t keep his mind on her, couldn’t keep it from veering off course like a drunken mule and hearing those same damn words that whore had kept saying, and that had made him think of his mama, and then it was like everyone else he’d ever known was there watching him, judging him, and when Blondie popped into his head he finally gave up for fear his dick might pick that moment to wake up after all.

He’d tested his gun hand, too, but it wasn’t the same hand that had made Johnny Madrid feared. He could squeeze the trigger, aim and hit, but it left his hand screaming, and he sure wasn’t going to win any gunfights with it. He was a gunfighter without a gun hand.

As for his mind, he’d tested that every day since this nightmare began, and it had failed him, over and over. He still didn’t know what he’d been doing for the past six or so months. He didn’t remember what, if anything, he’d been doing with Blondie, or how he knew him, if he did. He didn’t know why he’d totally screwed up the times he’d been supposed to be shooting people. He didn’t know why people kept bleeding all over him when all he wanted to do was sleep. He didn’t know who all these people were who kept jumping, uninvited, into his thoughts. All he knew was the only time he felt at peace was when he dulled the screaming in his head with the contents of a bottle. And yeah, he knew that was bad. He wasn’t stupid. He was drinking way too much for his own good. For whatever that was worth.

Truth was, he wasn’t much good to anyone now. He couldn’t shoot, he couldn’t think, he couldn’t pleasure a woman. All he was good for was draining a bottle and screwing up everybody’s life around him.  That,  he was damn good at.

He took another long drink, not bothering to wipe the liquid that dribbled down his chin and onto his shirt.

He’d killed his mama. That was old news. He’d killed his father. Maybe. That still wasn’t real clear. But he’d shot him. He’d sent Vom to prison. More old news. He had a bounty on his head, and he was a danger to anyone around him. That’s why Vom had ended up with a rope around his neck.

He had a sudden vision of Day, looking at him in surprise, telling him he was no Lancer, falling over, shot. Then it was gone, as soon as he strained to make reason of it. Shit. Had he killed Day, too?

He took his gun out, spun the cylinder, made sure it was loaded, stroked it a few times. Looked at it hard, looked down the barrel.

Vom was better off without him, better off with Deeter. He would let the posse get close, close enough to lure them away from Vom. It was the least he could do. If he got away, he could keep riding south, maybe go back to the border, get some jobs, kill some people.

If he didn’t get away, well, maybe that was just as well.

 

Chapter 60

Vom kicked his horse again, knowing he shouldn’t push him this hard, but also knowing Gimpy Joe too well to take his time. He felt bad about leaving Johnny like he had, wished he could have just met him outside the jail with his horse in the morning and cantered casually out of town together, but not with Gimp dogging Deeter. Clive was cunning and cruel, but he was patient. Gimp was just cruel.

What the hell was Deeter thinking? He shook his head. Deeter thinking? That pretty much explained it right there. If Clive was right, and he usually was, Deeter was holding Sinclair prisoner. He hadn’t mentioned Scott, so maybe he’d gotten away. Still, if he was holding Sinclair, that could only be because the idiot thought he could force him to pay the bounty. In other words, hold him for ransom. He wondered how the boy planned to pull this off. Or if he’d planned at all. He surely hadn’t planned on Gimp being around. Clive said Gimp would start shooting parts off Deeter if Clive wasn’t back by sundown. Well, Clive wasn’t ever coming back. And the sun was sinking lower.

***

Ian walked his horse toward the Lancer hacienda. He didn’t want to hurry. Deeter said the money had to be dropped at the exchange point by noon tomorrow. Unfortunately, that gave Ian plenty of time.

Maybe his horse would stumble, break a leg, leave him on foot. By the time he got back it would be too late. Scott would be dead. That is, if Deeter could be trusted. And that was really the problem. Deeter hadn’t exactly shown himself to be the most reliable of men so far.

Rubbing his head, he looked up at the sun, sighing in resignation. He didn’t really want Scott to die. He liked him. But he was in a fix. Scott would probably report his attempt to hang Vom. Any reasonable court of law would find him not guilty, of course, but even being tried for such a thing would seriously sully his reputation. It wasn’t as though it was something he’d have done had he been sober. He just wasn’t sure what Murdoch would think of such unrestrained behavior. Assuming, of course, Murdoch was still in the thinking state.

But he had to admit, if both Scott and Johnny were out of the picture, his own prospects were considerably more optimistic as Lancer’s sole heir.

Still, he wanted Deeter, as well as Vom and Johnny, brought to justice. At this point it wasn’t really clear which one was responsible for his mother’s death, but it seemed safe to assume that they’d all played a part. They all needed to pay, the problem being that with such a murky picture now, they might all escape any supposed justice meted out by a courtroom. He needed more money so he could hire some decent bounty hunters. This time he’d leave the “or alive” off the poster.

That didn’t solve his current problem. If he didn’t say anything about the ransom, and Deeter let Scott go anyway, that wouldn’t look good when Scott showed up and the truth came out. Not good at all. So he kept his horse at a walk, figuring he could pry a shoe off or something once he got close, explain his tardy arrival. Then he’d tell them about the ransom, and make a heroic but hopeless attempt to get there in time. Make sure there were enough men who’d be so angry they wouldn’t mind it if Deeter never made it to trial.

***

“So, how long have you known Johnny?” Scott asked, trying to find a comfortable spot against the cave wall, especially with his hands tied behind his back.

Deeter kept peering out the entrance, but finally squatted between there and Scott. “Not long. Coupla weeks, I guess. Vom’s known him a long time. How come you’re trying to get him to think you’re his brother?”

“He is my brother!”

“Uh huh. Look, I don’t care, I don’t really like him. He’s weird. Course, Vom thinks he’s like his fucking long lost son or something.”

“So Vom really has known him a long time? I mean, he said he did, but I was wondering. How long?”

Deeter shrugged. “I dunno. He was with him something like two years or so, way back. Vom’s the one who taught him everything he knows. He was helping me, too, until Madrid showed back up.”

Scott squirmed some more. Deeter had brought in two sleeping rolls, but he hadn’t undone them and Scott had more important things to ask him while he could. “I’m just trying to understand this. So, Vom was teaching you to be, what, good with a gun?”

“Yeah, that, and other stuff. Vom always says shootin’s just part of being a gunhawk.” He started ticking off on his fingers. “Gotta be good at stabbin’, fightin’, drinkin’, ridin’, burnin’, coverin’ your tracks...”

“Yeah, yeah, I get the idea.” He raised his brow. “I must say, I never quite realized there was such an extensive curriculum for gunfighting.”

“Huh?”

“Never mind. So, he took in you, and before that, Johnny, and taught you this sort of thing? Just you and Johnny, or others?”

“Some others. It’s not like he kidnaps us or nuthin. Just, you know, mostly kids ain’t got a home, or don’t want to stay in the one they got.” He picked up some sand from the cave floor and let it sift out through his fingers.

“Where’s your home, Deeter?”

“Kansas.” He threw down the rest of the sand. “I got a ma and pa there. Farmers. I ain’t cut out to be no farmer. Leastways, I didn’t think I was. Startin’ to look like this hired gun thing ain’t what it’s cracked up to be, though. Hell, school was easier. Least it don’t go on, night and day. And damn Vom, he can be a real bastard. He’s who did this to my hand, said he did it so I’d go back to Kansas. Thing is, I just might, once I get this money.”

“How did Johnny get hooked up with him?”

“Vom said they was both in the same jail together, long time ago. Like back when Johnny was 12 or so.  Said Johnny’d been on his own a couple of years, just did small time stuff, mostly stealing I guess. Thing is, I bet if I’d been able to start that early I’d of been even better than Johnny Madrid.”

Scott was quiet, digesting what Deeter had said. It agreed with what Vom had told him earlier. So Johnny was with that madman when he was only 12? He wasn’t so sure it was better than being on his own.

“From what Johnny tells me, you don’t want that kind of life. He was really happy to leave it.” Scott kicked at a rock. “At least I thought he was.”

“You really do know him?”

“Yes, he really is my brother. Half brother, technically, different mothers. We only got to know each other recently. I thought... well, I don’t know. He never said anything about what he’s been doing the last few months?”

“Nope. He don’t really talk that much. Cept in his sleep, maybe.”

Vom had hinted at that, too.

Deeter shrugged. “I don’t think I was spose to notice, cuz Vom was always hushin’ him, but he was forever yellin’ in his sleep. Even when he was awake, though, he was peculiar actin’, and not just when he was drunk, which was most always. Different kind of peculiar.”

“Like for instance?” When Deeter just shrugged, Scott went on. “The thing is, he acted like he didn’t even recognize me. Like there was something wrong. I just want to know.”

Deeter shrugged again. “Like fucking up in the middle of a gunfight. Started hugging on a dead dog, oh, and before that, just looked at his hands when he was supposed to be drawin’ on the other fellow. Boy, you shoulda seen how mad Vom was. Beat the crap out of him for it. Vom, he don’t put up with that kind of shit.”

“Beat him up?”

“Told you he was a son of a bitch. You do something Vom don’t like, heck, just don’t do something good as he thinks you should, he just beat on you ’til you’ll be wishin’ you was dead. But it’s either that, or get kicked out. That’s why I’m glad to be through of him. He done hit me the last time, lucky I didn’t flatten him. Let him beat on Johnny, the pussy. They can have each other. Probably suck each other’s dicks.”

“So, wait, back to Johnny acting strangely. Do you know if maybe he was hit on the head or something? Did Vom hit him?”

Deeter looked like he was going to answer, but he didn’t, and at that point Scott wasn’t paying attention anyway, at least not to anything but the man standing at the cave entrance with a gun.

 

Chapter 61

“Well, well, look what the cat throwed up. Keep your hands up, boy.” The man limped into the gloom of the cave, his gun pointed squarely at Deeter. “And now I’d be much obliged if you’d pick out your gun with your fingertips there, throw it over here if you please.”

“Who are you?” demanded Scott.

The man scuffed over to Scott and backhanded him across the face. “That’s who. Nice to meet you.”

Deeter had edged closer to the cave entrance, but the man swung on him and shot, rocks raining down from the top of the cave. “Damn!” Deeter yelped, covering his head.

“Get back over there and sit your ass down.”

“We got no money,” said Deeter, creeping back toward Scott, his eyes on the newcomer.

“Well, that answers one question then. Clive said I should bring him something from you in a bag, either your money or your balls.”

“Clive? Clive’s here? Shit. I told him, I was gonna get the money. It’s coming. Just, just—”

“Shut the fuck up.” He threw him a rope. “Tie your ankles. Tight, or I’ll just blow off one foot, slow you down.”

Scott considered asking who Clive was, but then decided it wasn’t worth getting hit again to know. The man was big, but wiry. He had skin was wrinkled as tree bark, and one leg was gnarled like an old oak limb. And when he hit, it felt like his arm was a branch. Scott clamped his lips together.

Deeter fumbled with the rope, trying several times before he got it snugged around his ankles. “Tell Clive I’m getting him the money—”

The man kicked him with his gnarled leg, sending Deeter to his side. “Stay there,” he said, pulling out another length of rope and roughly tying his wrists. Deeter stayed.

“I hear your daddy, Vom, cleared out on you. What’s the matter, you didn’t suck his dick good enough?”

“Fuck you!” Deeter pushed himself up and tried to lash out with his feet, but just ended up squirming around.

He laughed at him. “Yeah, we all know why Vom keeps all you sweet little boys around.”

“That’s a goddamn lie and you know it!”

“Yeah, maybe we’ll see how much of a lie it is when you’re begging to do anything to stay alive.”

“I got a thousand dollars, coming tomorrow. I swear. Tell him, Scott.”

Scott was dwelling on what the man had said about Vom. Why did he take in boys? Why did Johnny stay with him? The man was clearly abusive, at least according to what Deeter said.

“Clive didn’t say nothing about tomorrow. All he said was after sundown tonight, if you didn’t have the money, you belonged to me. All I got to do is bring him your balls in a bag.” He glanced over at Scott, then smiled. “I reckon you’re a bonus. Right considerate of our friend here to get you all trussed up for me.”

“He’s right,” Scott said. “There’s to be a thousand dollar ransom for me, delivered tomorrow. It occurs to me it would be to your advantage to keep both of us alive.” Or at least me, he added to himself. He tried not to feel too sorry for Deeter; it was he who got them in this mess.

“Where’s the other one?”

“He went to go get the money!” Deeter said. Scott inwardly groaned as Deeter continued, “But I’m the only one else knows where they’re going to deliver it, so you better not hurt me.”

The man turned to Deeter and kicked him in the side with his withered leg, over and over until Deeter rolled in a ball and screamed for him to stop.

“Where’s the exchange? And when?” He gave Deeter only a few seconds to answer before he started kicking him again. Finally Deeter gasped out that he would tell him everything. And he did, told him Ian was supposed to come alone, at noon, to a big boulder in the middle of a wide open place Scott had identified as Rocky Meadow. He was to leave the money, then leave the meadow. Deeter would collect the money and leave them directions to find Scott. Scott tried to interrupt, warn Deeter not to tell everything, but the words were gushing from Deeter by then. When the man was satisfied Deeter had told him everything, he sat down and smoked a cigarette. When he was through, he stood, stretched, and proceeded to kick the shit out of Deeter, stopping for a while when it looked as though the boy would pass out, keeping him on the verge of consciousness, ignoring Scott’s demands he stop.

Until finally, Deeter did pass out, and wouldn’t wake up, and the man turned his attention to Scott.

***

Scott steeled himself for another blow. He’d seen the pleasure Deeter’s pleas had brought to his attacker’s face, and he was determined not to add to it. But he couldn’t help but to let out a big ompf as the man’s fist plowed into his stomach. He searched his mind to come up with some bartering angle, but Deeter had pretty much already given away any ammunition they had. Plus, this man was out for pleasure, not profit.

The man’s foot was poised for another kick when a shot reverberated through the cave, and instead of kicking, he staggered and fell to his knees. Vom rushed in, pushed the shot man over to his stomach and grabbed his gun from his holster. He looked at Deeter, looked back at the man, stuck his gun to the back of the man’s head, and blew a hole in it.

“Jesus! Deeter! What the hell happened to you, boy?” Vom knelt beside him, gingerly propping up his bloodied head. “Dammit, answer me!”

“This man gave him a pretty bad beating,” Scott said, trying to see behind him to the cave entrance. “Where’s Johnny?”

“Goddamn Gimp. Shoulda killed him years ago. Jesus, come on boy, wake your ass up!” He started examining him, opening his shirt and running his hands along the bruises already forming. “Son of a fucking bitch.”

“He’s going to need a doctor. I imagine he has some cracked, maybe broken, ribs, probably a concussion, at least. Where’s Johnny?”

Vom was still checking on Deeter and hardly appeared to be listening, but he did manage to answer. “Johnny? I don’t know, still in jail, maybe. Hope he don’t get picked up for murder.”

“What? Murder? Why’s he in jail? The bounty?”

“Come on, boy, open your damn eyeballs.”

“Where is he? What town? Undo me, we’ll get Deeter to a doctor, then go get Johnny.”

Vom finally looked at him. “Did I hear right, Deeter was holding you for ransom?”

Scott shook his head. “Yeah, it was a stupid plan. Come on, let’s get going.”

“Where’s Sinclair?”

“Deeter let him go so he can bring back the money. He’s not our concern.”

Vom chuckled. “And you two actually trusted him to get the money and bring it back?”

“Well, it wasn’t exactly my idea. But yes, I trust him.”

Vom shook his head some more and placed Deeter’s head back down. “Damn fool kid. There’s no way he could have collected it without getting caught. What kind of lame ass plan did he come up with?”

Scott sighed, a half grin reaching his lips as he reviewed Deeter’s master plan. “To have Ian leave the money on a boulder in Rocky Meadow, then he was going to leave directions on how to find me. Only I’m sure they would have chased him down later.”

Vom idly stroked Deeter’s forehead. “Damn idiot. What did he think he was going to do, try to collect the bounty money that way? Thousand bucks?”

Scott smiled and nodded, relieved Vom saw how ludicrous Deeter’s plan was. Vom smiled too, looking down at Deeter. “Damn, boy, that ain’t a bad plan. Not bad at all.”

 

Chapter 62

Ian squinted his eyes against the glare from the sun, now high enough in the sky to have his face glistening with perspiration. He let his horse walk at a leisurely pace, even allowed him to dally and sample some of the green fare along the roadside. He had been leading the horse, until it occurred to him how ridiculous that was. The horse wasn’t lame, and there was nobody out here to see he wasn’t lame. So why not just ride him at the same speed he’d otherwise be leading him? Once he got closer to the ranch he’d hop off and walk the remainder of the way. He’d arrive sweaty and exhausted, but frantic to reach the exchange point, too late.

He hated, really hated, doing this to Scott. He enjoyed having him as a brother. But Scott clearly had other ideas about what brotherhood meant. It was as though he had no standards, no allegiance to the Lancer birthright. Ian didn’t blame Scott for wanting to educate Johnny, at least before all this happened, sort of make a pet project out of him. But Scott just didn’t seem to comprehend that you couldn’t make somebody what they simply didn’t have the capacity to become. Johnny had proven, over and over, that he was a killer. That was his nature, just as it was a rattlesnake’s nature to strike and kill.  You might keep one as a curiosity, but you didn’t make it into a pet. Yet Scott insisted on siding with Johnny against Ian. A darn shame, but that was how it was, and Johnny could just add Scott to his long list of victims.

The sedate stroll of his mount had almost lulled him into sleep when a clattering and clinking startled him to wakefulness. Recognizing the sound of a buggy approaching from behind, he flung himself from the horse, twisting his ankle in the process. He limped a few steps, trying to assuage the shooting pain up his leg, as he turned to face the source. The buggy held two people, and the driver was already waving to him. He recognized Sam Jenkins. The other man, who seemed to be staring at him with a curious, or maybe just stupid, look on his face, was that worthless sheriff.

Damn. Ian waved his arm dramatically and rushed, limping, to meet the buggy. “Oh thank God! Scott’s being held for ransom! I’ve been trying to get to Lancer, but my horse is lame and I’ve been battling my own injuries.”

“What’s wrong with you?” Sam asked, looking him up and down.

He tried to look exhausted. “Nothing I can’t bear for now. When we get Scott back safe and sound then I’ll worry about me.”

“Scott’s being held? By who?” Val asked, standing in the buggy.

“Some stupid kid. One of Johnny’s cohorts.” He leaned heavily on the side of the buggy, wiping his forehead with his sleeve. This was certainly not how things were supposed to go. Now he had to make a show of trying to save Scott. There was always a chance Scott would get away or be let go, and then they’d know if he hadn’t done his part. But he didn’t have to make it easy. “Quite honestly, I’m sure he’s bluffing.”

“Where? What does he want?”

“I don’t know where, exactly. He left me off and made sure I couldn’t follow him. As for what he wants, he basically wants to collect the bounty for Johnny without turning Johnny in. Some sort of plot they cooked up between them.”

“That’s funny. We got a telegram here said you and Scott were bringing Johnny back. In your custody.” The way the sheriff looked at him would have made him feel uneasy if it weren’t for the fact the man was so thick.

“Well, that’s exactly my point. He had accomplices, and one of them helped him escape and go off to do who knows what sort of mayhem, while the other left was left to guard us and get the ranson.”

“Alright, no use sitting out here jawing, let’s get to the house.” Val looked at Ian’s horse. “You think he can trot behind the buggy?”

“Uh, yeah, it’s just he can’t handle a rider.”

“Uh huh.”

Ian tied his horse to the back and clambered in the buggy, squeezing into the back. Sam turned around in his seat to ask, “Alright, so what exactly are we supposed to do to get Scott?  And when?”

“He said I had to bring a thousand dollars to some big boulder out in Rocky Meadow. But I’m telling you, it’s a bluff.”

“You willing to risk Scott’s life on that?” asked Val. “I’m not. Now when does it have to be there?”

“The thing is, I don’t actually have that much money.”

“Then how the hell were you offering a bounty?”

“Murdoch must have that much at hand,” Sam said. “And if not, we can raise it. When is it due?”

Murdoch didn’t have that much money on hand. He knew that for a fact. “Noon today.”

***

Vom paced to the cave entrance again, checking the sun.

“If you need a watch, he has mine,” Scott suggested wryly, pointing at Deeter. Deeter was still sprawled out, now on a blanket Vom had rolled him onto.

Vom knelt beside Deeter, fished the watch from his pocket, checked the time, and snapped it shut. “Shit,” he said, wiping the boy’s head with a damp cloth, “why’d he set it up for the middle of the damn day?”

“I suppose it’s all part of his ingenious master plan.”

“Shut the fuck up!”

“With delight,” Scott said, leaning back against the wall to rest.

The next thing he knew his feet were kicked to the side and Vom was standing over him. “You spoiled rich fucker! You don’t got any idea what it’s like to work for a few damn dollars just to stay alive! Yeah, maybe the boy here ain’t made the brightest choices so far, but hell, what were you doing when you were his age? Riding your daddy’s ponies?”

“Actually, I was in the war.”

“Why don’t you be straight with me for once? I don’t really give a shit whether you were in the war or if you was fucking raised by Injuns. I want to know what the hell the deal is with you and Lancer and Johnny. And that Sinclair fellow, while we’re at it. And I’ll kill you right here, ransom or not, if you lie to me one more time.”

Scott glared at the man. What business what it of his? Still, he was his best link to Johnny, and might eventually come in handy. “I told you. Murdoch Lancer is my father and Johnny’s father and, well, Ian’s father. We all have different mothers, and we grew up apart from one another. I was in Boston with my grandfather and Johnny was in Mexico with his mother. Ian grew up with his family in San Francisco.”

“You trying to tell me Lancer just goes around poking women and kicking them and their kids out? And he’s still breathing? What do you, wait for Johnny to do all your dirty work?”

Scott wondered, for the hundredth time, if his father really was still breathing. “He didn’t kick any of us out. My mother died in childbirth, and my grandfather took me over my father’s objections.  Johnny’s mother ran off with a gambler...”

“Stop right there. That’s a lie, one you gonna die for. Johnny told me his father kicked him and his mama out on account of him being ashamed of having a mestizo kid and a Mex wife. You think that’s something a kid’s gonna make up? No, a kid don’t practice hours on end unless he’s got a purpose, and Johnny’s was to kill his old man. He don’t do that for no lie.”

“No, I know that’s what Johnny believed, until he came back. But it wasn’t true. Murdoch searched for him, for both of them, for years. He didn’t know he’d changed his name. Johnny knows the truth now.”

“Yeah, yeah, save it for someone stupid.”

“I told you! About six months ago, he came back! Pinkerton agents hired by my father found him, paid him to come talk to him. Made me the same offer, we both came, we both found out we had a brother we didn’t know about, and that we were wrong about Murdoch. We decided to stay, I thought things were going well.”

Vom tapped his finger against his chin before speaking. “Yeah, that makes for a real sweet story, only it’s a lie. Johnny would have told me.”

It was Scott’s turn to be silent. Vom was right. Why wouldn’t Johnny have told him? “I don’t understand it either, except that Johnny doesn’t seem to be himself since he left home. Let me ask you. What really happened with the shooting?  All I know is that Johnny was very drunk and very upset right before. But it’s still just not like him to do something like that.”

“Guess things weren’t going so well as you thought.” Vom turned his attention back to Deeter, who had begun to moan. “It’s alright boy, ol’ Vom’s right here, gonna take good care of you.”  He dripped water into Deeter’s mouth, but Deeter didn’t swallow. “Shit.”

“Deeter tells us he shot them.”

Vom opened the watch. “Looks like it’s getting on noon. Hey, you never mentioned how this Sinclair fellow fits in.”

 

Chapter 63

He’d agreed with Sam and Val that rushing to Lancer was the best course of action. Val figured Murdoch had to have cash on hand for emergencies and payroll. True, a thousand dollars might be pushing it, but it was a lot farther to go back to town. Too far, if they were to make it to the meeting place on time. Besides, none of them had accesss to the Lancer bank account, a situation that embarrassed Ian to have to admit.

Ian wondered if Murdoch really could have that much money squirreled away at the ranch somewhere he didn’t know about. Regardless, he’d play the cards dealt him. He really did hate the idea of Scott being killed, as advantageous to himself though it might prove. It was silly, but he liked him. Surely Scott would be a gratefully loyal brother and decline to mention the attempted hanging. After all, look at how loyal he’d been to his worthless brother. Ian hadn’t killed anybody, and the man he’d tried to kill had been a killer himself, someone society would be better off without. Scott had a tendency to see good in people that wasn’t there; surely he would see that what Ian had done was done for the right reasons.

Both Val and Sam had peppered him with questions the entire wild buggy ride there. What had Johnny said? How had he acted? Had he put up any fight? How had he gotten away? Was he hurt? Was Scott hurt? Who were these other people?

And he answered between jolts and jumps as the buggy cavorted along the roadway. Johnny had confessed, gave no reason why he did it, seemed to be drunk most of the time, wasn’t hurt except for a hurt hand, had been hiring out for a range war, killing people for pennies. He and his cohort had escaped by shooting Scott and killing two good men. Scott’s leg wound was almost certainly infected, and he might even be delirious. But they both felt fortunate to have escaped with their lives.

Teresa met them at the door with the news that Murdoch had taken another turn for the worse. Sam hurried up the stairs while Val explained the situation with Scott to Teresa and Ian headed for the safe. He made a show of fishing around in Murdoch’s drawer to find the combination, although he knew it by heart. He flung open the door, sat back on his heels, and slowly pulled the cash out. “This doesn’t look like enough,” he said, shaking his head dejectedly.

It wasn’t, he knew that without counting it. He knew it was exactly $207. Maybe that would be enough. He knew where there was more, but this is what the ledgers said would be there, and nobody had any reason to expect he could pull an extra thousand or so out of his pockets. He did, for show, run up to his room and rush back down with $64. Val pitched in $3, Sam came up with $20, and Teresa and Anna surprised him with $16 between them. That made $310. Not enough, and not a hope the hands could pitch in enough to make up the difference. And no time to get to the bank.

“You think you can bluff this fellow?” Val asked.

Ian thought of Deeter, wondered if he could count past the number of fingers on his hands. “I’m not so sure.”

***

Vom kept hurrying back and forth between his horse and Deeter, trying to get the animal ready and keep Deeter cooled. Scott looked on in amusement.

“You know if you untied me, I could tend to him.”

“Yeah, or go get the money. I’m sure you’d be just as trustworthy with either job, eh?”

Deeter moaned, his loudest yet, and then started thrashing as though having a fit. Vom rushed to him and emptied the rest of his canteen on his face, then tried to grab his arms. “Shit! Steady down, boy, dammit, be still!”

“You surely don’t intend to leave him here like that?” Scott raised his brow and wiggled his hands, demonstrating how little he could help as he was.

Vom was fishing through the wagon that been pushed up next to the cave. “Where the hell’s the water?”

Scott shrugged. “I don’t think genius there bothered to refill when we had a chance. That’s probably it.”

Vom had gone back to Deeter, and knelt beside him feeling his forehead. “Shit, he’s burning up. I’ll take him with me, stop at the creek and dunk him in.”

“He’s got more wrong with him than a fever. You didn’t see what that man did to him. I expect he has some broken ribs, possibly internal bleeding, maybe even in his head. You put him up on a horse, you’ll kill him.” Scott watched Vom pump Deeter’s arm and try to turn him on his side. “What are you doing? Have you even checked to see if his pupils are working correctly? Or if he has blood in his ears, or in his urine?”

When Vom looked blank, Scott explained what to look for. Sure enough, one of Deeter’s pupils did not respond to light as it should. Vom balked at pulling down Deeter’s pants to check for blood, eyeing Scott suspiciously, but Scott finally convinced him the boy had to urinate anyway. It appeared he already had done so, and the evidence was tinged pink.

Vom checked his watch again, rubbed his face. “I ain’t got no choice. I gotta go get the money or all this shit’s for nuthin. I’ll bring water back. You better hope Sinclair came through. And Deeter better be alive when I get back or he ain’t gonna be alone in his grave.”

Scott struggled partway to his feet. “He needs a doctor! If he dies, it’s going to be your fault, not mine. And exactly what do you plan to do with him when you come back, assuming he actually is still alive? If you were smart, you’d untie me and let me go for Doc Jenkins now!”

Vom grabbed Scott by his collar and threw him back against the wall. “If I was smart, I’d have rode away when I heard our job was on Lancer land! And I’d have killed you the first time I saw you. But I ain’t so dumb I’d believe for one second you’d be rushing to bring back help for this kid. Hell, you claim to be Johnny’s brother, and you was trying to put a damn rope around his neck. Kinda says a lot about what kind of fellow you are, don’t it? The kid’ll take his chances with me when I get back.”

“You’re taking him? I’m surprised you don’t just desert him. Seems to be your way. Where’d you say Johnny was, by the way?”

“He knows how to find me, if that’s what he wants. I’d be worrying about my own hide right now if I was you. Like I said, anything happens to Deeter, you’re gonna be the one to pay.” Vom shoved Scott over to the wagon and pushed him down next to it, securing his hands to the wheel behind him.

Then he was gone, his horse’s hoofbeats fading into the distance. After awhile even Deeter quit moaning. After even longer, Scott couldn’t tell if he was still breathing.

“Deeter! Deeter, wake up!”

All he could hear was the wind picking up outside, the sound of brush limbs fingering each other, like hands rubbing in anticipation of something. What, Scott didn’t know.

“Deeter!”

 

Chapter 64

It wasn’t exactly what he’d call a posse. More like three fellows who tracked so damn slow Johnny spent half his time trying to think of things to do while he waited, or backtracking to make sure his tracks were obvious enough. Dios, this was giving him a headache. Although to be honest, that probably had more to do with the glaring sun and the empty whiskey bottle he’d left for them to find.

He was sitting with one leg slung forward over his saddle horn, looking down between the tree limbs from his position at the top of a rise. He pulled his hat down further over his eyes and watched them wander back and forth at the fork in the trail below like brain-damaged squirrels. Maybe he should just shout to them. He’d hate to have them give up and decide to follow Vom. Although now that he considered it, there didn’t seem to be too much danger in them finding him, either.

Still, he wished they tracked a little faster. He’d like to be far enough away he could lose them without fearing they’d take off to the north. He watched with disbelief as the three finally seemed to make up their minds, picked up their pace, and headed down the wrong fork.  

He tapped his fingers on his leg impatiently. Maybe he had time to go into that town he’d just skirted and pick up a bottle. This was plain getting tedious. Tedious? Shit, another fucking fancy-assed word. Maybe he should just shoot them all before they drove him completely over the edge.

***

The damn wind kept blowing sand in his face, but he could see well enough to see it wasn’t there. Still, he walked around the boulder one more time, scanned the surrounding area yet again, then disgustedly kicked sand up so it sprinkled against the big rock’s side. This was the boulder, this was the place, and Sinclair was a lying cheating bastard. Not that he had expected much different. He’d have probably fallen over had the money actually been there. Story of his life, really, he was used to disappointment. That was one thing. But that kid lying back there in that cave, with the big plan and the big hopes, that was another. He didn’t deserve this. Deeter didn’t know yet that life was just one big fucking disappointment after another. Damn fool kid.

He’d like to shove some disappointment into Sinclair’s life. Oh, sure, the fellow claimed to have his sorrows, what with his dear mommy getting killed and all, but hell, everybody lost their mama, just some sooner than others. Difference was, at the end of the day, Sinclair went home to a fancy meal and a soft bed. He knew plenty of men, like himself, like Deeter and Johnny, who had no home to go to, half the time had no meal to eat, no bed to sleep in. As much as he lectured his boys against violence for vengeance, Sinclair had him wishing he could break his own rule, wrap his hands around his scrawny neck and squeeze until his eyes bugged out. Instead he mounted his horse and headed back. He’d been away too long already.

When he got to the top of the rise that marked the edge of the area Scott had identified as Rocky Meadow, he stopped to take one last look. Rocks, hills, and grass stretched out in every direction, the wind whipping the grass up in places, sending up tiny dust storms in others. He was just turning away when one dust storm, more persistent that the others, caught his eye.

Riders. Two of them. He jumped off his horse and led him beyond the rise, then returned to watch on his belly. They’d stopped, seemed to be discussing something, then one stayed in place while the other rode on toward the boulder. A blond. Sinclair. He watched him circle the boulder, look all around, then drop a small sack next to it before spurring his horse back to where the other rider waited. Then both riders loped off, until only dust swirled in their wake and then blew away.

Vom waited, finally pushing himself up. He appeared to be alone. Still, they could be hiding just out of sight, waiting for him. This was a stupid plan, for just this reason. He waited, knowing that he couldn’t dawdle too long, not with Deeter back there. A large bird circled in the distance, slowly descending until it landed on the ground. Vom studied it, wished he had its patience. He studied it some more. If riders were nearby, the bird wouldn’t just be sitting there. But it seemed to be at ease, pruning its feathers.

That was good enough for him. He mounted up and and galloped to the boulder, jumping off just long enough to grab the sack, and galloped back. When he looked over his shoulder, nobody appeared to be following. But he could swear the bird was watching him.

Despite his impatience to get back to Deeter, he covered his tracks carefully, taking a roundabout route, just as he had on his way there. It still appeared nobody was following. Taking a deep breath, he gave in to his curiosity, pulled his horse to a halt, tugged at the strings securing the sack, and looked inside.

“Cocksuckers.”

***

Anna handed Dr. Jenkins another bandage. He’d once again cleaned Murdoch’s wound. The doctor had expressed his confusion over why the wound kept getting reinfected, lecturing her and Teresa on the steps taken to properly clean a wound and change a dressing. Like they were idiots.

“I just don’t understand why it keeps on getting infected,” he said, shaking his head as he tied the bandage on.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” Teresa said. “He’ll seem like he’s getting better, then all of a sudden he’ll be as a sick as ever. Maybe he’ll be better once he sees Scott is back.”

“And Ian,” Anna added.

“Oh yes, of course. I just hope everything goes alright out there.”

Anna hoped so too. She chastised herself for not insisting Scott stay rather than take off after Ian and Johnny. Her future depended on her becoming the next Mrs. Lancer. True, ranch life wasn’t really her cup of tea, but one step at a time. Scott was from Boston. Surely he couldn’t really be happy living away from a city.

“Well, they’re both very capable young men, and Val’s along with Ian. I’m sure they’ll be just fine. Not that I plan on budging from here until they get back. In fact, if you don’t mind, I may stay the night so I can watch Murdoch a little longer.”

“Sam, that would be wonderful. You know you always have a room here.”

“Forget the room, as long as I get one of your fine meals,” he said, winking. Just then a tangle of orange fur waddled into the room. Sam raised his brow at Anna. “That fancy pooch of yours seems to be putting on some weight. I guess ranch food agrees with her, eh?”

Anna gathered her into her arms. “She’s with pups. Lancer will have the distinction of being the birthplace of the first Peking Palace dogs born in America.” Even as she said it a sense of dread filled her. What if her darling Ming really had been sullied by that filthy mutt of Johnny’s? What if the babies she carried were themselves mutts? Ming struggled to get down, so Anna gently placed her on the bed. The dog sauntered up next to Murdoch and tentatively licked his face.

“Anna, have you been letting this dog on the bed with him?” Sam asked, frowning.

“I really don’t think he would be happy about having a dog in his bed,” Teresa added, reaching for Ming. Ming raised her lip, and Teresa pulled her hand back.

“Nonsense! Ming is very clean, and Murdoch likes having her in his bed. He asked for her, the last time he was awake.” Nonetheless, she pulled Ming away and set her on the floor, where she started snuffling around.

“He must have been delirious then,” Teresa said. “Murdoch doesn’t even approve of dogs in the house. I really don’t think he’d want one in his bed.”

“He told Mum it was fine for Ming and Tang to be in the house.”

“Yes, I know, but I don’t think he meant in his bed.”

“Ladies,” Sam interrupted, holding his hand up, “regardless of Murdoch’s wishes, his doctor is ordering no dogs on the bed. We don’t know what’s causing his infection to keep flaring up, so we have to do whatever we can just in case. Now Anna, I’m sure your Ming is as clean as the rest of us, but humor me, won’t you?”

“Of course, Sam. You know I wouldn’t do anything that would put Murdoch’s health at risk.”

“I know. Both of you ladies have been a godsend. He’s a lucky man.”

Teresa frowned. “He doesn’t seem all that lucky right now.”

Anna put her hand over Teresa’s and tried to smile encouragingly. The old coot didn’t know how lucky he was to still be alive.

 

Chapter 65

Vom didn’t even slow down when he strode past Scott into the cave to where he’d left Deeter, falling to his knees as soon as he reached him.

“He’s not responding,” Scott called after him. He was still tied to the wagon wheel, out of sight of Deeter.

“Deeter! Wake the fuck up!” He slapped his face softly, then with more of a smack. No reaction. It felt like he was slapping cold meat.

“Vom, he needs a doctor, and you know it. You’ve got your money, so let me go, and I’ll get one. Or I’ll take him now.

“Money? You’re dreaming, boy. Sinclair didn’t show, or at least, his money didn’t.” Then just in case he could understand, he whispered in Deeter’s ear, “Your plan worked, boy. We’re rich, you just gotta get well so we can go spend it!”

Deeter just lay there, the next best thing to a corpse. His funny pupil was still messed up, and he’d pissed himself, leaving a redder stain than before. And now his belly seemed kind of bulgy. Vom had lost enough friends to know this was bad. Deeter wasn’t riding anywhere anytime soon. Maybe never, unless he got a doctor. And that was just it; Vom always said if you were so bad off only a doctor could fix you, then it was the natural way of things that you should maybe just go ahead and die. Doctors were mostly quacks anyway, couldn’t fix you. Just take your money, give you some snake oil and promises.

One thing was for sure: Vom couldn’t fix Deeter.

Scott was rattling on, something about Sinclair and the money, his father and Lancer, but Vom paid him no mind. Where the hell was Johnny? He’d had plenty of time to find them. Unless having Clive dead in his room somehow affected him. No, more than likely Johnny just lit out on his own. It’d be nice if Johnny were here to help, but he wasn’t, so now Vom had to figure on getting along without him. Without Deeter, either, looked like.

Shit. Deeter needed a doctor.

He could send Scott for this doctor, but who knew if he’d really come back. He could send Deeter with Scott, but what was to stop Scott from just dumping the boy beside the trail? He could ride to town, find the doctor, hold him at gunpoint and force him to come here. He gave that idea some serious thought. He’d have to plan on having the doctor out here for a long time, probably, and the sheriff would be bound to come looking. And what if Deeter needed an operation? This dark cave was no place for that, unless maybe they emptied the doctor’s clinic and brought everything with them to the cave. And if they did it outside, with the wind like it was, he’d end up with a gut full of sand. Vom was no doctor, but he was pretty sure that couldn’t be good. He took off his jacket and laid it over the boy.

He could just leave. Deeter probably wasn’t going to make it anyhow.

He should just leave. Scott was so keen for Deeter to have a doctor, let him worry about it. He had the money stashed away, not as much as he’d hoped, but enough to maybe start a new life for himself in his old age.

Thanks to that idiot kid.

Shit, shit, son of a cocksucking bitch! Fuck! “Where can we take him?”

***

Deeter hadn’t made a sound when they loaded him in the wagon, nor had he shown any signs of life as the wagon bumped along the road. Scott had convinced Vom to take the boy to Lancer because the much longer trip to town would be too much for him. Once there, they could send for Sam. And there was even a chance Sam would be there tending to Murdoch. Scott’s insides clenched as he wondered how his father was doing. He avoided letting his eyes wander to the hill where Florence was buried. He wouldn’t be able to see any new mound from this distance anyway, certainly not in the fading light of dusk. And he wouldn’t want to find out that way. He wanted to find out by having Murdoch wave to him from the doorway as they drove under the arch.

Vom flicked the reins to urge the horses up an incline. The road pitched the wagon to one side, causing Scott, his hands tied behind his back, to lean into Vom to keep from sliding off the slick bench seat.

“I suspect you’ll be better received if you untie me before we get there.”

Vom didn’t take his eyes off the road. “Yeah, well I expect I’ll be better received if I put a bullet in Sinclair’s head right off. So what say we compromise, you just stay like you are?”

Scott had to hold himself back from commenting that Vom’s idea concerning Sinclair didn’t sound so bad. Not after he didn’t even show up with the ransom. Only problem, Vom just might do it. Instead he said, “Listen, you have my word no harm will come to you or the boy, as long as you don’t threaten anyone. My father is in charge here, and he’s a fair man.”

Vom turned to check on Deeter, who had slid a little bit, but seemed alright. Only when he turned back forward did he speak. “Your father, huh? Same one you say is Johnny’s? Yeah, I heard all about what a fair man he is. Think I’ll put my trust in my gun.” Then he winked, as though Scott should be in on the joke.

It was only a moment after that, while Scott was still trying to think of something convincing to say, when the shout from the ranch lookout announced their wagon approaching, and Scott felt the muzzle of Vom’s pistol at his throat. He suspected Vom was not open to further suggestions.

Scott wondered if he’d made the right choice convincing Vom to bring Deeter in, essentially inviting a hired killer to their home. He stopped that thought, cursing himself for sounding like Ian.

Vom pulled the wagon right up to the veranda out front just as the door opened and Ian and Val appeared. Ian wasn’t wearing a gun, and Val’s hand stopped halfway to his when he saw where Vom’s gun was pressing.

Val spoke as casually as if he was ordering a beer. “Mister, I can’t think of any reason good enough for you to be holding a gun to Scott, so why don’t you just put it down.”

Ian, though, was practically jumping from foot to foot. “It’s one of them! Vom Jacobsen! Where’s the other?” Then he looked at Vom. “What did you do, shoot Deeter so you could claim all the ransom?”

“How’s Murdoch?” Scott blurted, just as Teresa eased out the door. He’d noticed right off Murdoch’s dreaded absence.

“Scott!” Her hands flew to her face when she took in the situation, before taking a deep breath and replying, “Murdoch’s upstairs, still in bed. Sam’s here now.”

“How is he? Wait—Sam’s here? We have a sick man, in the back.”

“Not Johnny!” Teresa was already rushing to the rear of the wagon.

“No, no...Johnny’s—”

“Johnny’s got his rifle aimed at Sinclair’s chest,” broke in Vom, glancing back toward some cover. “So listen up. I got a sick man back here needs tendin’ by a doctor. He don’t make it, I’m gonna make sure he has company on his way to hell, startin’ with Scott. Anything happens to me, my boy Johnny’s gonna just start shootin’.”

“Johnny wouldn’t do that!” exclaimed Teresa, backing away from the wagon once she saw the unfamiliar boy in it. “Tell him, Scott!”

“Say a word, boy, and I’ll blow a nut off,” Vom whispered in Scott’s ear. Scott wasn’t entirely sure he believed that, but it didn’t seem worth finding out. Besides, it just might help keep Ian in line, something that might prove difficult once he saw who the patient was.

Sure enough, when Ian saw Deeter in the back, he started to protest, announcing he was both a murderer and a kidnapper, in cahoots with Johnny and Vom. Scott quietly asked Ian what he thought they should do instead—maybe lynch him? That seemed to shut him up.

Scott directed some hands ease Deeter to the rear of the wagon, while sending Teresa for Sam. He thought one of the ground level guest rooms would work best as a sick room, especially since Sam might have to operate. Vom did not object. For once.

“Um, Mr. Lancer?” It was Wilbur, who was at Deeter’s head. “I don’t mean to be picky or nuthin, but I’m not so sure we shouldn’t be cartin’ him to the undertaker. I don’t think he’s breathing.”

He hadn’t finished saying it before Vom scrambled over the back of the bench and into the wagon bed next to Deeter, forgetting about Scott as he ripped Deeter’s shirt open and laid his head on his chest. He seemed to be concentrating so hard, he didn’t even react when Val cocked his gun behind him.

 

Chapter 66

He pushed open the door and called out. But it was like the others: deserted. The floor was cleanly swept, the dishes put away in the cupboard. At the last shack, the people had broken every dish before they left. He bent down and picked up a child’s toy, left behind. He’d seen it plenty of times before. People who had to leave in a hurry, the lucky ones with a wagon and burro, the rest with their own backs, maybe a burro. He’d made that midnight exit enough times when he was a kid to know toys didn’t get to make the trip.

Johnny didn’t know why he’d come back. Maybe the outside chance the range war was still going on, he could still make some money. But Figg’s old camp was empty, the campfires cold. And the area where the hired guns had camped next to Fremont’s ranch was just as forlorn.

The empty shacks told him which side had won. That, and all the fly-festooned sheep, shot to death, he’d passed on the way. Some cattle, too, which was curious, only they hadn’t been shot.

He snooped around in the shack’s cupboards, looking for something to eat. Better him than Fremont’s men. He’d hole up here for the night, maybe head south tomorrow. Despite his best efforts, he hadn’t been able to keep the posse on his tail, and he’d finally given up and ridden off. He didn’t think they’d be finding Vom.

He wasn’t going to find him, either. Wasn’t going to look for him. Whatever Vom’s reasons for riding off in search of Deeter, one thing was clear. It wasn’t safe for Johnny to ride with either of them, not with this bounty on his head. They’d both shown their colors as far as that was concerned. He’d ridden alone most of his life, and there was a good reason for that. You were more likely to keep on riding, instead of hanging.

He found some beans, but they’d have to be soaked a long time before he could cook them. But who cared? He’d struck gold: a half bottle of tequila, sitting right out. He sucked on it while he checked the rest of the shack. Some blankets hung across the back, probably separating the sleeping area from the rest of the room. He pulled one back.

When you’re stumbling backwards, trying to go for your own gun without spilling your bottle, it’s hard to look beyond the barrel of the shotgun pointed at you to who’s got their hand on its trigger. Then again, someone that pretty, it was hard not to.

***

“Really, Sam, I’m fine. You must be exhausted.”

Sam pointed to Scott’s bed, where he’d ordered Scott to go a half hour ago. Instead, Sam had found him here, in Murdoch’s room. “Fine isn’t taking two steps and falling on your face. You’re feverish, dehydrated, and look to be half starved. Now let’s take a look at that leg.”

Scott started to pull down his pants but stopped when Anna came in, carrying some broth. He smiled, nodding his thanks, grateful he hadn’t been a little faster with his pants. She must have been spending too much time with Teresa.

“Thank you, dear,” Sam said. “And could you bring the bandaging materials from Murdoch’s room? And ask Teresa to bring Scott some willow bark tea?”

Once she left, Sam turned to Scott. “That girl has turned into a first rate nurse. She’s the one who should be exhausted. Hardly left your father’s side.”

Scott had noticed how she hovered over Murdoch when he’d gone to see him. Murdoch had been sleeping, but Sam assured him the fever wasn’t high at the moment.

He sat on the bed, stalling in anticipation of Anna’s return. “Do you really think that kid has a chance?”

He didn’t get to answer before Anna came back in with the bandages. When she made no effort to leave, Sam asked her to go check on the tea. And to close the door behind her. He locked it, smiling at Scott, after she left. “She really is a good nurse.”

Scott wriggled out of his pants, trying not to hiss when they stuck to his wound. He leaned back against the headboard and tried to ignore the stern look Sam shot at him as he took in the festering sore. “I did the best I could.”

“Yeah, well, don’t go into doctoring, be that the case.” He gently prodded the wound, while Scott hoped he wouldn’t notice him gripping the sheets.

“The boy?” he asked, trying to keep his mind off Sam’s exam.

“I don’t know. Like I said, he’s bleeding internally, probably from his spleen. Now, if he gets really bad, I could possibly operate and remove the spleen. You can live without one. It’s been done, but I’ve never done it. If he really killed Ian’s mother, like Ian says, I almost hate to put him through all that just to hang.” He finished cleaning the wound and reached for the bandages. “Regardless, I’d rather give it a chance to quit bleeding on its own. It’s not bleeding too fast, so it’s more likely a nick or something little that can possibly mend.”

“How’s Vom taking it?”

“The man who kidnapped you?”

“He didn’t, really. He was just desperate to get help for Deeter, didn’t know who he could trust.”

“Well, Ian had him put in the guardhouse. I guess Val’s going to take him to jail.”

“No!” Scott pushed himself up, grabbing the side of the bed as he swayed. “He should stay with Deeter. He gave up his freedom for him. Besides, he’s Johnny’s friend. I promised him. Get Val.”

***

He tried his smile. She didn’t smile back. But she no longer had a shotgun pointed at him. That wasn’t as good news as it sounded. She’d switched to his pistol, the one with the hair trigger. The one she’d made him throw on the straw bed next to her, along with his bottle.

She carried the shotgun in her left hand while she backed toward the door. He took a step toward her, just as a bullet kicked up splinters from the floorboard, close enough to his toes to convince him she meant to just miss him. Pretty and a good aim. He smiled again, broader this time. It lasted only until another bullet pinged at his feet.

“I told you, I don’t mean you any harm!”

“It doesn’t look to me like you’re exactly in any position to do me any, and I plan to leave it that way.” She came as close to a smile as she had so far. Actually, it was more like a smirk. She kept backing out the door, over to his palomino.

“Hey! Now don’t go getting on my horse, lady.” He took a tentative step forward, jumped back just as fast as the bullet almost took off the toe of his boot. “Damn! Watch it!”

“You watch it,” she said, untying the horse with the same hand she held the shotgun. She bobbled the shotgun as she pulled up her skirt and mounted, but still managed to keep the pistol aimed generally in his direction, close enough he didn’t feel like risking it.

“You can’t take my horse! What am I supposed to do?”

“Finish off that bottle you stole, I suppose.” She turned the horse and kicked him into a trot.

He didn’t know why he did it, but he whistled, a loud, shrill whistle that, to his surprise, had the horse stopping, protesting her efforts to get him going, partially unseating her as she struggled to hang on to the shotgun in one hand and the pistol in the other. Rushing to her while she was still hanging half off the saddle, he wrenched the pistol from her and grabbed her before she hit the ground. She’d already dropped the shotgun. He picked her up and tried to drag her under one arm, she was that little, but she bit him. He yelled out in protest and dropped her.

She scrambled away on the ground before regaining her feet. Johnny held up his hands. “Lady, I ain’t got no problem with being on my way.”

He turned his attention to the horse, speaking soothingly to it while it bobbed its head and walked around nervously. A runaway horse would be all he needed, leave him stuck in this shack with a crazy woman. He watched her out of the corner of his eye. A very beautiful crazy woman, with dark hair and blazing eyes, and a delicate mouth you’d never guess could bite so hard. The horse turned away and he lunged for its trailing rein before it could get other ideas. It had responded to his whistle, just liked he’d trained his pinto, damn he missed that pinto, but who knew how long he’d had this horse, or how reliable it really was if it were spooked.

He held tight to the rein while the horse gave a snort and half-hearted rear, but he soon had the animal calmed. That’s when he noticed her out of the corner of his eye again. Only this time, he wasn’t so much noticing how pretty her face was, or even her dainty hand. It was the shiny knife that her dainty hand was plunging toward him that really caught his attention.

 

Chapter 67

This time he’d tied her hands behind her, and pushed her back inside the shack and onto a chair. It wouldn’t do for somebody to ride by and see him with a woman tied up.

“You’re a dead man,” she hissed.

He’d recovered the bottle of tequila and now took a long sip before answering, “Funny, I’m still breathing.”

“You won’t be when my man finds out.”

Johnny looked all around, under the table, then shrugged. “He don’t appear to be around.”

“I know why you’re here. He sent you, didn’t he? To kill me.”

That made him stop mid-swig. “What? You mean this same man of yours that’s going to kill me? Sounds like kind of a violent sort, you ask me.” He broke into a grin. “Your kind of fellow, huh?”

“Shut your mouth! You know who I’m talking about. Your boss.”

“Lady, I ain’t got a boss, but if you know where I can get a job killing people, just point me to him and I’ll be out of your hair. But I don’t kill no women.” He knew that last part was a lie, but he sure didn’t plan on killing any more of them.

She narrowed her eyes and glared at him.

This seemed like a good time to leave. “Give me your hands, I’ll retie ’em in front so’s you can get loose once I’m far enough away you can’t go bitin’ or shootin’ or stabbin’ me.”

“No! You can’t leave me! Martin—Mr. Fremont—he’ll have me killed!”

That made him pause. “Fremont? I thought he just run everyone off. He ain’t got no cause to go killing one little lady all by herself. Even one tough as you.”

“Yes, he does.” Suddenly she didn’t look so tough anymore. She took a big breath, but her voice came out tiny. “He, uh, I, I’m carrying his child! And he wants us both dead!”

Johnny didn’t know what to say. He knew Fremont was married, although he’d never gotten a glimpse of his wife. This girl was young enough to be his daughter. She was Mexican, but wasn’t dressed like a Mexican. In fact, her clothes looked expensive, like a riding outfit a lady would wear. Not like she lived in this shack.

“Oh. Well, uh, where’s your family?”

“They used to live here. So did I. Until Martin offered me a job in town, at his saloon. Dancing. And selling favors. I brought money home, but when my father found out how I earned it, he told me to stay away, keep my money.” She must have gotten her courage back, because suddenly she looked like she could bite him again. “Mister, don’t you go passing judgment until you been in a situation where you don’t have a choice. It was that, or marry the first goat herder who asked. And the way it was going, it looked like that was going to be a man who would have treated me as bad as he did his goats. Damn, you don’t want to hear all this. Just untie me, go on your way!”

“So everybody left? They turn over their land to him?” Not that they really had to.  The deal on these homestead properties was that you had to live there five years before you could get a deed to the land, and if you vacated it for more than six months before then the land was up for grabs again. It would be Fremont’s by default soon enough now. All he had to do was get other family members to claim it, or when he ran out of family, make a deal where he’d buy it dirt cheap from somebody who would claim it in name only. Lots of ways to fix a fake homestead.

“What do you know about that?” She looked him over, like she was just seeing him for the first time. “You’re a hired gun, aren’t you? Were you working for him?”

“No, ma’am. I mean, yeah, I’m a gunfighter. But I was hired on the side against Fremont. Name’s Johnny.” He figured it was smarter not to mention his last name.

“Oh, and now you’re here expecting to be paid? That’s not my problem. You didn’t even win.”

“No, no, that’s not why I’m here.” Although it would be nice. But it wasn’t unusual to get stiffed when you were on the losing side. Gave you more motivation to win. “Here, I’ll just untie you, be on my way.”

“I’ll hire you.”

That stopped him. “What? To do what?”

“I have money in the bank. I’ll pay you to kill Fremont.”

“Now hold on lady, no, I think I’ll pass on that. Sounds like a good way to get my neck stretched.” Not that he didn’t already practically have a date for that. All the more reason to keep on riding. He finished untying her hands, indicated she could get up.

But she sat there, rubbing her hands. And she started sobbing. Shit.

“Ah, come on, uh, Miss, I’m sorry, you never told me your name...”

“Analena, or just Lena, really,” she said between sobs. “Martin said he’d take care of me. I did everything I could not to be with child, and I tried to, to do away with it, but it wants to be born. And Martin, Mr. Fremont, he says he won’t be the father of a mestizo, and if it’s born, he’ll kill it, and me too. He’ll kill me to make sure it’s not born. To make sure nobody finds out.”

Johnny stood wondering if she was feeding him a line. It was obvious what he was, mestizo. But she couldn’t know his own father had kicked him and his mama out for just the same crime. Maybe Mama had feared for their lives, too. She’d sure acted like it some of those times they’d been on the run. “How much?”

“What?”

“How much will you pay to get rid of him?”

Broke as he was, the short money didn’t sound all that bad. Not to kill a bastard like that.

***

The boy rode out with the telegram from the sheriff in White Springs around noon the next day. A man had been killed in their hotel. They’d chased a man who’d fled from the room where the dead man was, but lost him. The undertaker found a flyer for Johnny Madrid on the dead man’s body. It matched the fleeing man’s description. Said to contact Ian Sinclair. Dead man was named Clive Edmund.

They’d all been there, all those who could sit at a table and eat: Scott, Ian, Val, Sam, Teresa, Anna. When Ian finished reading it aloud Anna gasped and excused herself and ran from the room. Teresa followed to check on her, while Sam left to see how Deeter was doing.

“I’ll leave tomorrow,” said Ian, swallowing his tea quickly. “This time I’ll take some hands.”

“No. This time you’ll stay right here.” Scott placed his napkin on the table beside his plate.

Ian raised his brows. “What’s that, brother?”

“I said you’re not going after him.”

“Last time I looked, you weren’t my boss.”

“Last time I looked, you weren’t anybody’s boss. You’re certainly not ordering Lancer hands to go anywhere. Oh, and last time I looked, you weren’t my brother, so I’d appreciate it if you didn’t call me that.”

Ian flung his napkin down. “You want to play it that way, fine! You can do the explaining to Murdoch when he gets better. I think he was abundantly clear that he expected me to share in this ranch equally with you and that halfbreed killer you seem to think so much of. Meanwhile, I’ll go by myself again.”

“I understand attempted lynching is punishable by a rather lengthy sentence, isn’t it, Val?” Scott asked.

Val looked surprised, but assured him it was. And that anyone accused of it would have to be locked up in his jail until the circuit judge got back in town.

“I see what your game is. You got one brother out of the way, figure you might as well try for two. Then when Murdoch dies, you’ll be sitting pretty, won’t you?”

He’d never thrown himself across a table before, but before he knew it he was lying in leftovers with his hands around Ian’s neck. Val was shouting for him to stop, but he didn’t seem like he was in a big hurry to pull him off, and in fact, Scott could have sworn the sheriff was holding back a laugh. But Val finally ambled over and grabbed Scott by the back of the shirt and pulled him back into his seat. Ian was sputtering, gasping for breath.

“That how they clear the table in Boston?” Val asked Scott, a hint of a smile on his face.

Scott looked at the mess all over the tablecloth and the front of his favorite tan shirt. He couldn’t believe he’d snapped like that. “Ian, I apologize...”

“Is that how they get rid of family members in Boston?” snarled Ian, flicking some crumbs off his shirt. “Why don’t you arrest him, Sheriff? Or are you on his payroll?”

There was still a serving bowl of chili on the table. Until Scott dumped the whole thing down Ian’s front. “No, but this is how we clear the table of trash at Lancer. Now get out of my sight before I do something I actually regret.”

Val looked from one to the other, then leaned his chair back and looked at the chili on the floor. “Damn, Scott, I wanted seconds.”

 

Chapter 68

After he’d changed his shirt, Scott limped over toward Deeter’s room to see how things were going. His own fever had kept him down more than he would have guessed, and this was his first chance to see Deeter or Vom. He’d ended up sleeping right through breakfast and had only awakened shortly before noon, and then he’d gone to see Murdoch. Sam said he was doing better.

He was glad Sam hadn’t seen his outburst at the table. That just wasn’t like him. Maybe he could blame that on the fever, too. Only he didn’t think so. He’d had it with it Ian trying to take over, with his holier than thou attitude especially when it came to Johnny. And he planned to find out just what happened as far as that ransom was concerned. First, though, he wanted to talk to Vom.

Val had assured him he’d brought Vom to sit with the boy for several hours, cuffing him to the bed when he couldn’t watch him closely. Deeter was over in the guest room across the courtyard, where Scott had suggested he be put. At least somebody still seemed to be following his orders.

The courtyard was one of his favorite places on the hacienda, and he tilted his head back to inhale the scent of Teresa’s flowers. When he looked around he noticed Anna sitting on a bench, watching him. He knew he shouldn’t be cross at her just because of her brother. She was the one who’d done so much for Murdoch, according to Sam. So he smiled and nodded. He sure hoped she hadn’t heard what he’d just done to Ian. How embarrassing.

Her warm smile told him she didn’t know about the chili incident. Despite that, he wasn’t too happy when she called him over and scooted over on the bench, giving him room to sit. He really wanted to talk to Vom.

“You left the table rather suddenly,” he said politely. “Is everything alright?”

“I apologize for my rude behavior. It’s just—the thought of Johnny out there, killing someone else. Just knowing what that poor dead man’s family must be going through, it hit too close to home.”

“We don’t know that Johnny killed that man. The telegram didn’t go into a lot of detail.”

She smiled again at him, this time a kind of sad smile. “You’re a good man, Scott, and you’re a good brother to Johnny. After spending so much time with Murdoch, I see where you get your goodness. But I don’t think Johnny got it, even if he shares the same father as you and Ian. Maybe it was his mother, I don’t know. But Scott, don’t let your good nature blind you to what he’s done, what he still can do.”

“You’re wrong.” He felt his face flushing with controlled anger. “It may not seem like it to you, but Johnny has a good heart. Something’s wrong here, with this whole situation, and I need to find out what.” Even as he said it, he knew his words must sound hollow to somebody who held his brother responsible for her mother's death.

She clutched his hands suddenly, saying, “No, Scott, don’t go after him. I was worried sick about both you and Ian last time. Please, let the law handle it. Your father needs you.” She raised her eyes to his, and her lips quivered as she spoke. “I need you.”

He gave her hands a reassuring squeeze, then stood. “My father will understand, if that’s what needs to be done. I need to talk to Vom first, if you’ll excuse me.”

“Oh, Scott, wait!” She rose and walked toward him, reaching out one hand to brush against his neck, then holding up a finger to him, her eyes twinkling. “You still have some chili on your neck.”

***

Everyone had cleared out days ago, Lena said, headed east in search of new homesteads. It was either that, or wait for Fremont’s men to kill all their sheep and burn them out. Besides, all of their cattle, what few of them they’d had, had taken sick and died.

Lena couldn’t go with them, not carrying the child of the man who forced them out. She also couldn’t stay. At one time she’d suggested Fremont could give her a job cooking or cleaning at his ranch house, so the child could grow up there. That was when he told her the child better not grow up anywhere, certainly nowhere north of the border.

That was also when she lost her job. Fremont owned part of the saloon, although nobody knew it. He didn’t want his own men blaming him for the high price of beer or women. So when he’d told Toby, the manager, to give her a job, he had. And when he’d eventually demanded that she save her favors for only him, he still paid her enough money to make up for it and keep her room. And when he told Toby to kick her out, he did. She had quickly whisked away a tear when she recounted the last part.

That answered the question Johnny hadn’t wanted to ask: how she knew the child was Fremont’s. It didn’t really answer the question of how killing Fremont would make her life better, except for being able to stay in a town that seemed to have nothing left for her. Still, he could understand the sentiment. He felt like killing him himself. Actually, he’d hired on to do just that. Kill a bastard, and get paid for it. Things were looking up.

Even better, she’d brought a sack of food, and she wasn’t hungry.

He was working on his second hunk of bread topped with a thick slice of goat cheese when something she’d said occurred to him. “You say the cattle was dying? What of?”

She shrugged. “The men, they say poison. They say Fremont put poison in the creek.”

Johnny chewed some more, followed it with some water from his canteen. He’d chosen water over tequila after what she’d said about stealing the bottle. He’d enjoy it more tonight, away from her critical gaze. “That don’t make sense. He’d be poisoning his own stock, being downstream like he is. And why’d they shoot the sheep then? Could have just poisoned them, too. You see any of them cattle before they died?”

Lena scrunched up her face and nodded. “The first sign was the milk cows, they quit giving milk. Least that’s what my brother said. Then the ones that were sick just stood around with their heads down, and they acted stupid—”

“That ain’t hard for ’em...”

She gave him a vexed look and continued. “Then they started drooling, big ropes of it, and when they pissed, it was like blood. The men who touched them said they were hot. I saw one, it was bellowing like it hurt real bad, then it sort of plunged all around and finally flopped over deader than a steak.”

That wasn’t like anything he’d ever seen. Or wanted to. “Fremont’s cattle aren’t sick?”

“No. Although, when Martin—I mean, Fremont, was still spending time with me a month or so ago he did mention losing a lot of his stock he’d had for a long time. He was trying to sell them fast because he’d already started to replace them with longhorns he’d brought in, from Texas. Said they were hardier than the cattle most people have here.” She snorted and added, “I guess he was right. His longhorns are fine.”

Johnny didn’t know a damn thing about cattle, except how to rustle one once in a while. Still he found himself asking how long Fremont had had the longhorns, as though that were some sort of clue. And when she answered they’d only been there for about a month and a half, he heard himself saying, “Texas fever.”

And saw a gray-haired mountain of a man, the one he’d seen in his visions, only this time he was sitting behind a desk, and he could hear his deep voice saying Texas fever, warning of the threat of longhorns to European cattle, lecturing how the Mexican and European breeds could never be together. And with neither reason nor doubt he knew that man was Murdoch Lancer.

 

Chapter 69

She was looking at his hand. He’d left the bandage off for days now, but it was still swollen and stiff. He knew that, from trying to use it. “Faster than any of these cow hands,” he said.

She looked doubtful. She should be. Truth was, his hand hurt like hell every time he pulled the trigger, and he had to work at it so hard it jerked the gun this way and that. He might still be faster than a cow hand, but he might not actually hit anything. And he might not get off many shots before his hand started cramping.

A thought occurred to him. “The other ranchers around Fremont’s, they’re still there, right?”

She nodded. “Some of them. Some, you know, were paying for the guns to go against him, and they’ve mostly had to leave. The others, they really didn’t approve of what he was doing, at least not at first. As long as he didn’t try to get their ranches, which he couldn’t. They all have deeds, and they’re too big for him to take on. And as long as they weren’t downstream from him, he couldn’t control their water. He made them all happy with him by giving them some of his new longhorns, said the whole valley ought to start raising them.”

Johnny sucked in his breath. “You say he gave all the small ranchers some of the longhorns? And they have them now?”

When she nodded he continued. “He’s a real piece of work. Those longhorns, they’ll wipe out the rest of their stock. Something they do when they get with European cattle. Like they carry a disease or something doesn’t make them sick, but kills cattle that aren’t longhorns. Even kills cattle that cross where longhorns have been weeks before. Nobody knows why, but Murdoch thinks...”

She looked at him expectantly, but he didn’t know what to say next, didn’t know why he’d said what he just had. Had no idea how he knew all this, or especially, why he was spouting off stuff about Murdoch Lancer. Finally he shook his head, saying, “Their cattle are all gonna die, even if they get rid of the longhorns now. Then they’re gonna have a choice of buying longhorns from Fremont, probably at a price they can’t afford, or selling out to him. He’ll own the whole valley.  Reason he had to run off the homesteaders is they had sheep, wouldn’t be affected by it.”

“Some of the girls mentioned the hands from the ranches saying they had cattle that were dying like the homesteaders’ cattle did. They were blaming it on the sheep. That’s what Fremont told them.”

Johnny tapped his fingers on the table, feeling the pull of each finger as it struggled to maintain the rhythm. “I’m not so sure killing Fremont’s the best answer. Be fun, but the ranchers would blame the homesteaders, figure they hired somebody like me to sneak back and do it. Besides, I think it’d be more fun to let the ranchers find out just what he’s up to. Run him out of the valley.”

A smile slowly crept across Lena’s face. “The town doesn’t have a newspaper. But you could go to the saloon, tell everybody there. That’d be even faster.”

Johnny thought about his last time in Hardpan. The gunfight that turned into a fistfight, the scene he’d made with the dog, somebody calling him by name. The bounty everybody must know about now. He shook his head slowly. “Nope, I don’t think so. But I got another idea.”

***

At first Scott thought Sam was getting Deeter ready for a one-way trip to the cemetery. That’s how pale he was. But then he realized the doctor was feeling his pulse, and even nodding when he put Deeter’s wrist down. When Scott looked at him questioningly, Sam simply shrugged in that time-will-tell manner Scott had seen the army doctors use so often.

He turned when he heard thumping behind him and was pleased to see Val escorting Vom in. Vom went right to the bed.

“What are you doing to him?” Vom demanded, practically pushing Sam out of the way.

“Just checking his vitals. He’s no worse. No better, though.”

Vom squeezed Deeter’s cheeks until his mouth hinged open, then he pulled one lip way up to expose his gums. “Can’t you give him anything? What the hell kind of doctor are you?”

“Watch it,” cautioned Val. “Sam’s about as good as they come.”

“Well, we’ll see about that,” he said, letting go of Deeter’s lip and turning to Sam.  “Alright, well, is there something I can do?”

“We mostly need to keep him quiet. If he does wake up, we need to get him to eat some broth, get some liquids and nourishment back into him. You could keep watch, get him eating if you can. He might trust you more.”

“Yeah, yeah, I’ll do that. Come on Deeter, wake your lazy ass up, time to eat!” He’d turned back to Deeter, but now looked at the bowl of cold broth next to the bed. “Hell, he ain’t gonna eat that shit. Don’t you got some steak or something? I might got some jerky if you go fetch my saddlebags. He likes that.”

“Uh, no, only broth,” Sam said sternly. “He needs something easy to digest.”

“Hell, I always gave Johnny jerky when he was recovering, you see he’s still walking around just fine.”

Sam raised his brow but didn’t say anything. Val did, though. He said, “Actually, I don’t see Johnny walking around anywhere. Heard a report of him down in White Springs, though, along with a dead fellow named Clive Edmund. You know anything about that?”

Vom didn’t say anything for a while, then sat in the chair beside the bed, leaned back, and put his feet on Deeter’s bed. “Clive Edmund. Big money hired killer from up in San Francisco. Maybe Johnny heard he’d tried to kill his old man, saw to it he wouldn’t get a second chance. Then again, maybe it’s just coincidence.”

“What? Wait a minute!” Scott swooped Vom’s feet off the bed, a glimmer of hope igniting in him. “Nobody said anything about a hired killer shooting Murdoch! Unless you count Deeter. What are you trying to say?”

“Ain’t trying to say nuthin’. And Deeter sure as shit ain’t any hired killer, just got a big imagination.” He leaned back and placed his feet back on the bed, looking cockily at Scott. “Only don’t it seem awful peculiar a fancy hired killer like that would be in these parts? What with you havin’ a killin’ here not so long ago.”

“Listen, Vom, it’s not going to work.” Scott couldn’t hide the disappointment in his voice. “I heard Deeter mention some Clive fellow back on the trail. Now if what you say were true, why would he want to harm Deeter? Especially after Deeter told Ian and me that he killed Florence and Murdoch, or at least he thought he killed Murdoch.”

“Awe, stupid braggin’ fool,” Vom said, swatting at Deeter. “He’s just a kid trying to sound big. He ain’t never killed no one. Harmless as a gnat.”

“I thought both of you were somewhat employed in the hired killer business,” Scott said, unable to hide the sarcasm in his tone. “So what were you doing around here?”

“Hired guns. That don’t mean hired killers, necessarily.”

“Necessarily.”

“Think what you want. All I’m saying is you want to find out who was shooting at your old man and Sinclair’s mother, you ought to look at the one who’s known for that. And then you ought to find out who’s maybe taken a trip to San Francisco lately, cuz Clive, he don’t work for free.”

Scott let his hopes soar, only to have them plummet when he thought about it some more. The only ones he knew who had been to San Francisco recently were Florence and Anna.

 

Chapter 70

Scott had meant to talk to Vom about Johnny. And depending on what Vom said, to ask Sam some questions. That was the whole reason he’d gone to Deeter’s room. The more he’d thought about it, something just wasn’t right with Johnny. More than just wasn’t right. Was disturbingly, destructively, disastrously wrong with his brother.

But then Teresa had come barging in, followed by a man sweaty with grim panic. It was Thad Miller, a neighbor Scott knew wasn’t likely to ask for help unless it was his last option. Sam knew it too, and was already packing his bag before Thad could finish explaining the situation with his wife and the baby that seemed to have changed its mind halfway into the world.

But Teresa hadn’t come because of the Millers. It was Murdoch, who had fallen out of bed. Scott had rushed upstairs just behind Anna to help with him, and with the aid of one of the hands had managed to hoist him back in his bed, this time securely tucked in and propped up. By the time Murdoch was settled, Thad and Sam had left, and they’d taken Teresa with them.

The exertion had set Scott’s wound to bleeding, right on through his pants leg, something he’d been mortified for Anna to point out. He’d been even more embarrassed to have her put a new dressing on it, something that had required him to slip off his pants and cover himself with a sheet before he’d let her even look. In the end, though, he’d had to admit she had a tender touch, and all in all was a much prettier dressing changer than Sam.

That had been two days ago. He’d gone right back to Murdoch’s bedside, helping Anna feed him and tend him, until he’d finally fallen back on the chair and drifted off to sleep. He’d awakened exhausted, every muscle aching, and with a gloss of sweat covering him. Nobody had to tell him he had a fever.

Nobody had to tell him he still had a fever through the night, as he tossed and shivered and sweated, and as he came to tolerate, then cherish, Anna’s soothing touch, the cool cloth she laid so gently on his forehead, the way she covered him when he shook and fanned him when he perspired. And when he opened his eyes, back in this world, it was Anna’s face that greeted him, her hands that steadied his as he held the broth she’d brought. Maybe he was delirious—the thought occurred to him—but the thought also occurred to him it would not be so bad to have Anna greet him every morning when he awoke.

After all, he’d heard her whispering endearments to him when she’d thought he was asleep. Felt her cool hands holding his palm against her cheek, the flutter of her lashes against his fingertips. Smelled her perfume as she bent over him to fluff his pillows—maybe bending a little closer than she really needed to be? Saw her slender shape silhouetted against the morning window, the sun throwing a halo around her flaxen tresses as she brushed them. Tasted, ever so slightly, her lips that single time they’d brushed against his. Perhaps he should have felt disturbed that somebody should take such liberties when he was apparently unconscious, defenseless. But he didn’t. He felt good and safe and more than a little excited.

***

Johnny knew he should be impatient about how long it was taking. But in truth, he was enjoying spending time in the shack with Lena. He’d gone out and shot some rabbits, and she’d scrounged up some flour and other goods, and they’d eaten pretty well. He’d finally had time to practice his draw, and although he couldn’t shoot targets for fear of drawing attention, he’d pulled the trigger on his empty gun enough to start feeling a little better about his hand. Lena had even rubbed warm oil on his hand, and massaged it in so it felt almost limber.

The shack was off the main paths, and as long as they kept the smoke from the chimney down, and didn’t go blasting up the place target shooting, they figured Fremont’s men would be too busy rebuilding the burned Fremont barn to come snooping around.

Lena thought it would take not quite a week for the word to get out. Specifically, until Saturday night had come and gone. By then, most of the regular ranchers and ranch hands who called on the prostitutes in town would have made their visit by then. And the girls would be sure to tell them—all that is, but Fremont’s men —exactly what Lena had instructed them to say. The girls were none too pleased about Fremont scaring off the other ranchers. That meant fewer hands overall, and less business for them. So they were happy to spread the word that Fremont’s longhorns were spreading Texas fever.

Once the ranchers looked into it, they’d figure out for themselves that Fremont’s gifts were grim reapers on the hoof. They wouldn’t kill Fremont; they might want to, but without somebody like Johnny to do their dirty work, they wouldn’t. If he timed it right, strolled on by when some ranchers were talking killing, he might be able to collect a decent fee for a change. More than what Lena could pay. Truth was, he couldn’t take her money. She’d need that, and more, for her and the baby. Just his luck. If he were smart, he’d ride on out now, look for a job that paid. Vom had never accused him of being smart.

Johnny lounged in the wooden chair, one foot slung over the table, as he exercised his hand and watched Lena kneading the dough she’d been working on. He knew he shouldn’t think some of the thoughts that had crossed his mind about her, not what with her being in the family way. But the way she made him feel, he guessed he didn’t have anything to prove to Vom. Well, maybe that wasn’t quite true. He hadn’t had the nerve to test himself again, and he wasn’t exactly in a position to do so now.

Her hair had been pulled back, but she kept blowing at a wisp that fell down in her face, trying to avoid using her powdered hands to tuck it back. It made him smile, or did until she noticed and scowled at him. That made him smile wider.

“Didn’t I tell you about your feet on the table? This is a house, my parents’ house, not a barn.”

“It’s my leg, not my foot,” he said, but he removed it anyway.

“Don’t you have something useful to do?”

“I’m doin’ it,” he said, holding up his hand and flexing the fingers. “You want me to shoot Fremont, don’t you?”

“So far I haven’t seen you do much but sit around and drink.”

That wasn’t true. She’d put her foot down about drinking her parents’ tequila, about drinking at all in her parents’ home, said she’d seen enough drunk cowboys when she was working that she didn’t have to see one when she wasn’t. So he’d ended up sneaking the bottle late at night and going outside for a few nips, but it had gotten too cold at night to stay out long, and she always had one of her looks for him when he came tiptoeing back in. At least, he thought he’d been tiptoeing. Last night she had accused him of stumbling so much she thought an earthquake was coming. Johnny decided she had a talent for exaggeration. Maybe, just maybe, he’d kicked a chair leg. Besides, what did she care? He was sleeping on his bedroll on the floor. She was in the bed, behind the blanket. It might as well have been barbed wire, the way she’d made it clear he wasn’t getting any closer.

Johnny smiled to himself. He was pretty sure she liked him.

 

Chapter 71

“Good morning, sleepyhead.”

Scott jumped a little in bed before twisting his head to see Anna sitting in the chair beside him. He gave a weak smile, the best he could manage right now, tried to say good morning back but only a rasp of a sound came out. Anna placed one finger against his lips, cautioning him to stay quiet, and then poured some water into a sipping cup.

After she’d helped him sit up and he’d finished the water he managed to ask her how long he’d been sleeping. Three days. He couldn’t believe it.

“Murdoch?”

“He’s about the same.” She patted his hand reassuringly. “You two have kept me pretty busy,” she added.

“Sam? Where’s everybody?”

“He’s still away at the Millers’. She had the baby, but I’m afraid neither she nor the child is doing well. Teresa’s still there, too.”

Scott closed his eyes. He knew Cloris Miller, knew he should feel worse for her situation, especially when he’d caused his own mother’s death in childbirth, but right now he wished Sam and Teresa would just come back and tend to Murdoch. And the kid, he’d almost forgotten!

“Deeter? The boy?”

“Jelly’s been tending to him,” she said, her face darkening. She shook her head in disgust as she continued, “It appears he may survive. It’s so unfair.”

Scott guessed Ian must have told her about Deeter’s brag of killing their mother. “Vom says the boy didn’t do it. Says he was just bragging, and that’s possible. He thinks a hired gun from San Francisco may be behind the shooting.”

“How could someone brag about such an awful thing?” She banged his cup down on the bedside table, then sat on the edge of the bed, her hip brushing Scott’s. “If you ask me, that’s almost as bad as doing it, so I don’t care! I can’t stand to even think about him here at Lancer.”

“Jelly’s taking care of him? That’s pretty dire punishment right there. Who knows what he’s making him drink?”

She didn’t seem to think his attempt at humor was worth acknowledging, and he cringed inwardly for picking a bad time to joke with her. He reached for her hand, clasping it tightly as he spoke. He noticed she squeezed back, ever so gently. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make light of it.”

She nodded and placed her other hand over his. “No, no, I understand. I just wish Val would come and get him out of here.”

“Val’s not here? What about Vom? Or, no, did he hear something about Johnny?” He didn’t need to be lying around when he had things to do. He pushed up from the bed so suddenly he practically dumped Anna on the floor. But she recovered and was gracious enough to just shake her head and push him gently back, her hand remaining on his shoulder, a feathery reminder for him to stay put.

“You stay right there, mister. Val had to go to town right after you got sick. Something about some homesteaders trying to move in, and now I hear he has a jail full of Mexicans from it.”

“No news on Johnny?”

“Scott, give him up.” She let out her breath in an exaggerated sigh, rubbing his shoulder softly, soothingly. “He doesn’t care about you, or Lancer. The sooner you face that, the sooner you can get on with your life. The sooner we all can. He’s already hurt enough of us.”

“Was there any news?”

“No.” She abruptly turned away and walked to the window.

He slumped back into his pillows. “Oh. Where’s Vom? Is he with Deeter?”

“That horrid man? I don’t keep track of him. I imagine he’s in the guardhouse, where he belongs.”

“He’s not so bad once you get to know him.” He got ready to explain that Vom had done a lot as far as raising Johnny, then decided she wouldn’t see that as a redeeming feature. And he couldn’t think of any other to add. “Anyway, I need to talk to him after I see Murdoch.”

“You’re not ready to be traipsing around out of bed.”

“Maybe not, but I plan to.” He started to pull the sheet down and noticed he didn’t have any clothes on under it. He was sure his face turned red, which made the situation even worse.

“Don’t worry, Ian undressed you.” There was a hint of laughter in her voice, a sound Scott hadn’t heard much from her in the past. “And he helped me clean out your closets. I know how you men are, so I took the precaution of keeping you in your room until you’re well enough to go gallivanting around.”

“What?” He would have jumped up had it not been for the pants thing. “Where’s Ian?”

“He’s out with the hands, getting things ready for some new cattle he’s expecting. He’s so excited. It’s his first business deal for Lancer.”

“Cattle? Ian bought cattle?”

“He said he traded some Lancer stock for some new kind of cattle that rancher you all stayed with had just brought in. At least one good thing came of that trip, I suppose.”

Scott vaguely recalled Ian and Fremont talking about a cattle exchange, but then, like now, he had more important things on his mind. “Anna, I need my pants. Please.”

***

“You get everything?” Johnny whispered, even though he didn’t have to. He’d drawn his gun at the sound of footsteps, but quickly replaced it when he recognized Lena’s voice.

“Yes, yes,” she answered, holding up a sack of goods. “What do you think, I can’t go shopping?”

Johnny stood and gathered his horse’s reins. Lena didn’t have a horse, so she’d ridden behind him almost to town, then he’d waited in a thicket while she walked the rest of the way and bought some supplies they really needed. He mounted, leaned down and took the sack from her, and then reached to help her climb up behind him.

“No, you’re a woman, I’m sure you can shop,” he said quietly, grinning. He got a jab in the ribs for that. “Ouch!”

He stopped the horse at the edge of the thicket while he listened for any travelers on the road. They were so close to town he could make out the tinkle of piano keys from the saloon, punctuated by occasional bursts of laughter. He nudged the horse forward, adding “You got the tequila, right?”

“No. You don’t need that.”

He pulled the poor animal to a stop so abruptly it almost reared. “What? You were right there! I told you I was out!”

“You shouldn’t have drunk so much.”

“Hell, if I’d of drank it any slower it would have dried up on its own.”

“And it would have been put to better use. I don’t care if you want to be a drunk, but you’re not doing it on my time. I’m paying you to do a job, sober.”

“I’m doing the job. And did it ever occur to you that maybe I can do it a little better with something to calm my nerves?”

“Is that what you call stumbling around at night?”

“I tripped one time! Cuz you left the chair in the way.” Shit, this was serious. He really had nursed that bottle along, partly because without Vom at his side he knew he actually did have to keep his wits about him, but the idea of having nothing was simply intolerable. Intolerable? Fucking fancy word again. Not now. “Now listen, woman, we ain’t goin’ nowhere without that tequila. You just gonna have to get off this horse and go back and get it.”

“No.”

The damn laughter from the saloon rose to taunt him. All those men in there were having fun, drinking whatever they wanted. They didn’t have some coldhearted woman bossing them around. “Guess we can stay here all night, then.”

“You seem to be forgetting. You work for me, and you’re staying in my parents’ house. You’re not in any position to be setting down rules.”

No job was worth this. “Fine, fine! Maybe I’ll just leave you here and ride into town and get it myself!”

“Well, now there’s a fine idea! Be sure to say howdy to the sheriff while you’re in the saloon.” Then she added, “Mr. Madrid.”

 

Chapter 72

Johnny sat at the table, in the dark, nothing in front of him. Not a goddamn thing. It was getting damn cold, and he had nothing to warm his insides. What the hell was he doing here? Maybe it was his imagination, but every sound seemed so loud that it echoed inside his head tonight. He wished he could go outside and shoot every damn chirping cricket until they shut the fuck up. Yet he found himself holding his breath, listening intently for the sound of hoofbeats, footsteps, or worse, silence.

He supposed word of his escape had made it back to Hardpan. That meant Blondie and Sinclair must have made it to Morro Coyo. He wondered where that put Vom, or Deeter, for that matter. Lena hadn’t added much more, only that he matched the description of Johnny Madrid, the man who Fremont had helped capture. It was his capture, along with the death of their side’s leader, Figg, that had led to the defeat of the homesteaders. Lena had added that as far as she was concerned, he owed her this job for free, to make up for causing them to lose in the first place.

Johnny didn’t quite see the logic in that, and it irked him that she would expect him to work for free when he’d already decided he couldn’t collect from her. Now it would seem like her idea. The woman had cojones that would make any man proud.

He should ride away. The way she was, she could just as likely turn him in for the reward herself. Maybe she already had. Maybe she’d put the word out and even now a posse was forming. He glared over to the curtain where her bed was.

That really was what he should do. Get on his horse, ride somewhere, anywhere they had a saloon and people didn’t know him, buy as much tequila as he pleased, and drink until he forgot this miserable place. The problem was with that word “buy.” That required coins, money, dinero—all things absent from Johnny’s possession.

Still, he’d managed plenty of times before, with odd jobs, patience, and just plain luck. You never knew when you’d run across somebody who needed killing, and somebody willing to pay to have it done.

Corn husks rattled from behind the curtain, Lena moving in the bed. What the fuck was he doing here? Yeah, he’d like to rip the curtain back, make the corn shucks really rattle. Hell, she’d probably knife him, wound him just enough to get the bounty.

Knife would get blood all over him, all over his hands, on everything, and you knew how that shit was, really hard to get off, it just seemed to spread the more you worked at it. He caught himself rubbing his hands hard together, just as the sheet was pulled back and he whirled to point his gun at Lena, standing there, looking irritated.

“Do you want to sleep some place warmer?” she asked.

***

Ian had been sympathetic about Anna, agreeing with Scott that she was a tough nurse, recounting times when she’d practically tied him in bed when he’d had the misfortune to get a cold as a child. He frowned as he recalled that she always seemed happiest when he was hurt or ill and she got to play nursemaid, and how unhappy she’d be when he’d finally get well. He’d called her a born nurse. Scott had sucked it up and chuckled along with him, for all the good it had done. When he asked Ian to please go find his pants, Ian had shook his head and said there was no way he would risk the ire of Nurse Anna. But he’d be glad to bring a book up for Scott to read. Then he was gone before Scott could yell or demand to see Murdoch or ask what the hell had happened with the ransom situation.

So much for being nice. He was beginning to wish he was more like Johnny. Johnny would have just beat Ian up and stolen his pants. “Do it to them before they do it to you.” Now that he knew Vom, it all made perfect sense.

So that was why he really felt no guilt about his plan. He waited for nightfall, for the lamps to dim and the hacienda to quiet. Anna might be lurking about, waiting to spring some broth or bandage changing or tea or any sundry nursing favors on him or Murdoch, but he’d have to take his chances. She had to sleep sometime.

***

He’d taken her up on her offer of warmth, but he couldn’t figure out what she wanted. By the time he’d pulled off his boots and gunbelt and pulled aside the curtain, she was in the bed, her head poking out from beneath the blanket like a turtle. He placed his gunbelt carefully on the floor by the other side of the bed, then hesitated. Her eyes were shut, and he couldn’t see what she had on under the blanket. Just how much warmer had she intended for him to be?

He sat gingerly on the edge of the bed, the husks scraping together beneath him, but her eyes didn’t even flicker. His hands went to the toggles on his shirt as he studied her for some sort of clue, but she didn’t move. Maybe she just meant for him to share the blanket. Lord only knew what she would do to him if she opened her eyes and caught him with his pants down.

He chewed on his lip and considered the situation. It wasn’t as though she’d acted real friendly to him so far, so why should he expect she’d suddenly welcome him into her bed, and more? Nothing had changed, except—now she knew he was Johnny Madrid. With a little smile to himself, he recalled it wouldn’t be the first time his reputation with his gun had helped him bed a girl. It was just entirely possible that the Madrid magic was working its charm on Lena. Hell, she’d be hurt, maybe hurt him, if he didn’t try to be his romantic best toward her. She’d almost surely consider it an insult, and that was the last thing he wanted. His fingers went back to his shirt, fumbling with the next toggle down.

Yes, the Madrid magic at work again, and she was about to find out it wasn’t just his pistol he was good with. He supposed he should be a little put out that it took learning who he was for her to have a change of heart, but whatever it—or wait a minute, she’d also learned about the bounty. His fingers stopped their downward progress. What better way to get him vulnerable than to wait until he was totally engrossed, then signal the posse to move in. Or just pull out a knife and stab him in the back. Shit. Her arms were hidden under the blanket. Maybe for a reason.

He sat there tapping his fingers against his legs for another minute. He wasn’t sure how much longer he would have just stayed like that had she not finally said, “Well, are you coming to bed or not?”

“Ah, yeah, just gettin’ ready.”  Hell, ready for what? A night of bed play? Or knife play? He eased himself carefully down on the bed, on top of the blanket, one foot still on the floor, his right hand brushing the gun grip protruding from its holster.

He could just ask her what she had in mind. She was a whore, after all, so it wasn’t like he would offend her ladylike dignity or any such foolishness. But that was just it. If he asked her, he’d be treating her like she wasn’t a lady, like he just thought of her as a whore. And the problem was, he wanted to think of her as more than that. And he wanted her to think of him as more than just another fellow out to bed her for the night. If he asked her if she meant for him to share more than her bed, and she didn’t mean that at all, he’d ruin everything. Dammit, why did women have to be so damned complicated?

He’d be best to do nothing, play it safe. But what if she expected something? Would she think he wasn’t attracted to her? Because lord only knew, he was, every aching, tingling, throbbing fiber of him. At least, he was pretty sure it was every part of him. What if it happened again?

She shifted her position to turn on her side, facing him, her eyes fluttering open for a second and a slight smile on her lips. 

 

Chapter 73

Johnny’s room was right across the hall, and although they weren’t exactly the same size, Scott figured his brother’s pants would do for now. He pulled the blanket around him and opened his door slowly, peering right and left down the hallway. No Anna.

He crept across the hall noiselessly, holding his breath as he swung Johnny’s door inward, squeezed quickly inside, and closed it carefully behind him. Looking around, he saw Teresa’s hand at work, the bed made up neatly, the floor cleared of sheets and clothes. This tidy room made him sad, as though it were trying to pretend Johnny had never been there to leave it in its customary shambles.

Johnny had never kept many possessions in his room, but it always looked like he had more because they were usually strewn about as though a tidal wave had swirled them ashore only to abandon them at low tide. Scott eased open a drawer, knowing it would be characteristically empty. A single pair of pants lay folded in it. He sighed silently. One lousy extra pair of pants and it had to have conchos. When it came to clothing, what Johnny lacked in quantity he more than made up for in audacity. He shook his head and squirmed into them. The flared bottoms didn’t even reach his ankles. He definitely needed to find his own pants, but at least now he was free to search. He grabbed a gaudy shirt and flung it on, shivering against the chilled night air.

He was on his way out when his eye caught on the single bit of decoration Johnny had added to the room, the wooden toy horse Murdoch had said he’d made for Johnny as a toddler. At the time, having that link to his past had seemed to mean a lot to Johnny. But apparently not. He’d left it, along with the ranch, his future, and his family. Scott fingered its smooth surface before returning it to its lonely perch and walking back into the hall, this time slightly less concerned with being stealthy.

A dim light shone from beneath Murdoch’s door, and he hesitated. The light might mean Anna was there, and she’d surely try to shoo him back to bed. But that was his father in there, and she could try all she wanted. She was a sweet girl, beautiful too, and he’d be glad for her to nurse him any other time—preferably some time he was completely well—but right now he had other things he had to do. He took a deep breath and pushed the door open quietly.

The room smelled of sickness and salve. Anna had her back to him, bent over Murdoch, so intent on her nursing she didn’t notice Scott. She was in her dressing gown, and appeared to be rubbing something, probably some sort of medicine, into his wound.

“You’re working late,” Scott said.

She whipped around, obviously startled, her hands flying to her chest.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.” Scott walked toward Murdoch, who appeared to be sleeping. He didn’t smell very good. “How’s he doing?”

Anna turned back around and started fumbling with her medicines. “Fine, fine. Well, I thought his wound might need some tending, he did look a little feverish, so, well, I was putting a new dressing on it.” She scooped up a small tin and some instruments and placed them in the drawer by the bed.

“Do you need help?”

“What?”

“With the dressing? You’re going to bandage it, right?”

“Oh! Yes, of course. I’m just used to working alone. Which reminds me, what are you doing out of bed?” She looked him sternly up and down and gave a little gasp. “Oh, Scott, what on earth have you done? Take those awful clothes off, and I’ll get you yours. Please,” and she gave a little sniff, “I can’t stand seeing you dressed like that.”

He did feel awkward in Johnny’s clothes. “I’d like that very much. In fact, I’d be glad to bandage Murdoch while you get them.”

“No!” she said. Then smiled sheepishly. “I have a way I like it done. Now you go wait in your room and I’ll bring you your clothes.”

Scott didn’t move. He didn’t see any reason he couldn’t wait here. “I won’t bother you. I just want to sit with Murdoch.” He placed his hand on his father’s forehead, surprised that it didn’t feel all that warm, even more surprised when Murdoch’s eyes flickered open.

He leaned forward. “Murdoch? How are you feeling?”

Murdoch blinked his eyes, as though he were trying to focus on him. “Johnny?”

“No, it’s Scott.”

“Johnny? Where’s...”

“Don’t worry, Murdoch,” Anna said as she worked on his bandage. “He’s gone.”

“Johnny!” Murdoch started to struggle weakly.

“He’s just away for now,” Scott said, hoping to calm his father.

“Shhhh,” Anna said. “He gets upset to know Johnny’s still out there after what he did. Try not to talk about him.”

“But he wants to know. And he may be able to tell us something. It turns out Ian just saw Johnny’s horse, not him.”

“He’s not in any state to know these things now. And he’s already told us what happened. Please, Scott, I know you mean well, but I know what I’m doing. I’ve been his nurse now for well over a month.” She gave Murdoch a cup of liquid to drink as she spoke, steadying him as he drank. He hadn’t even finished it before he’d fallen asleep again.

Scott shook him gently but he didn’t respond. “Come get me the next time he wakes up,” he whispered.

“I will,” she said, looking up at him. She put her hands on her hips, like she was trying to look tough, but it only made her look vulnerable. “Now you go get those clothes off.”

“Thank you,” Scott said, and before he knew it he’d kissed her, lightly, and before he had time to be appalled at his forward behavior in his father’s sick room, she’d kissed him back. And the way she kissed, he was suddenly very thankful his father was sound asleep.

***

He’d rolled to his side to face Lena and was just about to put his arm around her when he realized something was wrong. He didn’t know what it was at first, not until he held his breath and listened. And heard nothing. Not even the crickets.

In one movement he rolled off the bed and had his gun in his hand. Lena was looking at him questioningly, but she also scrambled from the bed. Johnny noticed she was fully clothed. He held a finger to his mouth, but she seemed to already know to be quiet. Creeping along silently in his stocking feet, he made it to the curtain and whisked it aside, thrusting his gun out to take down any intruder. The room was empty.

Taking a deep breath, he crept to the door, straining his ears until it sounded like the world was filled with a roaring hum. But still no crickets.

Who the hell was out there? Lena had slipped off to the far side of the room, her hands held behind her. Hiding something? Johnny crossed the room in four steps, grabbing her arms before she could raise them. He smacked one against the wall and a knife clattered to the floor.

“Who the hell’s out there?” he hissed.

She shook her head, her eyes darting back and forth.

“Who’d you tell I was here?” He shook her, hard.

She gave a small gasp and tried to squirm away, but Johnny wasn’t buying it. What a fool he’d been. He held on tight until she finally squeaked out, “Nobody. I swear, I didn’t tell.”

“Yeah, you always take knives to bed?”

He could feel her trembling. She shook her head again, faster this time, and her voice wavered when she spoke. “I just picked it up. In here. Give it back.”

He didn’t have time to ask her if she thought he was crazy. The sounds of spurs and voices filled the void the crickets had left for them. One deep voice raised itself above the others. “We know you’re in there. Come on out, make it easy on yourself!”

Johnny stared at Lena. It was his turn to shake his head, muttering, “You’re some piece of work.”

And she started to cry.

 

Chapter 74

He shoved her away, disgusted. He didn’t have time for her fake tears, not with the posse she’d summoned outside. He picked the knife up, gripping it hard, half tempted to slit her throat.

Instead he strode to the shack’s front window. Standing to one side, he peered into the darkness and tried to figure the odds. It sounded like there were maybe four or five of them, just guessing from the shuffle of horses. He could probably take a few down, hold them off, unless they were really good. The problem was, they could wait him out. Even burn him out.

“Don’t make us come in there after you!”

Oh, please, he’d like nothing better than for them to make a run at the shack. An all out gunfight was probably his best chance. He was checking his gun when a movement to the side, back where Lena was, caught his eye. She was sidling toward the back wall, where the shotgun was leaning. Damn! He hadn’t taken the time to tie her, hadn’t thought he’d need to. He lunged toward her, getting there and grabbing her just as she tried to raise it up level.

“Let me have it!” she hissed. “You need my help!”

He jerked the gun from her hands, searching for something to tie her with. “Oh, you already been a real big help,” he muttered.

“Damn you, no! No!”

“Shut up, or I’ll gag you too!” His eyes fell on some rope, which he snatched up. She looked like she was going to tell him another lie when the voice outside boomed out again.

“You got ’til three to come out, then we’re dragging your pretty little ass out here!”

What the hell? Pretty little ass? It stopped Johnny cold. Did they know something he should know? Lena was looking at him, her eyes like a frightened deer’s.

“One...”

Johnny looped the rope around Lena’s hands as quickly as he could. At least he wouldn’t have to worry about her shooting him in the back.

“Two...”

He heaved the table onto its side and shoved it toward one wall, then thrust Lena behind it. She might be useful as a hostage. Kneeling beside her, he pointed his gun at the door.

“Three...”

He cocked the hammer just as another voice, one Johnny vaguely recognized, cut in. “We don’t want to hurt you. We just want you to leave town, go with your people, go to Mexico, anywhere, just leave!”

“Fremont,” she whispered. “He’s here to kill me.”

***

He liked kissing Anna, but even though his father seemed sound asleep, he didn’t like kissing her in front of him. So he took her hand and led her from the room, out into the hall, where he realized he was no better off. Ian could wake up and feel the urge to visit the outhouse. Scott didn’t want him stumbling across his sister and his half brother in a compromising position. Which brought up the question: was the sister of his half brother off-limits?

She looked up at him with her little-girl eyes and he had to smile back reassuringly, give her a kiss even if they were in the hall. They weren’t related, not unless you counted the few hours her mother had been married to his father. And he was sure neither of their parents would want that to stand in the way of their offspring’s happiness. Still, this was crazy to flaunt it right here.

He pushed her back and whispered, “This feels so right, but it probably isn’t the right place. Maybe you better go get my clothes.”

“I don’t see how any place could be the wrong place if it’s with you,” she whispered back, and he loved that she said such a thing, loved the fire in her eyes when she said it.

“What about Ian? Is he going to be alright with this?” Not that Scott really gave a damn, but he didn’t want things to be tough on Anna. She’d lost too much of her family since she’d come here.

“I don’t care what Ian thinks,” she murmured, the smallest hint of a coy smile on her lips, the lips he’d just had pressed against his own. “Besides, I wasn’t planning to invite him in the bedroom. Were you?”

The bedroom? A tingle went up Scott’s spine, and down his loins. They did need to find someplace more private, but he’d been hesitant to be so forward as to suggest his bedroom. Then again, it wasn’t like she hadn’t spent a lot of time alone in there with him already. Only this time maybe there’d be more than him in the bed. He smiled, chanced it, and kissed her hard and deep.

When they were through she looked up at him, a mischievous grin on her face. “You need to get out of those awful clothes,” she said.

And Scott had to agree, truer words were never spoken.

***

Lena was shaking hard, but she’d managed to stop crying. Johnny put his arm around her for a second, told her it was going to be alright, then untied her hands. “Don’t let him know I’m here,” he whispered. “Go hide behind the curtain, call him in, say you want to talk private. Go on, quick!”

She made a move for the shotgun but Johnny grabbed it, saying he didn’t need buckshot flying all around, he’d take care of the shooting. That was part of it; the other part was that he didn’t want her wanted for Fremont’s murder. She scowled at him but scrambled toward the curtain.

“Martin!” she called. “I, I have to talk to you. In private. Something’s happened to change things.”

“That’s more like it,” Fremont called from outside after a pause. “Now you come on out here and we’ll see.”

“Really, it’s private. Please.”

There was a longer silence, then boots thudded on the stoop, the door cracked open, and a gun pointed in. Johnny hunkered down behind the table, in the corner shadows, holding his breath. A man stepped in, a man who was not Fremont. He was looking around the room, searching for Lena, and it would only be a matter of seconds before he’d wonder what was behind the table. Johnny could shoot him, but then he’d be in that stand-off situation, and that was one he couldn’t win.

“In here!” she called, and the man whipped his head in the other direction as Johnny thanked her silently. He could peer between the cracks in the table boards and see Lena parting the curtain, holding out her hands. “Please, I need to speak to Mr. Fremont alone.”

The man strode to her and flung the curtain aside, looking behind it, his gun trained on Lena. Then he checked her for weapons and pushed her toward the door.

Shit. This was not going as planned.

 

Chapter 75

They were almost to the door when Lena started to falter, her knees buckling as she sank to the floor. The gunman tried to hold her up, grabbing her beneath her shoulders, calling out to the men outside. “Mr. Fremont! She fainted!”

“Damn!” came from outside, then there were more heavy footsteps, Fremont appeared and stood over her. He nudged the man away, ordering, “Go get your canteen, get some water on her.”

It wouldn’t take long before he’d be back, but Fremont had his gun in his hand, and Johnny didn’t want to start a gunfight in here, not with Lena in the middle. Fremont was still standing over her, at an angle where he’d see Johnny if he tried to sneak up on him with a knife.

Then he heard a whisper. Lena? Yes, she must have come to—and he was beginning to suspect she’d never really fainted in the first place—she was whispering something, and Fremont was bending down closer, trying to hear. Bending down so his back was almost to Johnny. He couldn’t help but smile. Fremont had no idea how lucky he was the gunman had taken the knife away that Lena’d had hidden on her, or he’d be bleeding all over her nice clean floor right now. But he didn’t have time to imagine; he crept from behind the table, even as Fremont bent closer to make out her words.

Fremont didn’t have to strain to hear Johnny’s words: “Put down your gun or I’ll blow a hole from one ear to the other.”

And he did put it down, when he felt the barrel on his left ear, and then slowly swung his eyes to meet Johnny’s. “Madrid?”

He couldn’t help but grin big. “Didn’t get to thank you proper for your hospitality, figured it was only polite to come back.”

As he said it Lena scrambled to her feet, a miraculous recovery, snatching the pistol Fremont had dropped, pointing it at his head. Fremont went white. “Jesus, Lena, put it down. I said I wasn’t going to hurt you.”

She didn’t respond, but the gunman strode through the door and Johnny turned his gun toward the man, trusting Lena to cover Fremont without actually killing him. He wasn’t so sure that was a good bet. The man saw him, or at least his gun, and stopped, even backed up a step.

“Come on in, join the party,” said Johnny softly. “Put your gun down, gentle-like. By the way, you make a sound, make a move, it’ll be your last dance.”

The man did as he was told, and Johnny managed to convince Lena to let him cover Fremont while she tied the gunman. Then she tied Fremont. Johnny checked the knots. Snug. Not bad, not bad at all for a girl.

“Call your other men in,” Johnny said to Fremont. When Fremont complied, Johnny waited for them by the door and held a gun to one man’s head while Lena relieved them of their guns and tied them. Lena told them she would carve their balls off if they gave her any trouble, made one of them turn red when she mentioned it wouldn’t be much loss. Johnny couldn’t help but grin. It was hard not to like a girl like Lena.

He wanted to talk to Fremont alone, so he herded them outside and tied them to their stirrups, hands behind them, out of reach of each other. He’d found that was an effective way to keep men still and quiet, especially if you untied the horses. He left these tied; he didn’t want the men getting close enough to one another to dig a knife out of a saddlebag. He’d go through them himself, later, see if somebody brought a flask on a cold night.

Back inside, he stopped to face Fremont, who was seated in the chair. Now what?

“Kill him!” hissed Lena.

That plan presented some problems, not the least of which he’d have to kill everybody else if he didn’t want to be on the run for the cold-blooded murder of a prominent citizen. Sure, he was sort of on the run for that now, but why tempt fate? Besides, it wasn’t his style to gun down a trussed man, even Fremont.

“No,” he said slowly, “I think we’ll let the other ranchers take care of that.”

Fremont snorted, then stopped himself, apparently thinking better of his plan to correct Johnny. Instead he addressed Lena: “I heard you were on a little shopping spree earlier. Figured you might be holed up here. That’s why I came out, to talk to you, set things square. I’m willing to give you two hundred dollars to leave this valley and never come back.”

That got Johnny’s attention. “You bring it with you?”

“Of course not! You never know what kind of riffraff you could run into at this time of night.”

“Ain’t that the truth,” muttered Johnny, half under his breath. “You bring her a horse?”

Johnny had to hand it to him, he hardly missed a beat. “I was going to give her mine, and we’d ride to the bank together and get the money.”

Johnny chuckled. “All them horses you got and you was gonna have to ride double? And what, walk back? And you gotta go to the bank for the money? At night? Guess you ain’t as well off as I figured.”

Fremont glared at him at that. “Actually, after paying all those hired guns, and losing my barn, and at least a month’s business, no, I’m not as well off as I used to be.”

“And broke as you are, you can still give free cattle to your neighbors, huh? Yeah, you’re the salt of the earth.” When he didn’t respond Johnny tried another angle. “So, I reckon Mrs. Fremont’s pretty excited about the new baby, huh?”

He glared even harder, then responded, “You know, none of this is really any of your business.”

“Oh, that’s where you’re wrong, again. It’s exactly my business.” He thought for a minute. “She gonna be worried when you don’t show back up for breakfast?”

Fremont didn’t answer.

“Cuz here’s what I’m thinking. Me and Miss Lena, we’ll ride on over, tell her the situation, so she won’t worry or nothing. That sound like a good plan to you?”

***

It was hard to believe the room was already getting light as he gave Anna one last kiss before she crept down the hall. He could hear her little dogs greeting her at her bedroom door, her shushing them.

It had been an interesting night. No, she hadn’t shared his bed, and while he was frustrated, he was also a little relieved. Well, no, who was he kidding? She had him aching, emotionally and physically. But still, his grandfather had drilled into him that girls that shared themselves so freely were fun for a while, maybe for a long while, but they weren’t the ones you married. He’d surprised himself when the idea first flitted through his thoughts last night, sometime in the middle of their endless conversations. He hadn’t thought about marrying anyone anytime soon, not since Julie. But Anna might just make him change his mind. She was sweet, worldly, and beautiful, somebody he could sport on his arm at a Boston party as easily as a Morro Coyo barn dance. And although they hadn’t gotten into the bed, she’d let him sample enough that he suspected she’d keep him awake plenty of nights.

He yawned and stretched, then flopped back on the bed, just for a second, maybe just time enough to get some relief from his frustration. He had a full day ahead, starting with talking to Vom. He was tired of Vom’s evasive attitude when it came to Johnny. The man knew things he wasn’t telling. Why was Johnny acting so strangely? It was more than just Johnny’s typical evasiveness—Scott had to snort. Wonder where he got that trait?

But he also needed answers about the shooting, answers Vom just might have. Had Deeter been telling the truth about shooting Florence and Murdoch, or had he just been blowing hot air, trying to get respect? And surely Vom hadn’t hired out to kill Johnny? Scott shook his head; the way that man was when it came to money, maybe he had. And if that were the case, who had ordered it done? Somebody from Johnny’s past, no doubt.

And when he got through with Vom, it was past time to have a long talk with Ian. First, though, he could dwell on Anna for just a few more minutes, get his mind off other pressures, help him concentrate.  It wasn’t like anyone was going anywhere.

 

Chapter 76

Just as Johnny suspected, Fremont did not think having Johnny and Lena ride over and talk to Mrs. Fremont was a good idea at all. In fact, he offered to pay Lena her money right off if only they stayed away from his wife. The problem was, now he said he had to go back to his ranch to get it, and Johnny couldn’t go there with him, not without being recognized from the last time he was there. He could send Lena, but he wasn’t all that sure she wouldn’t change her mind about collecting the bounty herself now that he’d almost finished his job. Or that she might just up and shoot Fremont if the notion struck her. Or both.

So he and Lena were going to visit Mrs. Fremont anyway. And since they couldn’t exactly just sit around his ranch house and chit chat while they waited, they were going to bring her to the shack. The deal was this: when Fremont brought the money, he’d get his wife back. If he didn’t by deadline, his wife would get an earful, find out about the little halfbreed heir.

They gave the hands water and settled them in more comfortably and securely. Johnny decided it was safer to take Lena with him than it was to leave her alone with Fremont, so he checked all their bindings and then he and Lena set out for the road. He knew from his earlier time there that Mrs. Fremont went to church every Sunday morning, and it was dawning Sunday. It was time to kidnap him a woman.

In the past she’d been heavily guarded by Fremont’s hired guns, but all that were left were hired hands, no match for Johnny Madrid. Not that he planned to have a shoot-out with them; he planned to let his reputation do the talking.

Johnny had more than one reason to be in a hurry. By the time folks started getting out of church the hands who had visited the girls in town Saturday night would be waking up, and word would be getting around about Fremont and his gifts of disease-carrying cattle. Johnny really did want him to make it back with the money before the other ranchers came visiting.

With a tip of his hat, Johnny told Fremont he’d be back soon with the Missus. He mounted his palomino and rode alongside Lena, who was on Fremont’s buckskin, toward the road. The sun was still low in the sky, the breeze was already brisk, and he was riding alongside a beautiful, fiery woman on his way to a kidnapping. And if that wasn’t enough, he’d found a full flask in one of the hand’s saddlebags and gulped down just enough to take off the edge. It was shaping up to be a damn good morning.

They rode along in silence for a while, Johnny humming, smiling to himself until he realized Lena looked kind of mad. Now what? Probably upset because he hadn’t killed Fremont when she said. Finally he cleared his throat and asked, “Somethin’ wrong?”

She gave him a disgusted look. “Do you have to drink on the Lord’s day?”

Damn! That was it? He shrugged. “Well, you know what they say, all God’s children gotta drink.”

“No, I don’t know that at all. It’s disrespectful.”

“Well, hell, way I figure it, be disrespectful not to drink it, after God gone through all the trouble to make it, get it to me. Be downright ungrateful not to.” He decided not to mention it was also probably disrespectful to go kidnapping women on the Lord’s day. Especially ones on their way to church.

“You’re disgusting. And in case you’ve forgotten, you’re still working for me, and I’d like to know how you think I’m getting my money’s worth if you’re so drunk you get yourself shot. Probably shoot yourself in the foot.”

“Well, I tell you what,” he said, smiling big, “if I get dead, you ain’t gotta pay me.”

She did not return the smile. “You do the job, you’ll get paid, even if I have to throw the money in the grave with you.”

Johnny chuckled at the image. “Well then, I reckon I ain’t got nothin’ to worry about.”

“Dammit!” She pulled her horse to a halt. “That’s just it! You have plenty to worry about! Don’t you care about anything? Not even if you live or die?”

Actually, not so much, not lately. But he sure wasn’t going to tell her that. He turned his horse so he was facing her. “Oh come on, Lena, I was just funnin’. I ain’t gonna get killed. I do this sort of thing all the time. Hardly ever get shot.”

Lena suddenly looked worried, almost looked like she would cry. For him? Hell, maybe he did have something to live for.  “Hardly ever?” she asked, a challenge in her tone. “Hardly ever? And what happens if this is one of those hardly ever times? Exactly what am I supposed to do all by myself?”

So much for that notion. Still, this was getting silly. “Listen, it ain’t like I’m facing off against anybody can shoot. And I drink and shoot all the time. Good for my nerves. See?” He drew his gun, twirled it deftly on his finger, grinning at her cockily. That is, until it bobbled and he had to grab it to keep from dropping it. It was the damn hair trigger that made it go off. And the bobble wasn’t because he was drunk, it was the bad hand. She was glaring at him. Hell, he hadn’t hit anything.

“Hey, you don’t spin a gun in a fight, you shoot it. Ain’t nothin’ to worry about. Didn’t even shoot my foot.” He pushed his hat back, smiled his best smile.

She seemed to have very little sense of humor.

 ***

Scott was on his way to see Vom when he spotted Sam’s buggy passing under the Lancer arch. As he stood and waited he noticed with some relief that Teresa was with him. Having her back would take some of the pressure off poor Anna.

He stepped forward to steady the horses when they stopped in front of the hacienda. “Teresa! Sam! Everything alright out at the Miller place? How’s Cloris and the baby?”

“Still touch and go, I’m afraid. They’re very weak. But that’s why I came back. Teresa’s not feeling too well, and I’m worried she might be coming down with something.”

“Oh?” Now that he looked, she did look a little pallid. So much for helping Anna. “Did you find somebody else to stay with the Millers in her place?”

“Well, that’s just it. I can’t think of anyone better qualified than Anna.” He scrutinized Scott. “You look tired. Better let me check that wound before I go. Now how’s Murdoch?”

“Anna? But she’s needed here!”

“I know, but unless something’s changed with Murdoch, Teresa knows the routine, and for that matter, so do you. We’ll both fill you in on the details.”

“But you said Teresa was sick. Isn’t there anyone in town that can take over?”

“Believe me, Scott, I tried. I can’t stay there myself, not with this thing going around. Everybody’s either got their own sick family member, and in that case I just can’t take the chance of Cloris or the baby being exposed, or quite frankly, those that are left I wouldn’t have nurse a corn. Now how’s Murdoch?”

“He still has a fever, but...”

“And the boy?”

“I haven’t seen him, but I hear he’s better,” Scott said reluctantly. “How long do you think she’ll be gone?”

“Well, maybe I best check on him first.” Sam reached around and got his bag, then climbed stiffly from the buggy. Scott quickly stepped up and helped Teresa down. She didn’t look all that sick to him. He heard the door open behind him and Anna appeared. Sam explained the situation.

“I’m sorry, no, I don’t know anything about babies. I can’t.”

“You’re a fast learner and a natural nurse. And I’m counting on you. Now, why don’t you get your things together while I check on the boy? Then perhaps I could have my arm twisted until I agree to eat one of Maria’s breakfasts?”

Anna looked at Scott. “Tell him, Scott. I have to nurse Murdoch.”

Scott wanted to tell him, but in his heart he knew Sam wouldn’t ask unless it was life or death. “I can do it.”

He hoped she would forgive him.

 

Chapter 77

He and Lena watched from the grove of trees as Mrs. Fremont’s buggy, accompanied by four mounted hands, wheeled into view around the bend in the road only a short distance away. It was close enough they could hear the jingle of the harness, the clatter of hooves, and a woman’s light laughter. Two women sat in the buggy. Mrs. Fremont and her daughter, no doubt.

“Well?” hissed Lena. “What are you waiting for?”

“Been thinking,” Johnny said, rubbing the side of his face. He suddenly felt a little woozy. Maybe he shouldn’t have had all that extra whiskey, even though it had been fun to irritate Lena by gulping it down while she lectured at him about his drinking. “New plan.”

Lena rolled her eyes. “Dios, why me?”

Johnny smiled, but it wasn’t returned. “No, really, this is better, safer. You was worried, ’member?” Truth was, he was kind of worried himself. He hadn’t stayed alive in this business as long as he had by drinking on the job. Even if they were just cowhands he’d be facing. But this new plan made more sense anyway.

“Just go nab the snooty bitch. Try not to shoot yourself or fall off your horse. I’ll cover you.”

“No, no, no, no, no. Here’s the thing.” He leaned toward her conspiratorially, catching himself before he could slide out of the saddle. “We just tell Fremont we got her. Only we don’t take her. Otherwise you’re gonna be wanted for kidnapping.”

“What? Just let her go? How much did you drink? Don’t you think Martin might notice her when she came home?”

“Naw, he’ll be on his way back with the money by then. Got it all figured out.”

“Uh huh. And what if he isn’t? He’ll know it’s all a bluff then.”

Johnny wasn’t sure of the answer to that, although he could have sworn he’d figured it out earlier. He smiled again. “Anyone ever tell you you’re beautiful?”

She gave him that look she always seemed to be giving him. “Dammit, you’re drunk!”

“Yeah, but you’re still beautiful. Way too pretty to be wanted for kidnapping no woman. Sides, you gotta baby to think about.”

“That’s exactly what I’m thinking about! Maybe you better just stay here if you don’t have the cojones.” With that she spurred her horse toward the buggy, which was fairly close by this time. 

Johnny snatched at her reins but missed, succeeding only in losing his balance and hanging off his horse’s side until he could pull himself back up straight and take off after her. Shit! She was almost to the buggy already. He spurred his horse to go faster, just as three riders appeared around the bend right behind the buggy. There was something about them that looked familiar, and he would have pulled up were he not already committed, were Lena not already beside the buggy, saying something to Mrs. Fremont.

He galloped up alongside, leaving his gun holstered but his hand ready, still knowing this was a bad idea, really, really, really bad. He couldn’t let Lena be wanted for kidnapping, no matter what, didn’t particularly need that added to his own wanted list as well. As long as she hadn’t tried anything there was still a chance he could get her away before it was too late. He pulled his hat low on his head, shading his face as best he could, hoping the hands hadn’t seen him when he’d been at the Fremont ranch before. Maybe he could just pull Lena away and get out of there. He tipped his hat at the ladies as best he could without showing his face. “Ladies, nice day ain’t it?” Then he turned to Lena and added, “Reckon we better be on our way.”

Had he not been drinking his senses would have been sharper, and had his senses been sharper he probably would have seen the movement behind him, would have seen the new men going for their guns and wouldn’t have had to figure it out from the clicks of three guns being cocked at once. Even so, he might have still gone for his own weapon, if Lena hadn’t turned in her saddle and pointed the pistol she’d taken off Fremont square at him, a look on her face that dared him to make a move.

***

Scott went with Sam to look at Deeter. Somebody had already brought Vom in and chained him to Deeter’s bed, and Vom was holding a wet cloth to the boy’s head. “About damn time you got back here,” he said to Sam. “Boy here coulda died while you was out gallivanting around the countryside.”

Sam raised an eyebrow but didn’t comment, just went straight to Deeter and started checking his eyes, feeling his pulse, and prodding his abdomen. “Has he regained consciousness at all?”

“Coupla times he was stirring, thought he was coming to, but I couldn’t get him to wake up. Yelled right in his ear, even. Think he could of gone deaf, too?”

The doctor stared at him for a moment before replying. “Probably just still unconscious. His color’s better, though. A lot better. Looks like Anna’s done a good job.”

“Who?”

“Miss Sinclair. She’s been nursing him, hasn’t she?”

Vom huffed. “Ain’t nobody been nursing him but me, and maybe that Jelly fellow once in a while, far as I know.”

“Oh. Well, then, keep up the good work. When he comes to you can give him some broth, try to get him to eat, because he needs the nourishment to regain his strength.”  The doctor stood to leave.

“Before you go, Sam,” said Scott, who had sat on a chair while he waited, “can we talk about Johnny for a minute? Here’s the thing: I think something may have happened to him that’s making him act peculiarly. He acted like he had no idea who I was, and according to Vom here, he never once mentioned living at Lancer. And I can’t figure out any reason for him to pretend he didn’t know me or never lived here.”

“Ain’t nothing wrong with Johnny a swift kick to the bottle won’t fix,” Vom said.

“Are you saying you think he doesn’t remember?” Sam rubbed his chin, ignoring Vom. “I’ve read about memory loss—amnesia is what they call it—but it’s quite rare. Sometimes a brain injury, or even a concussion can bring it on, but even then...”

“You’ve been with him the most recently,” Scott said to Vom. “Did he hurt his head?”

“You trying to tell me Johnny lived on this spread and you think he forgot it? No, place like this, nobody gonna forget living here, least of all, Johnny. Not even drunk.” Vom chuckled. “He used to tell me his daddy was rich. I never believed him. Hell, I’d of carted him here myself if I had, make that bastard Lancer take him in or pay me to play nursemaid to his mistake. Ought to send him a bill now.”

Scott tried to hide his irritation. “Did Johnny hurt his head?”

“Hell, yeah, he hurt his head! Leastways if you count getting cut by a bullet and then falling off a horse on it as hurtin’. But that boy has a hard head, he’s had worse than that, lot worse, didn’t go around forgettin’ stuff.”

“When?” Sam asked.

“Hell I don’t know, lots of times.”

“No, when did he hurt it this time? Did he seem alright before?”

Vom busied himself rewetting the cloth for Deeter’s head. “He was like that when we found him. Maybe that Sinclair fellow shot him, I don’t know.”

“You mean when Murdoch and Florence were shot? He was really drunk then, Sam. You think that could make a difference?”

Sam thought for a while before answering, “Well, it’s hard to know these things, but it sounds to me like it’s a real possibility. We’d have to talk to him to know for sure.”

Scott had leaned forward, but he slumped back now, staring at the ceiling. “And if he doesn’t remember we’re his family, how are we ever going to talk to him?”

A snort came from Vom. “Family? You ain’t his family, even if you really are related. You think cuz you maybe share some blood that makes you family? Try really sharing blood, like trying to keep the boy from bleeding to death when you’re bleeding so much yourself you can’t tell whose is whose. That’s sharing blood. That’s family.” Vom dunked the cloth back in the water and splatted it back on Deeter’s head. “I tell you what, Johnny remembers just fine the family that counts, and that’s me. Not some  so-called father that kicked him out and some so-called brother that was taking him in to be stretched. Shit, you ain’t his family, no fucking way.”

Scott felt the blood rise to his face as he jumped to his feet. “Murdoch never kicked him out! And I told you, I was trying to make sure nothing bad happened between Johnny and Ian. Now if you have any idea where we can find Johnny, you need to tell me!”

Vom leaned back in his chair, a smug look on his face. “Oh, I have some idea. But I’d have to take you there personal, once the boy here gets well enough to come too. Wouldn’t be safe to send you on your own.” He leaned forward.  “I’m assuming, of course, there would be some kind of financial remuneration from a grateful family?”

 

Chapter 78

Scott had found an excuse to sneak upstairs while everyone else was downstairs. Everyone but Anna, who was packing. He had only a few stolen seconds before he heard somebody coming up the stairs, so he kissed her quickly and told her he’d miss her, to hurry back. She wiped a tear from her eye as she said she would, told him how lonely she would be without him, then turned to pick up Ming while Tang yapped and begged to be picked up as well. “Can you bring Tang for me?” she asked.

“Do you think it’s wise to take them? I can take care of them.” Or somebody could, Scott thought. He wondered if the Millers would appreciate it.

At that moment Sam topped the stairway. He must have overheard. “I think you’d best leave them here, dear. The Miller dog is a brute, and I wouldn’t put it past him to have one of these for his dessert.”

Anna clutched Ming to her, a look of horror on her face. “Why would anyone harbor a killer like that?”

“Oh, I suppose he has his uses, to the Millers, at least,” Sam said, reaching to pet Ming.

“Killers never have a use,” Anna said, and Scott could have sworn she looked at him pointedly when she said it. But before he could wonder she shoved Ming into his arms. “I suppose Sam’s right though. Maria knows what they eat. They need their steak cut into small pieces, and their milk warmed before bedtime. They usually sleep on my bed, so they’ll be lonely if you don’t let them on yours. You’ll have to pick them up and down. Don’t let Ming run or jump, or she could hurt the babies. They like to be brushed once a day. Take care they don’t wander around outside unsupervised. Remember, these are blue bloods, so you mustn’t let anything happen to them.”

With that, she kissed each one on its flat snout and rushed down the stairs, leaving Scott and Sam to stare at each other in disbelief. “Did she say I have to cut their steak up for them?” Scott asked, depositing Ming on the floor as though she were made of thin porcelain.

“I better go check on Murdoch,” said Sam, stifling a smile. Scott looked after him and used his feet to cautiously herd the two dogs back inside Anna’s room, shutting the door behind them before hurrying to join Sam.

Sam was already feeling Murdoch’s forehead, shaking his own head. “I don’t understand why he keeps getting feverish.”

“Me neither. Anna’s been nursing him night and day. She was putting that special salve on his wound just last night. Of course, that would make anyone feel sick, the way it stinks.”

“What salve?”

“I don’t know. I thought you left it. She keeps it in the top drawer by the bed,” he said, pointing at the night table.

Sam opened the drawer and shrugged. “Nothing in here.”

“It was there last night. Maybe she took it with her. Want me to go ask her?”

“No, whatever it is, I can’t say it’s working very well.” Sam looked at the festered wound and covered it back up. “Might as well just let it pass. Besides, I can ask her when we’re on the way to the Miller place. Which reminds me, I better get going. Teresa knows what to do with Murdoch, but send for me if anything happens. With him or the boy.”

“So what do you really think about Johnny? If he really can’t remember us, what do we do?”

“Well, first you have to find him. But even then, the mind is a mysterious thing. Remember, you found him once. And you didn’t bring him back.”

***

The bitch. Goddamn double-crossing bitch.

“He’s my prisoner,” the bitch said. “He just got away for a second.”

Lying bitch.

“Yeah? Then how come it looked like he was chasing you?” That was one of the three new men, the ones that all looked like they had awfully twitchy fingers seeing that their guns were aimed at him. One had already relieved Johnny of his gun and was cuffing his hands. If the sound of guns being cocked hadn’t sobered him up the feel of cold metal against his wrists did for sure.

“I couldn’t very well take down Johnny Madrid one on one! But I knew he wouldn’t try anything in front of other people, not if he could help it. And it worked; I got the drop on him, didn’t I?”

Fucking bitch!

“No offense, ma’am, but if it weren’t for us showing up he’d just be on his way. Truth is, we been tracking the wily bast—this outlaw since he killed a man back in White Springs. He’s slick, but I reckon he didn’t count on having some crack trackers on his tail.”

Now Johnny remembered where he’d seen them. That those three blind trackers had somehow stumbled onto him here had to be one of the sickest jokes God’d played on him in a long time. Bet the old man was getting a good gut-splitter out of this one.

More likely, that conniving bitch had something to do with it.

“Yeah, that and a tip from that feller offering the reward,” said the scrawny one, the one who looked like he’d been working on growing facial hair but was about as good at it as he was at tracking.

“Shut up, Josh,” said the older one, who still wasn’t much older than Johnny. He seemed to be the leader, or at least had done most of the talking so far. “Yeah, we got a tip that give us a shortcut, but we’d of caught up, just a matter of time. Truth is, ma’am,” and now he tipped his hat at Mrs. Fremont, “this Mr. Sinclair wired the sheriff in White Springs, told him he thought maybe Madrid could have headed back here to try and settle a score with your husband. Looks like he was right.”

“My husband? He’s not at home right now. He’s spending the night on the range. He does that a lot when there’s work to be done.”

“Yeah, I know he’s not there. We stopped by the ranch, they told us you was on your way to church, and that’s why we showed up, just in time from the looks of it. Name’s Parker, ma’am, Abe Parker, and these here’s my brothers, Josh and Caleb. We’re bounty hunters, professionals.”

Mrs. Fremont clasped her daughter’s hand and spoke urgently. “Mr. Parker, do you think he could have hurt my husband? Did you find him? I had no idea that criminal had escaped! The last I saw Mr. Sinclair and Mr. Lancer had him secured. They’re alright, aren’t they?”

Lancer? Did she mean Blondie?

“All I know is he got away, killed a man. As for your husband, hard to say, ma’am, a killer like Madrid, with a grudge, but you might want to get a search party out. Meanwhile we’ll be taking him back to White Springs to stand trial. He won’t be getting away this time. You send word if they got to add any more charges.”

“He’s my prisoner,” Lena said forcefully, nudging her horse closer. Her mouth was drawn, and even though she tried to sound tough, Johnny could hear the note of desperation in her voice.

Parker turned to her. “Lady, I don’t know who you are, but you sure ain’t no bounty hunter. Now why don’t you leave this to the professionals, go on back home where it’s safe.”

“She’s the one who had me on the run,” Johnny blurted, nodding toward Lena. He wasn’t quite sure why he said it. As far he was concerned the whole lot of them could go to hell.  Especially Lena. But there was the baby, the baby who was going to have a tough enough life as it was. The bounty money might make a difference, give the kid a future. Might as well make it go to a good cause. Make his last gesture as a free man one that might at least look good on his tally sheet after his hanging, at least maybe make God feel a little bad about sending him to hell. “And your husband’s fine, ma’am, so don’t go frettin’ about him.”

“Oh my dear God!” Mrs. Fremont said, pointing to Lena’s horse. “That’s Martin’s horse!”

“He loaned him to me,” Lena said. “So I could go after Madrid. You can ask him, he’s at my parents’ house. We had a plan, one that needed a woman so Madrid would drop his guard.”

Mrs. Fremont’s eyes narrowed. “I seriously doubt what either of them says is true, but my husband had better be alright. More likely, these two were engaged in some immoral activity. You see, I know who she is. And what she is. Do I make myself clear?”

Clear enough that Josh was smiling, looking Lena up and down like he was sizing up a riding horse.

But it didn’t set right with Lena. Her face started turning red, almost like she was embarrassed, but that didn’t seem likely. It was only when she spoke, her voice quivering, that Johnny realized it wasn’t embarrassment, but fury. “You want to know who I am? You want to know, Mrs. High and Mighty Fremont? You think your family is so much better than mine? Well, well then, I’m the woman who’s carrying your husband’s child! The child he ordered killed!”

Mrs. Fremont blanched. “Don’t you dare talk like that in front of my daughter, you filthy-mouthed whore! Get out of here. Get her out of here!”

Abe took her by the arm but she shook him off, still staring at Mrs. Fremont. “I may be a whore, but I’m your husband’s whore. With his bastard child. Go ahead, ask Martin. Ask him why he’s paying me not to tell you! Or was, I guess he’ll save some money now.”

Johnny was all for getting out of there. He’d seen what irate women could do, especially if they had a gun somewhere in reach. He didn’t want to be in the middle of that crossfire.  He’d learned long ago you didn’t piss off a women just for the hell of it. Too bad none of the women he knew seemed to have ever learned it. He kneed his horse so it stepped into Lena’s, so she shut up for a second while he asked, “You folks planning on collecting that bounty or lettin’ me die of old age first?”

In the end Parker must have had the same thought Johnny did, because he agreed to let Lena come along and give her a share of the bounty.  Anything to get away from Mrs. Fremont, who looked like she was ready to take on Lena with her bare hands. Course, Johnny wouldn’t have minded sticking around for that bit of entertainment.

But Parker seemed to have no sense of fun, and Lena, Johnny, and the three crack bounty hunters headed away toward White Springs, the brothers in high spirits, Lena in a snit, Johnny in cuffs.

 

Chapter 79

Johnny thought he was going to be ill. He’d like to think it was from the results of too much whiskey last night and this morning, combined with the long ride under the hot sun, and not nearly enough chances to drink from his canteen. And it probably was, in part. But the other part was the damn floorshow. The constant chatter from lying Lena. The way she smiled at the brothers, laughed at their comments, licked her lips seductively after she drank. She was playing them like a full house, doing her best to make sure they forked over her share of the bounty. Playing them like she’d played him. For a sucker.

It’s a good thing Vom wasn’t around to see this fuck up. He’d beat the shit out of him, give him his lecture on trust yet again, remind him what had happened before. Shit, when was he ever going to learn?

He’d hardly noticed when his horse stopped. One of the Parker boys had been leading it, so it wasn’t like he had to pay attention, sure wasn’t like he could even try to make a get away. The brothers sure weren’t pros, but it just wasn’t that hard to hold on to a cuffed man on a horse. One of them told him to get down, so he swung one leg in front of him, over the horse’s neck, and tried to slide down as best he could with no hands. Had his legs not been so stiff he could have caught himself, but as it was, they ended up buckling and he fell to the ground. Caleb prodded him up with his boot, offering a tempting target. All he’d have to do would be to kick his other foot out from under him, send him toppling, then...then what? The others would be on him, and he’d have taught Caleb something to look out for. He staggered to his feet sullenly.

Lena was still seated, stayed so until Josh helped her from her saddle. Johnny watched her fall into the boy, knew she could jump off a horse and land as surefooted as a cougar on a calf. Which is sort of what she reminded him of here. Why hadn’t he seen her for what she was before?

***

Maybe it was his imagination, but he could swear Murdoch was getting better. Still, he’d been told about his bouts of improvement followed by more high fevers.  It wasn’t until his father opened his eyes and mouthed his name that Scott allowed himself to believe he just might be on the road to recovery.

Murdoch gulped at the water Scott offered him, pushing it away only when Scott warned him of drinking too much at once. He licked his lips, his voice coming out hoarse. “Johnny?”

How could one word carry so many questions? No, Johnny wasn’t home. Wasn’t even himself, as far as he could tell. Was still wanted for murder. The murder of Murdoch’s wife. And now a man in a hotel room. “Murdoch, what happened?”

“Johnny? Where is he?”

“I don’t know. Ian and I, well, we caught up to him, but he—Murdoch, Sam thinks he may have lost his memory. It was like he didn’t know who I was.”

“Where?” Murdoch’s normally booming voice was weak, matching the low light from the single lamp in the room. “Where’s he now?”

“I don’t know. He got away.” Scott didn’t want to go into details about his brother’s capture, nor about Ian’s attempt at a lynching. Not now, at least. Murdoch didn’t need any more worries. “Do you remember what happened?”

“He was mad. And drunk.” He started coughing, but waved Scott away. “Came riding up on us at the stream. Attacked Flo.” This time he was overcome with coughing, so Scott helped sit him up, waiting for the bout to pass.

“Somebody killed his dog,” Scott said, patting his back before offering some more water. “I think somehow he blamed Florence. But he was drunk, Murdoch, he wasn’t thinking straight. It could have been anybody.” Although Jelly had told him exactly who it was. Now was not the time, however. “Can you talk about what happened?”

“I tried to stop him.” Murdoch’s voice came out as a bare wheeze between coughs. He tried to hold his hand up. “I tried, but... ”

***

Lena sure didn’t complain when the Parker boys drank. Hell, she giggled and guzzled right along with them. So much for respecting the Lord’s day. Maybe the Lord’s night didn’t count.

Or maybe she just hadn’t wanted her bounty boy falling on his head before she could collect on him. More likely, she was just plain mean to him because he wasn’t a paying customer. The night was already getting cold, and without a blanket or a woman to warm him, he sure could use some whiskey. They’d all made it clear that wasn’t going to happen, Lena even adding one of her scowls when he’d asked, ever so damn politely, for just a fucking cup of the stuff. He finally decided to shut his eyes, curl up as best he could, and try to sleep.

The best he could wasn’t as good as he wished. Not when he opened his eyes and spied Lena and Josh slurping on each other’s faces, leaning against one another as they stole silently away from the light of the campfire. Abe and Caleb were already snoring, no doubt nice and warm and blissfully passed out.

Lena must be trying to earn a few extra dollars. A liar and a whore. Goddamn, why had he been so damn stupid? No, he didn’t mean that. There was nothing wrong with being a whore. No different, really, than being a hired gun. They both provided a service others, good folk, weren’t willing to. Still, somewhere deep inside, in that part of his mind he only looked in when he wanted to fool himself with impossible dreams, he’d seen Lena and him together, maybe settled in the little shack, raising some stock. And her child.

He’d show them how it should be done. He wouldn’t be like Mama’s men. Not like Pino, Salvadore, Hector, and all the others who he remembered more for their fists and curses than for being the stepfathers Mama always promised him. Sure as hell not like that bastard Ricardo. Thinking of him made his hands clench, and he found himself trying to wipe them clean even though he was cuffed.  He wouldn’t be too late this time. He’d protect her, take care of her, shield her from men who only wanted her body, make sure her mestizo child never knew the feeling of being beneath everyone else. He’d make up for what he’d done.

Well, that was stupid any way you looked at it, even before he found out she was playing him for a sucker. It wasn’t like she’d been all that sweet to him even before. Mostly she liked to yell at him. Boss him around. Damn, what about that whole episode in her bed? He still didn’t know what to make of that. Maybe she’d been waiting for him to plop some coins on the sheets. Goddamn it. Vom had been so fucking right when he’d warned him about thinking with his heart. Besides, gunfighters didn’t have families. Vom told him that, too.

Johnny almost snickered when he saw Lena come out of the woods alone, already buttoning up her blouse. Guess Josh wasn’t much for lasting long. She headed right for the sleeping brothers. Shit. Looked like she wasn’t planning to play favorites.

But it turned out, she was, in a way, because she only pointed the gun at Caleb, while she told both brothers she’d shoot Caleb’s brains out unless Caleb tied Abe’s hands behind his back.

 

Chapter 80

Now he was even more confused. She’d barely said a word, just taken the key and unlocked his cuffs, given him such a dirty look when he reached for the bottle of whiskey to take that he decided to leave it behind. Along with the three brothers. She’d told him where to find Josh, all trussed up like a calf, and Johnny’d hauled him so he could lie near Abe, Caleb and the fire. They’d get loose, eventually. With their tracking skills, it wouldn’t really matter, as long as Johnny and Lena got some kind of head start. But he still couldn’t figure what the hell Lena was doing.

“Tell me again why you did this?”

“If you keep harping on it I may just change my mind and turn you back in,” she said brusquely. “I told you. They wouldn’t have paid me my share. Might have even left me dead on the trail so they wouldn’t have to fight about it when we got there. Besides, my baby isn’t going to grow up on blood money.”

“Sure it wasn’t because you couldn’t bear to see anything happen to me?”

His horse snorted, sort of like Lena looked like she wanted to do. “For a cut of a thousand dollars? Don’t flatter yourself.” Still, he could have sworn she blushed a little when she said it.

“So that whole thing with the gun, turning me in. You was just making that up?”

She rolled her eyes. “You had four hired hands and three bounty hunters against one drunk gunfighter who had a better chance of shooting his own foot than any of them. I guess it wasn’t one of my brighter moments, but for some reason I didn’t want to see you bleeding out right in front of me.”

Johnny ducked his head and grinned. “Yeah, I reckon you’re just a softy, at that.”

She spurred her horse to cut around a rock, but Johnny saw the slightest glimmer of a smile on her face before her back was to him. Maybe she really was a softy.

“Hurry up!” she demanded. “You didn’t do your last job, maybe you can make up for it.”

Then again, maybe not.

They’d gotten on their two horses and headed north, guided by moonlight on the mostly open range. Johnny wanted to get somewhere with more cover by the time dawn exposed them. The Parker boys might be bad trackers, but they weren’t blind.

He gave a big sigh. So much for having a place to sleep. So much for having a plan in his life. So much for collecting hush money from Fremont. The rancher would have been collected by his wife hours ago. Or maybe not, depending on how mad she was after Lena’s revelation. Regardless, he and Lena hadn’t exactly lived up to their side of the bargain.

By now there was a good chance if Mrs. Fremont hadn’t kicked him out then his fellow ranchers had ridden him out of town on a rail after finding out what he’d done. No, Fremont was no longer a chicken to be plucked. Now the best plan was to find the homesteaders that Fremont had run off, tell them to get back to their properties before they lost their claims. Maybe Lena’s family would take her back after they found out what she’d done for them. Who knew, maybe they’d even have a place for a gunfighter with a bad hand and a worse memory. A little shack, a place he could settle down, raise a family. Maybe help out a little mestizo kid who was sure going to need it. Maybe find some purpose in his life besides wandering aimlessly and looking for somebody to kill for a buck. And spending that buck on a bottle so he could forget even more.

Shit. There he was thinking stupid again. No, he needed to get his hand back, ride somewhere he wasn’t wanted, not by the law, start over. Somewhere he wasn’t wanted. Hell, that felt pretty much like everywhere sometimes.

***

It was a good thing Sam wasn’t here to see this. But Murdoch had insisted, and Scott thought perhaps it really was a good idea to get his father out of that claustrophobic bedroom and back behind his desk. It had taken a lot out of the old man to get there, even with Scott dressing him and both Scott and Jelly helping him down the stairs. Now he sat back in his chair, looking utterly exhausted but stronger than he had looked since he’d been shot. For Murdoch, being in control was the essence of his strength, and he hadn’t had any control in that bed.

He’d carried Flo’s picture down with him. Setting it beside Catherine’s picture on his desk, he frowned. “Where’s Maria’s picture?”

Scott looked around the desk, on its surface, on the floor, while Murdoch searched the drawers. “Johnny must have taken it,” Scott offered.

Murdoch shook his head slowly. “I don’t understand what got into that boy. I know he and Florence didn’t see eye to eye, but she was willing to work it out. If only he’d given her a chance. Why?”

Scott felt his world reeling. “Are you saying he really did shoot her?”

Murdoch rubbed his face. “I don’t know, it’s all fuzzy. I remember him, how furious he was. I remember he attacked her, I can still see how furious he was. That’s the last thing I remember.”

“Ian said he saw him riding away, but it turned out he just saw his horse.”

Murdoch was silent. “Do you think he walked away? And his horse would have come back to the ranch if he’d been riderless. And why would Johnny leave?” He pounded his fist on the desk. “Damn! Why couldn’t he just get along with her?”

“I don’t know, sir. I know he was very unhappy about your marriage.” Scott had asked himself those same questions time after time. He sucked up his courage and told the truth. Murdoch would expect no less. “I guess it was what he said at your wedding, even though he was drunk. He obviously blamed Florence for your marriage to his mother breaking up. I suppose he couldn’t live with her under the circumstances, thinking that.”

Murdoch sat quietly, staring down in the drawer for so long Scott thought he might have drifted off. When he finally spoke his voice was uncharacteristically quiet. “Then he should have killed me, not her. I was the one to blame. I was the one who betrayed my vows. I don’t know how Maria found out, but I paid by losing my boy when she left. Paid dearly. And now I’m still paying. But it should have been me.” He finally reached inside the drawer and pulled out the Pinkerton report, flopping it on the desk top. “Have you ever read this, Scott? I’m the one Johnny should hate. The way he and his mother lived. What happened to her. What happened to him.”

Scott felt more than a little uncomfortable talking about his father’s infidelity and its repercussions. But the report gave him a good opening for another subject he knew he had to broach eventually. “A man who says he raised Johnny, taught him to be a gunfighter is here. His name is Vom Jacobsen. Johnny was riding with him, after he left here.”

Murdoch’s head shot up. “Jacobsen? The one in the report? I’ll kill the son of a bitch! What’s he doing here?”

“It’s a long story, I’m still trying to get it to add up. But he’s in custody. He and this kid and Johnny were riding together, down in Hardpan in some sort of a range war--”

“What?” Murdoch’s face flushed red and he tried to push himself out of his chair. “A range war? Johnny’s hiring out? I wish to God I understood what went on that boy’s head. It’s that bastard Jacobsen’s fault, how Johnny turned out, I’ll wring his sorry neck!”

“Whoa, Murdoch, come on, you’re going to end up back in your sick bed.” Scott placed a firm hand on his father’s shoulder, gently easing him back into his seat. “But that’s just it. I told you I saw Johnny, but he doesn’t seem to be thinking clearly. He acted like he didn’t even know me. Like I said before, Sam thinks he may have some sort of memory loss or something, maybe from a head injury.”

“Memory loss? Scott, I wish there was some way to excuse, even to explain, what Johnny’s done, but let’s not get ridiculous. Claiming he can’t remember?  Quite honestly, I didn’t think Johnny was that much of a coward. Besides, not being able to remember doesn’t excuse doing it in the first place.”

“No, he never claimed that, but I’m telling you Murdoch, he didn’t even recognize me. Sam says it’s called amnesia.”

“Scott, I know you want to protect your brother, but there comes a time when you have to quit making excuses for him.”

“I’m not making excuses! But as it is, he’s going to be on trial for murder. He could hang, you know.”

Before Murdoch could reply they were interrupted by the sound of a horse approaching, and by the time Scott opened the door Val had his hand raised to knock.

“Hey, good to see you up!” Val said as he spotted Murdoch. “Got some news, Scott. Johnny was spotted again, in Hardpan. Caught, actually, by some bounty hunters, but he got away with the help of a woman. They’re back on his trail, said he was headed north.” He looked at Scott. “Ian already knows. He rode off from town before I even got the message, on account of him being the one to offer the bounty.”

Murdoch had pulled himself out of his chair and was leaning against his desk. “Ian offered a bounty?”

 

Chapter 81

They hadn’t expected to spend the night out, although Johnny had packed his bedroll out of habit. You never knew when you couldn’t go back home, and today just proved the point. Fremont apparently didn’t think that way, though, and his horse had no bedroll. Johnny untied his and handed it to Lena. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d slept on the bare ground.

They’d managed on jerky. He hadn’t wanted to start a fire, just in case the Parker boys had a lucky guess and happened to head in the same direction. Tomorrow he’d get a rabbit, or at least try. They should have enough of a head start by then. He should stand watch tonight, but he knew he didn’t have much hope of staying awake. He’d been falling asleep in the saddle by the time they reached this thicket. It was better to just try to get some sleep and hope the thicket gave them the cover he’d been looking for. Tomorrow should be a long ride.

The nights were getting colder, and the clear sky promised an especially bitter bite to the air on this night. He wrapped his arms around himself and leaned against his saddle, watching Lena settle partially into the bedroll, still sitting up as she let her hair down. Johnny suddenly noticed the dark circles beneath her eyes, the weary motions of her arms. It had to be grueling for her, carrying a child, but she’d never complained once, never shirked from doing her part of the chores involved in making camp.

She ran her fingers through her hair, snugged down into the bedroll, and held up one side of it. “You coming to bed?”

Johnny gave a start. Not this again. Not that he was looking forward to spending the night freezing, but now what? Was somebody else lurking in the dark? Just what did her invitation include? He cocked his head, smiled, and tried to sound amused. “Depends. Is it safe?”

She jiggled the bedroll in her hand impatiently. “Come on, I won’t bite you.”

Well, that was one thing off his mind. She’d bitten him already, and it had hurt like hell. Now all he had to worry about was being stabbed or shot. He was tempted to say just that, but then figured that might actually get him stabbed or shot.  Instead he stayed silent, biting his lower lip as he tried to decide what to do.

She held the bedroll open wider. “Listen, it’s too cold to pretend I’ve never slept with a man. Just take your boots and gunbelt off, climb in.”

Johnny slowly slipped them off, carrying them with him so they’d be in easy reach. He had no intention of sleeping without his gun in hand. He wasn’t quite sure how he was going to do that and keep it out of her reach. Then again, that might be the least of his worries. He knew Lena had at least one knife, and still had Fremont’s gun. Somewhere.

Might as well be blunt. “You taking your knives and guns off?”

She chuckled. “A lady never tells.”

“Yeah, well, that lets...” He stopped himself before he could say something assured to get him shot. She was already glaring. Thinking fast, he said, “That lets you ladies get away with an awful lot. You could have an arsenal under them skirts.”

“Who says I don’t?” she asked, smiling coyly. “And besides, who’s to say you don’t have a pistol in your pants?”

Johnny couldn’t help but smile broadly at that. “More like a shotgun.”

Lena didn’t even glare at him. She was loosening her skirt waist. This was more like it. Then again, she might just be getting comfortable. Shit, it was happening again. No, he wasn’t going to spend this night wondering, have a repeat of last time. He kept his hands away from his shirt toggles. “Lena, um, do you, well...”  Fuck, she wasn’t helping a bit. “I mean, shit, I don’t want to assume nothing wrong here...”

She raised an eyebrow, all innocence. “Like what?” she asked, but he could swear she knew exactly what he meant.

“I mean, well, you’re a beautiful woman, and I, I mean, I really want to, um, you know, but I respect you...”

“Get over here,” she said, chuckling in a way that made it seem like she was enjoying every second of his discomfort. “You’d better. Because that’s one reason I saved your hide. You know, most men last night, they would have assumed they could bed me, but you didn’t. You didn’t even try. That meant a lot to me, Johnny, a whole lot.” Her expression turned suddenly serious, even sad. “Johnny Madrid, I trust you, and I can’t think of too many men I can say that about. I just—well, sometimes I just need somebody to hold me. Somebody who doesn’t just want to bed me. Somebody I can trust. Please?”

Damn. That answered that question.

“Goddamn men! All they want, most of them, is a quick poke and then they don’t give a shit. Now—” Her lip quivered and Johnny could swear he saw tears welling. “Now I don’t know what I’m going to do. I was counting on Martin. I really thought he’d change his mind, take care of me and the baby. I should have killed him, dammit! Now I don’t even have the money we were going to get for not telling his wife. I don’t know how I’m going to make it. I have no job, no place to live, no one to take care of me and the baby.”

Suddenly he felt like a rat for being disappointed in the evening’s plans. Kneeling beside her, he took her into his arms. “Come on, Lena, It’ll work out. We’ll find your family, you all can move back to your old place now that Fremont’s gone, I’m sure they’ll be happy to have you back.”

She buried her head in his chest and took a small gasp, making Johnny look around in alarm before he realized she was sobbing. “No, no, they won’t have me. They already told me. Not after what I’ve done to shame them, especially not with a baby. A mestizo baby.”

He knew it was true. There wasn’t much of a future for an unwed mother, especially not a Mexican whose only job had been as a prostitute. She could go back to whoring after the child was born, but a lot of places wouldn’t allow children. And being a child in one of those places wasn’t the way to grow up. Even worse, was being the child of a whore who was out on her own. He knew. “What if you told them I was the father? That we was married?”

She looked up, her eyes red, her tears real. But her voice had regained some of its usual fire. “Somehow I don’t think having a wanted outlaw as the father is going to help matters much. Besides, then what? You could run out on me? Or maybe get yourself hanged? You think that would make things better?”

There was that stupid fantasy again. The one where he didn’t run away, didn’t hang. The one where a gunfighter could settle down, lead a normal life, have a beautiful woman by his side every day, in his bed every night. A stupid fantasy, one he dared not admit. He shrugged. “Yeah, it was just a thought.”

“Well, it was sweet of you, anyway,” she said, her voice softer than he was used to hearing. “It’s not your problem. Just forget I said anything, go to sleep.”

She started to push away from him but he wouldn’t let go. She’d wanted to be held, but the truth was, he’d liked it too. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d held a woman, just held her. Or the last time he’d been held. Hell, he couldn’t remember anything, so why should that be any different? Truth was, he was scared too, and not just for Lena. The images had started back in his head, visions of that fellow Blondie and of Murdoch Lancer, things he didn’t understand. He wished he had some whiskey, anything to blot them out. But Lena had taken what little was left and poured it into the sand. He wished he had a woman, someone he could test himself on, make sure what Blondie had hinted at wasn’t true. Dammit, he knew it wasn’t true, couldn’t be. Not the way Lena was making him feel now.

She squirmed in his arms. “Let me go, Johnny, you’re squeezing me.”

He had the urge to cover her mouth with his, show her how he could love her. He pulled her face close to his, saw the flicker of fear in her eyes, remembered what she said about trusting him, and kissed her on the forehead. “It is my problem, Lena. I care about you.” And he let her go.

 

Chapter 82

The day had started poorly. Scott had awakened as usual and hurried to see if Murdoch needed any help. He’d peeked in his door, saw Murdoch was still sleeping, so he crept down and attended to his own morning needs first. He’d forgotten to shut both his and his father’s doors, and when he returned Anna’s dogs were both bouncing around Murdoch’s room, and Murdoch was looking at him as though it were his fault. Which it was, technically, since Anna had left them in his care, but still. He could still smell the fetid stench of Anna’s salve, and wondered if she’d left some for Murdoch to use. He didn’t take long to ponder, since he needed to get the dogs outdoors quickly.

It was when he was herding them out the door that Murdoch started cursing like Scott didn’t know he could. Sitting on the side of the bed, holding up one bare foot, the source of the smell was immediately obvious. At least one of the dogs obviously no longer needed to go outside. Lord, he couldn’t wait for Anna to come back!

Stupid dogs. He had to admit, he’d much preferred Rojo. Rojo may have been more trouble, but somehow his enthusiasm for mischief made you have to try hard not to laugh. With these things—they just seemed like all they did was eat and yap and get underfoot. And crap. He wondered what Anna saw in them. Sure, they were fancy blue-bloods, but it didn’t seem like they were good for much. Rojo had saved him from a rattlesnake. He nudged them out the door with his foot then rushed back up the stairs to clean up the mess. Anna would probably remind him it was blue-blooded crap.

He couldn’t help but snort to himself. Anna’s infatuation with the dogs was actually kind of endearing, as much as he didn’t understand it. It was just one more way that she showed how loving and caring she was to all, even to yappy dogs. He hoped she’d be back soon so she could show him some of that love.

He wondered if having Murdoch well and wandering around the hacienda would cramp his activities with her. At least she wouldn’t have to hover over Murdoch’s sickbed all the time. Scott mentally slapped himself. What was he thinking? There’d be time for that later. Right now he needed to go back out and try to find Johnny. Or keep Ian from getting himself killed by him. Murdoch had lost enough family to Johnny’s gun, or at least he seemed to think so. Scott still wasn’t convinced. But he had a feeling if Johnny came face to face with Ian, there would be no doubt as to the outcome. He tossed the dogs some hunks of bread for their breakfast and returned to help Murdoch down the stairs so he could finally eat at the table.

Then the day got worse. Val had stayed over, and Murdoch noticed him limping around on his way to the table. He’d asked what was wrong with his leg, and Val had told him he’d been shot. Naturally Murdoch had to ask who shot him. And as he’d done before, Val had shrugged and said he didn’t see him.

Murdoch hadn’t believed him. Of course, neither had Scott, but he’d been willing to let it go. If Val didn’t want to tell on Johnny, and that was the only reason Scott could imagine he’d be claiming not to see somebody shoot him, clearly from the front, then Scott was fine with that. Murdoch wasn’t.

“Are you saying you were ambushed?” Murdoch asked, stopping with his fork midway to his mouth.

“No,” Val said, chewing slowly. “I’m saying it was dark and I couldn’t make out the fellow.”

“Just one person?” Murdoch finished swallowing his egg. “I understand Johnny was riding with two other guns, these two you have here. Are you sure this Jacobsen didn’t do it?”

“Johnny could have been with Jacobsen then,” Scott said. “One of the men who checked the cave says there was evidence at least three people were in there.”

“Yeah, well, it’s possible,” Val said, “but that don’t mean Jacobsen was one of them, or that he did the shooting.” Scott had sort of been hoping Val would jump at the chance to lay the blame on Vom, as bad as he knew that was. But Val wasn’t like that; he’d want Johnny to be innocent, but he’d never compromise his integrity at the expense of another man’s life or freedom. Scott sighed inwardly. As much as he didn’t care for Vom, he couldn’t lay the blame on him, either. Not if he didn’t do it.

“Did you ask him?” Murdoch questioned.

“Course I asked him. Plan to talk to him some more. Fellow ain’t the most cooperative cuss around.”

“Then make him cooperative.” Murdoch pointed his fork at him. “You do know who that son of a bitch is, don’t you? Did Scott tell you what he did? To Johnny?”

“I know he raised Johnny for a while.”

Murdoch slammed the fork down on the table, sending the coffee sloshing back and forth in his cup. “He did not raise him! The bastard taught him to be a gunfighter, took a boy and turned him into a, a killer for hire! I don’t call that raising him. Anybody can teach a kid to pull a damn trigger. And now look.” He picked the fork back up and stabbed his sausage viciously.

Val’s eyes narrowed as he placed his fork on the table with controlled movements. “You look. I known Johnny a while now, and yeah, he might have killed some folk in his time, but that don’t make him a killer in my book. Far as I know, Johnny ain’t never killed nobody didn’t need killing.”

Murdoch turned a glare that could catch fire to ice on Val. When he spoke after several seconds, his voice had a steel edge. “Let me get this straight. Are you saying Florence needed it?”

“Oh, hell no!” Val pulled his napkin from his neck, waved it a few times as if to surrender, then held it as he shook his hand for emphasis. “I’m saying we don’t know what happened there, not really. Nobody but you, and maybe Johnny, saw it happen, and you can’t recollect the details, and Johnny ain’t here to set us straight.”

“Well I sure as hell didn’t kill her!” Murdoch roared, half jumping up so the whole table rocked.

“I ain’t saying that! I’m just saying I think we need to hear from Johnny before we start making conclusions. Same goes about my leg.”

Murdoch leaned back in his chair, as though his previous effort had exhausted him. “I apologize, Val. This whole thing is just such a nightmare. I don’t want Johnny to be guilty, but I can’t just ignore what I saw, even if it’s not the whole story. As for your leg, I guess, well, maybe there’s a good chance Jacobsen shot you. That would be for the best, you know.” He looked pointedly at Val.

Val shook his head. “I didn’t see.”

“Then it could have been Jacobsen.” He leaned forward. “Val, why would Johnny shoot you? It only makes sense it was Jacobsen. You said you told him to stop, right? If it was Johnny, he had to know it was you, and he wouldn’t have shot.”

“Yeah, yeah, I told him to stop, but he had his back to me, getting on his horse.”

“His horse? What color horse?”

Val looked around the room, gave a disgusted sigh. “Listen, Barranca ain’t the only palomino in these parts.”

And when it seemed like the day had already hit its low even though it was still breakfast, Ian picked that moment to come striding through the front door.

 

Chapter 83

The first night he shared the bedroll with her he’d had a hard time falling asleep, even though he was dead tired. He’d still wondered what she had hidden in her skirts, and only when her rhythmic breathing indicated she was asleep, and he’d taken the opportunity to discreetly feel for metal objects wherever he could without waking her up, did he relax enough to enjoy the experience. He tentatively placed his arm around her and pulled her close, enjoying the warmth of her body next to his, reminding himself that he could not allow himself to think the thoughts that kept creeping into his mind, and elsewhere. When his hand drifted to where he could feel the slight bulge in her belly he left it there, marveling at the idea of the new life within. As the night wore on he drifted into the most peaceful sleep he’d had in weeks. By the time the sky was turning pink and she was stirring he didn’t want to let her go. He figured she’d be slapping his hand off any second, but instead she smiled at him, snuggled closer, and thanked him for watching over her.

The second night, after another long ride, was blessedly just as cold as the first. Lena had cooked the rabbit Johnny shot, and he thought it might be the best rabbit he’d ever had on the trail. She was handy, too. She had the fire going before he was even through tending the horses. After the bones were thrown out Johnny pulled the bedroll close to the fire and didn’t wait to be asked to get in, this time inviting her to join him. She’d aimed a few choice words at him for being presumptuous, but he was getting used to that, and he just smiled and waited until she climbed in, thanking whoever was in charge of weather for the chill in the air. This time he watched where she hid her gun, under her saddle, making a note to himself to scold her for that in the morning. A gun out of reach was as good as no gun at all. Then again, he still didn’t know where she hid her knife, but he suspected it wasn’t out of reach.

That night he’d taken much longer to fall asleep, but it wasn’t from worry about what she had hidden under her skirt. More from fantasy about what she had hidden under there, and how he’d like to find out. He’d finally had to turn over so they were lying back to back, fearing she’d surely kick him out if she felt what his body was thinking. He tried to count the stars to get his mind off her, but there were too many in the sky and he gave up and shut his eyes. Only Boston could count that high.

He jerked his eyes wide. Where the hell had that come from?

Boston? He’d never been there, didn’t know anyone who had. An image of Blondie flitted into his head, all duded up like some dandy. Ruffles and feathers. Shit. He really was like that. And Blondie sure had seemed awfully familiar with him.

Hell no! He hadn’t done anything. Blondie might be like that, but he sure as hell wasn’t. The thing with the whore was just a fluke. Still, he couldn’t remember being with a woman since Mexico. That’d been at least six months ago. Before the missing part of his life. What the hell had be been doing? And where did Blondie figure in? Goddamn nowhere! Fuck! Then what was he doing next a beautiful woman, turning his fucking back to her, going to fucking sleep like some sissy lapdog? The throbbing in his crotch had gone down. Shit, shit, shit. He flopped back over, throwing his arm around her, gently stroking her side, her belly, sneaking up to her breasts, pushing his body against hers, feeling himself wake up again, the pressure in his pants, breathing in her scent, gently rolling her on her back to face him, smiling as her eyes fluttered open and met his.

***

It turned out that Ian hadn’t been able to get anyone to go after Johnny with him, so this time he’d decided to come back to Lancer and regroup. Regrouping seemed to mainly consist of hanging on Murdoch’s every word, reminiscing about Florence, telling Murdoch over and over how relieved he was to see his father getting better. When he called him his father, Murdoch practically beamed. Scott practically puked.

He wished now he’d had the opportunity to tell Murdoch exactly what Ian had done. How he’d tried to lynch Vom. How, at least according to Vom, he hadn’t come through with the ransom money. The whole thing with the bounty, a bounty on Murdoch’s other son!

But Murdoch already knew about the bounty, and he didn’t seemed bothered by it. If anything, Scott got the idea he was irritated at him for not offering it himself. And judging by the way Murdoch had spoken of Vom, he might just approve of the lynching. And he probably would accuse Vom of lying about the ransom. Still, Scott simply hadn’t had the heart to tell Murdoch what a son of a bitch Ian was, to take away somebody else in his life.

But now he thought maybe he should have. The way Murdoch was acting, he seemed perfectly happy to have Ian step into Johnny’s place as second son. Scott would hardly have been surprised to see him toss Johnny’s few belongings out of the window and move Ian into his room. Ian had already started sitting at Johnny’s place at the table. Scott would see about that.

Ian and Scott had agreed about one thing: they’d kept Vom away from Murdoch, despite Murdoch’s demands to confront him. Murdoch wasn’t strong enough, not to face him the way Scott knew he’d want to. And that was probably why Murdoch had backed down. He’d want to face the man he blamed for ruining his son when he was in his best form.  Scott wasn’t looking forward to it.

Ian had helped Murdoch to the sofa and covered him with a blanket. He was getting stronger, but he still had a long way to go, and he was too stubborn to go rest when he should. So he tended to stay at his desk, overseeing what ranch work he could, until he’d start nodding off while still sitting in his chair. Scott would have helped him to the sofa, only Ian was already at Murdoch’s side. It seemed like he was perched, watching, waiting his chance to be the helpful son.

Obsequious bastard. Scott smiled to himself, realizing how perfect the title was. If only he could share it with someone. Like Johnny. Sure, he’d have to explain what obsequious meant, but Johnny would get it, would love it once he did, would probably come up with something just as good in Spanish, have to explain it to Scott, and then they’d both be laughing. God, how he missed his brother. His real brother.

It wasn’t fair. If what Johnny had said was true, Florence and her adulterous ways were the reason Johnny and his mother were practically forced from their home. And now, in a way, it had happened again. Didn’t Murdoch see that?

***

She was still mad at him. He shot and cleaned her a rabbit, even brought her a couple of late blooming flowers he’d found while he was hunting. She accepted the rabbit, placing it over the fire, and the flowers, too, placing them in the fire. He almost yelled that they weren’t meant for kindling, but she knew that.

He didn’t understand why she was taking it like she was. He’d stopped. Hadn’t even started. And yes, he now knew for a fact she did take her knife to bed with her.

She’d gone on and on about respect, and disrespect, and how if he wanted to treat her like a whore he better pony up his dollars, same as any other cowboy. And then when she’d finished yelling she’d started crying, crying so much she was shaking. Hell, he hadn’t raped her or nothing. Still, he felt like a shit.

He’d told her, over and over, that he respected her, that it was a misunderstanding. That he would never do anything to disrespect her, but that he was attracted to her.

That he’d meant it when he said he would marry her.

 

Chapter 84

Ian was already seated at Johnny’s place at the breakfast table, eagerly chattering away to Murdoch, when Scott came down. Scott couldn’t resist kicking one of the chair legs as he walked past. It was juvenile, he knew, but it still made him feel a little better when Ian shut up and looked at him.

It only lasted a second. “Good morning, brother!” Ian practically chirped.

Scott nodded cordially as he sat. “Ian.”

“Care to ride out with me?” He glanced over at Murdoch. “Our surprise is scheduled to be here today.”

Murdoch scowled, looking from one to the other. “Surprise?”

Scott was equally confused. “What surprise?”

“You know, the one we arranged for when we were in Hardpan. Got a telegram yesterday saying they were a day away. That’s the other reason I delayed my mission.” He looked at Murdoch, his smile fading. “Don’t worry, Murdoch, I’m still going to bring him in. Just figured one day wouldn’t matter.”

“Dammit, Ian, why don’t you just drop it?” Scott had had about enough of him. “Val said he’d take care of things, I don’t know why you seem to think you’re some deputy or bounty hunter now. You caused enough problems last time!”

The room was suddenly silent. Even Maria had stopped halfway to the table, a bowl of scrambled eggs in her hands.

Ian finally smiled, about as fake a smile as Scott had ever seen, before turning stony eyes on him. “I didn’t want to talk about this in front of our father, but if you’ll recall, brother, you’re the one who ended up getting shot and tied up while you helped them escape.”

Scott shot out of his chair. “Why, you son of a bitch!”

Maria stepped backward, but shot a quick smile at him, at the same time Murdoch threw a hand up to restrain him. Ian pushed his chair back, waggling his finger, warning, “Ah ah ah! Didn’t we have enough food throwing with your last tantrum?”

“Let’s take it outside and I’ll shove your face in some digested horse food!”

“Stop it!” Murdoch yelled. “Both of you! Scott, if you have some problem with your brother, I’m sure you can settle it amicably.”

“He’s not my brother.”

“He’s my son, that makes him your brother.”

“No,” Ian said, “he apparently doesn’t wish to claim me. He seems too enamored of the rough life his other brother taught him.” He shook his head at Scott. “You know, I’d have given anything to grow up in Boston, with all its advantages, like you, and you’re willing to piss it all away on some halfbreed piece of shit!”

“That’s enough! Ian—I don’t care what Johnny’s done, you don’t refer to him, or anybody, as a halfbreed! Not in my house. And Scott, you need to calm yourself down and apologize for what you said. Ian’s still settling in here, and he’s doing the best he can. If you have specific problems, I expect you two to work them out like adults.”

“You don’t care what Johnny’s done?” Ian looked incredulous. “You don’t care that he killed my mother, your wife?” He started stammering, his face reddening.

“No! That’s not what I meant at all! I do care, God, do I care.” Murdoch slumped back in his seat, looking suddenly weak. “Just, please don’t use the word halfbreed.”

Ian nodded, taking a deep breath. “I’m sorry, sir, I understand. I certainly meant no disrespect to you.”

Murdoch stared at him. “It’s not disrespect to me I’m talking about.”

“You know,” Scott said, “this was part of the problem all along, Ian’s attitude toward Johnny. He seemed to think Johnny was some sort of inferior because he was part Mexican, and, damn, I just stood there and let him take it, making excuses for Ian.”

“Yeah, well, I was right, wasn’t I? You know, my mother warned me how they were, but I had no idea how right she was!”

“That’s enough!” roared Murdoch, slamming his fist to the table. Maria glared at Ian as she banged the bowl down in front of him, every bit as hard.

***

She’d kept quiet at first, just letting Johnny talk as their horses picked their way along the rocky route he’d chosen. He’d thought she’d yell at him, even laugh at him, but she hadn’t. Instead he found himself talking, more than he ever talked, telling her things he’d never thought he could tell anyone. How he hated being a gunfighter. How he hated being on the run. How he couldn’t stand the killing, the constant stream of faces that visited him in his sleep, the faces he always saw through the smoke of his gun. How he hated being all alone.

He’d thought about it all night, being that he was shivering too much to sleep. He’d been mad at her at first, kicking him out like she had. But he knew he’d done her wrong, made her feel the same he would feel if someone he trusted just assumed he’d kill somebody for the hell of it. Made her feel like nothing more than a gun, or a body. Like she wasn’t a person, didn’t have a soul. Dios, that was the last way he wanted her to feel.

He told her about Mexico, why they couldn’t go there. About the woman, how he didn’t remember shooting her, how he didn’t remember some things. About Murdoch Lancer, and why he hated him. About his mama, how she was a whore, how hard she’d tried, and how he still missed her. He told her everything—almost. He didn’t tell her about Blondie, and he didn’t tell her about what happened with the whore. And he didn’t tell her how his mama really died.

She didn’t say much. Just listened, mostly.

He didn’t know when he’d fallen in love with her. He’d been so damned angry at her most of the time it was hard to even figure out why. Hell, he was still mad at her. She didn’t have to empty his flask. But he knew why she hated him drunk, knew how drunk cowboys were with whores. Still, he wasn’t like that. He’d get some more next town they passed, hide it this time. Yeah, she could make him madder than any women he’d ever known, but she was beautiful, smart, and tough. Only problem was, she wasn’t as tough as she made out to be. Deep down, she was scared. She hid it, but he knew. Maybe because, deep down, he was scared too. Scared of living his life all alone, nobody to love, nobody to love him.

So he told her about his dream. Find a place, settle down, raise some stock, raise some children. Maybe go to Oklahoma territory, where nobody knew him. He knew it sounded stupid. He couldn’t afford a meal, much less a shack or stock, even if they homesteaded. But maybe he could get a job as a hand at first, save up. For some reason that idea had suddenly appealed to him, even though he didn’t know much about ranch work.

She rode along silently. Had she even been listening? God, she was beautiful.

He promised to take care of her, of the baby. She’d never have to sell her body again. Wouldn’t have to work at all, except for raising their children. They’d both start over. He’d be a big success. They’d be happy, never want for anything.

He dropped his head then, knowing he was making promises he couldn’t keep. He pulled his horse up, looked her square, and said he was sorry. “I can’t promise you that. I don’t know where I’ll get the money. I just know I’ll do it without either of us selling our souls. I just want to change my life. And I want to do it with you.”

She still didn’t speak, and he felt his face flush, suddenly realized what a fool he’d made of himself. They were next to a creek, and she asked if he’d help her down. Sometimes her legs seemed to cramp after she’d been riding. At least she hadn’t laughed at him, just ignored him. Sometimes that was the best you could hope for. He helped her down, catching her as she fell into him, her legs weak. When he did, she put her arms around him.

And she told him she was sorry she’d made him sleep in the cold last night. Hoped it’d be warmer in Oklahoma. But that it really wouldn’t matter.

 

Chapter 85

“Murdoch, we have to talk.”

Murdoch jumped slightly, quickly placing the small picture frame he’d been studying face down on his desk. Scott recognized it as the frame holding Flo’s picture. “I hope you and Ian have settled things between you.”

“It’s not simple, sir,” he said, sitting on the edge of the desk. In fact, he’d spent the last hour contemplating what to tell Murdoch about Ian. “I don’t know how to say this, but I don’t trust him.”

“Oh?” Murdoch leveled a steady gaze at him. “Do you have any basis for this?”

Scott took a deep breath. How much should he tell him? Ian was Murdoch’s son, his single remnant of the love he and Flo had shared. Telling him everything seemed awfully harsh. “A feeling.”

“A feeling.” The way he repeated the words made them sound almost silly. “That sounds more like something Johnny would say, not you, son. I expect more from you.”

“What?” Scott sprang to his feet. “Expect more from me? What’s wrong with sounding like Johnny? At least you know where you stand with him! Not like that sneaky little bastard Ian!”

“That’s enough!” Murdoch pushed to his feet, looking eye to eye with Scott. “I don’t know what your problem is with your brother, yes, dammit, I said your brother, but I’m getting tired of your childish behavior. You want to be like Johnny, fine example he set?” He held his hand up, shushing Scott’s retort. “Let me finish. Maybe one good thing can come of this whole mess, and that’s that you won’t be exposed to the side of life Johnny can’t seem to leave behind. Spend time with someone more your kind.”

“More my kind? That’s an insult! I’ll take Johnny’s kind any day! He never tried to lynch anyone.”

Murdoch raised his brows, saying sarcastically, “Well, as long as he only shoots them, I guess that’s alright!”

“Did you hear what I said? Ian tried to lynch one of the prisoners! Vom Jacobsen! The man was hanging! If it wasn’t for Johnny, he would have died! That’s how Johnny got away, because he was saving Vom from being lynched!”

“Jacobsen?” Murdoch snorted. “I’d hang him myself for what he did to Johnny!”

Scott got up and walked around the room, trying to get his thoughts together, stop himself from saying something he couldn’t take back. He turned at the fireplace. “Really, Murdoch? Because that’s not the Murdoch Lancer I know.”

His voice suddenly subdued, Murdoch fell back down in his chair. “I’m sorry. No, no, I don’t approve of lynching. But I swear, I think I could throttle that man with my bare hands.”

Scott made a mental note to try to keep them apart as long as possible. “Murdoch, Vom was Ian’s prisoner, and he put a rope around his neck and put him on a horse and slapped the horse and Vom was swinging. And another thing. Ian said he saw Johnny riding away from the shooting. It turns out he just saw Johnny’s horse.”

“So what are you trying to say? Johnny’s horse did it?”

“I’m just trying to say it’s not as cut and dried as he led us to believe.”

“Be reasonable, Scott. I know you want this all to be a mistake. I do too. But I saw Johnny attack Flo. If Ian saw Johnny’s horse, either Johnny was on him or Johnny was left behind. Did you search the area?

Scott nodded. Murdoch already knew the answer.

“Was Johnny there?”

He knew the answer to that, too. “All I’m saying is we don’t know the full story, and Ian never let on he didn’t actually see Johnny until I backed him in a corner on it.” Scott decided to plunge ahead. “And he was supposed to pay a ransom for me and he didn’t pay it.”

“He told me all about it. He says he paid it. And even if he didn’t, do you think it’s wise to pay ransoms to criminals?”

“You wouldn’t have paid?”

“I’m saying Ian may have had his reasons.”

“He promised Vom he was going to pay, and he didn’t.”

“Well, I’m sure that fine, upstanding gunslinger and kidnapper wouldn’t lie to you.”

Scott had to control his breathing to stay calm. “Fine! Ian is a paragon of virtue! Forget I said anything. But what about your other son? Did you forget him, or are you just willing to trade him now that you have a better one? Because I’m for damn sure not!”  Screw the breathing. He stalked out of the room, out of the hacienda, slamming the door behind him in a satisfyingly Johnny-like explosion.

***

He’d have to stop drinking. She’d repeated it several times. She’d seen too many cowboys waste their money and their lives in the saloons, and her husband wasn’t going to be one of them. Besides, she’d added, drunk husbands were more likely to give into other temptations.

Damn, he wanted a drink right now. His mouth was dust dry right down his throat. What the hell had he done? He could practically feel the ring through his nose. And what about those other temptations? He was too young to give them up! One woman, from now on. A beautiful one, for sure, but just the one.  This bossy one, with all the rules. His stomach felt like it was trying to jump out of his throat. Should he really feel this sick? If he puked would she figure out why? That wouldn’t go over well.

He could just say it, that he’d had second thoughts. Dios, she still had that knife on her. Might as well just blow a hole in his own head. Better to just do something to get her a little mad. That shouldn’t be hard, not with Lena. Damn, if he only had some whiskey! Then she’d be the one to call it off.

Judging by the sun, he’d been promised maybe two hours now. But time had moved like sludge since then, marked by every new rule, every new plan Lena laid out for him. They came across a small lake, so they let the horses stop to drink. Johnny sat numbly, watching a lone bird soar above the water. Free to let the wind blow him wherever. He could just dig his spurs into his horse, take off toward the horizon, go where he felt like, like a lone bird, no rules, no plans.

No plans. No plans at all. A lone bird.

Lena was kneeling by the lake, splashing water over her face. She really was beautiful. Although he’d never noticed that one eye was a little bigger than the other. Dios, what else hadn’t he noticed? One woman, from now on. And he didn’t even know how she’d be.

Although, it was actually one more than he’d had in months. The others, before then, they’d been good for a night of exhaustion, maybe a week or so of fun once in a while, but they never touched him like he wanted to be touched. He smiled to himself. Well, yeah, they touched him plenty like he wanted to be touched. But they never touched his soul, never touched the part of him that wanted somebody to love. Somebody to make plans with.

“Mind telling me what’s so funny?” Lena was looking at him, a slightly amused expression on her face. Damn, he hadn’t meant to be smiling out loud.

“Just thinking on how pretty you are,” he said, grabbing at the first safe thought that came to him.

“Save your thinking about that sort of thing until after we’re married,” she said, shaking her head, but smiling nonetheless.

The way she smiled made him realize pretty wasn’t nearly enough to describe her. She was smart and tough and so goddamn beautiful it made him want to jump down, rip her clothes off, and touch every part of her body right there by the lake. Take her like a man was entitled to take his wife. Yeah, sure, he knew how far he'd get with that. She was so damn bossy.

He slowly climbed off his horse, and, holding her gently by both shoulders, spun her to face him. “But I call the tune.”

Shit! Why had such a ridiculous thing jumped into his mind, much less out of his mouth? Lena was saying something back, but he couldn’t concentrate, it just looked like her mouth was wiggling, and pictures of Blondie and the old gray haired man, the one he was pretty sure was Murdoch Lancer, jumped into his head, staring at him, like they expected him to say something, commit himself to something, like what?

One woman. And she was still wiggling her lips, and he tried to pay attention, knew he heard her say she wanted his heart, thought he heard her say she wanted his guts, his arms, and his legs.

“Well let me tell you, you don’t ask for much,” he said, and it set up an echo in his head that made him sway. He added a smile when he saw the confused look on her face.

That stopped her lips going. At least long enough for him to cover them with his.

 

Chapter 86

Scott spurred his horse through the Lancer arch. How many times had he watched, shaking his head, as Johnny made the same furious exit after arguing with Murdoch? Now he wondered why Johnny hadn’t shot him sooner. No, he didn’t mean that. Johnny had never shot Murdoch, he was increasingly convinced of that. But it was an absolute wonder.

Ian had about an hour head start. He didn’t know what he would do when he caught up to him, although it was one time he wished he had more of Johnny’s talents. But no, he was well equipped to best Ian with any weapon, and he chose words. And if that didn’t work, a strong right hook.

He wasn’t sure what this surprise was Ian had gone out to meet, but Jelly had pointed south so he headed that way too. He sure as hell didn’t need Ian saying he’d taken part in arranging it, as though he needed his help. He could get Murdoch his own damn surprise, if he felt like it.

The surprise he’d most like to get him was Johnny. Only the way Murdoch was acting, Johnny might just end up with a noose around his neck instead of a bow. After he found Ian, he planned to go see Val and see about launching their own search for him. He couldn’t risk letting Ian or any of his bounty hunters getting to him first.

On the way, he supposed he should drop in on Anna at the Miller place. It was only polite.

***

He watched as a cloud raced along in the sky above. He shifted his gaze, the gritty sand warm against his cheek. He knew he should get up, leave the shade of the tree, jump in the creek and rinse the sand off his sweat-soaked bare skin where he’d rolled off the bedroll, get back on the trail. But he’d rather just sprawl here, maybe forever. He stroked her hair, smoothing it against his chest.

She must have made a fortune. Or could have, in another town. He smiled as big a smile as he had in weeks, thinking how she was going to be his alone now, all his, every day, pleasuring him at his fancy. Well, sure, she’d have a say in it, but the way she went at it, she might be the one doing the asking. Well, he sure as hell wouldn’t turn her down.

And he’d never do anything to disrespect her. He knew she was only doing this because they were going to marry, but only when they got to Oklahoma, and he’d keep his word on that. Hell, no reason not to, not now. He’d have to be crazy. He’d just had a bad case of the jitters before, and she’d had just the cure.

She lifted her face, brushing her lips against his. He could feel himself readying for another roll, breathing an inward sigh of relief that every part of him was definitely back in working order. He kissed her harder, pushing himself to his knees above her as he rolled her to her back.

She was moaning already, at first just a faint sound, then louder, more insistent, until…until she pushed him away, an alarmed look on her face. “What’s that?” she whispered.

He got ready to give her a clever reply, but that’s when he noticed the moaning kept right on, only it wasn’t coming from her.

“Shit! Quick, get dressed!” He yanked her up and started pulling his own clothes over his sand-crusted skin, hoping no riders were with the herd of bawling cattle approaching.

***

Scott wiped the sweat from his eyes. The ground was hard, and each shovelful had seemed heavier the deeper he dug. But you didn’t ask a man to dig his own wife and child’s grave. Cloris and her newborn would spend the rest of eternity together, the baby she died for in her arms.

He supposed it was good timing, but it sure hadn’t seemed like it when he’d ridden up to the ranch to be greeted by a sobbing Anna. The child had died during the previous night, and Cloris had followed only a few hours later, both the victims of raging fevers. Scott didn’t quite grasp how they’d acquired fevers, but Anna had explained something that he supposed only Sam would really understand. It really wasn’t the time to go into the how, not when they were already cold.

Thad hadn’t made things easier. He’d been quiet at first, then angry, at himself, at God, even at Anna. Scott slammed the shovel into the dirt harder, anxious to get the job done so he could get Anna back home. A man had already gone for the preacher, but Thad hadn’t even wanted them to stay for the service. He’d always been a private man, so maybe that seemed only fitting. Scott felt a little guilty for being relieved about not having to stay. He looked up from the hole, watching Anna as she sat with her head bowed on the bench under the big tree by the barn. Thad could have been a little more grateful. The poor girl had done the best she could, but sometimes that just wasn’t good enough.

Measuring the sides against his own height, he decided the grave was deep enough, so he pulled himself out and went to talk to Thad. If he could borrow a buckboard, that would be ideal. He wasn’t sure if Anna could ride, and certainly she wasn’t dressed for it. But even if he had to ride her double, he was taking her home to Lancer as fast as he could. 

***

The shape of riders appeared behind the cattle while Lena was still fumbling to get her skirt on. Johnny was pulling his pants up with one hand, holding his gun with the other, but he stooped to grab his shirt and drape it over her front. “Get behind me,” he said quietly, backing so both he and tree shielded her. Then he called out, “There’s a lady here who’d appreciate it if you gents would lay back, give her a chance to make herself decent.”

They didn’t slow down, which gave him an idea of what kind of men they were. He cocked his gun, but the usually threatening sound was lost in the splashing of the longhorns wading into the water, churning up mud as they jostled each other for position.

“I asked you all polite like to stay back. Now I’m telling you.” He brought the gun up, wincing as he tried to hold it steady with his sore hand.

The riders pulled up, their horses still milling around, and Johnny realized they were too spread out for him to cover them all. “Where’s your gun?” he whispered to Lena.

“My saddlebag.”

Shit. “Just get dressed.”

One of the riders walked his horse back and forth, getting closer with each pass, his eyes on Lena. A big smile cracked open his face, revealing a mouth with more gum than teeth. “Well, looky here! If it ain’t our favorite hot tamale! Wouldn’t have recognized you with your clothes on.” The others seemed to agree, chuckling loudly.

Johnny felt like squeezing the trigger, sending a bullet in the middle of the man’s leering face.  But not the way the four men were spread out, he couldn’t, not without risking Lena. Even if they were just cowhands, they all had their guns in hand, and they could get off a lucky shot.

“They’re Fremont’s men,” she whispered behind him.

“They’re dead men,” he whispered back.

All the men were smiling snidely at Lena now, as though they shared a private joke, as she slipped her blouse over her head. “See you moved your business to a place with less overhead,” the one with just gums was saying. “Now, now, you don’t gotta bother putting them clothes back on. I’ll just take you like you are, ain’t particular about the wrappings. You know that. Get in line, boys, I’m next.”

“The only thing you’re next for is my bullet,” Johnny said, trying to keep the rage out of his voice.

“Big talk for a man with five guns aiming at him,” Gums said smugly. “Now stand aside and let her do her business.”

Johnny’s eyes darted back and forth, searching the still swirling dust for sign of a fifth cowhand. He heard him instead of seeing him, the click of a revolver and the gasp from Lena just before the voice behind him. “Hello, brother.”

 

Chapter 87

He had no choice, not with Sinclair holding his gun to Lena’s head. Only minutes ago he’d been dreaming of sharing Lena’s bed and future for years to come. Stupid, stupid dream. His future was at the end of a short rope. The best he could do was keep her out of it.

So he’d dropped his gun, allowed himself to be tied up by Gums. Sinclair had Lena, blouse still opened, by one arm, only she wasn’t making it so easy for him. She squirmed around, bit his arm, clawing at his face with her other hand.

“Damn!” Sinclair shouted, but he didn’t let go. Instead he jerked her back and forth and smacked her face. “You want to try that again?”

Johnny lunged up, ramming Sinclair before tripping on the ropes binding his legs and going down. “Beatin’ on a lady make you feel good, you spineless piece of shit?”

Sinclair squeezed Lena’s shoulders until her legs started to buckle, sneering as he said to Johnny, “Why don’t you tell me, you damn spineless murderer? How’d it feel to kill my mother?”

“Let her go, bastard! And I don’t recollect killing nobody’s mother, sure as hell don’t remember yours at all.” He figured he’d leave out the part about not recollecting much of anything there for awhile.

“You son of a bitch! You think you can pretend she never existed?” He shoved Lena down so he could kick Johnny in the gut. Johnny doubled over, tried to catch his breath, awaiting the next kick. It never connected. Lena was on Sinclair, aiming her own kick at his groin, but missing and going down in a heap next to Johnny as Sinclair pushed her away.

“Only a coward would kick a tied man!” she spat, covering Johnny as best she could.

“Only a coward would kill an innocent woman,” Sinclair said, aiming his gun at her. “Tie him to that tree,” he said to Gums.

Lena started kicking at Gums, so Sinclair wrenched her up, twisting her arm until she quieted. “You sure seem awfully concerned about a killer.” He turned to Johnny. “Brother, aren’t you going to introduce your lady friend?”

“Let her go! She ain’t nobody I know, just someone passing by!” He hoped Lena would play along. And wondered what the hell was with somebody else calling him brother. “And I sure as shit ain’t your brother.”

“Hell, them two was rutting away on each other like dogs in heat when we come up,” Gums said. “Course, knowing Lena here, she just may have been passing by, decided to so some quick business.” He leered at Lena. “The boys and I, we plan on doing a little business ourselves.”

Johnny wanted to shove his fist down the man’s throat and pull his balls up inside, get the point across Lena wasn’t hiring out anymore. But if he did, Sinclair might figure they were close, and something told him that would be even worse, so he held his rage.

“The boys and you can go screw each other,” Lena said. “Not that you’d probably notice. What I do with my husband has nothing to do with you.”

“Husband?” Sinclair’s brows arched up. “And to think, I wasn’t even invited to the wedding. Such a pity. I’m sure it was quite the social event of the season.”

“I ain’t her husband,” Johnny said, knowing Lena would kill him for what he was about to say if they ever did make it out alive. He forced himself to smile wickedly. “Just told her what I had to so I’d get some goods on the house.”

“Lena’s a whore from down in Hardpan,” Gums said. “Got run out of town by Mr. Fremont.” He caught sight of Johnny and Lena’s horses. “Hey, that’s Fremont’s buckskin!”

“That figures,” Sinclair said, snorting. “Horse thieves.”

“He gave me that horse!” said Lena firmly. “To leave! Now let us go!”

Sinclair ignored her. “Funny thing, she looks more like she’s from Mexico. What’s she, one of those cheap soiled doves you were bragging about having, Johnny? You know, the ones you said would do just about anything for a peso? You marry her to save the money?”

“Shut your damn mouth!” Johnny said, trying to avoid Lena’s glare. “I don’t know what you’re talking about!” More shit he didn’t need. He sure as hell hadn’t been talking about whores to Sinclair. That he knew of.

“Yeah, I bet you don’t.” Sinclair studied Lena, then said, “You know, maybe I can think of a way to refresh your memory. See just what a peso does buy you with a Mexican slut. See how you like having somebody you care about hurt, like you did my mother. After all she did for the likes of you, too.”

“I never met your mother!”

“You lying coward, you killed her!” He breathed heavily, looking from Johnny to Lena and clinching his fists. After a few seconds he seemed to come to a decision and dug in his pocket, pulled out some coins, and flung them on the woman, hard. “Now, Senorita, let’s just get the rest of those clothes off, entertain the boys. I understand cattle driving is frustrating work.” He said it to Lena, but he was watching Johnny as he did.

“You’re going to be sorry you ever breathed, asshole. She ain’t doin’ nothing.”

“Oh, she’ll do it, unless she wants to see you get parts shot off.”

“Hey, um, this is getting a little deeper than I was planning on,” Gums said, backing away. “I don’t hold with raping women.”

“She’s a Mexican whore,” Sinclair said, “and it’s not rape when you pay a whore for services rendered. Just business.”

Gums looked dubiously at the coins. “She always charged more than that.”

Sinclair scoffed. “A Mexican? Well, you’re welcome to chip in more, but I can’t imagine why…”

“You touch her and you’re dead!” Johnny yelled. “Listen, Sinclair, you wanted me, you got me. Let her go.”

“Come on boys, bonus time!” Sinclair waved the other cowhands toward Lena.

Gums seemed to study the situation, then started unbuckling his belt, saying, “You know, I always thought she charged too much, for a Mex.” He stopped, his belt flopping, to look at Sinclair. “Um, sorry, I reckon you want to go first?”

Sinclair shook his head, waving his hand at her dismissively. “Have at her. I’d as soon stick my dick in a putrefied skunk as in a Mexican cunt. Sure it’d be less odiferous.”

Gums looked perplexed, but glared at another hand who called out, “Hell, I don’t care! I’m next!” One of the remaining two hands also called out his place, laughing and playfully shoving the young hand who’d drawn last place by default.

“Touch her and it’s gonna be the last thing you do!”

“You don’t seem to be in much of a position to enforce that, now do you, brother?”

And he wasn’t. All he could do was struggle against his ropes until blood flowed from his wrists and ankles, cursing every man who violated his Lena, Dios, his dear Lena, finally closing his eyes against the sight as Lena begged him to turn away, telling her over and over how sorry he was, how it was all his fault. Promising himself that if he died doing it, he’d kill every last one of them. It didn’t take all that long, just long enough for every grunt from every hand to burn itself into his brain forever. When the third one was finished, the young hand hung back, his face turning red at the teasing from the older hands. “Go play with your slingshot, kid,” Johnny heard one of them say, “and leave the man stuff to men.” Like any of these pussies could call themselves men.

When the young hand still refused, Sinclair shrugged and said, “My turn.” He emptied the bullets from Johnny’s gun, replaced one, and spun the cylinder. “Seems only fitting, she should die by your gun.” Without warning he swung the gun to Lena’s head and pulled the trigger.

“No!” screamed Johnny. Lena scrunched her eyes shut, a tiny whimper emerging.

Click.

“One chance in six,” Sinclair said nonchalantly. “That’s a lot better than you gave my mother. Shall we try again?”

“Sinclair, what do you want? Just tell me! I’ll do whatever you want!”

“Well, I’m afraid unless you can bring back the dead, you can’t give me what I want.” He ran the gun barrel slowly up and down Lena’s body, finally stopping over her heaving chest. He looked at Johnny smugly and pulled the trigger.

Click.

“One chance in five, there. One in four, next. Eventually we’ll get to one chance in one, unless I spin the cylinder, which shall put us back at one in six.” He held his hand on the cylinder as if to spin it, then shook his head and ran the gun barrel along her body again, this time cramming it between her legs, inside her, pushing it in and out while he smiled at Johnny. Lena was sobbing loudly now, begging him to stop. “Hold still, or I’ll start pulling the trigger until it does go off.”

“You sick bastard! Dios, please, do what you want to me, just let her go! That’s a hair trigger!”

“Do you confess to killing my mother?”

“I don’t know your mother!” He saw Sinclair’s finger tighten on the trigger. “Yes! Dammit, yes! I confess! I killed her! I did it, I did it, I killed her!” And he knew it wasn’t even a lie.

“Murdering bastard,” Sinclair said, then to Gums, “Get my saddlebags, pull out my writing tablet.”  Gums did as he was told, handing Sinclair the tablet and a pencil. “Can you write?” Sinclair asked Johnny.

“Yeah.”

“Then write out your confession.”

“Gonna be kinda hard with my hands tied.”

“Untie him. Remember, dear brother, my finger’s on the trigger. Her blood will be on you if you try anything.”

Johnny tried to rub the feeling back into his shaking hands, but they were so numb he could hardly feel the pencil in them. “That’s a hair trigger, Sinclair. Put it away, I’ll say whatever you want.”

“Better write fast. Say you confess to killing her. That you shot her down in cold blood, and tried to kill Murdoch Lancer, too.”

He tried to concentrate but he felt like he was going to puke, tried to write but the letters came out a scrawl. Damn, he didn’t even know the woman’s name! “Here,” he said, thrusting it at Sinclair.

Sinclair smiled. And pulled the trigger again.

 

Chapter 88

“Don’t need her help. The boy’s doin’ just fine with me.” Vom stuck his chin out, daring Jelly to doubt him.

“I ain’t saying he’s not,” said Jelly, sticking his chin out farther. “Just that Miss Anna is a right fine nurse, regular angel of mercy, and she’s out of the kindness of her heart asked to help out. So while she’s here, you’re gonna have to go back to the guardhouse, on account of she’s a lady not used to your kind.”

“Well, if she can’t be around my kind, how’s she gonna be around the boy?”

“That boy looks to be about as lively as a pig on a spit. I reckon she can handle him.”

The door opened quietly and Scott entered, looking at Jelly enquiringly. “Anna’s waiting outside. All set?”

Vom ignored him. “I can take care of Deeter. Been takin’ care of hurt kids long as I can remember, ain’t lost one yet.”

Jelly’s eyes narrowed. “Like how you took care of Johnny? Oh, I heard all about it, how you kidnapped him and forced him into gunfightin’, and how you lost him out on the trail there somewhere.”

Vom tried to jump up but the chain holding him to the bed jerked him back down. “Are you fucking kidding me?”

“Keep your voice down!” Scott said, pushing Vom down.

“Go fuck your hand! Who the hell’s been saying I kidnapped Johnny?” He spun toward Scott. “You? Well, you listen hard, both of you, see if your turkey brains can understand! I saved Johnny’s fucking life! If I hadn’t pulled him out of that jail, he’d of been buttfucked to death or starved in no time. It was a wonder he was still breathin’ as it was.”

“Oh, yeah, I can see you just gonna be dandy around Miss Anna, that sort of talk, you no good…”

“Alright, both of you, stop!” Scott said. He’d already heard more than he cared to about the subject. “Come on, let’s just get him back to the guardhouse so Anna can get started.” 

***

Johnny knelt in the sand, hunched over. His voice was barely a whisper. “Please, I signed it. Let her go.”

Sinclair withdrew the gun, looking at its barrel distastefully. “Well, it would appear the gods are looking favorably upon your little harlot today.” He held it pointed at Lena while he read the confession and Gums rebound his hands. His smile widened. “Boys, get a rope over that limb! We have a confession to a murder!”

“No!” screeched Lena. “You can’t do that! You forced him!”

“I didn’t touch him,” said Sinclair. “Any of your boys see me touch him?”

Gums shook his head slightly, while the others mostly looked down. The young one, a scrawny red headed kid with a face that looked like it was boiling over, finally asked, “Shouldn’t we just take him to the sheriff?”

Sinclair snorted. “The sheriff here is corrupt, an old buddy of his. And Johnny Madrid is too dangerous to take far. Did you forget he already killed those men who were just trying to bring him to justice? You condone that? You want to be next?”

The boy shook his head, looked down at the sand as he scuffed it with his foot. “Still, it don’t seem right. Ain’t he supposed to get a trial or something?”

Sinclair looked at him coldly. “Did my mother have a trial? Besides, what would be the point? He’s confessed. Or maybe you want him to testify, tell everybody what you boys did today. I didn’t exactly see you try to stop anybody. We all know it was legal, she was paid, and paid well, but any lawyer can paint things so they don’t sound very nice. Are you willing to take that chance, son? Willing to send all your friends to jail? What about  your parents, do you think they’d like hearing about their son the way the lawyer would be talking?”

He shook his head again, biting his lip, staring at the ground even more intently. Gums was already throwing a rope over a limb, directing another of the hands to lead Johnny’s horse over to it.

“Might as well throw another rope over while you’re at it,” Sinclair called. “For the horse thief.”

The boy jerked his head up. “What? You mean Miss Lena? She sure ain’t no horse thief!”

“I thought you said that was Martin Fremont’s horse.”

“I took it!” shouted Johnny. “It was me.”

“Well, now isn’t that convenient?” Sinclair retorted. “Boys, check that horse’s saddlebags, see what they have in them.”

A couple of the hands, including the young one, pulled the bags off the buckskin and started pawing through the contents.  For a second Johnny’d dared believed the kid might have been some help, but the other hands had been right about him really being a kid, complete with a slingshot crammed into his belt. And no fucking gun. Hell, when he’d been his age...

The older one held up a bonnet. “I don’t know, who you reckon this belongs to? Madrid?” He looked some more while Gums laughed, finally looking up and shrugging.  “Got a gun, some jerky, regular stuff.”

“I took the horse, she was just riding him. She didn’t know. She just put her bonnet in there.” Johnny glared at Lena, who looked like she was about to protest. She glared back, but finally bit her lip and blinked her eyes, over and over, hard. She knew it did nobody any good for her to hang, too.

“If she was riding stolen property, she’s just as much at fault.” Sinclair motioned to one of the other men. “Get something to cover her up. I don’t want to be looking up into that thing when she’s swaying.”

Gums looked doubtful, enough so to stop knotting the noose and look up. “You sure about this? I mean, Madrid, that’s one thing, but a woman...Lena, and, you know, we might want her back in town...”

Sinclair sighed, scratched his chin as though in thought. “You know, now that I think of it, I didn’t see any of you pay her anything. And I seem to remember her asking you not to touch her. That technically makes what you did, what all of you did, rape. Yeah, yeah, you know, and I know, she wanted it, but the way this podunk town is run, I wouldn’t count on the sheriff and judge believing you. So it comes down to this: do you want to risk hanging or going to prison on a technicality? Or do you think it’s just better for everyone to go ahead and rid the land of a horse thieving Mexican whore?”

By the time he finished, Gums was nodding, reaching for a second rope. None of the hands looked happy about it, but nobody was making a move to stop it.

“You damn cowards!” snarled Johnny. “You can’t hang her just to save your own skins! She…Dios, she won’t say anything. She’ll promise.”

“The hell I will!” Lena spat.

“You have to,” said Johnny. “You have to get out of here. It ain’t just you.”

“Making an illegal bargain, Johnny? How long do you think these men could trust the likes of her?”

“Dammit, she’s with child! Fremont’s child!”

Sinclair slapped Johnny’s face, hard. “You’ll stoop to anything, won’t you, even besmirching a gentleman’s name!”

“Fremont ain’t no gentleman. He’s been run out of town by now, you can check! On account of giving away them killer longhorns, making everyone’s stock get sick and die! I don’t know what the hell you got them up here, they’re gonna start killing off cattle here too.”

Sinclair snorted, shaking his head. “Do you really want to be so pitiful in your last moments? Why don’t you try to pull up some little bit of dignity, if you have any?”

The pimple-faced boy looked up from the trench he dug with his foot. “You know, there was an awful lot of steers dyin’ off in the valley. Not these longhorns, though.”

“Exactly,” Sinclair said, glancing at the sky. “Longhorns are the healthy ones.” He turned back to Johnny. “Now quit stalling, and if you have any fear of God, start praying. For all the good it will do you. There’s a special place in hell for men who murder women. And you, get that other rope ready, let’s get this unsavory business over with. It looks like it’s going to rain.”

The second rope was thrown over the limb and a noose knotted into it. Gums hauled Johnny to his feet and shoved him toward his horse, Johnny tripping as he tried to walk with his ankles bound. One of the men untied them, motioned for Johnny to mount.

Sinclair pushed Lena along behind them, gun to her head. “I really am with Fremont’s child,” she said when they arrived at Fremont’s buckskin. “You’ll be killing it, too.”

He looked her up and down. “A halfbreed baby? Even more reason, then.  Looks like I’ll be doing it, all of us, a favor.” He motioned to the horse. “Now get up there.”

She took only a step before her legs buckled and she started to fall to the ground, slipping from Sinclair’s grip. “Damn you, whore, get up!” He kicked her, a hard vicious kick to the side, and when she still didn’t move, he aimed several more at her, pummeling her head and side as she desperately tried to protect her unborn child. Johnny was shouting, fighting to get to them, but the men held him tight.

“Get the whore up!” shouted Sinclair, standing over her, panting, his face the color of the setting sun. The pimply boy was immediately at Lena’s side, kneeling to help prop her limp body up, bending over her to pull her up.

“I can’t get her up,” the boy finally said. “Mr. Sinclair, this ain’t right.”

“Out of my way!”  Sinclair aimed yet another kick at her. “Get up, bitch!” He reached down and yanked her up by one arm, shaking her head up and down, until she finally tried to get on her feet but fell forward against him. Until Sinclair’s eyes and mouth opened wide, like he was seeing Jesus, as he grabbed at the knife still sticking in his chest.

 

Chapter 89

Scott could hear Vom and Jelly arguing all the way to the guardhouse. No wonder Johnny got along so well with Jelly. He was used to being around cantankerous old farts.

He wished he was able to talk to Vom about Johnny without losing his temper, but something about the man brought out the worst in him. Maybe it was just the stories he told about Johnny’s youth. And the fact that Scott hoped beyond hope that Vom was making them up. Well, the man hadn’t exactly proven to be a pillar of truth so far. Scott wouldn’t put it past him to make up something that would make him seem the hero instead of the villain when it came to what he’d done to Johnny. Still, the man did seem to care about Deeter, even if his nursing was somewhat unorthodox.

The boy was fortunate Anna was here to take over. Scott smiled at her, watching her practiced fingers deftly remove the bandages, tenderly probe his abdomen. Deeter moaned when she did that, but never awoke.

He hadn’t wanted her to do this, not after what she’d been through with losing Cloris and the baby, but she’d assured him that healing others was the best way to heal herself. He wondered again about Deeter’s so-called confession. Another reason he’d need to convince Anna not to care for him once he’d awakened.

The sky outside was darkening, both with the setting sun and impending rainstorm. It was no use heading out now, not until morning, to search for Johnny. It wasn’t as though he had any idea where to look. So he figured he might as well spend this evening with Anna.

He and Anna had both bathed and changed since they’d come home. Anna smelled as elegant as the finest women in Boston society and looked as enticing as the best women in Boston brothels. Of course, she wasn’t dressed like one of them, but he couldn’t help but imagine how she’d look with a little less on. Once again he thought how she’d be an asset to any man, anywhere.

Finally she stood and wiped her hands on her skirt. “That’s all I can do for now. But I’ll sit with him, make sure he’s comfortable.”

He walked to the door and closed the latch, smiled mischievously. “What about making me comfortable?”

She looked at him sternly, hands on hips, then laughing, threw herself in his arms, offering her lips to his. Scott obliged, and obliged some more, his tongue exploring deep into her mouth, his hands exploring every part of her body he thought was safe. She surprised him, rubbing herself against him, directing his hand to her breast, murmuring, “How about I make you uncomfortable?”

And she was, damn, she was, more and more with every probe, every stroke. He looked toward the bed, damning the kid for taking it, knowing he’d passed the point of reason when he was thinking like that. He’d taken women on the floor before, but Anna was no strumpet to be treated like a whore. He backed her into the wall, rubbing his hands up and down her, wondering how far she planned to let him go. She let him unbutton her blouse, let him fondle her breasts, find her nipples, she stroking him in kind, giving herself to him, exciting him until he ached. He reached down, inching up her skirt, holding his breath with hope—when she whispered, “Scott, I want to so much, I want to be with you, be one, but I want it to be forever. It has to be, or I can’t. I just can’t.”

He let out his breath, breathed heavily to get himself under control. He pulled back from her, looking into her eyes, the way he knew women liked. Hell, he’d been in this situation before, back in Boston, plenty of times. He’d always considered himself talented at getting his way without getting obligated. He knew the right lines, the ones that would win her trust without giving his word. He knew the right lines—but he didn’t want to use them. “I want to be with you forever, too, sweetheart.”

With that she kissed him, more passionately even than before, as he tried to refrain, at least for a few minutes, from seeming overeager.

He was finally snaking his hand down toward her skirt again when the door rattled. “Why’s the door locked?” Teresa’s shrill voice was like a nightmare intruding on silk sheets. They pushed apart, tried to get themselves in order, but it was obvious Anna was the one who needed to answer the door.

“It’s Ming! I think she’s having her puppies!”

***

Gums rushed to help Sinclair, letting go of Johnny as he did. Johnny was able to wrench free of the other man, but Gums was already throwing himself on Lena, ripping her hands from the knife she’d pulled back out of Sinclair, flinging the blade into the sand and her onto her back.  Johnny tackled him, trying to pull him off, but his bound hands made it hard to get a grip on the big man. He couldn’t hold on, but at least he managed to get Gums’ attention away from Lena and onto him, the man punching at Johnny, Johnny jabbing back with his elbow, both of them falling to one side as they scrambled for a handhold on one another.

Sinclair’s knees had slowly folded until he was kneeling on the sand, swaying in a circular motion with his hands cupped over his wound, his expression changing from astonishment to fury. He leaned forward onto his hands and knees, Johnny noticing too late his hand straining to reach for the dropped knife. Johnny tried to kick the knife away, but Gums pushed him over on his back before his foot could hit its mark. He tried to get up, get back to the knife, but Gums dropped his bulk on him, his picketed grin inches from Johnny’s face. Johnny threw his head forward, bashing it into Gums’ face. From the sound of the man’s howls and the looks of the blood trickling from his mouth, his grin had one less picket. Johnny pushed him off while he was still clutching at his mouth, noticing with relief none of the others were rushing to help, at least not so far. He didn’t have to time to give thanks, or wonder why, not with Sinclair already...

His gut froze. Sinclair was already straddling Lena, raising the knife over his head. Johnny lurched toward them, falling into Sinclair, on him, trying to grab the knife before it stabbed into her flesh, blocking it with his hands. He grasped the blade, gritting his teeth as it sliced deep into his palm, finally wresting it out of Sinclair’s weakened grip. Sinclair seemed to grow renewed strength, his hands flying to tighten around Lena’s throat, Lena gurgling and trying in vain to pry his fingers away. Johnny aimed the knife at Sinclair’s side, plunging it toward him—just as someone hurtled into him from behind, shoving him into Sinclair, shoving Sinclair out of the knife’s path.

And shoving the knife into Lena’s stomach.

He couldn’t speak. Dios, no, not again. Surprised eyes stared into his eyes, Mama’s eyes, no, dammit, Lena’s eyes, that same horrified look he saw so many nights, the same look that never accused, just said she was sorry, the same lips mouthing words he couldn’t hear, but he knew what they said. He tried to stop the bleeding, shoving his hand over the gaping wound. But he knew how it would end. The blood was all over her, all over him, covering his hands, and her eyes were closing. “Dios, no, no, no, oh God...”

She didn’t respond. Everything went quiet. Except for the sound of a gun, his gun, the one Gums was pointing at him, the sound of the hammer being pulled back that came just before Gums pulled the trigger.

Click.

Shit! What were the chances now? He wasn’t sure he even cared. But he leapt up and plowed into Gums, just as Gums pulled the trigger again.

Just as the odds ran out.

 

Chapter 90

The bullet ripped into his flesh, sending him flailing backwards, the blood already pumping down the front of his shirt. Gums pulled the trigger again, but the gun just clicked. His finger was still twitching when he took his last breath. Just as well, since Johnny still had his hand over Gums’, twisting the gun back toward Gums’ chest. Johnny wrung the gun the rest of the way out of Gums’ limp grasp.

He stumbled back to Lena, just as he heard the rest of the men gallop out of the clearing. Sinclair was beside her, doubled over on his side. “Killed another one, huh?” he gasped.

“Lena! Oh God, please, Lena...” She was breathing, but the blood had already soaked through the shirt that hung over her. He frantically tried to press the wound with one hand while using the other to rip strips from her skirt that still lay trampled on the ground.

“Come on, brother, help me. We’re brothers. Blood.” Sinclair caught his breath as his body gave a slight spasm. “Oh, Jesus, it hurts!”

Johnny ignored him, his hands shaking as he tried to staunch the steady blood flow.

“Come back to Lancer, Johnny,” Sinclair’s voice squeaked with pain. “Please, I’ll tell everyone you’re innocent.”

The blood was soaking through the first bandage already. He added another layer, pressing as hard as he could. Dios, she had to live, please.

“Brother, help me. Look, I’m bleeding. It’s too late for her.”

“Shut the fuck up! Or I’ll fucking help you into a hole! You ain’t my fucking brother, and if you don’t crawl the hell out of my sight I’m gonna carve you up into fucking pieces!”

Sinclair’s voice took on a disgusted tone. “I should have known. Sure, go ahead, tend to your Mexican slut, for all the good it’ll do you. Killing her may be the only worthwhile thing you ever did in your life.”

Johnny swung on him with his gun and pulled the trigger.

Click.

Fuck! No, he couldn’t let himself be distracted, didn’t have time to reload, not now. He needed both hands for Lena, all his attention. But it did seem to shut Sinclair up, even had him crawling away. Johnny wrapped Lena up as best he could, just as he felt the first plop of rain on his neck. He wasn’t sure how long the men would stay spooked, but chances were they’d regroup, rethink, and come back to finish the job they started, get rid of witnesses. He hated to move Lena, but they’d both be dead if they stayed here. And if it rained how it looked like it was going to, it might cover their tracks.

His horse had nervously sidestepped away during all the commotion, but he gathered his calm so he wouldn’t spook the palomino further, slowly taking a trailing rein and guiding the horse alongside Lena. He pulled her in his arms and carefully pushed her mostly into the saddle, covering her as best he could with the remanants of her skirt. More rain fell, big heavy drops that mixed with her blood so it started to run pink down her arm. He climbed up behind her, holding her steady with one hand, then pulling her the rest of the way into the saddle. He was unsure of where to go, but any place was better than here. He turned the horse in a circle, settling on north, the way they’d been heading.

“Goddamn it, don’t you dare leave me here! We’re brothers!” Sinclair had pulled himself to his knees, trying to stand.

It was all he could do to keep from reloading his gun and emptying it into the bastard, but his hands were too full making sure Lena didn’t slide from the saddle. Instead he eased his horse forward, glancing back one last time at Sinclair, seeing the gun in his hand only a moment before he felt the thud of a bullet in his back.

***

Scott had asked that everyone dress up for dinner, at least a little more than usual. While he’d grown used to the informality out west, once in a while he missed being able to mark an occasion by being properly attired for it. Teresa had been eager to wear her newest dress, and of course Anna was always resplendent. Murdoch had even worn a tie. Maria hadn’t had much notice, so the meal was nothing extravagant, but Scott had brought up a bottle of noteworthy wine he’d been saving.

He’d been planning on waiting until after dinner, but he couldn’t. So he decided to start the meal right off with his news. “I’d like to make an announcement.” He stood and walked behind Anna’s chair, deciding to just say it without preamble. “I’ve asked Anna to be my wife.” He looked down at her as she gazed back up into his eyes, their hands clasping. “And I suppose I caught her at a weak moment, because she’s consented.”

The others sat in surprised silence for just a moment, causing Scott to clench her hand more tightly than was proper. But then Murdoch started beaming, and Teresa started chattering, and Scott’s worries about her being accepted faded.

Murdoch raised his glass for a toast to the new Mrs. Lancer. When they’d finished he added, “I know this would have made Florence very happy. It’s just too bad Ian isn’t here. He’s going to be so disappointed he missed the announcement.”

Scott couldn’t help but glance at Johnny’s empty chair.

“I know, but we just couldn’t wait,” Anna said. “Oh! And I have another announcement! Ming and Tang are the proud parents of one little royal puppy prince!”

“Just one?” asked Murdoch.

“Just one. I’m told that’s not unusual. It’s one reason they’re so rare and valuable. That, and the pure blood, of course.”

“Well, congratulations! Lancer is proud to be the home of the best blood in the west—and you and Scott, I trust, will continue that tradition,” he said, a gleam in his eye that sent Anna blushing.

***

He could no longer tell what was rain, and what was blood, on his shirt, only that his entire back was wet, and the parts that used to be warm were now so cold his teeth chattered uncontrollably. He was holding onto Lena not only to keep her from falling off, but to keep from falling off himself, and to try to share what little warmth their bodies were producing. The sky had long ago turned black with rain clouds and the memory of sunset. He knew he should stop, get off, find cover, but he was pretty sure he’d never get back on again. Certainly no way he’d be able to pull Lena back up. So he rode, trying to find a trail he saw only in his mind, aiming his horse in random directions, with no stars to help guide. He just hoped he wasn’t riding in a circle.

A few times he’d come into some clearing and seen the shadow of a tree that looked like the one he’d left Sinclair under. Each time he’d turned the horse so fast he’d almost fallen from the saddle. He never saw anybody, never heard shots, and nobody had chased after them, but it always spooked him enough to add a surge of energy so his eyes stayed open a few more minutes. It was also enough to make sure he was totally lost.

Lena had come to a couple of times, but as comforting as that was he hoped she wouldn’t do it again soon. She’d struggled each time, and he was afraid the next time he wouldn’t be able to hold her.

The cocksucker had shot him in the back! He had a sudden image of Vom, beating the shit out of him for being so negligent. “Goddamnit, boy, how many times I got to tell you? You gotta do it to them before they do it to you!” Shit. He hadn’t, and he’d let Sinclair do it to him instead. God damn, when had be become such a fuck up?

Dios, but it all paled in comparison to his major fuck up. He whispered in her ear how sorry he was, over and over, until it became just a chant in cadence with the horse’s steps, until he lost track of everything in the world besides the rain falling on his back, the horse walking beneath him, and the woman he loved in his arms. Dying. He wasn’t sure at what point the chant changed to please don’t die, please don’t die, please, please…

Please, please don’t die. His mama reached for him with her bloodied hands, grasping his hands with them, the hands he’d been using to frantically try to stop the blood pumping from her chest. Her lips moved, like she was saying something. Some nights it was “Damn you to hell, Juanito, you killed me!” but that was just in his sleep. What he remembered her mouthing was worse: “I love you, Juanito...” And then she left him, all alone, with Ricardo.

Left him, goddamn it!

He jumped as he came back to realize he was still on the horse, but he’d been wiping his hands, not paying attention, letting Lena list to one side. No, they weren’t going to make it. Make it? Make it to where? Where the hell was he taking them? Maybe Lena’s family. But where? Up north, that’s all he knew. They’d never find them, not like this. And the way Lena had talked, they might not even help. He needed to be looking for cover. Just riding to nowhere was stupid, not in the pitch dark and pelting rain. But no, it wasn’t pitch dark.  The sky was pinking up in the east, tendrils of clouds now pushing through. Dios, how long had he been riding asleep?

He could see they were on a muddy road, one that seemed to curve along a hillside. Damn, that wasn’t good. They had to get off it before some early risers happened by. With that damn bounty he was found money for anyone who recognized him. And Lena would get sucked right up in it, like she already had. The road rounded a bend and looked out over a valley. Through the rain he could just make out the shadows and morning lights of a ranch below. Looking at it he suddenly felt woozy, like he was swimming inside his head. Shit, he’d lost a lot of blood.

They needed to hole up, as far from any settlements as possible. He reined the horse back, toward a trail that went the other way, but the stubborn beast protested. He finally managed to turn the animal. Fighting with it sapped the last of his strength. They had to find cover. Had to. Dios, but he was cold. He huddled closer to Lena; she was even colder.

 

Chapter 91

“I just wanted to look in the eyes of the man who ruined my son.”  Murdoch eased himself down in a chair out of Vom’s reach, his eyes filled with contempt. Vom was back in Deeter’s room, cuffed to the bed, Anna having been too busy with Ming to tend to the boy’s morning needs.

“I just don’t understand,” he continued. He’d been looking forward to this meeting for some time now, thinking of everything he wanted to throw at this lowlife. Including a few rocks. The only thing that had stopped him so far was his pride, the necessity of not appearing weak in front of the man. So he’d waited until he could walk in on his own, until he wasn’t breathless just from talking. Planned it for first thing in the morning, when he was still fresh from a night’s rest. Scott had insisted on coming with him, but had promised to stay out of it. He’d be leaving right afterward, hoping to catch up with Val, although in this rain that hardly seemed likely.

“Goddamn it, what right did you have? He wasn’t some stray dog for you to snatch up, train him to do your tricks, turn him into a killer!” Murdoch fixed him with a deadly stare. “I hope you rot in hell for what you’ve done.”

“Yeah, you’re welcome and all that.” Vom looked at him incredulously. “You really serious? You’re asking me what right did I have? Are you fucking kidding me? Oh, I don’t know, just the right of the one person in this whole fucking world who stepped in to save your scrawny-ass halfbreed kid from starving, or getting the shit beat out of him, or getting fucked up the ass in another jail cell! Hell no, he weren’t no stray dog! He wasn’t that lucky!”

“I won’t tolerate that kind of talk!”

“Yeah, I bet you won’t, somebody might find out the truth. What I want to know is what right did you have to kick him out? Jesus, you’re some piece of work, Lancer. You know, Johnny used to talk about you, what he’d do if he ever met up with you. You think I taught him to use a gun? Yeah, maybe I taught him how, but you sure as hell gave him the why. The only reason that boy practiced ’til his hands was raw was so he could put a bullet in your face.”

Murdoch was speechless for a moment, the sheer audacity of the man! He recovered enough to sputter, “How dare you! That’s a damn lie, and you know it! You probably filled his head full of lies, just to keep him.”

“You think so, huh? Well, here’s what I want to know. You claim he’s been living here the last six months? Well how come he didn’t say a word about it to me? Thing is, I don’t know what your game is, but something ain’t right.”

“He was here. And he was fine, he liked it here, right up until he...” Murdoch paused before pushing on, but forced himself to say the words that hurt like dull knives. “Before he attacked me and killed my bride. Now I want to know if you were behind that. What did you do?”

“Oh yeah, sounds like you was getting along just dandy. Sounds more like to me maybe he finally put all that practicing to good use. Only guess he should have practiced a little more.” He could swear the man actually smirked when he said it.

“You son of a bitch! If that’s the case, you’re as responsible for the death of my wife as he is.”

“Well, I ain’t confessin’ if that’s what you’re waiting for. Ain’t sayin’ Johnny did it neither.”

Deeter started to stir, moaning. Vom was immediately at his side, smacking his face. “Deeter! Wake the hell up, boy! Come on, we gotta get out of this dump!”  He didn’t get a reaction.

Murdoch stared at the two a long while, taking the opportunity to regain his composure. When he spoke, it was in a far quieter voice. “You know, all you had to do was take him to some sheriff, or a Pinkerton office. That’s all, they would have gotten him to me. But you wanted to keep him and do who knows God what. That’s what I don’t understand. What goes on between you and these, these boys?”

Vom’s eyes narrowed. “You goddamn sick bastard! What the hell are you trying to say?” He jerked at his cuff, hard, as though he was trying to hit Murdoch. “I ain’t never touched one of my boys!”

“Maybe, maybe not. I’ll tell you this right now, I’ll kill you if I find anything like that out. I’d welcome the excuse, lord knows you deserve it. Jesus. I’ve read some of the things Johnny did when he was with you. And after, thanks to you, I’m sure. So which of these, these atrocities, did you put him up to?”

“You’re a goddamn fucking hypocrite, fucking pervert, too.”

Murdoch stared at him, thinking it was surely a case of the kettle and the pot. “Then why didn’t you just take him to an orphanage, hell, turn him loose, he’d be better off than what you did to him!”

“Jesus Christ, are you that fucking ignorant? Where the hell you been, with your head so far up your ass crack you’re blinded by the shit in your eyes? Damn sure only got shit coming out of your mouth. You happen to take a look at that boy any time recent? You’re the one who handed that boy a world of trouble, not me, you! I didn’t fuck his mother, make a halfbreed kid and what, never think how that was gonna be? Yeah, you had your time of it, only he’s the one who had to live with it, you just washed your hands of him and went on your fucking way.” He took a deep breath, but before Murdoch could get a word in he’d leaned forward and started in again. “Well, let me tell you something, you want an education, you come on down to the border towns, see what happens to orphan kids down there, then you find a mestizo one and see how he’s doing. If you can find one still breathing.”

“I’ve heard enough!” He banged his fist down. Damn, he’d been doing a lot of that lately.  “I did not wash my hands of him!”

“Two minutes and you’ve had enough? Johnny was on his own for two fucking years before he found me. Years! Fucking ten-year-old kid on his own! You ever seen them orphan Mex kids beg for a handout, shit piece of bread, anything to fill the hole in their gut? Seen how they turn them big brown eyes up at you all hungry and sad? Yeah, you try that with blue eyes, see how fast it gets you a kick in the gut, that’s about all.The fucking kid couldn’t even beg, that’s how you left him! Hell, to this day the boy won’t hardly look you in the eye, unless he’s planning on killing you. You claim to know him, you ever wondered why he’s always looking down? Called saving your fucking ass. You bet Johnny was stealing long before I met him. And you better be damn glad he was, cuz a kid like that, his only other choice is whoring or dying.” Vom leaned even farther toward him, so close Murdoch could smell the stench of his breath. “Or maybe that’s really what you wanted, all along.”

“You son of a bitch, you don’t know what you’re talking about. I was searching for him, the whole time! All you had to do was turn him in, get some help. I had the Pinkerton Agency, dammit!”

“Turn him in? Listen, I met the kid in jail and it sure wasn’t his first time. If he’d wanted to contact you, why didn’t he? Why didn’t he ask the sheriff to send a wire?” Vom held up his hand before Murdoch could answer. “I’ll tell you why. Because you didn’t want him, and you made sure he knew it. Sure, make a good show to your rich friends, poor searching daddy, but where the hell were you? If you’d really wanted to find him, you’d have been down there in person, or had a reward posted with every sheriff.”

“I did go! I searched, but I couldn’t search forever, not when there were no leads. I couldn’t just desert the ranch, everything I was working for.”

Vom snorted. “Yeah, nice ranch.” He looked around the room. “Nice stuff.” The sarcastic tone was hard to miss.

“What the hell’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing. Just hope it was worth your son. Then again, guess you got a pureblood boy to leave it all to.” He nodded toward Scott, who had managed to stay quiet so far.

“I’ve had about enough of this! You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about! This isn’t about me, or my other sons, it’s about what you did to Johnny! It’s about you taking a boy and teaching him to be a hired gun, for God’s sake!”

“Which was a hell of a lot more than you ever did for him!  You teach him to read and write? I did. Fucking twelve years old and about the only word he could read when I found him was ‘Wanted.’ You teach him to survive? Only if you count throwing him out, telling him to sink or swim. I taught him, taught him everything he needed to know not just to keep breathing, but make a living. What’d you think, he could get a job as a banker? About the only thing I didn’t have to teach that boy about was men and women. Apparently his mama taught him more about that than any kid oughta ever know, thanks to you. Hell, the kid had me turning red, some of the shit he knew, and that ain’t easy.”

“I searched for him. I would have given him the finest education. He could have grown up here.”

“Yeah, right.” Vom took another deep breath. “Point is, seems to me you owe me. I raised your boy, educated him, fed him, wiped the blood off his nose like he was my own, did all your work while you sat around building up this fancy ranch.” His eyes narrowed, and he leaned back in his chair. “Well, let me tell you, that don’t come on no lunch. I’m here to collect, and you owe me a bundle.”

Murdoch turned a vibrant shade of red. “Scott, tell me I’m hearing things, tell me this, this derelict didn’t really just ask me for money for ruining my son.”

Before Scott could reply, Vom interjected, “Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m saying. Thousand bucks ought to do it. For raising your son. I call that a bargain.”

“Put him back in the guardhouse.” He stood to leave, trying not to falter as Scott opened the door for them. Wondering why Cipriano was suddenly yelling something about a horse.

 

Chapter 92

Scott shoved Vom out of the door ahead of him, in a hurry to find out what all the yelling was about. He shoved harder, pushing him along; the damn man was walking as slowly as he could, just being obstinate. Then when they rounded the corner in front of the hacienda Vom stopped right in his tracks, so Scott plowed into the back of him. On purpose, no doubt. Before Scott could voice his irritation Vom started to run, pulling loose of him, but only for a few steps before his chained ankles sent him plunging to the mud slicked ground. Scott would have enjoyed a moment of satisfaction at the thwarted escape were his eye not caught by the hands, standing and staring toward the Lancer arch.

Scott stared too, unsure of what he was seeing. A palomino, yes, but... Barranca? He couldn’t make out the rider, or whatever that mound was in front of him. Then the sunlight shone through the clouds, reflecting off the rider’s pants. Conchos! “Jesus, Murdoch, it’s Johnny!” he called, jumping over Vom and pounding through the mud to meet the horse, which was walking slowly under the weight of what appeared to be two people. “Johnny! Johnny!”

A few hands were also running hesitantly toward the horse, but Scott noticed most were hanging back, looking nervous. What’d they think, Johnny was going to shoot them? He barely looked aware of his surroundings. But maybe it was for the best they were just standing in place. All those people rushing at him would be sure to spook Barranca. The horse’s head had already popped up, and he was starting to skitter sideways, to the point Johnny looked like he was ready to flop off. “Stay back! Give them room!”

He forced himself to slow as he neared the nervous animal. Barranca’s eyes were rolling, and, Jesus, Johnny looked like he wasn’t quite with them, closing his eyes, then jerking them open and looking around, a confused look on his face as though he’d just awakened from a nightmare. And Scott wasn’t even quite sure what was wrong with the woman Johnny was holding, although he could see her legs and arms were bare, dangling limply from beneath some sort of soaked covering.

“Easy boy, come on,” Scott said to the horse, although he felt like he was saying it to Johnny at the same time. “Johnny? Johnny! Are you alright?”

Johnny’s head snapped to focus his gaze on him, blinking hard, tugging Barranca’s rein to turn him, kicking him in the flank. The horse just pranced in a circle, and Johnny kept on pulling and kicking, but this close to the warm barn with its promise of oats, the bedraggled horse wasn’t about to be turned away. “Johnny,” Scott said quietly, calmly, “Come on, stop, come inside. Your, um, friend needs attention.”

Now that he could see the woman more clearly, Scott wasn’t that sure she needed attention at all, except maybe from the undertaker. She was unconscious, ashen beneath her dark skin, and streaked with blood. Johnny didn’t look much better. Scott eased forward until he had hold of Barranca’s bridle, then motioned for one of the hands to come hold it. He reached for the woman. “I’ve got her,” he said, but Johnny still had his arms clamped around her. He tugged on her slightly. “Come on, brother, let go.”

“Get your hands off her, fucking cocksucker!” And before Scott would have thought it possible, Johnny had his gun aimed at Scott’s head. And pulled the trigger.

And pulled it again and again, as it clicked over and over on empty chambers. Scott tried to swallow, all the spit gone from his throat. Scott swallowed so he could speak. “Johnny, it’s me,” he said as calmly as he could. “It’s alright. I’m not going to hurt her.” He noticed Murdoch was still standing next to the hacienda, frozen in mid-stride with a look of grim horror.

“What the fuck are you doing, boy?” Scott swung around to see Vom hobbling up as fast as he could. “Gimme that fuckin’ gun! Jesus!”

Scott tried to remain calm, for Johnny’s sake, but it was hard. “Get back! He’s confused. I think something’s wrong, maybe he’s hurt.”

“What the fuck did you think, of course something’s wrong! Boy knows better than to shoot an empty gun.” Vom stared at Scott for a second as though he were some dolt, then flung his hands up at him dismissively. “What’re you standing there for? Get him down. Who’s this girl?”

“I think I have this in hand, if you’ll just please step back, let me handle it.” Vom was the last thing he needed here.

“Yeah, I can see that.” He walked closer to Johnny, yelled at him, “Johnny! Gimme the damn gun and get down here! Quit acting stupid! You ain’t hurt that bad.”

Johnny jerked, then looked around and finally found Vom, reaching out slowly to hand him the gun. Vom smirked at Scott as he took it, saying to him, “There, you want to make yourself useful, help him off the horse. Damn, boy, can’t you see he’s hurt?”

That’s it, he was going to kill the man. “Yes, damn it, I see he’s hurt! What do you think I said?”

“Then why you just standing there? Shit, I gotta do everything?”

“No!” Scott shoved him away and spoke soothingly. “Here, Johnny, let go. We’ll take care of her.”

He didn’t let go. Vom pushed Scott away. “Jesus, he ain’t no mamby pamby little girl. Johnny! Let the fuck go, and get the fuck off the horse!” Johnny slowly let go of the woman and slid to one side as Vom gave Scott another irritating look. Vom caught Johnny before he could fall, staggering to hold him up once on the ground. He looked him over as best he could while Johnny leaned against him. “Shit, where’d you get all this blood from? Dammit, I’m gonna need my shirt washed now.”

Scott eased the girl down, thankful at least that Vom didn’t feel he had to take over this job as well. She was obviously naked under what turned out to be a ripped skirt and Johnny’s shirt. He tried to keep her covered as best he could. “Let’s get them into the house!” he called to some hands. “Both of them!”

“No.”

Scott whirled at the unexpected word. Murdoch had walked halfway to them, still talking. “Take Johnny to the guardhouse,” Murdoch said. “Send a hand for Sam. And Val.”

“What?” Scott couldn’t believe it. “What do you mean, the guardhouse?”

“He’s wanted for murder. Lest you forget, the murder of your stepmother. We can tend to him just as well there as anywhere.”

“Good idea!” Vom said, already turning toward it with Johnny in tow. “He’ll be fine there. I can take care of him better than any of you.”

Scott had the sudden vision of Vom slapping Deeter’s face and yelling in his ear to try to make him regain consciousness. “No! He needs to be in the house. In his room.”

“Scott, I’ve got enough on my mind right now!” Murdoch turned to Johnny, still hanging heavily on Vom. “Where’s Ian? What’d you do to him? Where is he?”

Johnny looked at him blankly.

“What the fuck?” Vom said. “You mean Sinclair? Johnny’s the one bleeding, in case you hadn’t noticed. Don’t say nothing, Johnny.”

“I have to agree,” said Scott. “There’s no evidence Ian had anything to do with this, and if he did, we don’t know the details. Right now we have to get these two into bed.”

“Sinclair’s gonna rot in hell,” Johnny managed, his voice a weak whisper.

“Shut up, boy,” said Vom, steering him toward the guardhouse.

“Where is he?”

Johnny got ready to say something else, but Vom squeezed him, hard, until Johnny gasped instead. “He said he don’t know,” Vom said.

As a couple of hands carried Lena toward the main house, one stepped on the skirt draped over her and inadvertently pulled it partially off. “No!” Johnny tried to wrench free of Vom’s grip. “Don’t touch her! I’ll kill you!” He ran out of breath, and strength, before he could finish, collapsing to his knees.

Vom grabbed him under his arms and tried to haul him up. “Shit boy, what’d you do that for? Come on, ol’ Vom’s gonna fix you up, just like old times. Don’t you go worrying about that gal, she’ll probably make it, you never know.”

“You stay away from him,” Murdoch said. “You’ve done enough already.”

“What the hell? You gonna start up with that shit again? What, you just gonna leave him on his own, like you did before?”

“Scott, put Johnny in the guardhouse.” Murdoch gestured to Vom. “And chain Jacobsen back up with the boy.” He turned and walked toward the barn, calling for Cipriano. “Take some men, try to follow his tracks back. See if you can find some trace of Ian. Actually, tell the man looking for Val to get Val out looking for Ian, instead of coming here.” He gave a last look at Johnny. “Lancer takes care of its own.”

Scott watched his father disappear back into the hacienda, shutting the door behind him. Just like that. He couldn’t believe it. Johnny was finally back, at least physically, but something was wrong. Maybe it was the injury, but whatever the cause, he sure didn’t need to be treated like a prisoner.

To hell with the guardhouse. “Let’s get him in here,” he said, gesturing to the guest room next to Deeter’s. He and Vom supported Johnny between them as they stumbled and slipped across the courtyard to the room. Once inside, they eased him on the bed and rolled him on his stomach so they could find the source of the blood on his back. “Get me some water!”

“Dammit, take these chains off so I can move!” Vom said.

Scott looked at him, trying to decide if it was a good idea, finally tossing him the key and turning his attention back to Johnny. He could hear Vom throwing the irons down and leaving, but his attention was on the ugly wound now gaping open in front of him.

Shot in the back. He couldn’t tell if the bullet was still in there, and he figured he’d better wait for Sam to find out. Johnny wasn’t exactly being cooperative. At least some things never changed. Meanwhile, he could clean it up as best he could.

Jesus, what could have happened? Who was that half-naked woman? He started to work removing Johnny’s soaked pants and fishing some blankets out of the chest. He wondered how the woman was doing.

And where the hell was Vom with that water?

 

Chapter 93

“Point that thing somewhere else!”

Scott winced as he recognized Vom’s voice outside. Part of him wished the man had just kept going.

Then he recognized Jelly’s voice: “Scott! Got an escaped prisoner!” The door burst open, revealing Jelly holding a shaking gun at Vom’s head. Scott suddenly understood Vom’s concern.

“Alright, Jelly, I can handle this. Better put the gun down.”

The gun shook more as Jelly said, “He was escaping! I saw him, sneaking around like a rat with a cat on his trail. Got the drop on him, I did that, trying to steal a horse.”

“Tell this idiot to put the gun down before I have to show him how. And he ain’t gonna like my method.” Vom managed to look more irritated than nervous. Scott guessed it was a trick of the trade. Either that, or the man really didn’t understand how foolhardy it was to let Jelly have a gun around anyone. Part of him almost hoped the irritating man would find out.

“Oh, yeah,” Jelly said, practically bouncing with excitement, “you talk a big talk, but you’re the one with a gun aimed at you!”

“Jelly, put the gun down.”

“But Scott, he was escaping! You can’t let a criminal like that on the loose!”

“I’ll keep an eye on him.” He looked around, spotted the leg irons, looked at Vom. “Just what were you doing at the barn?”

Vom met his gaze with cold eyes. “Gettin’ stuff for Johnny.”

“In the barn? He don’t eat oats!” Jelly waved his gun in what seemed a triumphant gesture at his deductive reasoning.

“Jelly, for the last time, put the gun down. Here, put his leg irons back on, then go get some water for Johnny. I’ll cover him.”

The grumbling of both men just about drowned out the clanking of the chains, but Scott had had it with both of them. Once Vom was chained and Jelly gone, Scott decided he might as well ask, “So, you were planning to leave?”

“You believe that old coot?” Vom looked indignant. “Not that it’s any of your business, I was gettin’ Johnny’s saddlebags, gettin’ his stuff.”

Scott looked around. “Then where are they?”

“In the barn, where that jackass pulled a gun on me.” He shook his head. “Jesus. You really think I’d leave my boy? Both boys?”

“You did it before.”

Vom’s eyes narrowed. “You know, it’s too bad you didn’t grow up with me, I’da smacked some manners into you, respect for your elders!”

He couldn’t resist. “Like Johnny?”

“That boy was born with a smart mouth. Used to be worse, before I taught him a few lessons. Like I said, you could sure use a few.”

Scott didn’t even want to know what he meant by lessons, but he had serious doubts as to their effectiveness. But he didn’t need to be distracted by the man now, not when they needed to get Johnny cleaned and settled. Johnny had looked like he tried to stay awake, jerking his head up repeatedly as he started to drift off, but he’d lost the battle. He wished Anna were here to help, but she was probably with Teresa, tending the hurt woman. Maybe later. He sure didn’t want Vom hovering over him, interfering with everything.

Jelly burst back in with a bowl of water and some cloths, complaining about something, and Vom started complaining right back at him. This was not going to work. And since Vom was chained up, he didn’t have much choice. “Jelly, why don’t you go get Johnny’s saddlebags, bring them in here for when he wakes up? Then go ask Teresa for a nightshirt for him.”

“A nightshirt? Jesus.” Vom shook his head as though Scott had suggested Jelly bring a ball gown. “You want him to kill you when he wakes up?”

***

Damn horse. First thing he was going to do when he got out of here was trade it for one that minded. What the hell good was a fast horse if it just went where it pleased?

No, he hadn’t hauled on its reins as hard as he could have, but he was just too goddamn tired. He could hardly keep his eyes open now, when he really needed to. Already he’d caught himself letting the voices around him turn into a drone, then a roar, before snapping his head up and pinching himself where they couldn’t see him. He wasn’t sure where he was, but he was pretty sure it wasn’t good.

He’d lost blood, he knew that, knew he’d been lightheaded and heavy lidded for a long time. No other explanation for just riding into a ranch and giving himself up. In a way, the whole thing had felt so natural. He had a vague memory of seeing an arch with a big L, like the little L on his saddle, of having a moment where he felt strangely safe. A sure sign of blood loss.

Like he’d needed any more signs. Hell, he’d just ridden right in, all those faces peering up at him. The usual faces, curious, eager to get close enough to tell the story, afraid to get close enough to die. But some others he couldn’t quite figure. Worried, yeah, but not about themselves. Dios, Lena! Sinclair’d had her!  He’d stopped him, or tried, but in the end they’d taken her. Fucking cowhands, and he’d just given her up to them again! His eyes jumped open as he tried to roll to his feet, sucking in his breath with the sudden movement. Something was stopping him. He pushed harder, but the hands held him.

“Hold still, Johnny. You’re safe. Sam’s coming.”

His eyes tried to focus. Sinclair, pinning him down! He wrenched away, or tried, but he couldn’t. But no, it wasn’t Sinclair, it was Blondie, holding his shoulders down, smiling at him that way he’d done before. It was creepy as hell. And—oh shit, he just realized he was naked.

“Lemme up!” He bucked against the hands, but he was too weak to do much but show he wasn’t going to go along with whatever this pervert had in mind. Dios, what was happening to Lena? “Lena? Lena!”

“The woman? She’s fine, Johnny, she’s being taken care of.”

“No! Goddamn, nobody touches her!”

“She’s with Teresa and Anna. They’ll take good care of her.”

“No!” Johnny suddenly rocked up and back, moaning at the pain in his back.

“Johnny, you have to hold still or it’s going to hurt even more!” Now Blondie’s hands were all over him, trying to hold him down, or something. What the hell went on here? He tried to roll away.

“Johnny! What the fuck is wrong with you?” This voice made him stop, pay attention. Vom? “Jesus Christ, boy, you ain’t bleeding enough?”

Yes, Vom! Vom had been there, before, had stopped him from, from something. And Vom was here, now. Wherever here was. Vom would fix it. He tried to focus on the blurred form behind Blondie. “Vom?”

“Yeah, boy, I’m here. You cut the shit, lie still.”

“Vom? Lena, you can’t let them have her!”

“Lena, huh?” He could see Vom better now, see the smile on his lips, that smile he liked to use when he was teasing him. “Don’t tell me you finally got yourself some.”

A slow smile crept to his own lips. Vom, you don’t know the half of it. That’s what he wanted to say, but no, that’s not what you said, not about girls—ladies—you cared about. “We’re gettin’ married.”

“What?” It looked like Vom’s smile faded, but it was hard to keep focused.

“Well, uh, I’d say congratulations are in order, brother! I’m looking forward to getting to know her.”

Dios, was that some kind of threat from Blondie? “You try, and I’ll kill you.” He hoped that didn’t sound as weak as he thought it did.

Blondie looked at him like he’d said something strange. “I just meant I’m looking forward to meeting her, learning more about her. Don’t worry, Johnny, she’s in good hands. Sam’s on his way to look at both of you. Can you tell me what happened?”

Sure, Blondie, I stabbed her. Just like I stabbed my mama. Stabbed her to death, ’til she just looked at me like a painting, like she just looked through me. Stabbed ’em both, pretty as you please, got their blood all over my fucking hands. “No.”

“That quack’s coming to look at him? Hell, how long’s that gonna take? You gimme a knife, I can get that bullet out right now. Done it plenty of times, hardly hurts, ain’t that right, Johnny boy?”

Shit. He suddenly hoped the doctor would get here very soon. His memories of Vom cutting bullets out of him were enough to make him pray for unconsciousness. Or a drink. Damn, he was going to need a drink, a lot of drinks. “Drink?” he rasped.

“Sure, Johnny, hold on,” Blondie answered. He heard something being poured, then Blondie helped him onto his back, propped him up, and helped him hold a cup to his mouth.

Johnny took a big gulp, then sputtered, coughing until it hurt. “Dios! It’s water!”

“The boy has a fucking bullet in him and you give him water? What the hell kind of doctoring you doin’ here? I always gave him whiskey. He’s gonna need it, keep from yelling too loud.”

“Tequila.” Might as well go for the good stuff.

“Sorry, Johnny, we’re going to need to wait for Sam before we can give you anything, and I don’t think whiskey or tequila are going to be on his list. If the pain gets too bad, you can have some laudanum.”

“Shit, I told you he was a damn quack! No whiskey for a bullet wound?”

“Would you mind letting me tend to my brother without your help?”

Brother? Was he still harping on that? He could hear Vom fire back with something, and more of Blondie’s prissy talk, but he just couldn’t concentrate any more. Vom was here, Vom would watch his back, look out for Lena. He tried to fight it, but finally let his lids slide shut and the roar in his head take over.

 

Chapter 94

They were still arguing when he woke up, so he figured he’d just drifted off for a few seconds. Only something was different—a third voice had joined in the fracas.

“I assure you I’m well versed in removing bullets. Especially from Johnny. Now please, let me do my job!”

The voice sounded familiar, but he couldn’t place it. And what the hell did he mean by that especially from Johnny part?

“I bet I dug more outta him than you.” Vom sounded proud.

“Uh huh. Is that where all these scars came from? Looks like a butcher came after him.”

Johnny shifted his position, giving out a small hiss as he did.

“Look, he’s waking up!” Vom said. “Johnny! Who you want cuttin’ on you, me or this quack?”

Shit, maybe he could pretend to go back to sleep. He tried to slow his breathing. But somebody pushed him, hard, and he gasped.

“Don’t do that!” Blondie’s voice.

“Johnny! You ain’t asleep! Who you want takin’ that bullet outta your back?”

Shit, shit, shit. He sure as shit didn’t want Vom doing it. Even in his best mood, Vom sticking a knife in your meat wasn’t good. And who knew how mad Vom might still be at him. But if he said any of that, Vom would sure as hell be mad at him, and it was gonna hurt that much worse. But who the hell was this sawbones? Sometimes they were good, a lot better than Vom on his best day. Other times—well, some doctors didn’t exactly try to make things comfortable when they knew their patient was a gunslinger. “Tequila?”

“No, I’m afraid not, Johnny.” That was the doctor’s voice. “You could have some laudanum, though, even though I know you don’t want any.”

Hell yeah, he wanted some. Wanted some every fucking second of his life. That’s why he couldn’t have any. “Whiskey.”

“Sorry,” said the doctor. Fucking quack.

“He’s gonna get whiskey if I take it outta him,” Vom said.

That made up his mind. “Vom. I want Vom to do it.”

“Johnny, that’s ridiculous!” Blondie again. “Sam is a trained doctor. You’ve never complained about him before.”

“The boy made up his mind. Get me a knife, get it hot. And get him some whiskey.”

“No,” said Blondie. “For one thing, Johnny’s hardly in any condition to know what he’s saying. For another, you’re hardly in any position to make any demands. In case you’re forgetting, you’re a prisoner here, and we’re certainly not handing you any knives, and if you keep on being disruptive, I’ll have you locked back in the guardhouse!”

Johnny’s eyes jerked wide, searching for Vom. He’d almost decided he was hearing things when Vom moved and he heard the telltale clink of iron. Vom was a prisoner? Then so was he. Lena, probably, too. Dios, he’d just been lying here, thinking Vom had it all in hand. Sleeping, even!

“Johnny, I want you to lie as still as you can while I do this. It’s going to hurt, but I’ll do the best I can.”

He saw the knife in the man’s hand. Dios! He waited until the man was closer, then twisted onto his side and lunged up, grabbing the knife, trying to twist it from his hand, but he’d forgotten the wound on his own hand, and he couldn’t hold on, not when Blondie jumped in and pried it from his fingers, using that irritating voice like he thought he was talking to a scared horse or something.

“Let me go! You ain’t cutting me up! I want Vom!”

“Dammit, give him the fucking whiskey and let me do it!”

***

They’d ended up compromising, Scott heading to the main house in search of tequila. He probably should have had Sam go rather than leave him alone with Vom, but he swore if he had to spend another minute with Johnny’s self-appointed watchdog he was going to strangle him. Jesus, where did the man get off thinking he knew everything? As soon as Johnny got good and drunk and, hopefully, passed out, Scott was going to hustle the old coot out of there and lock him in the guardhouse where he’d be out of his hair. It’d been all he could do not to throw him out earlier, but so far Vom’d been able to get through to Johnny better than anyone else. That had to stop; it was clear Johnny was disoriented, but looking to Vom could only mix him up more.

Murdoch was seated behind his desk. Scott didn’t say a word, just went to the sidebar and started sorting through the bottles, looking for Johnny’s tequila. He wasn’t sure he could trust himself not to say exactly what he thought of his father’s behavior toward Johnny. And now was just not the time.

“A little early in the day to start drinking, wouldn’t you say, son?”

“It’s not for me.” He searched some more. “What happened to the tequila?”

“Gone,” was all he replied, but Scott knew what that meant. Purged from the cabinet, from Lancer, just like Johnny seemed to be.

“Don’t you even want to know how Johnny is?”

“I assume if you’re looking for tequila he’s alive. And too sober for his own comfort.”

Scott made sure Murdoch saw him snatch up the most expensive bottle of whiskey. Just let him try to say to get one of the cheaper ones. “Oh, by all means don’t get overly concerned. After all, it’s just your son lying there with a bullet in his back.”

“Scott, what do you want me to do?” Murdoch rubbed his face. “Yes, I’m concerned. But you’ll excuse me if I can’t muster the proper amount of sympathy for him. Do you think I can just put Florence behind me, forget what he did? Forgive him for killing my wife, shooting me?”

“We don’t know that...”

“Then where’s he been, Scott? Two months. He could have come back, could have contacted us. He could have come home with you, or Ian. But he didn’t. He went back to killing, and from what I can see, didn’t spare us a thought until now, he needs us, so he just comes riding in with some half-naked woman and you think I should welcome him with open arms? Well I’m sorry, Scott, I just can’t forget that easily.”

“That’s just it, Murdoch. He needs us. If we’re not here for him now we could lose him forever. I mean it, there’s been something wrong with him, and he still acts like he doesn’t know where he is.”

“If you ask me, we lost him two months ago. Maybe we never had him.”

“You know, I don’t have time for this. Sam is waiting to dig a bullet out of his back.” He turned, making it almost to the door before turning again. “Oh, and that half-naked woman? Her name is Lena. Johnny was planning to marry her.”

Murdoch’s head jerked up, his eyes narrowed. “Marry? Did he say what happened to their clothes? Or should I guess?”

“I didn’t ask him. Look, how is she? He’s worried about her.”

“Worried about a woman?” Murdoch snorted. “Good. Give him a taste of his own medicine.”

Scott slammed the door behind him, uncorking the bottle and taking a gulp, letting the burning liquid smother the fire that was about to erupt. One of the hands stopped in his tracks, looking away when Scott caught him staring. If Johnny hadn’t needed it more than he did he might have had a few more swigs.

As it turned out, he wished he had. The bullet hadn’t come out easily. They should have forced some laudanum on him after he was drunk, because he still wasn’t drunk enough once Sam started digging. Scott wasn’t sure if it was Johnny’s writhing and muffled cries that upset him most, or the fact that the only one who seemed to be able to get him to cooperate was that damn Vom. Whatever hold he had over Johnny, it appeared to be interfering with Johnny’s ability to relate to Scott and Sam like he used to. Scott had talked to Sam about it once he’d sent Vom to the guardhouse with a couple of hands, and Sam had agreed that Vom seemed to be an overwhelming presence as far as Johnny was concerned. Vom would not be coming back.

 

Chapter 95

The woman had lost a lot of blood. Johnny’s future wife, he’d said. Scott wondered what kind of future Johnny had envisioned. Obviously not one at Lancer, not with a murder charge hanging over him.

The task of cleaning her up had fallen to Teresa. Anna had been so upset by the sight of her injury that she’d had to beg off, locking herself in her room. Scott felt for her; she’d really not yet had time to get over losing Cloris and the baby, and to see another woman so close to death was obviously just too much for her to bear.

Sam had already checked Lena, as Johnny had called her, briefly before tending to Johnny, and now he was with her stitching her wound. According to Teresa, she’d been in and out of consciousness. Scott was waiting for a report so he could fill Johnny in as soon as he woke up. With as much as Johnny’d had to drink, he figured it might be a while.

He didn’t care to wait with Murdoch, and he was bored with his own room, so he wandered around Johnny’s bedroom, idly fingering Johnny’s few possessions that remained. Johnny would need some clothes, so he busied himself gathering long johns, a clean shirt and his other pair of pants. Vom was probably right about the nightshirt.

The door to Anna’s room creaked opened, and he heard her tread lightly down the hallway, stopping in front of Lena’s door. He could see her, reaching for the knob then puling back, probably feeling guilty that she wasn’t helping. Scott wondered if she’d really want to stay at Lancer after they married. All she’d done since she’d been here was tend to injured and sick people. It must be very different from her carefree days in San Francisco.

For that matter, he couldn’t say that he’d want to stay here, not the way things were going. A brother who quite possibly was facing the penalty for killing a woman, a father who didn’t seem to care, and a half brother who he liked less and less every day. Maybe San Francisco would be the answer for both of them.

Scott leaned out and motioned her to join him. “I’m sure they’ll give us a full report when they come out,” he said as Anna gave him a shy smile and took his hand. “Sam got the bullet out of Johnny. It didn’t hit anything vital.”

“Such a shame,” she said, almost to herself. She was still staring back down the hall toward Lena’s room.

“What is?”

She turned to him quickly, taking his other hand in hers. “Such a shame that somebody could do such a thing. I’ll never understand how people can hurt one another like that. Even a Mexican.”

He didn’t quite understand the last comment, since there was nothing to suggest a Mexican was at fault, or why that would be any different than anyone else attacking them. “I know, darling.” He kissed her on the forehead. “That’s one reason I love you. You make up for all the bad things.”

She blushed, then reached up and pecked him on the lips. “And that’s one reason I can’t wait to be Mrs. Scott Lancer. You always see the best in people. Even when they don’t always deserve it.” She kissed him again. “I’ll be glad to help take care of Johnny.”

Scott pulled back. “No, Anna, you need a break. Don’t worry, I can handle Johnny. I’ve done it before.”

“I know you can. But I can, too, and you can do something I can’t. I’m worried about Ian. Please, Scott, will you go look for him?”

He squeezed her hands. “Anna, I really think Johnny needs me now. Val will find him.”

Her face did that little pouty thing he hadn’t been able to say no to yet. “Please, Scott. What if he’s hurt? It’s not like him to be gone and not check in. Val doesn’t even like him, who knows how hard he’ll look for him? Johnny’s going to be fine, Sam said so. But what about Ian? Please, Scott, for me?”

Scott decided that now wasn’t the time to mention he didn’t like Ian, either. He sighed heavily, pulling her close. “Why can’t I ever say no to you? I’ll get my things together and leave after lunch. Sam will fill you in on what Johnny needs. Oh, and don’t worry about that man, Vom. He’s not allowed back in there.”

With luck, he’d be back before Johnny even woke up.

***

Val turned to look as he rode by another longhorn. You just didn’t see them in these parts anymore. And these didn’t seem to be with any hands, just on their own, milling around the creek. He planned on letting his horse have a drink before heading on out. Looking for Johnny out here was a pretty stupid idea. He could be anywhere. But the one place he wasn’t going to find him was sitting around in his office.

He skirted around another longhorn and dismounted, stretching while his horse slurped up water. Emptying his canteen, he muttered to himself at the churned up water from the damn cattle. He’d have to wade to deeper water to refill it. And that meant taking off his boots. He debated about whether he ought to just let them get wet, finally deciding he’d have to go so far in that the water would come in the tops of them. So he eased himself down next to the bank, cursing when he discovered it was wetter than it looked and his pants soaked right through. He had one boot off when his eye caught sight of some bright material tangled in the brush at the water’s edge. He hopped over to it, wondering as he did so why the hell he was hopping, and pulled it free. He was still pondering on why a woman’s blouse was out here when he saw the body sprawled on the other side of the brush, half immersed in the reddened water.

His hand went to his gun as he took in his surroundings. The rains had smoothed the sandy soil, and the longhorns had trampled over it, but the ropes he now noticed hanging from the limb were a definite clue that something wasn’t quite right here. Well, that and the body. He climbed down the bank and gingerly nudged it with his foot it until it rolled onto its back.

***

Johnny slowly became aware of the knife twisting in his back, but he was practiced at playing possum. His mouth felt like he had a dirty sheet stuffed in it, and it wasn’t just because he was lying face down on a bed. That wouldn’t explain why he could feel his every heart beat inside his eyeballs. None of it explained what the hell was going on with his back.  He cracked his lids open as much as he dared, making out a shadowy figure leaning over him, jabbing at his wound with a stick or something. Satan hisself, no doubt.

It had surely been Satan and his helpers who had held him down and rammed a red hot blade into his back. He vaguely remembered cursing at them, flailing at them, then begging them to stop. Shit, how fucking embarrassing. Vom would kick his ass for that kind of show. Especially in front of those strangers, Blondie and the other one. He gritted his teeth, determined not to give them any more pleasure of his screams. But hell, he couldn’t just lie there and take it. He twisted away, swatting with his other hand, surprising himself when he connected with an arm. He held on tight, if only to stop the torture.

He wasn’t prepared for the shrieking that followed.

He let go, his head jerking up, the whiskey that was filling his skull sloshing around until he thought it would push his eyeballs out. And she kept screaming. Oh Dios, his head was gonna pop like a rotten tomato if she didn’t shut up! “Sshhhh, shhhh,” he said, pawing at her, wondering what the hell a woman was doing here.

“Get your filthy hands off me!” She ran out the door, holding her arm away from her as though he’d slathered it with dog shit.

He let his head drop back down to the bed, his free hand trailing to the floor. Helluva way to wake up. Dios, his back throbbed. Hell, everything did, including his stomach. He felt around next to the bed for a bucket. Even if he didn’t puke he was gonna need it for something else if nobody came back. Dammit, the way the place smelled like shit he wondered if he wasn’t too late. He swept his hand in a wider arc, relieved when his fingers finally tapped against something hard. At first he frowned when he realized it wasn’t what he had hoped. Then he smiled as he realized it was better than he could ever have hoped for. He lifted the bottle to his lips.

 

Chapter 96

Scott swung his horse around at the sound of the screams, galloping back toward the guest quarters when he saw Anna burst from the room. He jumped off and ran to catch her just as she collapsed onto the bench outside. “What happened?”

She shook her head, trying to catch her breath. “He grabbed me,” she sobbed. “Oh, Scott, the look in his eye. I think he had in mind unspeakable things!”

She buried her face in his chest while he patted her back and quietly assured her it had to be a misunderstanding. Several men had rushed toward the room, and he really didn’t want to make a scene out here. “Do you think you can make it back to your room?”

She looked up and nodded. “If you help me.”

Scott wasn’t so sure how much help she really needed, especially when he’d rather go check on Johnny. It just didn’t sound like his brother to attack a woman, not the way she seemed to think he had. Still, he’d done a lot of things lately that didn’t sound like him. “Jelly, take a couple of men and put Vom in there with Johnny. Lock him up like usual. Anna’s not going to be nursing Johnny after all.”

A half hour later, Scott stomped back down to Johnny’s quarters, determined to confront him about what had happened. Anna had been adamant it was no misunderstanding. At this rate he was never going to get out of here so he could go look for Ian. He grinned to himself. At least that was one good thing.

He flung open the door, only to see Johnny and Vom laughing uproariously over something. His eyes narrowed as Vom raised the bottle to his lips. “This was supposed to be for Johnny’s pain,” he said, swiping the bottle from Vom’s hand.

“He don’t look like he’s in much pain,” Vom said, snickering. “You in pain, Johnny-boy?”

Johnny held his hand toward the bottle, twitching his fingers at Scott. “Oh, I’m in a lot of pain. Come on, Blondie, get your own medicine.”

“This is my own,” Scott said, plunking the bottle down out of reach of both of them. He wasn’t sure why Johnny had started calling him by that irritating nickname. Boston was bad enough. “At least a third of it. And for once, I agree with Vom. You don’t look like you’re in much pain at all.” He turned to Vom. “What on earth do you think you’re doing, getting him drunk?”

Vom shrugged. “Hey, he was well on his way before I got in here. You can ask Jelly or Jam or whatever that crazy little fellow’s name is.”

“Regardless, he’s sick, you should have taken it away from him.”

 “I did! Didn’t you see me trying to dispose of it?”  That seemed to set both of them off again.

“Johnny, be serious! I want to know what happened with Anna a few minutes ago. Had you been drinking? Did you try to grab her?” Scott wrinkled his nose as he became aware of how much the room reeked. He wondered when the last time was the chamber pot had been emptied.

Johnny quieted for a while, as though he was making a show of pretending to be serious. Then he burst out laughing. “Damn, thought I was gonna be deaf!” He leaned over to Vom, to the point Scott feared he’d fall off the bed. “Hey Vom, you imagine going to bed with a woman could scream like that in your ear?”

“Hell, I heard her way over in that cell of mine,” Vom said, looking at Scott as though he wasn’t supposed to be hearing. “Thought maybe you was finally gettin’ some!”

“I’d appreciate it if you did not speak about Anna like that,” Scott said indignantly. “She’s a lady, and we’re engaged to be married.”

“Well, good for you, son,” Vom said, sitting up straight, then chuckling some more. “See, Johnny, here you thought he only liked boys.”

“What?” Scott did notice Johnny looking at him with a more confused than normal expression.

“Me too,” Johnny finally said. “Me and Lena, we’re getting married. She’s still getting better, right?”

“Yes, I was just up there, she’s already much better. And yes, you told us you were getting married, congratulations again. How’d you meet her?” He wasn’t really sure he wanted to hear the answer to that, but he had to ask something. Althugh it was’t as though Johnny was exactly reciprocating in the etiquette department.

“Hell, who cares about that? She a good fuck?”

Johnny stared at Vom so hard that Scott was sure Johnny was going to punch the man, or do his best to try, but then he broke out in a big smile. “Hell, Vom, I ain’t never been... Well, I bet she made a fortune working. And man, she’s tough, too, she’ll pull a knife on somebody they cross her. Saved my ass from bounty hunters.”

“Damn, Johnny, I never thought I’d be saying it, but maybe you done found you a good woman! I saw her when she come in, she’s a looker, too!”

“Uh, yeah, sure,” said Scott, wondering if his conclusion was correct, and if so, how Murdoch would take the news of her profession. He tried to sound nonchalant. “By working, do you mean she’s a, um, uh?”

Johnny’s eyes narrowed, at least after he blinked a few times. “Don’t you two be getting any ideas. She’s giving that up, on account of getting married. And ’cause of the baby.”

“Baby!” Vom thumped Johnny on the shoulder until he yelled and hit him back. “Hell, boy, you don’t waste no time! Damn, I’m gonna be like a grandpappy!”

Baby? He wondered if he should get Murdoch drunk before he broke this bit of news. Then again, Murdoch would be a grandfather, and no matter what, that was bound to thrill him. And he was going to be an uncle! “Congratu—”

He never finished before the door burst open and Val rushed in.

“Scott, Murdoch said you’d be in here. Told me Johnny’d been shot in the back? How is he? You know what happened?”

“Drunk,” Scott said. “Otherwise, he has a bullet hole in his back, but Sam got the bullet out, and Anna’s just put a fresh dressing on it. He hasn’t said what happened.”

“I wanna see Lena!” Johnny suddenly yelled.

“That the woman he was with?” asked Val.

Scott nodded. “She came in practically naked, stabbed. Johnny says he’s planning to marry her.”

“Marry! Well, damn, congratulations there, Johnny!”

Johnny tried to get up, but flopped back onto the bed when the wrist iron tightened. “God damn it, lemme see Lena! What are you hiding?”

“Nobody’s hiding anything,” Scott said, trying to hold him down. “I was just up there, she’s fine.”

Johnny shrugged him off, hissing with pain as he did. “What are you doing to her?”

“Yeah,” Val said, “Murdoch told me she was doing better. Said Anna and Teresa were both hovering over her. Only the reason I’m here is they got another customer. Ian.”

“Ian?” Scott felt a twinge of guilt at his relief that he wouldn’t have to go looking for him. “He’s hurt? What happened?”

“Somebody stabbed him.”

“Sinclair? Shit,” Johnny said. “He’s alive? I figured he’d bleed out. Shit!”

“Shut up, Johnny,” Vom said, nudging him hard.

Val let out his breath. “Damn. Well, reckon that answers that question.”

“I ain’t shuttin’ up! Fucker deserves to die! Shot me in the back. And Lena—goddamn it, where is he? I’ll finish him off now!” Johnny lunged out of bed, only to be snapped back by his chained wrist. “Shit! Lemme loose! Where’s my gun? Where’s Lena? He ain’t in there with Lena, is he?”

“Don’t make me whack you, boy,” Vom said, pushing him back down. “You don’t shut your mouth, I’m gonna shut it for you!”

“I’m gonna kill the fucker! Rip his damn nuts off first!”

Val caught Vom’s arm just as he started to swing at Johnny, and held tight, despite Vom’s struggles to twist away. “Nobody’s killin’ or hittin’ nobody, or cutting off any nuts,” Val said. “Unless it’s me doing it,” he added with a sinister smile aimed at Vom.

Johnny looked like he was trying to focus on Val’s star, finally pointing at it. “A badge? You the fuckin’ sheriff? Keep that fuckin’ Sinclair away from my Lena!”

“Yeah, Johnny,” said Vom, “He’s the sheriff. What the hell you think I been telling you to shut your trap for?”

Val looked at Scott questioningly. “Damn, how drunk is he?”

Scott shrugged. “From the looks of the bottle, pretty drunk.”

“You’re the sheriff, then you go ahead, arrest Sinclair, he’s the one needs to be locked up! Fucker needs to hang for what he done to Lena. No, no, no, fucker needs to be gut shot. Yeah, where’s my gun?”

“You ain’t shootin’ nobody, Johnny. Now, what’d he do to the lady?” asked Val. “And who was that dead man there?”

Johnny glared at him, blinking hard, then looked from one to the other of them. “Goddamn it, lemme up! I gotta see her!”

“What’d he do, Johnny? Are you trying to say he stabbed her?”

“Why won’t you let me see her? You hidin’ something?”

“Johnny, she’s fine, I swear. We’re not hiding anything. You’re in no condition to even sit up, much less walk all the way upstairs. And she can’t come down here. You’re simply going to have to take my word for it.”

“Why the fuck should I take your word? You got me chained up! Dios, you probably got Lena chained too! What about Vom? Vom, go check on Lena for me. Make sure Sinclair ain’t with her.”

Vom lifted his arm. “I would, but they got me chained up too. Ain’t exactly what you call real good hosts here, if you ask me.”

“Dios, they got Lena chained up, I knew it! Goddamnit, lemme out of here!” Johnny yanked on his chained arm violently, over and over, thrashing against its weight.

“Stop, stop! Johnny, come on, Johnny, stop, alright, Vom can check on her, how’s that? Just be still before Sam has to put more stitches back in you!”

It took several seconds before Scott’s words seemed to sink in, but Johnny finally quieted except for his heaving breath. “Vom, yeah, Vom, go get Lena. Bring her here.”

“No, he’s not going to get her, she’s not well enough, but I’ll take him up there to see her. Although I swear I don’t understand why this is necessary. I give you my word she’s doing better.” But his word obviously wasn’t good enough for his brother. What the hell had Vom told him? The sooner they could get Vom out of here, get Johnny out from under his influence, the sooner Johnny would get back to normal. And then maybe they could find out what really happened, both with Flo and with Ian.

“Well, I’ll stay down here and have a little chat with Johnny while you two are gone, how’s that?” Val pulled up a chair next to the bed.

Johnny squeezed his eyes together, turned over to face the wall, and said, “Fuck you. How’s that?”

 

Chapter 97

Scott had been hoping Murdoch would be somewhere else. He should have known better.

Vom was in the middle of exclaiming over how big the place was, asking if anybody read all those books, when Scott spotted Murdoch glaring at them from his desk in the great room.  “Can I help you?” Murdoch asked.

“Johnny wanted Vom to make sure Lena was alright.”

“He couldn’t ask you?” A cock of the brow showed Murdoch’s irritation.

“He’s still kind of out of it, and I suppose he feels...well, he just asked that Vom check.” He really didn’t want to go into how hurt he felt about his brother’s lack of trust in front of either Murdoch or Vom.

“Haven’t seen you come to check on him,” Vom said, a clear challenge in his voice. He was looking into the fire, making a show of warming his hands in front of it. “Course, I can see how it’d be hard to rip yourself away from all this comfort, walk all that way just to see your boy.”

“I trust what Scott tells me.”

“Yeah, I’m sure that helps Johnny a lot.”

As much as Scott hated to agree with Vom, he did on this point. But he’d already given up trying to get Murdoch to visit Johnny. Well, given up for the day, at least.

Murdoch turned his attention back to the ledgers. “Scott, when you get through, could you come back here and go over some of these figures? They aren’t agreeing with our cash on hand.”

“Yeah, reckon that explains it, more concerned about some missing cash than about your own boy. Surprised you payin’ the doctor to stitch him up.”

Murdoch jerked his head up. “You have no idea what I’ve paid to have that boy here. And I don’t just mean my wife.” He opened one of the desk drawers and pulled out a booklet, plopping it on the desk. “Do you know how much it costs to hire the Pinkerton Detective Agency? A lot. Go on, take a look at this. Look at those dates. Just the time he spent lollygagging around with you, I could have bought a herd of the finest cattle in the country for what I paid the Pinkertons. I could have hired a lawyer to fight for my other son. Only, as much as I wanted Scott, at least I always knew he was safe, happy, healthy.”

Vom was fingering through the booklet, page after page. He chuckled at one point, muttering, “Yeah, I remember that,” frowned at other points, finally easing himself onto the sofa as he read. “Damn, you see this one?” he asked Murdoch, flipping the report around and pointing to an entry. “Shot three men, all at once, and one of ’em was Bart Bristol. And he was only fifteen! That’s my boy!”

Murdoch scowled. “I didn’t show you that for you to take some perverse stroll down memory lane. My point is that I spent years, and a small fortune, searching for him, so don’t go lecturing me about money and my son! I’m sure it was a hell of a lot more than you ever did.”

Vom stood, slapping the report back on his desk. “No, money ain’t something I ever had much of. But I tell you what, Johnny may not have had store-bought clothes, or a roof over his head, and we may not have had food every night, but what I had, that boy had too.”

Murdoch pushed himself up, leaning on his desk. “Well, look around you. That boy, as you call him, could have grown up here with a roof over his head every night, and never missed a single meal. That’s what you took away from him.”

Vom snorted. “Johnny don’t like this kind of shit. He likes sleeping outside. He’d go crazy if he had to live in a fancy house, eat off china dishes.”

“Oh? Well, I never heard him complain. Did you, Scott?”

“No.” He decided not to mention those occasional nights during Johnny’s first months there that he’d heard Johnny creep outside, and had followed to see him spreading out a bedroll under the sky. A couple of times he’d even joined him, just so they could talk. “I mean, he had a hard time adjusting, but once he got used to it, I know for a fact he loved it here.”

“Yeah, right. I keep hearing you claim he was living here, I still don’t see no proof. Don’t know what kind of game you’re playing.”

Murdoch looked like he was going to say something, but they were interrupted by Anna’s voice calling out Murdoch’s name. She was rushing down the stairs, but slowed when she saw Vom. “Oh, excuse me. I didn’t know you had company.”

“It’s quite alright, dear,” Scott said, “he was just leaving. Actually, if she’s presentable, he’d like to see Lena so he can assure Johnny she’s alright.”

“Oh. Well, I suppose she’s fine. We’ve been busy with Ian right now. That’s what I want to show you. I was going though his clothes, so I could wash them, and I found this.” She handed a crumpled piece of paper to Murdoch. “It’s Johnny’s confession.”

“What?” Scott felt a rock settle in his stomach. Murdoch was already reading the paper. When he finished, he just put it down and stared down at his desktop, his face drawn.

“Lemme see that!” demanded Vom, snatching it from the desk top.

“It’s Johnny’s handwriting,” Murdoch said, shaking his head. “He confesses to shooting Florence. Mrs. Lancer, he calls her.”

“Johnny wouldn’t do that,” Vom said.

“He confessed!” Anna said defiantly.

“No, I mean he wouldn’t confess. He knows better.” Vom looked at them as though he were considering something, and before Scott could realize what he was planning, or decide if he wanted to stop him, Vom had already tossed the paper into the fire, the wrinkled sheet shriveling instantly. Vom shrugged and smiled. “Thing about paper, touch a flame to it, it’s gone. Like I said, you ain’t gonna get no confession from Johnny.”

“No!” Anna shrieked, whirling back to Murdoch. “You saw that! You read it! It was Johnny’s confession! Scott, Murdoch, you can testify!”

“I didn’t really see it up close,” Scott said. Although he actually had seen it close enough to recognize Johnny’s scrawl. Anna shot him a look he would not have thought her face capable of.

“Honey, if he really meant it, he’ll confess again,” Murdoch said, placing a hand on her shoulder.

“It don’t count if he’s drunk,” Vom said.

“I didn’t think he ever wasn’t,” snipped Anna.

“Now, come on, Anna, he just hasn’t been himself lately.” Scott tried to put his arm around her but she shrugged him off.

“I don’t know why you’re so anxious to give part of your birthright away to a murdering halfbreed!”

That stopped him cold. “He’s my brother. It’s his birthright, too.”

“No! My mother told me all about what happened. How his mother tricked...” She stopped, glancing at Murdoch. “How his mother had him just so she could lay claim to Murdoch, and the ranch, when all along Murdoch was really in love with my mother. How having them here was ruining the ranch’s business contacts. It’s never been his birthright, Scott, not like yours, isn’t that right, Murdoch?”

Murdoch was shaking his head. “No! No, I loved Johnny’s mother, and I loved Johnny. I still do, in spite of...Anyway, if I lost business because of them, it was the kind of business I didn’t need.”

“Then why’d you kick ’em out?” Vom asked.

“She left.”

“The only good thing she ever did, Mother said. Mother told her how she and Johnny being here was ruining Lancer, how Murdoch wanted to be with Mother, instead.”

“What?” Murdoch’s face was starting to twitch, like it usually only did when he yelled at Johnny.

“Yes, Mother’s the one you can thank for Lancer’s success. Once those two were gone, she said business picked up.” She turned back to Scott. “So you see, Johnny never really belonged here, not from the start. He always held the ranch back.”

“Oh, Jesus,” Murdoch said, slowly lowering himself back into his chair. “God forgive me. I never wanted Florence to tell Maria to leave. I know I was unfaithful, but I never, ever, wanted to lose Johnny.”

“Oh. Well, I had no idea,” Anna said, a slightly confused look on her face. “Be that as it may, he’s proven Mother right. Sadly. And Ian tells me that the partnership agreement is void for any partner that’s in prison, or of course, hanged, so I suppose it’s a moot point. That is, unless you keep letting his confessions burn! Not that we need that.”

Scott thought back to all the contingencies. He’d never thought about it, but she was right. But there was something else she was leaving out. “Not if he’s married. His share goes to his wife, then, regardless.”

 

Chapter 98

Vom seemed to find this worth laughing about. “Looks like you better be getting acquainted with your new sister-in-law, being as she’s gonna be a ranch partner.”

“Sister-in-law! Johnny’s not married. The only Lancer getting married around here is my Scott.” Anna wove her arm through his possessively.

“Actually, dear, Johnny and Lena are planning to wed, as well.”

“There you go!” Vom said, picking at a tooth. “You can have one of them double ceremonies! I’ll be Johnny’s best man!”

Anna’s jaw seemed to hinge open and stick. She whipped her head back and forth from Scott to Murdoch, then uttered weakly, “No!”

Scott hadn’t really given much thought to the actual wedding, although he understood this was something women seemed to put a great store in. Still, the more he considered having a double wedding alongside his brother, the more he liked the idea. After all, it might be the last time he could stand side by side with him. Maybe not with Vom as part of it, though.

But before he could say anything, Anna seemed to have found her voice. “No. I want my wedding to be special, and pure. Their kind would ruin it!”

“Their kind?” asked Murdoch, who had remained almost ominously silent so far.

Anna stammered, then said, “He’s a killer. What kind of woman would marry him? And besides, she—well, she was just about naked when she came in here. What she did have on was not what a proper lady wears.”

Vom snorted. “Well, hell, you don’t think Johnny’s gonna waste his time with a snooty proper lady, do you? Begging your pardon, missy, but Johnny likes his women a little more lively, if you know what I mean.” He half-winked at Murdoch.

Scott sincerely hoped Murdoch did not know what he meant at all. And especially hoped Anna didn’t. “Well, we’d better be going to go check on her.”

“No, I don’t know what you mean,” Murdoch asked, in a way that indicated he did, in fact, know exactly what Vom meant.

Before Scott could interject something, although he didn’t know what, Vom quickly answered, “I mean a lady of the evening, just like I hear his mama was. Like father, like son, I reckon. Least maybe he got something from you.”

“That’ll be enough from you!” Murdoch bellowed. Then his eyes narrowed to little slits and turned on Scott. “What do you know about this?”

Did Murdoch really expect him to sum up Johnny’s future wife? “Uh, well, I haven’t met her, but Johnny seems to think she’s very special.”

“Every man’s dream,” offered Vom, “only don’t get your hopes up. He said she’s quit the business.”

Anna had her hand over her mouth, but spoke through it. “Oh my god! She’s a prostitute, isn’t she? Scott, I want her out of this house at once!”

“Dear, she’s injured, and she’s welcome here, regardless. Right, Murdoch?”

“Yes, yes, of course,” he answered, almost absently. He paused and looked at Scott, scowling. “Is this true? Do you mean she really is, uh, of that profession?”

“Well, he didn’t say in so many words...”

“Oh, hell, quit beatin’ around the bush,” Vom interrupted. “I tell you what I mean! I mean she’s a woman the boy seems to right care about, one who sounds like she just might care about him back. You gotta problem with that? Sounds like she makes the kid happy, and that ain’t always been the case with Johnny. So yeah, if a whore is what it takes to do that, then that’s exactly what I mean. Ain’t that what you’re supposed to want for your boy? Ain’t it, or you so wrapped up in what looks good you don’t care about what’s good for him? Hell, what am I saying? Seen how many times you been to see him.”

“How dare you! My son is facing prison, or maybe even a noose, thanks to you, so don’t go lecturing me about what I’m supposed to want for him! I want him alive, and free, and for none of this to have ever happened! But yes, if you want me to be totally honest, I would have hoped for better for my son, on all counts. Any father would.”

“Father!” Vom snorted hard. “That’s a laugh. You’re such a damn snob, you can’t even appreciate a good woman. What about Johnny’s mother? Ain’t that why you got with her? Or is that why you got rid of her?”

“Johnny’s mother has nothing to do with this discussion!”

“Murdoch’s right,” said Anna. “And it’s not just about Johnny. What’s going to happen when Johnny’s gone? And we have to live with somebody like that? She’ll ruin the ranch, destroy our reputation! Murdoch, Scott, you have to make sure they don’t get married. Give her some money, send her on her way. That’s all she wants, anyway.”

“Anna! We can’t do that!” Scott knew she disliked Johnny, and with good reason from her point of view, but this seemed entirely unreasonable.

“Of course you can. He’ll be in jail, or prison, at best. Just send her on her way, don’t give them a chance to marry. Johnny’s share will revert back, and we won’t have to put up with the likes of that at Lancer. ”

Scott was too stunned to reply.

Murdoch rubbed his hands over his face, something he seemed to do a lot lately. “Scott, what do you really know about this woman? Could she just be after Johnny’s share, knowing that he may not be around?”

“Jesus! What the hell ever happened to being happy your boy found somebody?” Vom said, shaking his head. “And I expect she got herself knocked up just to rope him in, huh?”

Silence filled the room. Scott could see Murdoch’s face gradually turning an ominous shade of red. He figured he’d better say something before Vom did, so he put on his most optimistic smile. “Sir, there’s apparently some exciting news. It looks like I’m going to be an uncle. And you’re going to be a grandfather.”

It was at that point that Scott noticed Teresa had crept silently into the room. He noticed her because she was not silent any longer, practically squealing with delight. “A baby! That’s wonderful!”

From his expression, Murdoch did not share her evaluation. “Damn!” he said, half under his breath. “He couldn’t wait until they married?” He shook his head, his gaze finally falling on Teresa. “I’m sorry, dear, this isn’t a proper subject for mixed company. Could you and Anna please excuse us?”

“Nonsense!” Teresa said. “I can’t think of anything we need to talk about more than a new baby in the family. After all the bad things we’ve been through, a baby is just what we need! Besides, under the circumstances, maybe it’s a good thing.”

Murdoch turned a stern gaze on her. “Teresa! You know better than to talk like that! And yes, in any other circumstance I’d be thrilled.  But this is just not something you need to hear about. Please, could you and Anna please excuse us?”

Teresa slammed her hands to her hips. “Fine! But if you can’t see that this is just what this house needs, then, well...” She stomped from the room.

Anna stood up slowly, watching Teresa’s exit. “I’ll talk to her.” She placed a hand on Murdoch’s shoulder. “Murdoch, don’t worry. Scott and I will give you a grandchild to be proud of. As for this one—well, they’re not actually married, not yet, and at this point I’d say that’s a blessing. If you can just prevent them from marrying, then neither that woman nor her bastard child will have any claim on Lancer, and you can send them on their way.”

“What?” Scott was incredulous she was continuing with this idea. “No, we can’t stop Johnny and Lena from getting married. Especially now that there’s a child involved!”

Anna turned to him. “Scott, you know deep in your heart that it’s kinder in the long run. She’ll never fit in here, not just because she’s a prostitute, but a Mexican. I don’t mean that in an unkind way, just that their kind simply doesn’t work out well mixing with, well, people like us. She needs to go back to her own people. And the child will do better there, too. He’s still going to be mixed, you know, and that’s the worst for fitting in here. And you have to consider our child, Scott.”

Scott was stunned. “Anna, you know better than that. Johnny’s mixed, and well, we’re his people, and he fit in just fine here. His child is going to, too, and his wife. We’ll see to it.”

“Sometimes I wonder. Did he really ever fit in here, Scott?” Murdoch asked, rubbing his forehead. “Why’d he leave? Why’d he do what he did if he fit in? Maybe that was the problem all along.”

“Hell yes, he fit in here!” Scott looked at Anna sheepishly. “Excuse my language, dear. But Johnny fit in fine. I mean, sure, Murdoch, he butted heads with you, and he had a few problems, but it wasn’t because he was half Mexican. I can’t explain why he did what he did, but it wasn’t because of that. If he really did it, and that I’m still not convinced of.

“You know,” he continued, “the thing is, Johnny’s my brother, and I love him no matter what he did. And I don’t want him to go to prison, or worse, and I’m going to do what I can to prevent that, but if I can’t, I want him to have every second of happiness he can, and if that means getting married, and being able to call himself a husband and a father, then I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure that happens! And if, God forbid, he can’t be here to take care of his wife and child, I plan to do it in his place.”

“Scott, dear, dear,” Anna said, touching his arm gently. “I know you’ve become quite attached to him, but think about what you’re saying. Is letting him call himself that for what, a few weeks maybe, worth giving away part of the ranch? Explain it to him, Murdoch. Once Johnny marries her, once he hangs, she inherits his share of the ranch.”

“Johnny’s not hanging!” Scott yelled it louder than he meant to.

“He killed my mother!”

“I’m sorry about your mother, but I’m going to do everything in my power for Johnny.”

“If you loved me you’d care about my feelings!”

“Stop!” Murdoch stood slowly. “Why don’t you two discuss this somewhere else?”

“No,” Scott said. “Murdoch, why don’t you talk it about it, now? Johnny’s your son, and he could hang. I can’t believe that’s what you really want!”

Murdoch shook his head. “No, no, of course not. But Florence was my wife, and I loved her with all my being. And he took her away. I don’t know how to resolve that. I don’t want him to hang, God I don’t, but he can’t keep on like he’s doing.”

“Murdoch, Scott, if I may. I know you both grew fond of him while he was here, but did you ever stop to think that’s how he wanted you to feel? You know, I’ve noticed you’re fond of Maria, and Jelly, too, but you wouldn’t try to make up excuses for them if they killed Teresa, would you?”

“What? No, you don’t know Johnny...”

“No, Scott, it’s apparent you don’t know Johnny, because if you did, you wouldn’t be standing here defending him to me!”

“Now, Anna, I do think Scott has a point,” said Murdoch. “I don’t think Johnny tried to fool us. And yes, we’re very fond of Maria and Jelly, but they’re not family. Not like Johnny.”

“Yeah, I can see how you’re just sticking right by him,” Vom said. They all ignored him.

Anna glared at Murdoch, then slowly seemed to regain her composure. “Well, then, back to what I said before. Think about what this means for the ranch if they get married. Do you want her inheriting his share if he hangs, or her and her mixed child living here the whole time he’s in prison? Because that’s what’s going to happen unless you prevent it. It’s not fair to us, and it’s not fair to them.”

Scott thought about the agreement some more, as well as some of the things he’d read about California law. “Well, actually, even if they don’t marry it doesn’t change things that much. Married or not, that child’s his. And that means the child inherits everything that’s Johnny’s, as long as he claims him.”

For a second he thought he imagined the look on Anna’s face.

 

Chapter 99

Scott hadn’t seen Lena since she’d been cleaned up. Johnny hadn’t done her justice; she was absolutely stunning. Teresa flitted around her, even more concerned now that she knew she was carrying Johnny’s child. Anna had excused herself, saying she had to check on Ming and her puppy.

He couldn’t believe it. Vom actually examined her wrists, looking for signs that she’d been restrained. He checked her pupils, even checked her breath, he said to make sure they weren’t keeping her drunk. No, that would be you with Johnny, thought Scott.

He was in a foul mood after the confrontation downstairs. No, he hadn’t expected Murdoch to dance a jig upon finding out Johnny’s choice in a wife, or that she was pregnant out of wedlock, but he’d expected him to be a little more open minded. It was Anna, though, who had taken him by surprise. How could she blame an unborn child for its father’s actions, even if she did blame Johnny for killing her mother? And it really did seem she was having a hard time accepting Mexicans as equals. He understood she was under a lot of stress, and perhaps said some things she didn’t really mean, but it was unsettling, nonetheless. He also understood that she’d want the best for their own child, but they didn’t need Johnny’s share of the ranch for the child to grow up quite comfortably, and any child would be lucky to grow up alongside Johnny’s child.

He heard her door open, and saw her tiptoe into Ian’s room across the hall. The poor girl always seemed to be tending somebody. He supposed one could hardly blame her for being upset or confused, not with everything that had happened and everything that was expected of her. He’d make sure she took some time off tonight.

“Satisfied?” he asked Vom.

Vom nodded. “Looks like you’re takin’ real good care of her, darling,” he said to Teresa.

She blushed, then as he turned to leave said tentatively, “Mr. Jacobsen?”

He turned and corrected her. “Vom, sweetie.”

“I understand you took care of Johnny for a couple of years, when he was a boy.”

Vom’s eyes narrowed, and his chin jutted out a bit. “Yeah?”

“Well, I just wanted to thank you. Johnny’s like a brother to me, and having him here these months, well, I feel like I have you to thank. You must be a very special and dear man.” Her voice broke, then she started to sob. “I just wish all this was a bad dream! I want him back!”

Vom scratched his head, shifting uneasily. “Like a brother, huh? You sure about that?”

“Johnny’s one of the kindest, gentlest souls I’ve ever known. I know he used to be a gunfighter, but that’s not really him. He wouldn’t hurt anyone, not if he didn’t have to.”

Scott rolled his eyes as Vom rocked back and forth on his heels. “Yep, I taught that boy just about everything he knows, taught him to be kind to all God’s creatures, man and beast alike. Did he ever tell you about the time he raised a little baby bunny? I helped him.”

“Alright, let’s go!” Scott had heard enough of this, but Vom didn’t budge.

“That’s Johnny! He just loves animals! Did he tell you about his dog? Rojo. He loved that dog. Poor thing. Somebody killed him, the same day as the wedding. Jelly said Johnny just went crazy when he found him.”

“Oh yeah? Surprised he didn’t kill whoever killed it. Down in Hardpan, he went all loco when some dog he didn’t even know got killed. Boy always wanted a dog. Like I could feed more strays.”

“Teresa, I need to get him back, so if you’ll excuse us...”

“No, wait! Wait right there!” She rushed out of the room, returning only seconds later. “Take him this. It’s a shirt I was working on for him.”  She held up a blue shirt with intricate embroidery on it.

“Well, that’s right nice of you, darling,” Vom said. “Ain’t that purty?”

Scott almost had him down the hallway when he heard her coming again. “One more thing!” she called. Her arms were heaped with blankets and pillows. “If he can’t come to his room, we can take his room to him!”

“Teresa, he has enough blankets and pillows to smother in already down there.”

“He really has a room here?” Vom asked. “In this fancy part?”

“Yes! Would you like to see it?” Teresa grabbed Vom by the sleeve and started pulling him toward Johnny’s room before Scott could protest. Once inside it, Vom stood silently, looking around as though genuinely surprised.

“Oh, take him this, too,” she said, pressing a carved toy horse into his palm. “Murdoch made it for him when he was a little boy, before Maria took him away.”

***

By the time Scott finally had prodded and pushed and cajoled Vom back outside he had a genuine headache. The man had stopped to examine half the things in the hacienda as though the place were going on the auction block. Scott had herded him down the back way so they could avoid Murdoch in the great room, but that only had him traipsing through the kitchen, inventorying the pantry, even stealing a cookie off the cooling rack and swallowing it before Maria could come after him. The worst part was when Maria found out who he was; she’d apparently heard the same malarkey Teresa had about how he’d saved Johnny’s life or something, and Vom ended up with the entire plate of cookies—Johnny’s favorites, she’d told him—to take to Johnny and share. Scott couldn’t resist snaring one off the plate once they got out of view, just to make a point. It wasn’t as though Vom would save any for Johnny, even if Johnny were in any condition to eat them. He wondered how much progress Val had made talking to him.

The disgusted look on Val’s face answered that question. “Why’d you let him get drunk? All he did was spew a bunch of nonsense and pass out on me.”

“I didn’t,” Scott said, glaring back at Vom. He dumped the blankets and other stuff at the foot of the bed. “What’d he say?”

“You can’t go interrogating a prisoner when he’s drunk!” Vom said. “There’s rules!”

“Screw rules,” Val said. “But I tell you, Scott, I sure ain’t gonna repeat none of it in a courtroom. He didn’t say nothing that’ll do him any good. Mostly went on about how he was gonna cut Ian’s balls off, stuff like that, but it didn’t last long before he was snoring.”

“Sounds like a good plan to me,” Vom said, chewing on another cookie. “Cocklicker tried to lynch me.”

“That a fact?” Val looked dubious.

“Hell, yeah, it’s a fact! Johnny’ll tell you. Him too,” Vom said, nodding toward Scott, “if he’s not too busy covering up for Sinclair.”

Val lifted a brow at Scott inquiringly. When Scott didn’t immediately answer, Val said, “Thing is, where I found Ian, there was a rope in a tree. Two of ’em, actually. He was pretty incoherent, but from what I could put together, Ian was saying Johnny was going to hang him.”

“Hang him!” Vom snorted. “Hell, Johnny wouldn’t do that! He’d just shoot him, or stab him. Why would he hang somebody? And why would he need two ropes? Only got one neck.”

“No, no, Vom’s right. Well, in a way.” Damn, he really hadn’t planned on snitching on a family member, even if it was Ian. But this left little choice. “When Ian had Johnny and Vom prisoners, he was drinking somewhat in excess one night, and he got upset that he thought Vom was at least partly to blame for his mother’s death. He knew it wouldn’t stand up in court, however, so he tried to take the law into his own hands. So he and some hands tried to hang him.”

“And you’re just now bothering to mention this? Besides, Jacobsen looks pretty alive to me.”

“Thanks to Johnny, mostly,” Vom said. He pulled down his collar and twisted his neck toward Val. “Lookie here. Still got bruises, I bet.”

“I thought you said Johnny was a prisoner.”

“He was,” said Scott. “Several of us worked together to free Vom.”

Val still looked dubious.

“Johnny got a gun,” Vom said, as though that explained everything.

“Oh,” replied Val. Apparently it was good enough for Val. For some reason that irked Scott. He actually had played a rather significant role in the rescue himself, after all.

Val continued, “So, what, he got loose, got the drop on Ian? Or what?”

“Hell, yeah. You think some cowpokes and a greenhorn gonna keep my boy down? I taught him better than that. Hell, Sinclair was lucky Johnny didn’t finish the job then. Looks like Johnny screwed up again, seeing Sinclair’s still alive. Hell, I taught him better than that.” He muttered the last part, shaking his head.

“There was another man there, dead,” Val said, just as they all turned at the sound of someone coming in. Scott was surprised to see his father.

“Well, well, finally come to see if Johnny’s still breathin’, huh?” Vom said contemptuously. “Or you come to pay up the money you owe me for raisin’ him?”

Murdoch gave him a cold stare. “I was just up to check on Ian. He says Johnny attacked him. I was going to ask if that was true, get both sides of the story, but I suppose you’ve just answered that question.”

“Damn!” said Vom, looking around and wrinkling his nose. “This place smells like shit!”

Murdoch stood in the doorway, a look on his face as though he were trying to remember something.

 

Chapter 100

“Assholes,” muttered Vom once they’d left him alone with Deeter. Scott had herded him to Deeter’s room because Val was still with Johnny. With luck, Johnny was either too drunk to respond or still sober enough to pretend he was too drunk. Vom would personally kick his ass if Johnny talked himself into more trouble.

Deeter’s color was much improved. Sam hadn’t been able to explain why he hadn’t yet awakened. Yet Murdoch had asked Val to take Vom and the boy to jail as soon as Sam gave the OK to travel.

Vom understood why they were holding him, what with the kidnapping and ransom charge. But the boy—that was ridiculous. Ian and Scott had both claimed he’d confessed to the shooting. Sure, Scott had added it may just have been bald boasting, but they were still going to hold him. And Johnny, too! Hell, far as he knew, the woman only had one bullet hole in her. Yet when he’d explained that, all he got was an icy look from Murdoch. No wonder Johnny couldn’t stand the prick. And that was without even knowing him.

Still, the old man had seemed pretty sincere when he’d talked about searching for Johnny as a boy. Vom was sure glad he hadn’t found him. Yeah, the kid had been a headache, all kids were, but Johnny was still his masterpiece. He’d hoped the boy would take care of him when he got older, but that hadn’t happened, and looked like it wasn’t going to. Which didn’t make sense, seeing as Johnny was apparently richer than dirt.

With another glance toward the closed door, he fished in his shirt and pants for the items he’d plundered from the hacienda. He snorted. One more tour of the place and he wouldn’t need anything for retirement, not as oblivious as that bunch was. Like they was walking around in comas. Especially when you got ’em mad. Which was ridiculously easy, and damn fun.

He kicked the bed leg, waited until Deeter’s eyes flew open. “Quit faking, they’re gone,” he whispered. “Got you some jerky and a cookie. Better get your strength up, we’re gettin’ the fuck out of here soon.” Grinning, he held up one of his other treasures.

***

Anna carefully pulled the light sheet over Ian’s shoulders. It seemed like all she’d done since she’d come to this godforsaken ranch was tend to sick people. Not that she didn’t like that, at least part of it. She’d always loved the heady sense of accomplishment, of power, in bringing somebody back from the brink of death. She’d always loved nursing; when growing up, she’d often practiced on the family’s pets, as well as her little brother, Ian. Her mother and stepfather had heaped on praise for her talents, and others had come to admire her dedication and selflessness. She loved nursing so much she’d often found herself disappointed when a patient got well too quickly.

The thing was, it wasn’t so much the part about making people better that appealed to her, although she had to admit she did not particularly care to be around sick people. It was the feeling that she held the power of life and death in her hands, especially in certain kinds of illnesses. Through the years she’d found she had a special affinity for nursing fevers. A fever was like a fire; if you kept at it, you could keep it at bay, let it smoulder—usually. There was still that unpredictable edge to it that kept the whole affair exciting, the possibility of a spark igniting a wildfire that could consume everything in its path. But with practice, she’d found she could almost contain a fever just where she wanted it, keeping her patient under its spell until the situation seemed hopeless, only to douse the flame and be proclaimed a miracle worker.

Ian—the ungrateful little bastard—had seemed almost frightened when he’d seen her in his room. Ever since she’d nursed their stepfather he’d acted as though it were her fault the old man had a weak constitution. There was no way he should have died. But, just as she’d explained then, the lord works in mysterious ways. She ladled some laudanum into Ian, just to soothe his nerves.

Still, tending a feverish family member was one thing. These people were treating her like a hired nurse, a servant, expecting her to touch strangers, unwashed men who smelled of sweat and blood, and now, a Mexican whore. It was enough to make her stomach roil.

The problem was, this revelation about marriage and children and inheritance meant she was almost certainly going to have to touch the vile harlot. Scott had been a letdown, actually sticking up for the idea of allowing a Mexican to grow up alongside their precious child, when they had one. The very thought had her stomach churning even more. And it wasn’t just that; the fool was perfectly willing to hand over part of the ranch, their own children’s birthright, to this bastard-to-be!

Scott was about as naïve as they came. What about fair play? After all, his dear Johnny had refused to sign over a share of the ranch to Ian, just because he was technically a bastard. Anna had not been privy to the agreement that granted Ian part of the ranch, but as far as she was concerned, the only equitable solution was for Ian to take over Johnny’s share.  A wife or child would complicate matters greatly.

At least Ian didn’t have a wife or child. Only Anna. She wondered exactly how much a share he had.

***

Martin Fremont looked down upon the hacienda below, subconsciously adjusting his jacket to hide the ripped sleeve. Lancer. Quite impressive, even from up here. He prodded his sorry excuse of a nag forward, cursing again the theft of his buckskin by that whore.

Of course, that was the least of what he cursed her for. He cursed her for the bastard in her belly, for a murderous wife, for irate neighbors, for the fact that he was now reduced to practically begging for a place to stay.  All his clothes but the ones on his back had gone up in an impressive bonfire outside his home, courtesy of his wife. The bitch. If she hadn’t been such a cold fish in bed maybe he wouldn’t have had to seek out a more adventurous partner. She wouldn’t get away with it. In fact, he’d been on his way inside to put her in her place when several of the local ranchers had shown up, talking of longhorns and Martin and tar and feather. He’d barely been able to sneak around the back of the house and grab the only saddled horse in sight, one he normally wouldn’t be caught dead on. He hadn’t had the nerve to stop at the bank, just started riding as fast and far as he could. Things would die down, he was sure of that. Or maybe the ranchers would have to sell out, if enough of their stock was depleted. All he’d need for that to work would be a business partner to invest in their ranches, while he stayed out of sight. As for his wife, that might be a problem. The ranch was still in her daddy’s name.

It was only when he met up with some of his men returning from delivering those longhorns to Lancer that he came up with a destination. He’d hosted Ian and Scott; he was sure they, or their father, would be glad to return the favor. And they very likely had the funds needed to buy out his former neighbors, once things got desperate. Meanwhile he advised his men to try to gather up the longhorns, which were apparently still milling about, and keep them in a remote part of the Lancer property. This order had been met with some grumpiness, but when he promised them all bonuses their attitudes changed.

He dismounted in front of the hacienda just as the door opened and Scott Lancer appeared. “Scott! I was hoping to find you here!”

“Mr. Fremont?” Scott hesitated, obviously startled to see him, then strode forward to meet him.

“Come on, it’s Martin, remember?” He straightened his jacket again, shaking his head. “I’m afraid I’m a sight. I was set upon by robbers! They made off with my saddlebags, my money, everything! I was hoping I might be able to impose upon you for some supplies.”

“We can do better than that!”

Before he could finish Murdoch Lancer himself appeared. “Martin Fremont? Well, this is a surprise!”

After Martin again told of his plight, and Murdoch and he exchanged formalities, Scott showed him to an upstairs guest room to freshen up. Martin couldn’t help but feast his eyes on the bookcase. He was a lover of fine books, and he looked forward to browsing. While Lancer wasn’t as elegant as his own home, it was certainly comfortable.

Scott motioned to one of the doors as they passed by, saying, “Ian’s in there, recovering from a wound.”

“What? I hope it’s nothing serious!”

“Not too serious. He managed to get stabbed. I should probably tell you that Johnny...” The door opened at that moment and Anna looked out. “Anna! Martin, I’d like you to meet my fiancé, Miss Anastasia Sinclair. Anna, this is Martin Fremont, who we stayed with down in Hardpan.”  The door across the hallway opened, and Teresa stepped out. “And Miss Teresa O’Brien, Murdoch’s ward.”

Martin wondered exactly what he meant by ward, deciding to look into it, and to get to know Miss Teresa better, as soon as possible. He was pleased to see her blush when he kissed her hand. She was a homely little thing, compared to what he was used to, but sometimes that was an advantage.

“Oh, Anna,” Teresa was saying, “I’m going to go bring up some broth for Lena. Can I get something for Ian?”

Lena? Surely it was just a coincidence.

 

Chapter 101

“Wake the fuck up!”  Something thudded against his bed, jarring him repeatedly.

 “Wha’? Jesus, stop that!” Johnny swung his hand blindly toward the shadow beside him. “Where’s my fuckin’ gun?”

“You think they’re stupid, boy? Ain’t nobody that stupid. ’Cept maybe you, from what I been seeing.”

“What?” He blinked against the morning light, rubbing his eyes with one hand. Vom really was going to get himself shot one morning. “What the hell you talking about?”

“This.” Vom motioned around the room with his free hand. “Here. Lancer. What the fuck is your problem?”

Johnny blinked a few times, not quite sure how he was supposed to answer that. Jesus, he hated waking up to Vom when he was in one of his moods. “My head hurts. Leave me alone.”

“Hurts, huh?” Vom reached over and thumped Johnny’s head a few times with his knuckles, hard. “What’d I tell you about telling where it hurts? You just forget everything, boy?”

Dios, he wished he had his gun. He closed his eyes, wrapped his arm over his head, tried to roll over, but Vom was kicking the bed, just about making it jump. Dios, that made the wound on his back throb. He got ready to say so before he thought better. Hell, now that he was awake, he felt like shit all over, like maybe he had a fever on top of a hangover on top of a bullet hole in the back. And now Vom. “What do you want?”

“Quit being so cranky. Here, brought you a damn cookie.”

Johnny’s stomach flopped like a landed fish as he took the cookie in his hand. “Later,” he said.

“Eat it now.”

“Later.”

“Now, or I’ll cram it down your fucking throat!”

Johnny knew he would, decided it might be safer to nibble on part of it than to wrestle Vom. Vom watched him swallow a bare crumb of it like it was some sort of medicine. He wondered if Vom had found another bottle somewhere, the way he was acting. And if so, if there was any left.

“Maria says them’s your favorite.”

Maria? He knew he didn’t mean his mama. But... “Lena? Did you see her?”

“Yeah, damn, she’s a looker, alright! They look to be taking good care of her. Look to be decent folk, leastways the little lady tending to her.” His eyes narrowed, and suddenly he was on his feet, cramming the cookie into Johnny’s mouth. “God dammit, I want answers, boy!”

What the hell? Johnny managed to let most of the damn cookie dribble out of the sides of his mouth. Pushing Vom away as forcefully as he could manage, he sputtered, “What the fuck’s your problem?”

“Them your favorite cookies, boy? Hell, I ain’t ever knowed you to eat a goddamn fucking cookie in your life! Now you got favorites? What else you keeping from me? You got cooks, and housekeepers and fancy rooms and fancy horses, goddamn richer than the fucking governor, and you ain’t gonna own up to it, gonna just cut me out after what all I done for you? You goddamn ungrateful little bastard!” He crammed the rest of the cookie so far down Johnny’s throat he started to choke and thrash.

“No!” Johnny finally managed to gasp, crumbs flying out with his breath.

“I don’t know what your game is, boy, but it looks to me like you gone through a helluva lot of trouble just to make sure ol’ Vom don’t get shit! Well, you gonna be like that, you can keep it! Keep it all! Lying to me like a little snot nosed shit! Hell, maybe you aimed to get me sent to prison again, that it?”

“Vom, no, I never...Dios, I’m sorry...”

“That it? Some kind of plan, hire ol’ Vom to kill somebody, only when the somebody ends up being Johnny Madrid, and sure nuf, ol’ sucker Vom don’t want to shoot him, I don’t know why the hell not, but there you got it. Shoulda pulled the fucking trigger myself!”

“Vom, no, I...what?”

“You tell me right now, goddamn it, right now! What the fuck are you trying to pull?”

“What? I...I don’t know what you’re talking about...”

Vom grabbed Johnny’s throat and mashed down, just hard enough to make his point, make every breath a wheeze. “Enough lies! I find out you been living here for months, but you never bother to mention that? Slip your mind? You never bother to mention how come you didn’t get shot by that firing squad in Mexico like everyone heard? You never bother to mention you gotta goddamn fucking family here? Yeah, thanks a lot, Johnny, thanks a whole fuckin’ helluva lot!”

“No, Vom, it ain’t, ain’t like that,” Johnny said, gasping it out one word at a time. Vom wouldn’t choke him, he was pretty sure, at least not past passing out, but it still made breathing real hard. “I don’t remember...” He stopped himself. Never show your weakness. Hell, Vom had just refreshed his memory about that. And he’d sure never had a weakness as bad as this one.

“Don’t remember what?” Vom shook him by his neck. Dios, his back felt like they were taking the bullet out all over again.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he rasped, fighting not to let it show how it hurt. “I wanna get away from here, go with you. And Lena, bring her. We can do it, I been studying how, please...” Oh Dios, please stop. He tried to lift his arms to fend him off, but his hands were like anvils.

“Goddammit!” Vom squeezed his neck hard, then grabbed his hair and wrenched his head around so he had no choice but to look him in the eye. “You gotta fuckin’ ol’ man in there seems to actually care about your hide, asshole that he is, gotta dimwit brother seems to be trying to look out for you, some sweet little thing fooled into thinking you’re some kind of goddamn saint, got all the food you could ever want, probably all the money, too. And you say you wanna leave it, go with me? Well, you’re either the dumbest fucking kid ever breathed or you’re lying, and I happen to know you ain’t all that dumb. So I wanna know why! Why didn’t you just go ahead and shoot me when you had a chance? What the fuck is your game?”

“Murdoch Lancer? He don’t give a shit about me. Never has.” Johnny squeezed his eyes shut as a sudden image of the gray haired man loomed over him, but when he opened them it was Vom again. “I’d shoot the bastard for what he did, gimme a chance.”

“What he did? How long you gonna keep that lie going? You know what I saw in there? A goddamn Pinkerton report, where Lancer spent a fucking fortune trying to track you down, starting way back. Why would he do that, if he kicked you out? Huh? You got an answer for that?”

No, he didn’t. It made no sense. No, yes, it did. Mama said he might hunt them down. Because...why? The gringa bitch, that was it. Gringa bitch that... “He wanted Mama dead. Me too.”

“That so? Then why didn’t he kill you both while you were here? Be a lot cheaper. Instead he kicked you out, then hired the Pinks to track you down and kill you. You must think I’m stupider than hell. Hell, maybe I am, believe you all this time.”

Johnny’s mind raced.  “I... I don’t know. It was the gringa bitch. The one who ruined Mama’s marriage. The one...” The one he shot dead. Shit, it was true. The image of the gringa splattered with blood filled his vision. “The one I shot.”

“Now you ain’t makin’ no sense at all.” Vom went on about some other stuff, but Johnny wasn’t paying attention. All he could see was the gringa, bleeding, blood all over him, and Lancer bleeding, too, and his own hands covered with blood, only...something was wrong.

His head was snapped back, bringing his thoughts back to Vom. And what he’d said earlier. “Wait, somebody hired you to kill me? Was it Lancer?”

Vom seemed to take a breath, loosened his grip, even leaned back as he gave Johnny a long hard look. “Yeah, it weren’t no accident we was there to pick you up. Only nobody mentioned it was you we was supposed to be helpin’ out of this world, just gave us a description. I don’t know who did the hiring, we got it second hand from Clive, you know, Edmund, from up in San Francisco. Coulda been Lancer, but I don’t think so. Clive didn’t seem to know it was you, neither.”

Johnny leaned back, his free hand to this throat, breathing heavily. Nothing made any sense. The only good in killing him was doing it in a gunfight, get his reputation. No sense in hiring somebody to do it ambush style. Unless Lancer knew who he was, wanted to make sure he couldn’t come gunning for him. “Had to be Lancer.”

Vom scratched the growth on his chin. “I’da thought that, too, before our little chats. I dunno. Thing is, the ol’ codger seems like he really wants you here. Or did. Shit, he’s about as ornery a cuss as I’ve ever met, but he seems like, well, shit, seems like he, I dunno, like he likes you a lot, like, shit, a son or something.” He mumbled the last part, paused for second, then leaned forward. “Which brings me back to my question. Why the hell you pretending you never lived here?”

“Vom, I swear, I’m telling you the truth.” Johnny shut his eyes, took a deep breath, knowing he was going to regret this, wondering if he really would choke him all the way. “I don’t remember. I don’t remember nothing past standing in front of that firing squad, Vom. I, shit, I was standing there one second, and then, next thing I know, I’m waking up with you and the kid.”

“What the hell you talking about?”

“I’m saying if I lived here, I don’t remember it! I don’t remember nothing since then! Not for months! Jesus, Vom, I think I’ve lost my fucking mind. I remember little pieces, like, like the woman getting shot, her and Lancer all bloody...” And he stopped, the vision filling his mind again. Murdoch Lancer falling against him, his own hands covered with blood. His own empty hands. How had he shot them if he didn’t have a gun in his hand?

 

Chapter 102

The meal with Martin Fremont was somewhat tense. It had started out well enough. He was a mannered man, well-versed in a variety of topics. But when one of those topics turned to Johnny, and he found out he was here at Lancer rather than in the jail, the table became strained. Fremont maintained he was far too dangerous to have anywhere that wasn’t barred and guarded. Certainly not around young ladies. He said had he known the extent of the man’s propensity and ability to kill and escape, he would have never agreed to house him at his ranch, or to send men along to deliver him to jail. Anna agreed with him, nodding and looking at Scott like she expected him to nod, too. But Scott didn’t nod, he couldn’t. He defended Johnny, as he did recalling the shameful way his brother had been treated when in Fremont’s custody. The more he thought about it, the more he wished he could ask the man to leave.

He didn’t bring up the matter of Ian’s attempt to lynch Vom, since it didn’t seem the time to break it to Anna. And Murdoch had made it clear he didn’t believe Ian could do such a thing, not without good reason or provocation. Besides, one didn’t air family difficulties to guests. Talking about Johnny without telling off Fremont was difficult enough.

Fortunately the conversation veered into all sorts of other subjects: the Cattlemen’s Association, San Francisco, Scott and Anna’s upcoming marriage, and all the normal trivia expected at a fine meal. Scott cut into his steak, wondering when the last time Johnny had a fine meal was. He made a note to have Maria fix him a plate, at least of some of the more easily eaten entrees. Although Sam had left orders that he was to only eat broth, Scott Knew Maria had sent him those cookies, and he suspected Vom had been slipping him jerky. Steak couldn’t be as hard on the system as that.

“Wonderful meal,” Fremont said as Maria cleared his place. “If anything will get Ian out of bed, it’s a whiff of that steak.”

Teresa smiled in agreement. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he makes it down for dinner by tomorrow,” she said. “Sam said he thought he’d recover quickly because he’s very healthy to start with. But I think even Sam will be surprised when he checks on him tomorrow. I was just up there, and he was really much better.”

“Good, good,” said Fremont, smiling at the slice of cherry pie Maria placed before him. “That poor doctor of yours sounds like he’s overworked. I have to be honest, I was surprised to hear you have him working on prisoners. Our doctor down in Hardpan would never dream of touching one. No prisoners, Mexicans, gunfighters, or farm animals, he always says. A good doctor’s too valuable to squander his talents.”

Anna nodded in agreement while Murdoch stared at his pie for a few seconds before looking up. “Didn’t you say Johnny was injured when he was captured? Who cared for him?”

Fremont was already savoring his pie, so he shrugged as he chewed, finally swallowing and saying, “That other prisoner, I suppose.” He took another forkful of pie, and pointing to it said, “Delicious.”

“You mean Jacobsen? He’s no doctor. Scott, where were you?”

Scott reddened. He’d left out the more embarrassing details of his visit. “I was in bed, sir. I’d had an injury, too. The doctor thought it might be a concussion.”

“The doctor? The doctor was there and he didn’t tend to your brother?”

“I...I thought he did. That is, I didn’t know Johnny was hurt. Or that the doctor wouldn’t work on him. When I asked about my brother they thought I was asking about Ian and told me he was fine.” He dropped his eyes, ashamed of what he was about to say. “I’d never told them Johnny was my brother.”

Murdoch stared at him, finally simply saying “I see” in a way that made Scott feel he saw more than he wished.

“I didn’t think you’d want me to,” Scott said, feeling like dirt as he heard his own words. Why on earth had he let Ian talk him into that? “I feel terrible about it.”

Fremont put his fork down, saying, “Well, of course, had I known he was your boy, I’m sure we could have had someone see him, but I still can’t say the doctor would have. He has his standards, and Madrid pretty much didn’t meet any of them, Lancer or not. I’m sorry, Murdoch, it was out of my control.”

Murdoch pushed his pie away. “It shouldn’t have mattered who he was.”

“Oh, agreed, agreed, but you know how doctors can be,” Fremont said, picking up his fork to stab at his pie again.

“You should have told them he was your brother, Scott. I’m sure Martin wouldn’t have held it against us, and you know how I’d feel if he had.”

“I know, sir, Ian...”

“It’s quite understandable,” interrupted Anna, patting Scott’s leg under the table. “I’m sure he was better off with a doctor of his own kind.”

“Own kind?” Murdoch asked, arching his brow. “Jacobsen’s no doctor.”

“She means the criminal element,” said Fremont. “They’re actually pretty good at doing their own doctoring, because most of them can’t go to a real doctor. For serious stuff I hear they can sometimes pay off a veterinarian, or maybe a Mexican doctor.”

Anna nodded in agreement. “That’s a good point, and something I’ve been meaning to bring up. Why should our doctor have to tend to that Mexican woman? I would have thought with all the Mexican workers here they’d have their own doctor, but Teresa says they don’t. Scott, I think the first thing we should do after we’re married is arrange to have a Mexican doctor brought to town, or if we can’t get that, a good veterinarian who will work on Mexicans. They deserve medical care, too.”

Murdoch turned his stare to her. “They already have medical care. Sam is our doctor. For everyone.”

“All of them? Oh.” She looked confused. “I assumed he’d just made an exception, with her and Johnny, too. Well, that’s kind, but it’s not really fair to Sam, is it? We can remedy that by bringing in one for the Mexicans, like I was saying. I’m sure they’d be more comfortable with their own kind, and it would take the burden off Sam.”

“There’s nothing to remedy,” Scott said. He wasn’t sure to be grateful for Anna’s kindness in considering the workers’ medical needs, or upset that she’d assume they’d have a separate doctor. But then, she was from a large city, as he was, and he knew doctors there were more likely to specialize in their clientele than they were out here. “Sam gets pretty busy, but he usually manages, especially when he has good nurses like you. And all the workers know him and like him.”

“That reminds me, Teresa,” Anna said, turning to her. “I’d be glad to take over your duties with the woman. You shouldn’t be exposed to such a person.”

***

Anna carried her distasteful cargo away from her body as she crept down the darkened back stairway. Could things go any worse for her? She’d suspected it for days, but only now that the pup’s snout was growing longer, and its hair was growing in wirey, was she sure. That filthy mutt had sullied her blue blooded beauty. She wasn’t sure what to do with Ming; as far as she was concerned, she was ruined for life. She would always be dirtied. But still, she was worth something, so she’d look into selling her back in San Francisco.

Why did everything insist on always going wrong for her? That vile killer was still alive, and Scott was taking up for him. The killer of her own dear mother! Her brother was injured but Scott had barely expressed any concern for him. He seemed more concerned about that repulsive whore and her unborn mixed-breed in the other room. He hadn’t even objected to the idea that the Mexican and her mix might share in her and Scott’s ranch. The thought that anyone had even suggested the filthy child could grow up alongside her future pureblooded Lancer progeny was enough to turn her stomach.

Then there was their guest. Finally, someone with class was visiting and they had aired their dirty secrets in front of him, even defending having filth like Johnny as a family member. Yes, she’d done her part, and she mentally chastised herself, but if it helped enlighten Scott as to how his attitude affected other’s perception of him, perhaps it was worth it. She imagined poor Mr. Fremont lying in his bed, trying not to touch the sheets. No doubt he’d be on his horse and out of here as soon as the sun rose.

Well, at least there was one mixed breed she could dispose of.

She’d used one of Ian’s boots to carefully roll the puppy into the sack without laying hands on him, ignoring his plaintive cries. He was at the age where he was trying to walk, but staggered more like Johnny when he was drunk. It figured. She could whack the sack against the side of the barn a few times, or let it sink in one of the troughs, or just leave it out in the weather and be rid of it. It was little enough, she could actually just step on it inside the sack, but that seemed disgusting. She sighed, trying to decide what to do. Why did such things always happen to her? She so hated killing things. She was a giver of life, a healer. Besides, it so often ended up being messy.

She spun as a voice sounded behind her. “What’s in the sack?”

 

Chapter 103

The damn dream was back. He knew it by heart, knew he was in a dream, but every time there’d be one more damn twist to throw him, convince him that maybe this time it was for real, and regardless, it seemed like it never let him loose until he screamed his way out. This time he was back in the giant hacienda with halls that went on forever, and Vom was chasing him, mad at him because he knew what Johnny’d done, and Johnny was running from him, but no matter which way he turned it only led to more halls and more rooms, and he couldn’t find what he was looking for, but he heard voices calling him. His mama’s screams, he recognized those, but he tried door after door, only to find them locked and silent, until he came to one where her screams called to him, and he pushed open the door, faster than he expected, only this room had no floor, and was black as a cave, and he was falling, and his mama’s screams turned to laughter, and Ricardo was laughing with her, and he knew Vom was up there but he wouldn’t save him, and suddenly he felt a hand grasp his, heard a voice—Blondie’s voice—say, I’ve got you, brother, hold on, but his hands were slippery, slippery with the goddamn blood he knew was on them, and he slipped away and fell toward the voices below him, the voices he knew belonged to the men he had killed.

“Johnny! Johnny! Shut the fuck up!” Vom’s voice was for real, and hell, Vom was standing beside his bed. “You want everyone come see who’s slittin’ your damn throat?”

Johnny wasn’t sure if that was a promise or a warning, so he just pushed himself up as much as he could in the bed and blinked, hard, only then noticing another dim figure behind Vom in the gloom.

“You ready to get out of here?”

Johnny blinked again, trying to get his brain together. “What?”

“They’re gonna hang you, you know that, right?” When Johnny nodded slowly, Vom continued, “So I’m givin’ you a chance.”

“What kinda chance?” Not that anything wouldn’t be better than being cuffed to this bed. He just liked to know what he was agreeing to, being that Vom was the one doing the offering. He wasn’t stupid enough to think there wasn’t a price tag on his freedom.

“Had a nice tour of that fancy house. Picked up a few things.” Vom twirled a hairpin in his hand, smiling. “Saw a few things, too. Like a safe. You gonna get me into it.”

“Vom, I swear, I don’t even know where a safe is. I never been in there.”

“Quit your lying, boy, or I’ll leave you tied up right here. That what you want, be rid of ol’ Vom, get back to your rich family?”

Shit, he’d half hoped that whole thing with Vom had been another bad dream. “No, I don’t got a family, Vom.” Then he added so quietly he almost couldn’t be heard. “Just you.”

Vom grabbed him by the collar and shook him, hard enough to make his brain joggle. “You listen here, boy! You lie to me one more time, it’s gonna be the last time. Them folks in there’s your family, whether you like it or not! Seems to me you got things pretty good, got people who want you, Lord knows why, but instead you wanna act like some damn fool and pretend you ain’t got nothing to do with ’em. Well, I don’t really give a fuck. You do what you want about ’em. But your old man owes me for what all I done for you, raising you like you was my own. For all the good it did me, got me thrown in prison! Now I aim to collect, and if that cheap bastard ain’t gonna pony up on his own, I figure I can just help him out a bit.” He leaned closer, and now Johnny noticed the knife in his hand. “I figure you owe me, too, and you got one chance to make it up. I ain’t leavin’ here empty handed.”

Johnny felt himself nodding, even though he didn’t even know what fucking safe Vom was talking about. Whatever, he sure as shit did owe Vom, and if he could pay it off, maybe Vom would forgive him. Vom gave him a suspicious look, then grinned and started poking the hairpin in the cuff lock.

“Why don’t you just get the combination from him?” Johnny recognized Deeter’s voice as belonging to the figure leaning against the wall.

“Cause I don’t wanta be running back and forth in case there’s any problem. Now you shut up and be thankful I’m even taking you.”

Johnny wasn’t sure who the last comment was aimed at, but now seemed the best time to make sure. “Vom, you takin’ me and Lena with you?”

Vom didn’t even slow down his lock picking. “Course, Johnny-boy.”

“She well enough?” Johnny wasn’t even sure he was going to be much good on a horse. His fever had gotten worse. And Lena had seemed a lot worse off than he’d been. Although Vom had said she was doing fine.

“Sure, Johnny, no problem.”  Vom gave a triumphant smile as the cuffs clanged free. He shoved a shirt at him. “Get dressed.”

Johnny fingered the unfamiliar blue shirt, looking at the intricate embroidery on it. As he unfolded it, a little wooden pony fell out. “Hey Vom? You steal this shirt?”

“No, that little gal, forget her name, said she made it special for you, why, I can’t imagine. Now hurry the fuck up! Listen, Johnny, you fuck up again, I might just drop you in your tracks, save everyone some grief.”

Johnny grinned. That was the Vom he knew. Maybe things would work out between them, after all. “You just try it, ol’ man,” he said, shrugging into the shirt, gritting his teeth while his back tried to yell through his mouth.

“Get your shit, let’s go,” Vom said, half jerking Johnny to his feet once he had his shirt and boots on, the little horse clattering to the floor. Johnny had to grab on to the wall to keep from falling over on his face. “Let’s go!” hissed Vom. “You remember the drill.”

And he did, just like the days when Vom made him practice saddling up his horse from a dead daze and galloping out. He lurched forward a few steps, stumbling toward the door. He wouldn’t fail this test.

They crept out into the courtyard, and Vom sent Deeter toward the barn to get some horses ready. “Mine’s in the second stall on the right,” Johnny said, only stopping to wonder why he’d said it when Vom stared at him suspiciously. “I heard somebody say so,” he mumbled.

They kept to the shadows, stealing along next to the adobe walls. Johnny was thankful to have the walls to lean on, hoping he could walk steadily enough once he’d lost their support. There were lights on in the bunkhouse, and in some upper windows, but the lower windows showed only the light of dimmed lanterns.

Vom listened at the door for a good minute before slowly turning the knob and shaking his head. “All us dangerous criminals here and they don’t even lock their door,” he whispered.  That got a smile out of Johnny.

Before Vom went through the doorway, Johnny caught his arm. “Where’s Lena?”

“We get her after we get the money.” And when Johnny glared, he added, “I know you don’t want her in on any safe robbing, now.” And he had a point. Johnny wasn’t sure how he was going to get that safe open, but he sure as shit didn’t want Lena to see him doing it.

As they crept inside, Johnny instinctively reached to one side and found what he was looking for: several hanging holsters, complete with guns. He handed one to Vom and chose one for himself, quickly snugging it to his hips. He felt better already. Vom led them into a large room, one he knew was the great room, but as impressive as it was, the first thing Johnny noticed was the smell. A mixture of fine leather and rich food and fancy cigars and, what, the musty smell of books, maybe. A familiar soothing blend that reminded him of...of what? He let his gaze linger on the biggest fucking bookcase he’d ever seen, strange titles popping into his mind. The place was huge, a fucking mansion. He could have grown up here. Look at that dining room table. He bet these people never went hungry a day in their lives. He hoped he could open that safe. Lancer deserved to lose his money. Shit, he had to focus. If only he had a drink. And without thinking he found himself moving toward the sideboard, reaching for a bottle.

“Dammit, Johnny! This ain’t the time!” Vom hissed. “I tell you what, you don’t quit drinking, ain’t nobody gonna have you, least of all that purty gal.”

He gulped down a swallow, but he knew Vom was right. He could see Lena’s scowl right now. Reluctantly, he put it back and followed Vom to a giant desk that faced the room like a throne. Vom gestured to the safe behind it. “Open it.”

Johnny stared for a few seconds. He didn’t know the combination. Vom was really gonna be pissed when he found out. “I...They keep it in the desk.” It was a stall, but somehow it felt right coming out.

Vom pulled out the top drawer and set it on the desk to paw through, while Johnny grabbed the bottom drawer. Dios, how did one person have so many papers? He pulled out a booklet, plopped it on the desk, and was digging around some more when his eyes caught suddenly on the cover of the booklet. The Pinkerton eye, with his own damn name—or close to it, he’d never gone by John Lancer—typed below it. His breath caught as he reached for it, flipping quickly through the pages, recognizing familiar places and, mostly, misadventures from his life, quickly finding the last entry, his ears ringing as his eyes made out only snatches of the entry, something about being located in front of a firing squad, guards being bribed, and him—John Madrid Lancer—agreeing to meet with Murdoch Lancer for the sum of $1000 for an hour of his time. He wondered if that offer was still good. Or...

“Looking for something?”

Johnny and Vom both whirled around.

 

Chapter 104

Johnny’s hand instinctively flew to his gun, and by the time he’d finished whirling around, he had it drawn and aimed.

Nobody had to tell him who the gray-haired man was. Murdoch fucking Lancer in the skin. Sometimes life really did hand you second chances. When he shot him this time, he’d remember.

Old Man Lancer just stood there, staring at him funny-like, only not funny like he was going to laugh, funny like he was looking right into him. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see that Vom had brought his gun up, as well.

“He’s mine,” Johnny said, and when he said that an image of the old man towering over him, arguing over something, flashed in his eyes, that phrase echoing over and over. Shit, the fever was fucking with his head.

“Hold off, Johnny-boy, we ain’t here for that. Lancer, we come for the money you owe me. You open that safe, we’ll just be on our way.”

“And you think I’ll just let you ride out.” Damn. He sounded just as calm as if he was used to gun-toting strangers in his house every night. Strangers—maybe the old fart didn’t even know who he was.

“I think you got two guns pointed at you,” Vom said, sneering slightly. “You don’t got much choice, Lancer.”

“No,” Lancer replied, still in that eerie kind of calm voice. “But I’d like to think a son of mine would face up to what he’d done. Explain himself.”

So much for him not knowing who he was. That didn’t mean he could get away with the claim. “Just cuz you fucked my mama don’t make me no son of yours.”

That got to him. His face flushed red and his eyes narrowed, but right when it seemed he was going to start yelling, he looked like he bit his tongue a few times, said, “I know I said what’s past is past, but I guess that wasn’t true.”

What the hell was he talking about?

“Son, I, I should have told you about my affair with Florence. But I swear I never knew she’d said anything to your mother. It was wrong of her, even if she thought she was doing it for the right reasons. It was even more wrong of me to have been unfaithful in the first place.”

So what his mama’d told him those times really was true. The bastard had cheated on her, traded her for a gringa. He wished the old man would draw on him, give him the trigger to pull his own trigger. Goddamn, this was it, what he’d been waiting to do most of his life. Come on, you old coot, yell, or beg, or run. But he just stood there, looking at him. Johnny could feel a rivulet of sweat trickling down his forehead. That never looked good in a fight.

“Lancer, what’s the combination?”

“Johnny knows it. If the two of you are so set on robbing me, then the two of you can figure it out yourselves.”

“Goddamn it, I don’t know the fucking combination! There, you happy? I don’t know it, never did, don’t know what the fuck you’re trying to pull here!” Dios, he had a headache now! Like his fucking eyes were going to beat out of skull.

“Keep your voice down, you moron!” And shit, Vom was right. Old Man Lancer was looking at him strange again, enough to give him a bad case of the skin creeps. Just being around him made him feel all messed up inside, like his guts were doing flip-flops. He didn’t move, just centered all his mind on keeping his gun from shaking. Because that really didn’t look good in a fight.

“What I want to know, Johnny, is what happened. Scott seems to think you didn’t kill her. I know what I saw, I just don’t know what to think. So you tell me. Did you kill Florence?”

And it was like he was in that bitch of a dream again, flashes of the woman’s face, flashes of the blood on her chest, on his hands. He felt dizzy, caught himself from lurching, didn’t think they noticed it. What the hell do you say when somebody asked if you killed somebody, and you don’t even know the answer? “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He hadn’t forgotten everything Vom’d taught him.

“We ain’t got time for this,” Vom said, waving his gun. “Open the damn safe!”

“I’ll take all the time I want to find out what happened! Now I’m trying to have a conversation with my son, if you don’t mind!” The way he said that made Johnny feel like a cornered coyote.

“Yeah, so I see,” Vom answered. “Doin’ a bang up job of it, too.”

And that was when Blondie came striding into the room, casual as you please, saying something to the old man, stopping in his tracks when he saw their little shindig he hadn’t been invited to, only he sure was now. “Johnny! Don’t do it,” he said, and the way Blondie looked at him when he said it made Johnny feel all dirty inside, like he didn’t want Blondie to think he really was like he was.

Like he gave a fuck what Blondie thought. No sooner had that notion crossed through his head than it was followed by a rush of something, fever probably, but a fierce wave of it that really started to wash over him, like getting caught in some rapids that kept poking your head underwater and tumbling your ass along the bottom, and when you tried to move your arms they couldn’t fight the current, and you just couldn’t quite get situated enough to know which way was water and which way was air, only it was the room flopping all around and he couldn’t get no air no matter where his head came up. He figured it was one of those things that felt like it lasted longer than it did, only once he’d blinked his eyes a few times and finally took a swallow of good air he could have sworn Blondie was looking at him kind of queer. And he could see Blondie’s mouth was wiggling, but he couldn’t pay attention right now, on account of he had to focus just about all his wits on standing upright and looking calm. He’d have to pull the trigger soon, before he lost it altogether, ended up back in chains. He adjusted his grip on the gun butt, cursing its sweatiness. “Get over there beside him,” he said, motioning for Scott to stand next to the old man, hoping he didn’t sound as strained to them as he did to himself.

Scott? No, Blondie.

When Blondie didn’t move, Vom pulled his hammer back, said, “You heard him.” And Blondie moved then, but he kept staring at Johnny, and fuck, Johnny wished he’d quit that, wished they’d both quit it, both the old man and Blondie staring at him like they were hungry cats sizing up a mouse.

“You kicked my mama out of here, you son of a bitch, traded her for a gringa.”

The old man actually looked kind of sad at that, said, “Johnny, we’ve been over this before. I didn’t kick her out, although I know now I was responsible for her leaving. But I never wanted that to happen, I never wanted to lose you. You know I searched. You know I hired the Pinkertons, but nobody knew you’d changed your name.”

Lying bastard. Only...there was that Pink report. And that thousand dollar offer. Put him to the test. “Alright, I’m here. Where’s that thousand dollars you promised?”

“What?”

“The thousand dollars the Pink agent promised.” A thousand dollars for an hour of your time. He remembered him saying it now. “For an hour. I figure I been here longer than that.”

The old man and Blondie were both eyeballing him now. The old man said, “I already gave you that. And yes, you’ve been here a lot longer, but I thought being a partner in the ranch meant something to you.”

He should have known the old man would try to weasel his way out of paying. Nobody just handed over that kind of money for nothing. “That what you did to my mama? Promise her stuff and lie about it so she’d leave? Well, I tell you, old man, I ain’t like you. I keep my promises. And I promised my mama you’d pay for what you did, and I’m here to collect.”  It was all he could do to get all that out, the fucking fever was thumping him over the head, over and over, like someone with a club, making his eyes go kind of black every time.

The old man looked like he was going to yell, but Blondie cut him off. “Johnny, do you remember when we met on the stage? When we were coming to collect that money?”

Blondie was trying to throw him off for some reason. He didn’t have time for this, not if he was going to walk out of here. “What’s the combination, old man?” No sooner had he said that than he was hit by another wave of fever, this time complete with pictures of Blondie, dressed all dandified, saying something snotty.

Blondie kept on, like a dog with a bone. “Johnny, is there something wrong with your memory? Do you remember living here, with us? What about Teresa?”

“Scott, don’t be foolish,” said Lancer, and for once Johnny agreed with him. Even though the bitch of it was, Blondie was right, at least about not remembering nothing. How the hell did he know? He tried to answer, come up with something to throw them off his trail, but his throat wouldn’t work, and hell, he didn’t know what to say anyway.

“Come on, Johnny, tell me. Tell me something to prove you remember. What about Teresa? Maria?” Shit, he’d called his bluff. Blondie was looking at him, not all smug like you’d think, but almost like he gave a shit.

“I remember fine,” he finally croaked out, fishing for something more convincing. He couldn’t let them see this weakness, his fucking mind shot all to hell. Teresa. Yes, he remembered! “Teresa’s your sister,” he said, and in a way, it felt right in his mouth. The next part was easy, he wasn’t that fucking crazy. “And Maria’s my mama. Now, you through with your test, let’s have the combination.”

But now the old man and Blondie were both looking at him like he was a half-wit calf, like, Dios, they knew.  He could feel Vom moving up close beside him, good ol’ Vom, ready to back him up. Only that’s when everything went completely fucked.

 

Chapter 105

Scott had seen the increasing look of panic and confusion on Johnny’s face. Apparently Murdoch finally saw it, too. The clincher was Johnny’s assertion that Murdoch’s ward was Scott’s sister, and their housekeeper, Johnny’s mother. Not that Scott had needed that to know that Johnny didn’t have a clue about what they meant to each other. He wished Sam were here. He was thinking of what to say next when Vom effectively stifled further enquiries by sidling up to Johnny and most unexpectedly, pointing his gun at Johnny’s head.

“We ain’t got time for this family reunion shit,” he said. “Put your gun down, boy.” And when Johnny didn’t put his gun down, just looked totally out of it, Vom told him he was a worthless piece of shit that deserved to die for what he’d done to him. And the surprising part was, then Johnny just sort of looked defeated and actually put his gun down.

“What are you doing?” demanded Murdoch.

“Listen good, Lancer,” Vom said, jabbing the barrel of his gun into Johnny’s temple, at the same time holding his neck in a clench. “You got a choice, your boy here or that money. There ain’t nothing in life free, and if you don’t plan to pay me for raising your brat, saving his life, then I figure I can undo all that with one pull of the trigger. It ain’t no loss to me, the way he’s been fucking up.”

“You wouldn’t,” Murdoch said.

“Hell, if you was any kind of a pappy you’d be spewing that combination right now.” Vom’s eyes snaked over to Scott and back. “I tell you what, I give you a choice. Pick which boy you want to keep, which one you want to go. Don’t make no difference to me.”

Murdoch looked flustered, finally spat out, “What kind of a sick bastard are you? I will not choose between my sons!” When Vom shrugged and pushed Johnny to arm’s length, as though he were preparing to shoot and didn’t want blood to splatter him, Murdoch yelled, “Jesus, stop, stop, I’ll give you the combination!”

He did. Vom held the gun on Johnny and had Johnny open the safe, pull out the money and count it. It fell far short of the thousand dollars Vom seemed to think he was owed. “Well, now, ain’t this an awkward situation?” Vom finally said, shaking his head. He thrust long strips of fabric that Scott recognized as the sheets from Deeter’s bed at Johnny. “Tie them two up, boy, while I think.”

Vom kept the gun trained on him as Johnny tied them, tied them far too well as far as Scott was concerned. But he realized why as soon as Vom came over and checked them. Once he was satisfied with their bindings, Vom seemed lost in thought, tapping his fingers on his pants and poking his tongue into his cheeks. The man looked crazy. And when he spoke, he sounded crazier. “You paid up part way, I reckon that’s worth part of him. How ’bout I shoot off a couple of his fingers, call it even? Maybe his gun finger, eh, being I taught him how to use it. Unless you can come up with something more.”

“What? That’s preposterous! And there’s just no more,” Murdoch said, glancing at Johnny as he followed up with, “Somebody took it. And then we paid a ransom for Scott. To you, remember?”

Vom shrugged, aimed his gun at Johnny’s hand whle Johnny tried to jerk it away. “Goddamn it, hold still, boy.”

Murdoch lurched against his ropes. “Stop! Please, don’t! Jesus, you’re...this is insane! Please, if you have to shoot somebody, shoot me. It’s...nothing’s Johnny’s fault. It all, all this mess, started with me, what I did. Shoot me. And take anything you want. Just go.”

Johnny’s head jerked up, a look of incredulity on his face. Nobody said anything for a minute, then Johnny dropped his head and said, in that almost casual drawl of his, “No, go ahead and shoot me if you gotta be shootin’ somebody. They gonna hang me anyway. But I don’t see what good it’s gonna do, he ain’t gonna give you any more money, pretty speech or not, he don’t care about me.”

“That’s not true!”

Scott wasn’t sure he was doing Murdoch any favor, but he had to say his piece. “Johnny, we’re going to do everything we can to keep you from being convicted. We know there’s something wrong with your memory, whether you plan to admit it or not. And nobody saw you do it.”

“Oh, that’s rich,” Vom said, annoying as ever. “That why you keeping him chained up? Mighty convenient you come up with that now, ain’t it?”

“The only reason he’s being held is because we don’t want to see him on the run for the rest of his life.” Scott was watching Johnny closely, trying to gauge the effect of his words, hoping they sunk in. It was hard to tell; he looked dazed. “I have an attorney coming to defend him, one of the best there is, and I fully intend for him to walk out of that courtroom a free man, and back into this family.” Scott wished Murdoch could have managed to look less surprised, even if it was news to him.

“Johnny,” Scott continued, “Vom says you had a pretty bad head injury when he found you. Sam thinks it could have caused memory loss. Is that true?”

Scott could almost have predicted the answer. “I’m fine.”

“You don’t look fine. And you certainly don’t act fine. You need to level with me, brother.”

Johnny sneered at him. “You saying I’m crazy? You think I wouldn’t remember killing some lady? That what that lawyer gonna say? Yeah, that oughta work... ”

“Do you remember killing her?”

“There ain’t a person I ever killed I don’t remember.”

Scott said calmly, “Then you shouldn’t have any problem telling us what happened.”

“What do ya think, he’s stupid?” broke in Vom. And at least he seemed momentarily distracted from shooting Johnny’s hand. “Why should he tell you somethin’ you just gonna use against him in court?” He seemed to think for a moment, then asked, “What kind of evidence they got on him?”

Sco