The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link
subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link
subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link
subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link
subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link
subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link
subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link
subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link

Caroline

 

 

FA Dangerous Game

Chapter 1

Scott rested his aching head against the side wall of the wildly swaying stagecoach and cursed his luck.  Directly opposite him sat the formidable bulk of Mary O’Brien, Teresa’s aunt and only living relative.  For the last two days, she had done nothing except complain, loudly and incessantly.

She had found fault with the weather which, in her considered opinion, was too hot and dusty for traveling.  She had grumbled – loudly – about the driver of the coach for going too fast or too slowly, depending upon her mood.  The way-stations had merited particular criticism as being primitive and fit only for savages.  The owner of the last one, where they had stopped for the midday meal, had looked ready to commit murder.  Scott, ruthlessly repressing the urge to leave her to her fate, had hastily ushered his charge back onto the coach.

Now he knew why his father had looked so sour when Teresa had announced that her aunt had invited herself for a visit.  Miss O’Brien had demanded that someone travel all the way to Silver Creek, only a half a day’s ride from the Mexican border, to escort her to Lancer.  Scott snorted softly.  Whoever had named the town must have been blind drunk at the time, as the only silver Scott had seen had been the coins he’d been forced to spend to secure his accommodation at the local flea bitten hotel.  Mary O’Brien had not considered it proper to have a man staying with her and Teresa at her small house. Despite the rather basic nature of his accommodation, Scott had counted himself fortunate.

Teresa had just been a child when her aunt had last visited Lancer. She only had vague memories, and had been enthusiastic about the proposed visit.  Murdoch, who had looked like he wanted to hit something, had hastily delegated one of his sons to accompany her to collect her aunt.  Neither had been keen to volunteer, arguing that it would be bad mannered of Murdoch not to go himself.  After waiting for Teresa to leave the room their father had growled, “Bad manners be damned,” and had ordered them to sort it out between themselves.  The brothers had learned very quickly not to defy their father when he used that particular tone of voice.  They had tossed for it, and Scott had lost.

Even after spending two days in her company, Scott was no nearer finding out why, out of the blue, the redoubtable woman had decided to reacquaint herself with her niece.  She had greeted Teresa with tears and expressions of sympathy for the death of Paul, despite it having been over nine months since his murder.  From what little Murdoch had said, Scott gathered that Aunt Mary hadn’t felt it necessary to make the difficult journey in the immediate aftermath of the shooting.  Of course, Scott conceded with some reluctance, Pardee had been menacing the valley at the time, and Murdoch’s own survival had been far from certain.  Scott reflected, uncharitably, that Teresa probably would have appreciated her aunt’s presence and assistance during that difficult period.

“I asked you a question, Mr. Lancer.”

He’d discovered that it was impossible to ignore her strident tones, no matter how hard he tried.  “My apologies, Ma’am,” he said through gritted teeth, holding onto his good manners, despite the urge to tell her to be quiet. She had made it abundantly clear that she couldn’t stand his father, and had no time for him either.  This raised the interesting question of how she would react to Johnny, and that thought had kept him entertained for some time.  His brother could be devastatingly charming when he wanted to be, and earth shatteringly rude when he didn’t take to someone.

“Young people these days have no manners,” Aunt Mary continued.

Scott’s heart went out to Teresa as he saw her wince in embarrassment.  She had been looking forward so eagerly to this visit, but was now wilting under her aunt’s continued barrage of complaints.

“I asked how much longer this interminable journey was going to last.”

‘Far too long,’ Scott answered silently.  So far, they had spent one night on the journey, which, as far as he was concerned, was one night too many.  “We should arrive in Morro Coyo around noon the day after tomorrow.  Murdoch will send someone to meet us and from there it will take a couple of hours to get to the ranch.”

“I do find it strange and disrespectful that you call your father by his Christian name.” Aunt Mary pounced on another reason to bait Scott and her frown deepened as she glared at him.

He bit his tongue.  It would hardly be diplomatic to tell her that he was twenty-five years old, had only met his father for the first time a few months ago, and would damn well call him what he liked.  “Murdoch doesn’t object.”

“That doesn’t surprise me,” she responded tartly.  “After all, he hasn’t exactly lived his life by conventional standards.”

Not even a lifetime of good breeding was going to be enough to prevent Scott from rising to the bait this time.  He opened his mouth to deliver a stinging retort, only hesitating when he saw the pleading expression on Teresa’s face and the predatory anticipation on her aunt’s.  He closed his mouth, promising himself silently that he would find a way to make his father pay for every agonizing mile of this appalling journey.  He also found himself with an irresistible urge to go and check out every isolated line shack on the ranch – anything to avoid having to deal with this frightful woman once they arrived home.

He lapsed into an aggrieved silence, barely registering, as Aunt Mary began to quiz Teresa on the domestic arrangements at Lancer.  What did, finally, penetrate his self-imposed isolation was the sensation of the stage slowing down.  Pulling up the window blind, he peered out.  When the stage came to a gradual halt he shouted a query to the driver.

“Road’s blocked,” Joe called back. “Looks like there’s been a landslide.”

“Stay inside,” Scott instructed the two women.  “I’ll check it out and be right back.”

He stepped down, relieved to be out of the close confines of the stage. As he looked around, he imagined how Johnny would react to this unexpected development.  His sibling wasn’t noted for taking anything on trust.  A prickle of apprehension started at the back of his neck.  “Throw down my gun,” he called up to the guard, breathing easier once his gun was once again resting in its holster.

Joe scrambled down and joined him on the dusty roadway.  In silence, they walked over to inspect the mound of rocks barring their way.  There was a steep rock face to their left.  Scott looked up, shielding his eyes from the glare of the sun.  Nothing was moving, although he could hear a faint trickle of water and the sound of some small stones clattering as they fell down the cliff somewhere out of sight.

He gave a resigned sigh.  “It seems we have a choice.  We can move these rocks or turn back.”

“Turn back?”

Scott closed his eyes against the resurgence of his headache.  The disbelieving question had come from behind him and he turned slowly to confront Mary O’Brien.  “I think it would be best if you and Teresa stayed inside the coach.”

“How bad is it, Scott?” Teresa asked, ignoring the glare from her aunt.

“Bad enough.  It will take Joe and I a couple of hours to clear a path.”

“What about him?” Aunt Mary pointed toward Walt, who remained sitting watchfully on the bench.  “With three of you working it will be done far quicker. You can’t seriously expect us to wait for hours in this hot sun?”

Scott bristled with annoyance, suppressing the urge to remind her that they would be working for hours in the searing heat. “I don’t think you understand how dangerous it is out here.” His tone was crisply polite. “We need him to keep watch.”

The older woman pulled a handkerchief from her bag and began to fan herself.  She was overdressed for the journey, and the dry heat was taking its toll.  Under almost any other circumstances Scott would have felt sorry for her.

“I’m sure you know best, Mr. Lancer.  After all, you’ve been in California for…” She paused and eyed him scornfully.  “How long did you say?”

“Six months, Ma’am.  Quite long enough to learn to be cautious.”

Teresa, pale with a mixture of anger and distress, took her aunt’s arm.  “There is a small grove of trees over there that will provide us with some shade.”

With a final icy glare in Scott’s direction, the woman allowed Teresa to lead her over to the trees.  Scott found, to his surprise, that his hands were clenched into tight fists.  He acknowledged the sympathetic look that Joe threw in his direction.

He shrugged out of his jacket, carrying it back to the stage and laying it neatly on one of the seats.  His string tie quickly joined it, after which he unfastened the top two buttons of his shirt and rolled up his sleeves.  Walt threw down a pair of heavy work gloves, before returning to silently scanning the surrounding area.

For the next hour, under the blazing sun, Scott and Joe toiled to move the obstruction.  The muscles in Scott’s arms, back and legs protested the hard, unrelenting work, but he decided that he’d be damned before he gave Aunt Mary the satisfaction of seeing him buckle under the strain. Sweat rolled down his face and soaked through the once white material of his shirt.

Joe, who was older and far less accustomed to heavy manual labor, sat down with a groan. “We ain’t gonna make it to the next town before it gets dark,” he told Scott, nodding in gratitude as Teresa hurried over with a canteen of water.

“I know.” With gritted teeth, Scott heaved another rock over to the side of the road.  He accepted the canteen and tipped his head back to drink.  As he did so, he saw an unnatural glint high up on the cliff.  “Get down!” he yelled, pushing Teresa and Joe behind the shelter of the rocks.

A rifle cracked and Walt slid slowly sideways across the bench seat, blood running down the front of his shirt.  Scott snatched at his gun, looking for a target.  A bullet kicked up the dust only feet away from their hiding place.  A loud shriek reminded him that there was one more person for him to worry about.  Mary had moved unsteadily from her shelter under the trees and now stood exposed on the trail close to the stage.

“Get back!” Scott shouted desperately, knowing that it was too late.

“Caiga sus armas y paso hacia fuera, a menos que usted quisiera que pusiera una bala entre los ojos de la señora."

The rough Mexican voice came from the right, speaking rapidly in idiomatic Spanish. Concentrating hard, Scott tried to make sense of the words, although there was no mistaking the tone of command and undisguised threat. When he didn’t immediately comply with the order a bullet slammed into the side of the coach, too close to the terrified woman for comfort.  He swore under his breath and threw out his gun with Joe following his example.  Scott helped Teresa to her feet then raised his hands in a gesture of surrender.  He could only hope that this was just a robbery and that there would be no further violence.

His first sight of their attackers wasn’t reassuring.  A motley assortment of men, mostly Mexicans, appeared from their hiding places.  The man who began barking orders was, Scott decided, about his own age, and the speed with which the other men moved to obey him convinced Scott that he was not a man to take lightly.

One man scrambled up and pushed Walt’s lifeless body from the stage.  Another roughly grabbed Mary’s arm, shoving her toward Teresa.  Scott barely had time to register the fact that shock had rendered her blessedly speechless before he was faced with the appraising dark stare of the young Mexican.

“Gringo.” The word was intended as an insult and Scott stiffened.

“What do you want?”

“Dinero. ¿Qué más?” The man laughed and then spat into the dirt at Scott’s feet.  “It is all you Americans are good for. I am Vicente Silva.  You will get down on your knees and beg for your life. Perhaps I am feeling in a generous mood today.”

The impulse to tell this arrogant man to go to hell was very strong.  It had been a long time since Scott had groveled before anyone, and it had never been from choice. He had his pride and dignity and had sworn a private oath upon his release from Libby that he would never let anyone take that away from him again. With steel in his eyes, and his voice, he offered a simple refusal.

A blow from a rifle butt sent him to his knees anyway, doubled over in agony.  He heard Teresa’s voice then, raised in anger, her Spanish slower, but no less passionate.  He could understand enough to know that she was calling Silva a coward.  As he lifted his head he saw the Mexican lunge for Teresa, pulling her against him and tearing at the buttons on her blouse.

Scott raised himself unsteadily to his feet as Mary came to her senses, her face flooding with fury as she saw the attack on her niece.  Teresa was fighting back, kicking and scratching, her breath coming in harsh gasps.  Silva’s men had all stopped what they were doing to laugh and call raucous advice to their leader.  To Scott’s astonishment, the older woman lashed out with her purse, beating the young bandit across the side of the head.  With a snarled oath Silva pushed Teresa away, drew his gun and pointed it at Mary.

“Puta!” he raged.  “You dare to raise a hand to me?”

Scott took a quick step forward.  “This is unnecessary.  Are you really going to shoot an unarmed woman?”

The gun swung in his direction.  “I did not say you could stand. On your knees and I will consider sparing her worthless life.”

As Scott lowered himself back to the ground, he saw Mary put her arm around Teresa, shielding her from the men as the girl hastily rearranged her clothing.  They waited in silence as the outlaws ransacked their baggage.  Mary didn’t protest as one of the men grabbed her purse and began to rifle through it.

“She is your woman?” Vicente Silva licked his lips as he looked at Teresa.

“She is my foster sister.”

“I would keep her,” Silva continued, “but I think my wife might object.”  He laughed heartily at his own joke.

One of the men approached, holding out Scott’s wallet.  “Mucho dinero, Vicente.”

Silva pulled out the money, counted it with a satisfied smirk, and stuffed it into his back pocket.  A piece of paper, carefully folded, attracted his attention and he smoothed it open.  Scott could tell, from the puzzled expression on the Mexican’s face that he couldn’t read what was written there.  Unfortunately, there appeared to be one word he could decipher.

“Lancer?  Are you related to that rich gringo in the San Joaquin?”

Scott’s hesitation did not appear to find favor as he was hauled back to his feet.  Out of the corner of his eye he saw Joe edging backwards.  The warning cry hadn’t left his lips before a single shot sounded and the driver fell heavily to the ground, blood bubbling out of his mouth.

“You see what happens when you are no use to me?” Silva holstered his gun.

Scott settled on the truth, calculating that a lie would only result in more unnecessary deaths. “He’s my father, and Teresa’s guardian.”

“Then you both have value.  What about her?” Silva glared at Mary, who had gone deathly pale.

“She is Teresa’s aunt.  You would not want to upset your wife by taking an unmarried girl without her chaperone,” Scott responded, with more than a hint of malice.

“I am starting to like you, gringo.” Silva smiled, appreciatively. “I hope I don’t have to kill you.” He turned away, addressing himself to the young man who had brought over Scott’s wallet.  “Gabriel, put the women in the stage and stay with them.  Patricio?”

“Si, Vicente?”

“Señor Lancer will ride with me.  Tie his hands and find him a horse.” He walked up to Scott, staring him in the face. “I will send your father a message, Señor, demanding much money.  Until it is paid, you and the women will be my guests. You would all be wise not to try my patience, for I am not a patient man.”

**** 

“Are you gonna tell me what you’ve got against Teresa’s aunt?” Johnny asked after dinner.  “You’ve done nothing but stomp around yellin’ at everyone since you heard she was coming.”

It has been five days since Scott and Teresa had left and Johnny was missing their company.  Murdoch has been in a foul mood, finding fault with everyone and everything.

His father gulped down his brandy. “She’s an interfering old busybody.”

Johnny chuckled.  “So are half the women in Green River, but you don’t get all twisted up every time you have to speak to one of ‘em.”

“This is entirely different.” Murdoch looked severely at his younger son.

“How about you explain it to me?” Johnny suggested.

Murdoch picked up his glass and rose to his feet, not quite managing to suppress a wince of pain.  Johnny had seen his father angrily hammering metal at the forge that afternoon.  It seemed to be a habit of his when he had something on his mind.  The strenuous activity had clearly aggravated the lingering weakness in Murdoch’s back, which he insisted upon ignoring most of the time.  Johnny knew better than to make any comment and silently held out his own empty glass.

Murdoch began talking with his back turned. “She didn’t think it was proper for Paul to raise Teresa after…after her mother died.”

Johnny frowned thoughtfully at the hesitation, but now that he had finally persuaded his father to talk, he didn’t want to interrupt.

Returning to his seat Murdoch, laid the two glasses on the table between them.  “She used to send him long letters, giving wholly impractical advice.  She had never married or had children of her own, but that didn’t stop her from believing that she knew what was best.  Eventually, he invited her to come and see for herself that Teresa was being well looked after.”  A substantial amount of the brandy slid down Murdoch’s throat.  “The visit – to put it politely – was a disaster and I asked her to leave.  Paul had nothing more to do with her.  After he was killed, Teresa sent her aunt a telegram.  She only told me about it afterwards.  Mary refused to travel to Lancer and Teresa took it hard.”

“So why has she suddenly changed her mind?”

“You can ask her when she gets here,” Murdoch replied acerbically.  “Personally, I’d have been happier if she’d just stayed away.”

Johnny tossed back the shot of tequila and grinned.  “Oh boy, Murdoch.  I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes when Scott gets back.  If she’s as bad as you say, he aint’ gonna be happy.”

 

Chapter 2

It wasn’t long before Scott concluded that being Vicente Silva’s ‘guest’ was going to be a thoroughly unpleasant experience.  They had traveled south for a couple of hours following winding and little used tracks.  The stage, which was traveling ahead of them, lurched alarmingly at several points on their journey, causing Scott to wonder if it would have to be abandoned. The advantages of being on a horse, rather than in the stuffy confines of the stagecoach were soon outweighed by the pain of wrists chafed raw by the rough rope, and the tedium of listening to their abductor talking.

Silva was in a jovial mood, describing to Scott how he was going to use the ransom to establish a base of operations from which to expand his enterprises.  A saloon in some nameless border town was his preference.  Scott gathered that Gabriel was Silva’s brother-in-law and that Patricio was his trusted lieutenant.  His wife, Silva explained conspiratorially, knew nothing about his business, believing that he earned his money from legitimate trading.  This, it turned out, was his first foray into kidnapping.  He admitted, without any remorse, that he usually killed his victims.  Scott was starting to wonder if, between Silva and Aunt Mary, death might not have been preferable.

It was late afternoon when they arrived in a small rundown town.  The streets cleared swiftly as their horses pounded onto the only street.  Scott recognized fear when he saw it, and these people feared Silva and his men.  The town contained a tiny jail manned by a bored sheriff, who was clearly on Silva’s payroll.  Suspecting that any protest would be pointless, Scott endured in silence as he was untied and locked in the cell.

The sheriff wandered back outside after ensuring that Scott was secure. As Silva turned to leave, Scott blurted out the question that was uppermost in his thoughts.  “What about the women?”  He feared for Teresa at the hands of these men.  Not even Mary O’Brien would be able to protect her niece if Silva had rape on his mind.

“They will be safe so long as you behave yourself and keep your mouth shut,” Silva told him.  “The sheriff doesn’t need to know who you are, or to hear wild tales of kidnappings and ransom demands.” The cold brown eyes bored into Scott.   “¿Usted entiende, gringo?”

“Yes, I understand. Can I see them?”

“My charity does not extend that far.  I will be back later with a letter to your father for you to sign.”

Scott’s jaw was clenched so tightly that he could feel the muscles of his face aching.  He crossed the short distance to the cot and sat down.  The mattress was thin and dirty, and the stench in the tiny cell was almost overpowering.  It had been a long time since his release from Libby.  He had come to terms with that captivity and his survival when so many other men had died.  But, the memories never truly left, and Scott knew he would have his own internal battle to fight if he was going to deal with this loss of liberty. He dozed for a while, worn out by worry and the hard back-breaking work to clear the carefully constructed roadblock.  The food, which was eventually pushed under the cell door by the surly sheriff, was a spicy bean stew and tortillas.  It was hot and filling, and having food in his belly helped to revive him.  He hadn’t given up throughout his year long captivity during the war, and he wasn’t going to give up now.

There was a small barred window set into the wall, too high for him to see out of, but enough to provide some light.  That light wasn’t going to last much longer and, as the sky darkened, so did his mood.  Even if he could get out of this cell, and locate Teresa and Mary, they would have almost no chance of escaping.  If it had only been Teresa he would have been prepared to take the risk – she could ride as well as many of the men and she wasn’t lacking in courage.  Aunt Mary was another matter entirely. Added to that was the fact that he had no real idea where they were, or how far they might have to go to find shelter. He brooded on the problem, rebelling against their helplessness.

It was late before Silva returned and ordered the sheriff to leave.  The speed with which the sheriff departed reinforced Scott’s view that the man would be of no help, even if he was told the truth.

Silva pulled a rickety chair over to the bars and straddled it.  “You were given food?”

Scott nodded silently.  He had been racking his brain to find an opening – some connection to Silva which might allow him to talk his way out.  Johnny would have found a way.  He acknowledged that thought without rancor. His brother would have been far better equipped to deal with this young bandito.  What did a man, raised in Boston, know about life on the Mexican border?  When Silva looked at him all the outlaw would see was a commodity to be sold to the highest bidder.  Johnny’s name and reputation would guarantee respect. Yet, he had decided against invoking that name.  True, Silva would likely disbelieve his claim to have Johnny Madrid as a brother.  Worse, though, was the forewarning that it would provide to the outlaw.

Scott had long since developed a cynicism to rival his brother’s.  He found it hard to believe that Silva would release them once the ransom was paid.  Neither did he believe that Murdoch would be able to dissuade Johnny from accompanying him to whatever rendezvous was specified. The last person Silva would expect to turn up would be Johnny Madrid, and Scott planned to keep it that way. The risk was that Teresa might say something.  So far as he was aware, Mary only knew that Johnny had been raised in Mexico without being given any specifics.  The chances of her knowing that the youngest Lancer had been a gunfighter, or blurting it out, were slim.  If the chance presented itself he would warn Teresa to keep quiet.

“You will sign this.” Silva pushed a crumpled piece of paper through the bars.

Scott reached over and accepted it, squinting in the poor light to make out the words.  Seeing his difficulty, Silva fetched the lamp from the sheriff’s desk and held it so that Scott would be able to read.  The note was short, the writing crude and the spelling appalling.  Nonetheless, it was clear what it was.  Scott felt a quiet surge of relief when he saw the amount being demanded.  Five thousand dollars was a large, but not an impossible, sum and was far less than he had expected.  Of course, to a man like Vicente Silva, it was a fortune. He held out his hand for a pencil and signed his name clearly.  There would be no mistaking his signature or the fact that this was a genuine attempt to extort money.

“How far is it to this grand estancia of yours?” Silva asked.

“I’d say a day and a half of hard riding,” Scott guessed.

“How long will it take for your father to gather the money?”

Scott didn’t want to prolong their captivity, but Murdoch and Johnny would need time to make their arrangements.  “Three or four days.”

Silva grunted disbelievingly.  “He is rich.  He probably has that much money at the hacienda.”

“My father is wealthy in land and cattle,” Scott contradicted.  “Any money we make is put back into the running of the ranch.  It is likely that he will have to raise a loan.”

Silva’s expression darkened.  “Do not lie to me, gringo.  I will wait for one week from today.  If he does not meet me by then with the money, I will pleasure myself with the girl, cut out the tongue of the old puta, and kill you very slowly.”

Scott glared with contempt at the young man.  “Only a coward would revenge himself on innocent women.  You have all the leverage you need right here.  Murdoch will pay for my release.  You don’t need Teresa and Mary.  Send them back to Lancer with the note.”

“¿Usted me piensa es estúpido?” Silva’s face was flushed with anger.  “While I hold the women you are helpless.  As for being a cobarde – tomorrow you will come with me.  I have something to show you.”

And on that cryptic note, Silva swung himself to his feet, extinguished the lamp and left Scott alone in the dark.

**** 

“Those men are animals,” Aunt Mary raged.  “How dare they treat us this way?”

Teresa sat by the window looking across the street to the jail.  She wished they hadn’t been separated from Scott. They were locked in a room above the cantina.  A scantily clad girl, probably not much older than her, had been unceremoniously ordered out.  Although sullen, she hadn’t argued and Teresa knew that you didn’t disobey men like these.  She refused to look at the bed or to consider sleeping in it.  She hadn’t lived so sheltered a life that she didn’t know what the woman was, or what the bed had been used for.

She clutched the torn edges of her blouse.  The memory of Silva’s rough hands on her body, his breath rank and hot on her face, left her dry mouthed with fear.  They were utterly helpless.  That thought made her angry and brought with it a resolve to keep fighting.  If Silva tried to…tried to force her, she would do all in her power to make it unpleasant for him.

Outwardly calm, and inwardly terrified, she turned her attention to her aunt.  “Murdoch will come for us.” And, she consoled herself, so would Johnny.  Not knowing that she was echoing Scott’s thoughts, she also decided not to say anything about their connection to the deadly young gunfighter, who had become as close to her as a brother.

“Murdoch Lancer cares for no one except himself, and his son is no better.  He should have put up more of a fight.”

Teresa’s blue eyes blazed in fury.  “How dare you! If Scott hadn’t surrendered, we would all be dead.  If he had thought there was a chance he would have fought.  And, Murdoch has been like a father to me since daddy died.  He treated me like family and looked after me.”

“He isn’t your family.  I am.”

“Then where were you when I needed you?” Tears of fear and anger threatened.

“Blame your guardian for my absence.” Mary’s voice rose in righteous indignation.  “He’s the one who threw me out when you were a child and told me never to come back.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“No, I don’t suppose you do.  We’re strangers to each other and Murdoch has had many years to poison you against me.”

“He never spoke of you and he is far too honorable a man to try and turn me against you.  If he did ask you to leave I’m sure he had his reasons.”

Aunt Mary looked at her pityingly.  “My dear child, you have no idea of the lengths to which Murdoch will go to achieve what he wants.  He lost his own two sons.  Doesn’t that tell you anything about the kind of man he is?  And my brother, bless his dear departed soul, wasn’t strong enough to stand up to him.”

Teresa’s stomach was clenching and unclenching so violently that she thought she was going to be sick.  She had wanted to like her aunt.  She loved Murdoch and his sons, but they didn’t share her blood.  She hadn’t realized how much she had missed having a connection to her father until the letter arrived from her aunt.  Now, it had all gone horribly wrong.  Only stubborn pride prevented her from giving in and allowing the tears to spill down her cheeks.

“I don’t want us to argue,” she said, almost pleadingly.  “This is horrible enough without that.”

She saw her aunt relax in response to her appeal. “I don’t want us to argue either after waiting such a long time to see you.” Mary looked around the shabby room.  “This isn’t exactly how I pictured it, though.”

Teresa managed a weak smile.  “No, it wasn’t how I imagined it either.”

“We’ll just have to make the best of it,” Aunt Mary stated firmly much to Teresa’s surprise.

The older woman crossed to the door and hammered on it with her fist.  It was opened by the young man who had traveled with them in the coach. Teresa thought he looked kinder than the rest of the hard eyed men who had kidnapped them.

“Si, Señora?  What do you want?”

His English was heavily accented and Teresa sensed that he wasn’t comfortable with the language.  He eyed them warily, his rifle held firmly in his hands.

“Clean bedding, our luggage and some hot water.” Mary made the demands sternly, glaring icily at the young man.

“I will see what I can do.”

He backed out of the room and Teresa heard the key turning again in the lock. She turned her attention back to the window and the jail which was now in complete darkness.  ‘Oh, Scott,’ she thought to herself.  ‘I’m scared.  I hope Johnny and Murdoch get here soon.  I want to go home.’

**** 

Scott was woken at sunup by the sound of the cell door clanging open.  He raised his head wearily.  He had spent much of the night in miserable contemplation of a procession of unwelcome, but not unexpected memories.  Prominent among them was the night of the disastrous escape attempt when all his men had died.  The darkness of his prison became the darkness of the night that should have shielded them from detection.  That concealment had been stripped away by the light of torches and the flashes of fire from the guns that had ripped his men to shreds.  The screams of the dying rang in his ears as he once again stood amidst the carnage, unable to understand or accept the fact that he was still alive.  Events blurred as he felt, again, the sting of the whip, the ravages of the fever that followed, and the suffocating loneliness of weeks of solitary confinement.  What he wouldn’t give for that privacy now.

“Get up,” Silva ordered.

“Why?” It was almost too much effort to sit up.  His thoughts were clouded by exhaustion and he wasn’t in the mood for whatever game Silva had planned.

“Bring him.”

A large man shouldered his way into the small cell, filling most of the available space.  His hand closed around Scott’s arm and he found himself being dragged to his feet.  The early morning light hurt his tired eyes.  He could hear horses stomping on the hard ground and the sound of a dog barking in the distance.  In addition to Silva there were six men waiting in the street with horses saddled and ready.  Scott shook off the imprisoning hand.

“Where are we going?”

“I am taking you to my village.  Perhaps then you will understand.”

“Understand what?” A rifle in the back prodded Scott toward one of the waiting animals.  He gathered up the reins and prepared to mount.

“What my people have had to endure at the hands of men with money, power and no conscience.  Last night you called me a coward.  You will see how wrong you were.  I, señor, am a hero.”

Scott looked at his captor in numb disbelief.  This was worse – far worse – than he had thought.  This man had a crusading zeal, a passion that inspired men to fight.  The only problem was they weren’t fighting for the greater good as Silva seemed to be implying.  They were fighting to satisfy one man’s greed and lust for power.  During the dark hours of the night, he had managed to persuade himself that perhaps Silva would prove to be an honorable man and would release them once the ransom was paid.  That hope evaporated with the morning mist.  He mounted his horse in silence, clenched his jaw against the pain of having his bruised wrists bound, and spared only a fleeting backward glance as the horses picked up the pace and cantered out of town and into the open countryside.

**** 

It didn’t matter how often he saw the view, it still filled him with awe.  Johnny pulled the wagon to a halt on the road overlooking Lancer and drank in the sight.  Green fields, sparkling rivers and the white house nestling in the valley, represented home and family now.  He smiled broadly, his blue eyes shining with life and joy.  It was very different from his feigned indifference the first time he had stopped here.  He’d been concealing many different emotions that day, along with one that he had failed to hide – a desperate need to be loved and accepted.  It felt so good to have left Johnny Madrid behind - to be Johnny Lancer, a man who didn’t have to hide behind his skill with a gun.

He looked behind him, checking the load of lumber that he’d collected from the mill outside Green River.  If he hurried, he should make it back in time for the midday meal.  This time tomorrow, he’d be in Morro Coyo to meet the stage.  This time tomorrow his family would be together again, and that was something for which he was prepared to give thanks.

The horses set off eagerly, as keen to end the journey as he was.  He called out a cheerful greeting to the vaqueros working in the yard as he finally pulled up outside the barn.  Leaping down from the wagon, he strode happily toward the house.  He washed up quickly and entered through the kitchen door.  Maria was humming to herself as she carefully lifted a large ham out of the oven.  Her smile, when she looked up, was warm and welcoming.

“You are just in time, Juanito.  Will you tell the patron that lunch is ready?”

“Sure, Maria.  What kind of mood is he in?  He’s not still acting like a grizzly with a sore head is he?”

“He is troubled.  I do not know what this woman did when she was last here, but she had better not do anything this time to upset your father or my little chica. And you,” she added, “will be on your best behavior while she is here.”

“Me?” Johnny tried to look hurt, failing miserably as he fought to control a grin.  “I’ll be a perfect angel.”

“Out of my kitchen,” she ordered fondly.  “I have much to do.”

Johnny found his father in the great room staring out the large window.  “Hey, Murdoch.”

When Murdoch turned to acknowledge his son his face was creased with worry.  “Frank just got back from Morro Coyo.  Apparently the stage didn’t reach the way station last night, so the man who runs it wired ahead to say it would be late.”

Johnny felt a keen disappointment, but no immediate alarm.  “Ain’t unusual.  There could be any number of reasons why it’s not running on schedule.”

“I know,” Murdoch conceded.  “It’s just that I…well, I miss Scott and Teresa. I was hoping that they would be home tomorrow and now that isn’t certain.”

“Yeah, it is kinda quiet around here without them.”

“Yes it is.”

Johnny saw a faraway look in his father’s eyes.  “It must have been hard for you all those years.  Living here on your own, you know?”

“It wasn’t always easy.  I worried about both of you, wondering how you were and what you were doing.  I suppose I’m still coming to terms with the fact that you are both finally here.  Sometimes I wonder if it is all a dream.”

“I guess it makes it harder if one of us is away,” Johnny said shrewdly.

“I know it’s foolish, Johnny.  You and Scott are both grown men who can look after yourselves.  You don’t need your father.”

“That’s where you’re wrong, old man.  I think we’ve both needed our father.  Only neither of us realized it ‘til we came home.”  Johnny used the word ‘home’ deliberately.  He knew that Murdoch still occasionally worried that he was going to take off back to his old life.  The temptation to do that had vanished with Wes’s death and the stark realization of what he would be giving up.  “Maria’s got lunch ready for us,” he said to break the awkward silence.  “And, it sure ain’t smart to keep the cook waiting.”

“It certainly isn’t.”  Murdoch laid a tentative hand on Johnny’s shoulder.  “I’m glad you’re here, Son.”

“Yeah, me too.  Besides, someone has to make sure you don’t do anything stupid when Teresa’s aunt gets here.”

Murdoch groaned.  “Did you have to remind me?  Let’s go and eat.  This is likely to be one of the last peaceful meals we’ll have for a while.”

 

Chapter 3

From the feel of the sun’s rays beating down on his exposed head, Scott calculated that it was around midday.  Shortly after leaving town Silva had called a halt, ridden back and bound a strip of cloth over his eyes.  No explanation had been offered as he was plunged into disorientating darkness, and none was necessary.  Silva didn’t want him to know the location of his home village.  In some respects, it was comforting, as it suggested he might live long enough for there to be a risk of him telling someone.  The likelihood was, though, that Silva was simply exercising an abundance of caution.  The Mexican was playing a dangerous game, one which could easily have deadly consequences.  No one survived long in such an environment without being careful.

His horse had been led at a canter over rough and uneven terrain, his heart lurching in fear on more than one occasion.  In normal circumstances, he was perfectly comfortable on a horse.  There was nothing comfortable about this journey.  When they halted and the blindfold was removed he felt a moment of profound relief.  He reflexively bowed his head, squeezing his eyes shut against the harsh glare of the sun.  When he opened them again cautiously the first thing he saw was the glint of a knife.  Before he had time to grasp its meaning, it arced down, slashing the ropes binding his hands to the pommel.  The sharp blade nicked his skin causing a thin trickle of blood.  Silva was more careful as he slipped the blade between Scott’s hands, severing the rope tied around his wrists.

Scott looked around, unsure what would happen next.  The ground around him rose and fell in gentle slopes.  The earth had been scorched dry and vegetation was sparse.  Anyone living around here would have a hard existence. A canteen of water was offered and gratefully accepted.  The tepid liquid washed the dust from his mouth and throat, before landing unpleasantly on his empty stomach. Several deep breaths helped quell the nausea.  One lesson that he had learned at an early age was never to show weakness.

 

Silva was conversing quietly with his men. Despite the fact that no one was watching him, Scott felt no urge to try and slip away. Unarmed, outnumbered, and with no idea of his present location gave little scope for optimism.  His situation was as hopeless as it had been back in the jail.  He took what enjoyment he could from being outside until Silva rode back to join him.

“My village is very close.  You will guard your tongue and say nothing about being my prisoner.  Understand this, gringo.  My men will be watching the roads.  If you try to escape, or say anything to arouse suspicion, you will be severely punished.  And remember, I hold the women.  I say if they live or die, and I will not hesitate to order their deaths.”

Scott had no doubt about that.  He had already watched two men being gunned down in cold blood.  “I have no intention of doing anything to jeopardize their safety.”

“Even the old one?” Silva laughed.  “She has a face like a horse and a voice that would drive a man to drink.”

Although Scott agreed with every word, he decided that it would be prudent to keep his views to himself.  The mere thought of Aunt Mary made his head hurt.  He wondered, uncharitably, if Vicente Silva could be persuaded to keep her.  If…when… they got out of this mess, he was going to find someplace nice and peaceful.  He’d pack a bottle of Murdoch’s best scotch and some books, and heaven help anyone who decided to disturb him.

****

The village consisted of no more than two dozen small houses and a small cantina.  Scrawny children and dogs played in the dirt, while older women sat outside and gossiped.  There were few men in evidence, leading Scott to speculate that most of them probably rode with Silva.

“Vicente!”

The high pitched squeal reverberated from the whitewashed walls, causing the dogs to bark hysterically.  Scott winced and tightened his hold of the reins.

“My wife,” Silva informed him unnecessarily.  “The love of my life,” he added with a noticeable lack of enthusiasm.

The girl, who was racing toward them, feet bare and dirty, was attractive enough, if a little skinny for Scott’s taste.  She didn’t look to be much older than Teresa. She slid to a halt, talking loudly and clearly berating her husband.  Scott fought the urge to laugh.  Silva was wilting under the onslaught.  Scott reached the irresistible conclusion that the deadly young outlaw was afraid of his wife.

Finally she paused for breath, acknowledging for the first time that her husband was not alone. “¿Quién es éste?” she demanded, hands on hips, looking Scott up and down.

“This man,” Silva replied, reverting to English, “is going to make us very rich.”

Scott kept his mouth shut while he waited to see how Silva was going to explain his presence.

“¿Cómo?”

Silva dismounted gracefully, gesturing for Scott to do the same.  “Single handedly, I saved him from banditos who would have killed him.”

Scott’s eyebrows shot up in surprise at this outrageous manipulation of the truth.

“He has promised me a reward for my services.  Soon, I will escort him to his home in California, but I could not leave without seeing you, my love.”

“Vicente, you should be ashamed to bring a fine gentleman here.” She simpered at Scott, who dredged up a polite smile.

“Pleased to meet you, Señora Silva.” His silent sigh was resigned.  How had a simple journey to collect Teresa’s aunt led him to this bizarre charade?

“My name is Telésfora Sandoval Silva,” she told him proudly.  “You may call me Tela.”

Scott looked toward Silva, unsure how to announce himself.  His captor had made it clear that the Lancer name was not to be used in front of the sheriff, although he doubted if it would be much of a secret.  Most of Silva’s men had heard the discussion about his father during the kidnapping. Finally, in the absence of guidance, he settled on the safest option.  “And you may call me Scott.”

Silva put his arm around his wife’s waist.  “We are hungry, woman.  We have ridden a long way to see you.”

Her brows creased in concern.  “We do not have much food, Vicente.  The rurales came.  They were looking for you and when they did not find you, they stole from us.”

“Did you think I would come empty handed?  Check the saddlebags.”

As Tela eagerly rummaged through the bags, exclaiming with delight, Scott turned his attention back to the young Mexican.  “Why would the rurales be looking for you? I thought you said…”

“Be silent,” Silva hissed, looking over his shoulder.  He raised his voice.  “I speak out against the corrupt men who work for the big landowners.  I give the people hope of a better future.  The rurales and their employers would like to silence me.”

Scott decided that he would rather like to silence Silva as well.  “It must be quite a burden,” he said facetiously, “carrying peoples’ hopes.”

Silva’s expression darkened as he lowered his voice.  “You mock me, gringo.  You will pay for that.”

“I think I already am,” Scott muttered.

****

They spent the rest of the day with Tela.  The small house became crowded as most of the villagers came to pay their respects.  So far as Scott could tell, the people had no concept of how Silva earned his money.  They only knew that his activities brought money and food into the village on a fairly regular schedule.  Scott had seen poverty before and it always affected him.  These people had very little, yet didn’t begrudge the thought of sharing with a gringo stranger.  He could never condone Silva’s actions – the man was a cold hearted, murdering bastard – but, he could feel sympathy for people forced to scratch a living out of bare soil and arid conditions.

Although Tela probed, Vicente would not tell her how much money Scott had promised to pay for his fictional rescue.  All he would say was that it would be enough for them to move somewhere more prosperous and start to build their fortune. She treated Scott with obsequious courtesy, while her husband looked on, clearly amused by his prisoner’s discomfort.

It quickly became apparent that they were to spend the night there.  Reasoning that Silva wouldn’t be able to keep him locked up, Scott began to make plans to slip out, steal a horse and try to find his way back to Teresa and Mary.  It was late before Silva whispered in his wife’s ear and sent her to the bedroom.  She returned with a pillow and blankets, and an apology that their guest would have to sleep on the floor in front of the hearth.  Scott murmured a polite and meaningless platitude and wished her good night. She left the two men alone, telling Vicente not to keep her waiting too long.

The outlaw was silent for a while, his dark gaze fixed on Scott. “You are thinking that you will have an opportunity to escape.”

“I’m not that foolish.”

“I think perhaps you are.  You are worth a great deal of money to me alive, so I will remove the temptation that would only get you killed.”  Silva drew his gun and pointed toward the rug in front of the fireplace.  “Get over there and sit down.”  Picking up a pitcher he poured water into a cup.  He pulled out a small bag and added white powder, swirling it in the liquid until it had dissolved.

He carried the cup over to Scott and crouched down.  “You will drink this.”

“What is it?”

“Something that will ensure a peaceful night’s sleep – for all of us.”

“What happens if I refuse?”

“Soon Patricio will come to the house.  If you are not asleep, he will ride back to town and kill one of the women.”

Scott held out his hand.  He drained the contents of the cup without removing his furious stare from Silva’s face.  Within minutes, he could feel the strength leaving his limbs.  It became an effort to keep his eyes open.  He felt Silva’s hands on his shoulders, lowering him to the ground.  The pillow was tucked under his head and the blanket settled over his body.

“Sleep well, Señor Lancer.”

Silva’s malicious laugh was the last sound Scott heard as he plummeted into oblivion.

****

“I thought I might ride into town.  See if there’s any news about the stage.”

Murdoch finished arranging the papers on his desk into neat piles.  “Good idea.”

“Why don’t you come with me?  Seems like you’ve been stuck here for days, goin’ through those contracts.”

“I don’t know, Johnny.  Once Teresa gets back with her aunt I have a feeling that I’ll be spending a lot of time away from the house.  I’d like to get this finished first.”

“You really don’t like her, do you?”

“I tried, but there are some people who just don’t respond.  Paul was my friend. He’d been through some hard times and he deserved to be happy.  Teresa was a delightful child and she adored him.  She might not have had her mother, but she was surrounded by people who loved and cared for her.  Mary found fault with everything and it was wearing Paul down.  I’m not sure someone like that can change.”

“Anyone can change if they have a mind.”

“Yes, Son, they can, and I would like nothing better than to be wrong about her.  It would do Teresa good to have some positive guidance from her aunt.” Murdoch smiled warmly.  “Why don’t you go and saddle the horses?  I think a break away from these papers is just what I need.”

With a pleased grin, Johnny swept his hat from the table and headed for the door.  When he reached it, he stopped and turned back.  “The two of us bein’ here on our own – it’s been kinda nice.” Seeing that he had taken his father off-guard, he flashed a brighter smile and left.

**** 

The horses were saddled and Johnny was waiting impatiently for Murdoch to join him, when approaching hoof beats attracted his attention.  The vaquero who rode into the yard greeted him with relief.

“Hola, Johnny.  Is the Patron here?”

“He’s in the house.  Should be out any minute.  Shouldn’t you be working with Cipriano?”

Raul nodded. “Si. I was on my way to join him when I was stopped by a man and asked to deliver a note to Señor Lancer.  He said it was muy importante.”

“Who was he?”

“A stranger – Mexican.  He did not give his name and he looked,” Raul hesitated as if searching for the right words, “un hombre peligroso.”

“Dangerous, huh?” Johnny was mildly amused.  Raul was a good employee, but wasn’t noted for his bravery.  He had been one of the men who had deserted the ranch at the time of Pardee’s attacks, only returning once the land pirate had been defeated.  Nonetheless, Johnny liked him and wasn’t going to condemn anyone for looking after their safety, and the safety of their family, ahead of any loyalty to an employer. “Well, maybe this mysterious note will tell us something.”  Johnny accepted the crumpled piece of paper, looking at it curiously.  “I’ll give it to Murdoch.  You’d better head out.  Cip’ll be waiting for you.”

“I will see you later, Johnny.” Raul raised a hand in farewell, looking relieved to have handed the problem to someone else.

The temptation to read the note was too much for Johnny.  He smoothed it out, squinting as he tried to follow the confused message.  Two words stood out clearly, causing an icy chill to run down his spine.  He’d recognize his brother’s signature anywhere.  Without realizing what he was doing, he crumpled the note into a ball.  Shock was quickly replaced by anger that anyone would dare kidnap Scott and Teresa.  Just as quickly, the anger gave way to fear for their safety.

“Murdoch!”

“I’m coming.  There’s no need to shout.” Murdoch’s smile disappeared.  “What’s wrong?”

“Read this.” Johnny thrust the paper into his father’s hand.  He waited, every muscle like a tightly coiled spring.

“There must be some mistake.  This is some kind of sick joke.” Murdoch looked up, begging for reassurance.

“This ain’t a joke.  Scott signed it, and he’d only have done that if he’d been forced to.”

“Do you know this man?” Murdoch read the note again. “Vicente Silva?”

“Never heard of him.  It’d be easier if I did know him, ‘cause then I’d know what to expect.”

“Five thousand dollars.” Murdoch was thinking aloud.  “There should be enough in the bank.”

“You’re gonna pay?”

“What alternative is there?  If I don’t turn up with the money, he’ll kill all of them.”

“Seems to me, Murdoch, that he’s just as likely to kill them, and you too, once he gets his hands on that money.”

“That’s a risk I’ll have to take.”

Johnny shook his head slowly.  “I’m not aimin’ to lose any of my family to some hijo de puta.”  There was one way, a way that might even up the odds.  He didn’t like it and suspected his father would like it even less.  Had it only been yesterday that he was giving thanks for having left Madrid behind?  He gave himself a mental shake.  There was no point in fighting it.  He would do whatever he had to in order to get his family back. “There’s only one way to handle this.”

“Johnny…”

“No,” Johnny interrupted him.  “You listen real hard, Murdoch, because this is the way it’s gonna be.  From now on, I ain’t your son.  You don’t call me Johnny, or give any sign that I mean anything to you.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about a slim chance that we can get Scott, Teresa and her aunt back alive.  They’re expecting a rancher, off-balance because he’s worried about his family.  That’s what we’ll give them, only we’ll add in a little something they won’t be expecting.”

Murdoch’s face was grey with anxiety as he waited for his son to continue.

“Five thousand dollars is a lot of money.  It only stands to reason that you’d want to hire yourself a bodyguard.”  Despite the anger and fear coiled tightly around his gut, Johnny gave the impression of being totally relaxed.  “There’s no room for mistakes, so we have to play this game right.  Once we leave here with the money, you’ll call me Madrid and you’ll treat me the same way you’d treat any hired gun.  And, when we get where were going, I’m gonna teach this Silva exactly what it means to mess with my family.”

 

Chapter 4

Scott had never expected to be happy to see the inside of a cell.  He collapsed gratefully on the cot, closed his aching eyes and willed his stomach to settle.  Whatever drug Silva had forced him to drink had either been too strong, or had simply disagreed with him.  All he knew was that it, and his stomach, had declared war on each other.

It had been necessary for Silva to slap him awake when it came time to leave.  He was vaguely aware of the outlaw making joking remarks to his wife about gringos and tequila, leading her to believe that their ‘guest’ was incapacitated due to a surfeit of alcohol.  Scott had been less than enthusiastic about climbing into the saddle, hanging on grimly while they left the village.

It hadn’t been long before they met up with the rest of Silva’s men.  Knowing what was coming next, he had slid from his horse and emptied his rebellious stomach behind a bush.  It had been easy enough to block out the jeers and taunts.  He was far too miserable to let them bother him.  Being tied to the saddle at least had the advantage of keeping him on the horse without much effort on his part.  He could have happily done without the blindfold, although it did shield his eyes from the early morning sun.

 

The pace was slower than it had been the previous day.  He wasn’t sure if that was in deference to his delicate condition.  It was early afternoon before he was able to crawl gratefully back into the welcoming darkness, with Silva’s parting words ringing in his ears.

“Rest while you can, gringo.  Tonight I promise you an entertainment you will never forget.”

****

There hadn’t been time to argue.  If they were going to be ready to leave in the morning, Murdoch had to get the money from the bank that afternoon.  He’d tried to persuade Johnny to go with him so that they could discuss their options on the way.

However, Johnny had shaken his head firmly. “Nope.  Whoever delivered the ransom demand is likely to be around somewhere, waiting to see what you’ll do.  If I go to town, he’ll know I have some connection to Lancer.”

“Would that be such a bad thing?”

“Yes.  Get going, Murdoch, we don’t have much time.” With a jingling of spurs Johnny had turned away to lead Barranca back to the barn.

Murdoch had been on edge the whole way into town.  He couldn’t even be sure Scott and Teresa were still alive.  He could only hope and pray that he would see his family again. The note rested in his pocket – Scott’s signature the only tangible link between him and his missing son.  He took comfort from the fact that the two of them were together.  Scott wouldn’t do anything foolhardy while Teresa was at risk.  And then there was Mary O’Brien.  She’d likely see this as just another instance of Lancer interfering with her life.

Once he reached Green River, he’d scrutinized every unknown face, wondering if they were connected to the kidnapping.  The bank manager had given him no trouble.   Lancer’s credit was good, and Scott and Teresa were well liked.  On the way home he’d rehearsed the arguments against Johnny’s plan.  He was now ready to discuss the matter rationally.

Jelly met him in the yard. He’d clearly heard the news as his expression mirrored all of Murdoch’s own fears.

“Did you get the money?”

Murdoch dismounted and unfastened the saddlebags.  “Right here.  Could you put it in the safe while I find Johnny?”

“Johnny ain’t here, Boss.”

This made no sense to Murdoch.  “Where is he?”

“He left just after you did.  Would’ve sneaked out iffn I hadn’t caught him saddling a horse.  Said to tell you to meet him tomorrow, in Visalia.”

Murdoch looked toward the corral, his guts in a knot.  “He didn’t take Barranca.” The palomino was standing by the rail, head down and quiet.

“Didn’t take that saddle you bought him either. He took the old one that he kept in the back of the tack room.”

Murdoch remembered that saddle.  It was the one Johnny had arrived with.  It was old and worn and about the only thing his son had possessed – apart from his gun, a temper and a smart mouth.  A month after the partnership papers were signed he’d sent his sons to Stockton with instructions to choose new saddles for themselves.  He’d wanted to buy them both a present, something to show them how much it meant to him that they had come to Lancer, and had stayed.  They had been as excited as two children at Christmas.  That thought made his stomach hurt.  They had never had a Christmas together as a family.

“Did he say where he’d be?”

Jelly stared at the ground.  “He was real clear about that.  When you get to town, you’re to ask for Johnny Madrid.  He said you wouldn’t have any trouble finding him.”

****  

It was a long hard ride to Visalia and Johnny welcomed it.  The need to concentrate on the trail, especially as the light faded, saved him from thinking too hard about his actions.  He’d forced Murdoch’s hand with cold calculation.  He couldn’t allow himself to feel guilt or anger.  He didn’t have the luxury of feeling fear for his family, or disappointment that fate was once again forcing him down a road he didn’t want to travel.

The horse he was riding wasn’t as sure footed as Barranca.  He sometimes felt that he and his beloved Palomino could ride the wind.  It had been a hard decision to bring nothing with him that could connect him to Lancer.  This stallion was new to the ranch and hadn’t yet been branded.  He had to bury that part of his life, as he’d tried to bury his past as a gun hawk.

Visalia was a growing community.  If he was lucky, the man he had decided to seek out would be there.  He smiled coldly.  He had more than one surprise planned for Vicente Silva.  He was counting on being recognized.  He’d worked in this part of the state before, usually when he’d been toying with the idea of paying his old man an unexpected visit.  Not that he’d ever worked up the courage, until curiosity and an enormous bribe had set him on the road to Morro Coyo.

He deliberately slowed his horse’s pace as he reached the town.  He rode right down the middle of the main street, reins held loosely in his hands.  His hat, pulled low, shadowed his eyes.  Although he looked straight ahead he knew he was being watched and his lips curled in an unsettling smile.  Word would spread quickly, and there would be more than one local landowner who would start to worry that his neighbor had recruited one of the most expensive, and deadly, guns for hire.

Arriving at the saloon, he dismounted and collected his rifle.  Turning lazily, he scanned the street, noting how the townsfolk who had been watching him avidly suddenly found other things to occupy their attention.  At one time he’d have found it amusing.  With his saddlebags slung over his shoulder, he pushed the door open, hesitating only long enough to take a quick look round the interior of the building.  It was just as he remembered it and looked little different from the dozens of saloons he’d spent time in over the years.

He made his way past the tables to the bar, resting his rifle on the countertop.  “You got any rooms?”

A bottle of tequila and a glass were set down in front of him.  “There’re a couple empty.  Three dollars a night.” The bartender slid a bowl of limes and a small dish of salt in Johnny’s direction.

“I need one for tonight and two for tomorrow.”  They still had a long way to go, and he didn’t think that his father was going to be up to carrying on without resting for the night.  They had plenty of time to get where they were going.

“Payment in advance.”  The man licked his lips nervously.

Johnny pulled out a roll of notes and counted off the required amount, watching the bartender like a cat might watch a mouse.  The man was visibly sweating as he gathered up the money.

“Haven’t seen you around these parts for a while, Mr. Madrid. Are you just passing through?”

“I’m doing a job for a man named Lancer.  Ever heard of him?”

“Murdoch Lancer?  He owns a big spread north of here.  Why would he be interested in our little town?”

Johnny uncorked the bottle and poured a shot of tequila.  “He didn’t say.  All I know is that I’m to meet him here tomorrow.” Eyes narrowed, he bit into a slice of lime. “Thought I’d look up an old friend while I’m here.  You might know where I can find him.” The tequila burned its way down to his empty stomach and then he supplied the name. “Is he in town?”

“He sure is, Mr. Madrid.”

“Where can I find him?”

The answer gave Johnny his first moment of good honest amusement since the ransom note had arrived.  He finished his drink, accepted the key for his room and dumped his meager possessions on the bed.  The streets were quieter, as businesses had closed for the night with most people heading home for supper.  He walked down the boardwalk, until he reached the sheriff’s office.  The smell of strong coffee made his nose twitch as he opened the door.  The small office was cluttered and untidy.  The sheriff had his back to the door and was engrossed in pinning wanted posters to a notice board.

“I heard you’d turned respectable,” Johnny drawled.

“Aw, hell,” Val Crawford muttered, before turning to look at his visitor.  “What did I do to deserve this?”

**** 

“Let’s see if I’ve got this right.” Val rested his chair back against the wall, studying his unexpected visitor.  “You want me to give up the nice little job I’ve got going here, including everything that goes with it, to go to some godforsaken border town?”

“That’s right.”

“And, when I get there, you want me to be nice to some crazy bandito who’s made the fatal mistake of kidnapping your brother?”

Johnny smiled encouragingly.  “Uh huh.”

“You’re out of your goddamn mind.”  Val slammed the front legs of the chair back on the ground, leaned over his desk and scowled.  “What’s to stop this – what the hell’s his name?”

“Vicente Silva.”

“Never heard of him.  What’s to stop him from putting a bullet in me?  He’s more likely to do that than welcome me into his gang with open arms.”

“You’ll just have to use your charm.”

Val, who was feeling about as charming as a riled up rattlesnake, wasn’t amused.  “So, while I’m puttin’ my life on the line, what’ll you be doin’?”

“Watching Murdoch’s back.”

“You never told me you were a Lancer.”

“It never came up.  Wasn’t exactly something I was proud of at the time.”

“Didn’t ever think I’d see Johnny Madrid frettin’ about his family.  Guess they really got to you, huh?”

“Yeah, and I aim to get them back.  Are you going to help me?”

Val scrubbed a hand over his unshaven jaw.  “Why should I?”

“Oh, I don’t know.  Maybe because you’re a decent man, and,” Johnny paused, “because I thought we were friends.”

“You’re askin’ a lot.”

“I know.  Look, Val.  I’m going whether you come along or not.  The odds are better if you’re there to back me up.  While Silva holds Teresa and her aunt, our hands are tied.  If you can find a way to get them someplace safe, Murdoch and I might be able to rescue Scott.”

“Let me think about it.”  Val saw the brief flash of disappointment, quickly masked.

“Sure, Val.”

“You stayin’ over at the saloon?”

“Yeah.”

“Then why don’t you head over there and order us a couple of steaks?  By the time they’re ready, I’ll have an answer for you.”  Val summoned up a glower in response to Johnny’s tentative smile. That hopeful look shattered his resolve to stay aloof.  “Go on.  There’s a lot to do if I’m gonna be leaving in the morning, and I don’t aim to do anything on an empty stomach.”

“Thanks, amigo.  I owe you.”

Which brought Val to the main reason he was going to go along with this harebrained scheme. He had a debt to pay, yet Johnny had respected him enough not to call in his marker. “Reckon it just makes us even.”

****

Teresa was bored.  She had been locked up with her aunt for almost two days and the inactivity was driving her crazy.  They had been given their luggage, although it had been thoroughly searched to ensure it didn’t contain anything that could be used as a weapon.  She had managed to coax a few words out of their young jailor during his infrequent visits.  It was Gabriel who had told her that Scott had left town with his brother-in-law.  That news had sent her into a state of panic, worried that Silva intended to murder Scott away from the eyes of the townsfolk and sheriff.  It had only been a few hours ago that she was told Scott was once again incarcerated in the jail.

She tried to concentrate on her book.  Gabriel had also told her that the ransom demand had been sent and that they were facing at least another five days of captivity.  She wouldn’t let herself think about the possibility that Silva wouldn’t release them, and she detected no deceit in the young man who had become their only link to the outside world.  She glanced over at her aunt.  Mary was engrossed in her embroidery, eyes narrowing as the light left the room, making it harder to concentrate on the intricate stitches.  She had given Teresa some lessons in needlepoint to pass the time.  Her aunt’s skill had been a surprise and Teresa had felt clumsy by comparison.  Finally, Mary set her work aside, rising to light the lamps.  As the day had progressed, the older woman had lapsed into long periods of silence, leaving Teresa feeling very lonely.

When the door opened, she was anticipating the arrival of their evening meal.  Gabriel stood in the doorway, arms filled with a bundle of red and black material.  Teresa smiled quizzically at the man who had done his best to be kind to them.

“What’s that?”

Gabriel lowered his eyes and held out the dress.  “Vicente says you are to wear this and come downstairs.”

The dress was typical of the revealing outfits worn by the saloon girls in Green River and Morro Coyo.  Teresa’s eyes widened in horror.  “I can’t.”

“Of course you can’t, my dear,” Aunt Mary stated forcefully.  “The idea is preposterous.”  She turned her baleful stare on Gabriel, who prudently backed closer to the door.  “You tell that animal you work for, that my niece has no intention of parading around like some loose woman for his entertainment.”

“Señorita, por favor.” Gabriel looked terrified as he ignored Mary and addressed Teresa. “Si usted no hace como él dice que él tendrá Señor Lancer golpeado.”

Mary frowned as Teresa gasped and raised a shaking hand to her mouth.  “Speak English,” she ordered.

Gabriel continued to look beseechingly at Teresa.  “You do not understand what kind of man Vicente is.  Do you think that I stay outside your door only to stop you escaping?”

Teresa’s heart was hammering painfully in her chest as she crossed the room, holding out her hands for the dress.  Her fingers and Gabriel’s touched briefly as he handed the satin and lace outfit to her.

“I will wait outside.  Do not take too long.”

“Have you lost your senses?” Mary demanded.  “What did he say to you?”

Teresa fumbled with the button at the waistband of her skirt.  “If I don’t go, Silva will have Scott beaten.”

“So you are going to expose yourself to those men in order to protect him?  If he were a gentleman, he would rather accept the beating than see you put in that situation.”

“I know, but I won’t be responsible for him being hurt.”  The skirt finally slipped to the floor and Teresa turned her attentions to her blouse.

“You would compromise your virtue for a man who couldn’t even keep you safe?”

“He tried, and if you’d taken the time to get to know him, you’d understand what a decent and courageous man he is.”

Teresa struggled into the tight fitting dress.  The design pushed her breasts together and up, exposing an unsettling amount of bare skin.  The material of the skirt ended just below her knees and she tugged at it fretfully.

When Gabriel returned he stared appreciatively at her and she felt herself flushing.  She’d never had a man look at her like that before.  “Estás guapa,” he breathed.

There had been times when friends and family had told her that she looked beautiful.  She’d always accepted the compliment with self-deprecating humor. Now her breath caught in her throat.  “Gracias.”

“We should go. Vicente is waiting.” Gabriel held the door open for her.

“Teresa, please.  Scott wouldn’t want you to do this,” Mary begged.

“Will he be there?” Teresa asked.

“Si. Vicente has sent the sheriff to fetch him from the jail.”

She nodded before giving her aunt a quick kiss on the cheek.  “I’ll be alright.”  She walked out of the room with her head held high.  As soon as she reached the landing, she could hear raucous laughter and shouting from the men downstairs.  She jumped, startled, as Gabriel put his arm around her waist.

“I will try to watch out for you,” he whispered in her ear.

She was too terrified to speak as she began to descend the stairs.  The room below suddenly fell silent as every pair of eyes turned to watch her progress.  She gripped the handrail tightly, grateful for Gabriel’s support.  The look of naked longing on the faces of most of the men made her feel sick.

Silva pushed himself away from the bar and walked to the bottom of the stairs.  “The color suits you,” he said, lazily surveying her from head to toe.  “Come and sit with me.”

Teresa hesitated and his hand shot out catching her arm in a bruising grip.  “It was not a request.” He pulled her off balance so that she fell against his chest.  “I think she likes me,” he called loudly. “You did well, Gabriel.  Just don’t tell your sister.”

Silva’s laugh made her cringe. Even worse was hearing him sending Gabriel away.

“Get your filthy hands off her.”

Still held tightly against Silva’s body, Teresa couldn’t turn to look, but she knew by the sound of Scott’s voice that he was furious.  She heard the sounds of a scuffle, which ended with Scott giving a breathless cry of pain.  She struggled helplessly as Silva laughed.

“I’ve done what you asked.  He doesn’t have to be here.”  Tears of pain and frustration ran down her face.

“He is here to see the consequences of his ill-considered words yesterday.  He mocked me, belittling me in front of my wife.  Now, he will watch as you are humiliated.” He spun her round so that she could see, hands gripping her shoulders to stop her getting away.

Scott was on his knees, head bent and breathing ragged.  His hands were bound behind his back and his shirt was torn.  It was clear that Silva’s men had not been gentle. As she watched, he straightened and she could see bruises on his face.

“Oh, Scott.” The tears ran freely down her cheeks as he was pulled to his feet and dragged over to a chair.

“Tequila,” Silva ordered. He sat in the chair opposite Scott and jerked her arm so that she fell into his lap.

She tensed as Silva’s hand snaked round her waist and he reached up to fondle her breasts.  A small moan of fear escaped past her tightly clenched teeth.  Despite his bonds Scott surged forward.  The man standing behind the chair caught his shoulders and slammed him back down.

“Get some rope and tie him to the chair.  We wouldn’t want him to miss the fun.” Silva pinched her viciously, causing her to cry out.

She had never seen Scott look so angry as he tried to twist free of the hands holding him pinned to the seat.  “Leave her alone!  If you want your money you’d be wise to make sure my father gets her back, undamaged.”

“Do not worry, Senor.  She will still be a virgin on her wedding night, but perhaps I can show her a few tricks to keep a man happy.”

“Damn you, Silva.  Haven’t you got any decency? Send her back to her room.  You’ve made your point.”

“I have not even begun. Now I am weary of listening to you.  You will sit, watch and be silent.”  He gestured to the man standing behind Scott.

Teresa whimpered as the man pulled out a bandana, binding it firmly around Scott’s mouth.  Scott’s eyes blazed in impotent fury as Silva took a handful of her hair, pulled her head back and fastened his lips on hers in a long, and violent, kiss.

 

Chapter 5

Helpless, mute, filled with a raging anger, Scott could do nothing except watch as Teresa was subjected to the vicious assault.  His bonds, and a watchfully amused guard, kept him immobile.  That this had been triggered by his thoughtless remark the previous day, added a layer of guilt to his fury.  This was what he had feared from the outset, and he should have anticipated that Silva would find an excuse.

There was no reassurance in the outlaw’s words either.  Silva might pretend that he could stop short of rape.  However, his increasingly urgent pawing at Teresa’s dress was indication enough that his baser instincts would soon overcome his stated intentions.

To start with, Teresa had submitted quietly.  In all likelihood, the brutality of the attack had left her stunned.  As the systematic assault continued, she appeared to realize how it was going to end.  Scott pulled against the strips of leather tethering his wrists, shouting muffled pleas, as Teresa began to scream breathlessly and struggle against Silva’s hands.  To Scott’s horror, her defiance only seemed to amuse Silva and arouse him further.

“Such spirit.” Silva held her fast, turning her so that Scott could see her face.

Wide-eyed and trembling, Teresa sobbed his name.

“Were you never tempted, Señor?”

Scott’s curse was lost in the cloth jammed between his teeth.  He felt as if his chest was going to explode as his impotent rage roared out of control.

“Come on, girl.  It’s time you and I put all that fire to better use.” Grabbing Teresa’s wrist Silva pulled her to her feet.

The bodice of her dress was torn and Teresa flushed as she saw that Scott was looking at her.  He hastily diverted his gaze back to Silva, but not before he’d seen the red marks left on her skin by the rough handling.

“Take him back to the jail,” Silva ordered.  “And be careful.  He doesn’t look happy.”

The rope pinning him to the chair was untied, while Silva went back to nuzzling Teresa’s neck.  She had her eyes screwed tightly shut and had become very pale.  With a shuddering breath she opened her eyes, leant back against Silva and raised a hand to his cheek.

Scott’s heart was pounding as he was yanked to his feet.  Silva gave a deep throated laugh and relaxed his hold sufficiently to allow Teresa to turn round.  Scott felt the bile rising in his throat as he watched Teresa caress Silva’s face.  Then, she stood on tiptoe and whispered something in the Mexican’s ear.

Silva’s expression changed.  “Puta!”

A hard slap across her face sent Teresa staggering into Scott’s guard.  Reacting without thought, Scott charged at Silva, knocking him against a corner of the table.  He wanted to scream for Teresa to run as he lashed out with his foot, catching the outlaw in the back of the knee.  When Silva collapsed to the floor, Scott heard Teresa shout a warning.  Hampered by his bound hands, he couldn’t move quickly enough to avoid the impact from behind that felled him. As his senses cleared, he realized that a gun was pointed at his chest.  With almost detached interest, he watched Silva’s finger tightening on the trigger.

“Vicente.” There was a pause before the call was repeated, louder and with greater urgency.

Without taking his eyes off Silva, Scott struggled to his feet.  If he was about to die, he’d be damned if he’d allow himself to be shot while cowering on the floor like a whipped dog.  With a rustle of silk, Teresa was by his side, steadying him and clinging tightly to his arm.

“That is enough, Vicente.  If you shoot him, Lancer will never pay the ransom.”

The gun swung from Scott to Gabriel.  “This is none of your concern.”

“You are wrong,” Gabriel persisted.  “Think, Vicente.  You and I are friends are we not?  We grew up together.  You are married to my sister.  I know you.  Tonight, you would take the girl and shoot the gringo.  Tomorrow, you would be sorry and it would be too late.  If you do this, you seal our deaths.  All of us.” Gabriel swept his hand around to indicate the watching men.  “Do you think Lancer would forgive those acts?  And even if you could kill him and take the money, he has powerful friends on both sides of the border.  We would be hunted, and not just by the Rurales.”

As Gabriel spoke, passionately and persuasively, Scott felt Teresa turn her attention to the knot holding his gag in place.  Much to his relief the foul, damp cloth was soon removed from his mouth.  His jaw clicked painfully as he moved it gently from side to side.

“He’s right.” Scott’s mouth was dry and his first attempt at speech was barely audible.  Clearing his throat, he tried again.  “If you’re smart, you’ll leave here in a few days with five thousand dollars.  Kill me, or touch Teresa again, and you won’t leave here at all.”

There was an undercurrent of conversation. Silva looked round the room, perhaps weighing the mood of his men.  Giving a harsh laugh, he holstered his gun and put an arm around Gabriel’s shoulder.

“You do not fool me, Gabriel.  You want the girl for yourself.”

A flush appeared on the young man’s face and neck.  “Si, Vicente. She is very beautiful.”

With the speed of a striking snake, Silva grabbed Teresa, throwing her into Gabriel’s arms.  “She’s all yours.  Do what you like with her.  Just make sure she is still alive when Lancer arrives with the money.”

“Gracias.” Gabriel’s arm slid round Teresa’s waist.

Scott saw him bend to speak quietly to her.  Whatever he had said appeared to reassure her and she went willingly with him toward the stairs.

Silva waited until Gabriel and Teresa were out of earshot before moving closer to his captive.  “My brother-in-law is a fool, but in one thing he is correct.  I need you alive until your father brings the money.”

“And then?”

“I do not believe in leaving witnesses.”

“If you’re going to kill us anyway, there isn’t much incentive for me to cooperate.”

“There are many ways to die, Señor.  Death can be quick and clean, or prolonged and painful.  Which would you prefer for the women?”

Although Scott kept his head high and his gaze defiant, the taste of defeat was bitter in his mouth. Silva called out an order to return him to the jail, adding maliciously, “and leave his hands tied.  I am not taking any chances.”

****

After watching the sheriff leave town, Johnny spent the morning being as conspicuous as possible.  He sat outside the general store for a while, intently watching the townsfolk and wearing an enigmatic smile.  At noon, he strolled back over to the saloon for a drink. Curious stares followed him wherever he went.

Johnny wanted to give the impression that he’d been in town for a while, and that he’d only agreed to accompany Murdoch Lancer because he was being well paid.  If Silva found out about his connection to Lancer, the game was over. It bothered him that he knew nothing about his adversary. He would expect someone to be watching his father, but maybe Silva was too dumb to think of that.  He sure hadn’t shown any sense when he decided to hold Scott and Teresa for ransom.

He’d spent many years living this kind of life, and it was depressingly easy to slip back into that role.  Maintaining the façade when faced with his father was something else.  Murdoch wasn’t likely to be happy at the decision to run out on him.  Johnny gave a mental shrug.  If his father was mad at him it might help him play his part.

Each time the door opened, he looked up with a deceptive air of calm.  He was on his second beer when Murdoch arrived.  Their eyes met for the briefest of instants, neither man acknowledging the other.  Murdoch removed his hat and slapped it against his leg to loosen the dust.  Johnny thought that his father looked tired and almost haggard.  He surreptitiously watched as the older man made his way to the bar.

“What’ll it be?” the bartender asked.

“A beer and some information. I’m looking for a man named Madrid.  Johnny Madrid.”

Johnny straightened in his chair as the bartender looked his way.  He hoped no one else had heard the catch in his father’s voice. “I’m Madrid.  I guess you must be Murdoch Lancer.” Standing up, he offered his hand.  Even that brief contact was welcome. “Sit down and tell me what I can do for you.”

Murdoch spoke just loud enough for his words to carry over to where the bartender was eagerly eavesdropping. He gave a brief recap of the situation, stating that he was carrying a sizable sum of money and required protection. After he had finished, there was a lengthy pause.

“My services don’t come cheap,” Johnny told him.

“So I’ve heard.  I’m prepared to be generous, on condition that you also accompany us on the journey back to Lancer to ensure my whole family’s safe return home.”

Johnny smiled in appreciation of the double meaning.  “I’m sure we can come to an arrangement.  Just one thing, though.  I’ll be the one callin’ the tune.”

A look of amusement tugged at Murdoch’s mouth.  “This is my family we’re talking about, Mr. Madrid.  I have the final say.”

Johnny looked up from under the brim of his hat as the doors opened again. The man who entered was Mexican, dirty and poorly dressed, but with an air about him that belied his appearance.  He looked like a bully, someone who would happily terrorize anyone weaker than him.  The look on Johnny’s face appeared to give him pause, although he nodded a greeting before walking to the counter.  Before Murdoch could react to the newcomer, Johnny stood up.

“That ain’t how it works.  If you want my help, you play by my rules or find yourself another hired gun.”

“Wait,” Murdoch ordered harshly.  “We’ll do it your way.  All I want is to get my son back.”

“Don’t worry, old man,” Johnny said, softly, returning to his seat.  He turned his glass around in his hands, listening as the new arrival ordered a drink.  “What’s the name of this bandito?” He pitched his voice to carry.

“Vicente Silva.”

“Silva, huh?  I wonder if he knows how much trouble he’s bought himself?” Johnny watched the man for a reaction, satisfied that he had read the situation correctly.  He finished his beer.  “There’s a room for you upstairs. We leave at daybreak.”

“Why not now?”

“No offense, Mr. Lancer, but you look about done in.  We’ll make better time if we leave in the morning when you and your horse are both rested.  Besides, there’s still a couple of days before the ransom has to be delivered.” He didn’t add that he needed time for Val to get into position.  Murdoch didn’t know about the sheriff, and Johnny planned to keep it to himself. Although he hated leaving Scott and Teresa in Silva’s hands any longer than was necessary, he couldn’t afford any missteps.

He stood and looked seriously down at his father.  “Get some rest.”

“Where are you going?”

“To make sure the liveryman is treating my horse right.”

“You’ll join me later for supper?”

Johnny hesitated.  The smart answer was to refuse.  “Sure. Why not?” He grinned.  “So long as you’re payin’.”

**** 

Johnny’s motivation for leaving the saloon didn’t solely relate to the welfare of his horse.  He waited until his father had gone to his room before heading out.  As he’d hoped, the man followed him, trying to look inconspicuous and only succeeding in drawing more attention to himself.  Johnny spent an hour at the livery, grooming and feeding his horse.  He hoped he was giving the impression of a man with nothing on his mind.

He walked back out into the afternoon sunshine and looked around.  No one was going anywhere in a hurry, it was just too damned hot without even a breath of wind.  He pulled out his bandana and dunked it in the horse trough.  After wiping his face he tied it around his neck, relishing the feel of cool water trickling down his back.  Brushing his hair back from his forehead, he repositioned his hat. As he set off down the street, he slid the safety loop off his gun.  He turned into an alley.  The minute he was sure he was out of sight of the street he began to run, ducking into the shelter of a doorway.  Drawing his gun, he waited.

Ignoring the distant noises from the street, he concentrated on listening for the sounds that would betray the man who had been trailing him.  A stone skittered, striking the wall.  A boot heel crunched down on the hard packed dirt.  He caught a hint of sound and an unpleasant odor of sweat-soaked fear.

Johnny stepped out and the man gave a surprised yelp.  With his left hand Johnny forced the man back against the wall, fingers tangled in the greasy shirt.  He jammed his gun under his victim’s chin, every inch of his body radiating cold, uncaring aggression.  If the man feared that he was only seconds from death he wasn’t far wrong.  There was no room for mercy in Johnny’s mind, for the men who had taken Scott and Teresa prisoner.

“I don’t take real kindly to bein’ followed.” Johnny knew the power of his voice, soft and unemotional.  It told the men who’d been stupid enough to take him on that they meant nothing to him and, that he’d end their lives without a second’s regret.

“I wasn’t…”

“You ain’t got much time left.” Johnny rammed the gun into the soft skin of the man’s throat.  “You don’t want me to send you to hell with a lie on your lips.”

“Por favor, Señor Madrid,” the man pleaded fearfully.

“You work for Silva.  Don’t bother denying it. What I want to know is, were the hostages alive when you left?”

“Si, Señor.”

“Were any of them hurt?”

“They were unharmed, Señor.”

Johnny kept his relief hidden.  “Where are they being held?”

“The man is locked in the jail and the women are in a room above the cantina.”

“You’re gonna tell me about Vicente Silva and, when we’re done, you’re gonna take him a message.”

The man’s face crumpled into an expression of pathetic gratitude, leaving Johnny in no doubt that his words had been understood.  There wouldn’t be a death that day and the price would be information – information that Johnny would use to save his family.

****

The temperature in the cell was still climbing.  Scott rolled up his sleeves and undid some more buttons on his shirt.  A bucket filled with tepid water stood in the corner, and he debated with himself whether or not it was worth the effort to get up and fetch some.  He’d spent an uncomfortable night, worried about Teresa and unable to settle to sleep with his hands still bound. The sheriff had brought his breakfast, untying him and giving him a look of grudging admiration.  Too exhausted to even think, Scott had finally fallen into a restless slumber.

The heat had woken him, his shirt damp and clinging to his skin.  He would have given almost anything for the opportunity to bathe and get himself clean.  His clothes were torn and dirty, and he didn’t want to consider how disreputable he must look.  He wondered, fleetingly, what Aunt Mary would make of him now.

One thing he’d learnt during his previous imprisonment was the importance of keeping his mind active.  He’d seen too many men simply give up.  He started to make mental lists of all the jobs that would be waiting for him when he got home.  The trouble was that Silva’s words kept intruding, taunting him with the truth.  Unless a miracle happened, he would not be going home.

Leaning back against the rough stone wall he looked at the small barred window.  The glimpse of clear blue sky brought a measure of comfort.  In Libby, the prisoners hadn’t been allowed within three feet of the windows.  The penalty for disobedience was summary execution. For months Scott hadn’t seen the sky, hadn’t felt the sun on his face or the rain.  Helpless to prevent the black mood that descended on him, he felt himself drowning in memories.

Fighting his way back to the surface took time.  He grasped at images of a happier time, weaving them together, until they were strong enough to support him.  His first unknowing sight of his brother, the view overlooking Lancer, Teresa’s smile and his father’s surprising warmth, brought him back from the dark and desperate days of his incarceration.  Bitter sweet images of Boston, and his grandfather, of a life left behind, added to the reasons why he could not – would not, give up.  Murdoch and Johnny would be coming for them, and his family, united, was a force to be reckoned with.

It came as no surprise when Silva turned up.  The young Mexican liked an audience, especially a captive one.

“You were fortunate last night that I let you live.”

“I hope you’re not expecting me to thank you.”

Silva shrugged as if Scott’s reaction were of no interest to him.  “Will your father come alone?”

“How should I know?  Besides, what difference will it make to you?  You’re planning to kill all of us, anyway.”

“That is true.  It is a pity, because I like you, and the girl has a lot of spirit.”

Scott stood and crossed the short distance to the bars.  “Let the women go.  Send them out of town before Murdoch gets here.  They’re no threat to you.”

“You think I have no heart?”

“After what you did last night?  I know you have no conscience, otherwise, you couldn’t have treated Teresa the way you did.  But, I like to think there might be a spark of decency in you.  I saw how the people in your village reacted when they saw you.  They weren’t afraid, not like the folks here.  I don’t think it’s too late for you to change.”

“You mistake me, Señor.  I have no wish to change.  I chose this life and it is exciting, no?”

“Killing innocent men and women?  Extorting money for ransom? If you think that is exciting then you are right, and you have no heart.”

“You saw how my people have been forced to live.  It is a miserable existence.  They work for little pay and die young.  I make a difference…”

“You’re a murderer,” Scott interrupted coldly.  “However you dress it up, that’s what you are.”

Silva frowned.  “Do you not fear me?”

“Why? Because you are the one with the gun?  No, all I feel for you is contempt.”

“I was going to allow you to visit the girl and her sour-faced aunt.  Now, I am not so sure.  I should have you beaten for your insolence.”

Scott shook his head and returned to his place on the cot.  “I’m tired of this game.  Do what you want.”

He watched Silva from the corner of his eye as the outlaw stood chewing his lip indecisively.  He knew that he had been expected to beg, and could imagine how much satisfaction that would have given his jailor. Likely Silva would have thrown the pleas back in his face, simply because he had the power to do so.

“Sheriff,” Silva called.  “Put him in shackles and take him over to the cantina.  He can have fifteen minutes to say goodbye to the women.”

Scott allowed the sheriff to lock the handcuffs around his wrists, after which he was led across the street to the cantina.  He ignored the stares of Silva’s men as he eagerly climbed the stairs.  At a word from Silva, he was given access to the upstairs room.  As the door closed behind him, he felt a stinging slap across the cheek.

“How could you stand by and let them do that to her?” Aunt Mary demanded.

 

Chapter 6

“That’s enough!” However unjustified, the accusation stung more than the slap itself. Scott awkwardly raised his chained hands to fend off Mary’s next blow. “I don’t care what you think of me and now certainly isn’t the time to debate it.  We don’t have long and I need you both to listen carefully.”

He could no longer make any pretense at civility toward this woman, who had done nothing, except criticize and provoke.  She was the person best placed to help Teresa deal with what had happened, but it appeared that she was putting her own feelings of outrage ahead of Teresa’s needs.

“Look at her.” Aunt Mary’s voice had softened fractionally.  “See what he did to her.”

“I know what he did. I was there, as you just so kindly reminded me.” Scott crossed to the bed where Teresa lay, still in the torn dress she had been wearing the night before.  She had a pillow clutched to her chest and her legs were drawn up.  She reminded Scott of a vulnerable wounded animal. As he reached out to her, she flinched away.  “What happened after you left with Gabriel?” he asked gently.

“Nothing.” Her voice shook and Scott could see the effort it was costing her to speak. The spirit that had seen her through the previous evening’s ordeal had fled in the aftermath of her terror, leaving her broken and vulnerable.  “He brought me back here and left.  He said,” she paused and raised her tear streaked face to look at him. “He said that if Silva asked, I was to pretend that he’d…he’d…” She turned away, unable to continue.

“Hush, child.”  Sitting on the edge of the bed, Mary began to rub Teresa’s back, slowly and rhythmically.

Scott looked at the older woman in amazement.  He’d never have expected her to show such a capacity for tenderness. Teresa was uncurling her body, eyelids drooping as her muscles relaxed.

“It’ll all be over soon,” Mary continued.  “Then you’ll be on your way home.”

Scott sat on the chair next to the bed, being careful to stay well away from Teresa.  “I don’t think we can trust Silva to let us go, even once he has the ransom,” he said carefully.

He could tell from the tightening of Teresa’s expression that this wasn’t a new thought.  Mary, however, gasped in shock.

“He has no reason to go back on his word,” she protested.

“He doesn’t need a reason.” Scott knew that he was being abrupt, but he had things to say and didn’t know how long it would be before they were separated again, possibly forever. His throat tightened on that thought. Neither Teresa nor Mary deserved to end their lives with a bullet to the head, in some dirty, backwater, little town.  “Teresa, have you told anyone about Johnny?”

“Your brother? What about him?” Mary interjected, curiosity appearing to overcome the fear his last words had invoked.

“Be quiet.” Scott couldn’t remember ever having spoken to a woman like that before.  In fact, had anyone asked him, he’d have said it wasn’t in his nature to be that rude. “Teresa, think. This is important.”

“No.”

Scott’s shoulders sagged in relief.  “Good.  He might be our only chance.” He saw Teresa nod listlessly.  “I’m sure he and Murdoch will be prepared for Silva to double-cross them.  Johnny isn’t exactly noted for giving anyone much credit. But, we have to be prepared, so if there’s any opportunity to escape, I want you to take it,” he continued forcefully.  “Don’t worry about me.  Get as far away from here as you can and find help.”

There was a spark of life in Teresa’s face as she scrambled to sit up.  “I won’t leave without you.”

“You’ve been through quite enough to protect him.” Mary gave Scott a withering look.

“What are you talking about?” Scott looked from Teresa to Aunt Mary and then back again.  Although she was now sitting against the headboard Teresa had her arms wrapped tightly around herself.  It was a gesture reminiscent of Johnny, painfully reminding Scott how much he was missing his sibling and of what this journey could cost.

“Last night.  She gave herself to that man to spare you a beating.”

Suddenly, Teresa’s plea to Silva made sense. He’d been too horrified at the time to pay much attention to her words.  “Oh, Teresa, don’t you know me better than that?  I’d rather have died than see that happen to you.”

“I know.”

The key rattled in the lock.  He was out of time.  “Promise me you’ll run if you get the chance,” he hissed urgently.

Teresa scooted across the bed, flinging her arms around his neck.  “I promise,” she whispered.  She was trembling and he ached to hold her and soothe her fears, silently cursing the chains that made that impossible. She clung to him until the sheriff pushed her away and hustled him out the door.

“Did you enjoy your visit?” Silva sneered, pushing away from where he’d been lounging against the railing.

Ignoring the provocation, Scott brushed past, walking down the stairs and out into the street, with the sheriff hurrying to catch up.  He barely noticed the scruffy cowboy riding into town on his tired horse.  Once inside the jail, he held out his hands for the handcuffs to be removed.  The sheriff fumbled with the key, unable to meet the contemptuous glare.  Scott sank down onto the cot, a newly awoken ache in his temples increasing with each beat of his heart.  He rested his head in his hands as the door slammed shut.

**** 

Val had been in town for less than an hour and already the atmosphere was making his skin crawl.  The streets were littered with small groups of heavily armed men who had watched his progress to the livery with unfriendly stares.  The only positive thing had been his brief sighting of Johnny’s brother.  There was no doubt in his mind that the young man in the custody of the sheriff was Scott Lancer.  Johnny had described his brother as being tall, blond and elegant, although, there had been a mischievous glint in his eye as he pronounced the last word. Val ruefully admitted to himself that he’d been expecting to see some soft Eastern dandy.  He hadn’t expected the air of simmering aggression.  He was beginning to see why Johnny spoke of his brother with admiration.

The liveryman hadn’t been very forthcoming about the town.  He had, in fact, looked downright terrified.  Val understood and didn’t press.  Whatever was about to happen, it was the townsfolk who would be left to live with the consequences.

Walking to the jail, he went out of his way to make eye contact with Silva’s men.  If he showed any sign of weakness, they’d tear him apart.  He began to think up creative ways he could make Johnny pay for this.

The sheriff was sitting at his desk, looking unhappy.  Val glanced toward the cells. Scott looked up briefly before returning to a silent contemplation of his hands.

“Evenin’, Sheriff.”

“Who’re you?”

“Name’s Crawford.”  There was no reaction from the man in the cell. Val hadn’t really been expecting one since Johnny had made it clear that he hadn’t shared many details of his former life with his family.  He pulled a grubby wanted poster out of his back pocket.  “I was wonderin’ if you’d seen this man.” He dropped the paper onto the desk, edging closer to the cell to get a better look at the prisoner.

The sheriff scanned the description quickly.  “You a bounty hunter?”

Scott’s head had come up again, listening with a faint air of contempt.

“Yep.  Been followin’ him for the last coupla weeks.  Lost his trail outside Visalia.”  Still no reaction.  Damn Johnny for being so close-mouthed. His life would be a great deal easier if Scott had recognized him as a friend of his brother’s.

“Well, I ain’t never seen him.” The sheriff shoved the paper back in Val’s direction.  “It would be a good idea if you were to ride out.”

“Can’t do it.” Val pulled out a chair, sitting with a sigh of relief.  “My horse is about to drop dead from exhaustion, and I don’t have the money to replace him.  Reckon we both need to rest up for a few days.”

“You won’t find much of a welcome here.”

Val swiveled round to look at Scott who was standing, gripping the bars with both hands. “That right?” Val responded. “What’re you in for, boy?”

“You’ll shut your mouth, if you know what’s good for you,” the sheriff warned his prisoner.

There was a half-smile on Scott’s face as he replied.  “I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.” With a placating gesture to the sheriff, he returned to the cot.

The sheriff, however, didn’t seem willing to let it go and Val grimaced.  Although Scott had backed down, the sheriff clearly felt that his authority had been challenged.

“You’ve been warned,” the man threatened.

Val studied Scott more closely.  The young man looked tired, there were bruises on his face and around his wrists.  This hadn’t been an easy captivity.  The slight smile forming on the prisoner’s face worried Val more than the evidence of abuse.  He’d seen that look too often to mistake its meaning.  Scott had almost reached the limits of his tolerance and was about to do, or say, something really stupid.  Somehow, he didn’t think Johnny would be happy if he stood by and let Scott make a potentially fatal mistake.

“What are you going to do about it, Sheriff?” Scott challenged before Val could stop him.  “You’ve pretty much shown your lack of guts by letting Silva push you around.”

Val groaned.  Knowing one impulsive Lancer was bad enough, and this one didn’t look like he was going to be any easier to control.

“I’ve a good mind to come in there and teach you some manners,” the sheriff threatened.

“That would be kinda dumb.” Val squirmed as both men turned to look at him.  He glowered back belligerently.  “You open that cell and he’s gonna try to make a break.”

“Who the hell asked for your opinion?” Scott was angry, although Val noticed that he didn’t try to deny the charge.

“Look,” Val said, striving to adopt a reasonable tone.  “Seems to me that bein’ in that cell’s a damn sight better than lyin’ in a ditch with ants crawlin’ across your eyeballs.”

Blue eyes, so unlike Johnny’s, widened in momentary surprise.  Johnny had been quite shame-faced when describing how he’d patronized his brother shortly after their first meeting.  He’d been trying, for the best of reasons, to get Scott to back away from the fight with Pardee.  That particular remark had appealed to Val and he’d stored it away with an appreciative chuckle.

The challenge left Scott’s face and he looked dismissively at the sheriff before turning his attention back to Val.  “You’re probably right.”

The sheriff continued to bristle aggressively, clearly torn between the urge to punish the insult and the more sensible option of letting it pass.

“Well,” Val broke the strained silence, his chair scraping across the floor as he stood up.  “Reckon I’d best find a bed for the night.”

There was no mistaking Scott’s disappointment, but Val had no intention of breaking him out of jail.  They’d be lucky to get to the far side of the street before being recaptured or shot.  Then, there were the women to consider.  No, he was going to play this exactly as instructed.

Disappointment changed to unconcealed hatred as the outer door opened.  Val turned slowly, keeping his right hand clear of his gun.

“What are you doing in my town?”

The arrogant young Mexican could only be Vicente Silva.  The fact that he, and his two companions, had their guns drawn and pointed at his chest was unwelcome, but no great surprise.

“Your town?” Val growled in response. “Didn’t see no sign sayin’ it was off limits.”

“What is your business here, Señor?” Silva asked suspiciously.

After glaring in Scott’s direction the sheriff walked back to his desk. “He’s a bounty hunter.”

“You seem to have strayed very close to the border.”

“So? The warrant says dead or alive.  A dead man can’t complain about where he was caught.”

“Sounds like you two have a lot in common.” Disgust dripped from Scott’s words.

Val stiffened as Silva approached the cell.  He turned to watch the confrontation, admiring the blond’s guts, even as he deplored the lack of common sense.

“You do not learn your lesson. I thought last night’s demonstration would have taught you to mind what you say.”

“It showed me that you’re a coward who likes to take advantage of helpless young women.”

Val sucked in a shocked breath.  When Johnny found out that Silva had touched the girl he regarded as his little sister, his revenge would be slow and painful.

“Patricio.” Silva gestured to the larger of the men who had accompanied him.  “Bring him over to the cantina.  We will see if he has the courage to back up his brave words.”

Scott’s expression wasn’t encouraging.  Val realized, too late, that he’d deliberately pushed Silva in order to get out of the cell.  Damn! Why couldn’t he have sat tight and waited?

As Scott was being hauled out, Silva returned to his contemplation of Val.  “Let me buy you a drink, Bounty Hunter.  But,” he warned, “tomorrow you leave.”

Val had no intention of leaving. He just had to find a way to persuade Silva to let him stay.  He kept his gaze averted as Scott was pushed past, suspecting that the blond would need his help before the night was over.

****

Although Johnny had killed many men during his life, he had only once taken any pleasure in a death.  The rest had been strictly business; men who were gunning for him and who had to die so that he could live. The stark recognition that he could have killed Silva’s man in cold blood was sobering and left him with a bad taste in his mouth.  It would have been a pointless act of revenge. Deeply shaken by the effort required to keep his emotions in check, he had regretted the impulse that had led him to agree to meet Murdoch for supper.  He was sure that the shame he felt would be visible to his father, and didn’t know if he had the strength to keep up the charade – and ensure that Murdoch did so, as well.

He’d rushed through the meal, dropping subtle hints that his father should retire for the night.  So far, Murdoch hadn’t shown any signs of moving.  Johnny pulled the bottle of tequila toward him, pouring another glass.  He made no move to offer any to his companion.

“Don’t you think you’ve had enough?”

Johnny lifted the glass in a silent salute and drained it, setting it back on the scarred wooden table with a bad-tempered thud.  “You’ve bought my services, not the right to tell me what to do.”

“I need you sober.”

“I can handle my liquor, old man.”

“I know you can, John…” Murdoch stopped, staring at Johnny in horrified apology.

“That would be Mr. Madrid to you,” Johnny drawled softly, as he deliberately slopped the liquid into his glass. He frowned in annoyance as some spilt onto the table. “Why don’t you turn in?” he suggested bluntly.  “We’ve got a long ride ahead of us tomorrow.”

Murdoch leaned forward, his fingers brushing Johnny’s sleeve. “I’m not leaving you down here on your own to get drunk,” he whispered. “I need you – Scott and Teresa need you.”

“You think I don’t know that?”

“Is this what it was like?  Your life? Sitting in saloons, drinking on your own?”

Johnny lounged back in his chair, an insolent grin on his face and looked around.  He beckoned to one of the saloon girls and she strolled over.  He concentrated on her, rather than his father, noting the low cut dress, the professional smile and an attractive face, ruined by too much makeup.  “I didn’t always drink alone.”

“Something I can do for you, handsome?” the girl purred.

“Yeah. You can pull up a chair and join me.  Mr. Lancer was just leavin’.”

He heard, rather than saw, his father getting up from his chair.  He didn’t want to see the look of disgust and disappointment.  He pushed the bottle and glass toward the girl, resting an arm along the smooth skin of her bare shoulders.  When he looked up, he thought he had his emotions firmly under control, but wasn’t prepared for the tight anger on his father’s face.

“I see that I’ve outstayed my welcome.  Whatever you choose to do with your time this evening, I’ll expect you to be ready to leave at daybreak.  I’m not leaving my son and ward in the hands of those men any longer than necessary.”

Wishing that there had been another way, Johnny turned his attentions to the girl.  The other customers who had been watching the exchange with interest, returned to their drinks and card games.  Johnny forced a smile and pulled the girl into his lap.  Just a couple more drinks, he promised himself, and some harmless flirting to keep up appearances, then he’d head for bed – alone.

 

Chapter 7

Scott’s legs shook with the effort of keeping him upright.  He bit his lip as the muscles cramped, tightening painfully.  How long had he been standing here?  It felt like an eternity.  A slight shuffling of his feet to try and ease the strain, caused the chair on which he was standing to creak.  His heart pounded, the pulse in his neck fluttering wildly.

Silva and his men had been drinking steadily, ignoring him for the most part. The bounty hunter was matching Silva glass for glass.  Occasionally, Scott caught the man looking at him.  He fixed his attention on a knot hole in the wooden wall in front of him.  He had to concentrate, to try and block out thoughts of his present precarious situation. He flinched as one of the outlaws staggered past, knocking against the chair.  It rocked sideways before settling back on its legs.  The rope around his neck tightened.

When he’d been dragged across to the cantina he had expected a beating.  However, Silva’s idea of an appropriate punishment had been far worse.  With his hands shackled behind his back, he’d watched in sick horror as Silva fashioned a crude noose.  Once the rope was around his neck, he’d been forced up onto this chair.  The other end of the rope was secured to the upstairs railings and there was no slack.  If his strength gave out, or he lost his balance, he would just hang there, slowly suffocating.  Would Silva let it go that far?  Scott had a nasty feeling that the outlaw might finally have been pushed past the point of rational thinking.

The room was oppressively hot, making his head swim.  The rope was tight enough to be uncomfortable, making it necessary to regulate his breathing.  Each time he swallowed, he could feel the pressure on his throat. The knot of fear in his belly was becoming harder to ignore.

“You plannin’ to let that fella hang himself?”

The slurred question came from the bounty hunter.  Not for the first time, Scott asked himself who the hell this man was.  That one comment over at the jail had alerted him to the possibility that Crawford might know Johnny.  That was the only reason he’d pushed Silva so hard, hoping for an opportunity to speak to this stranger and see if he was a friend.  In hindsight, it hadn’t been one of his better ideas.

“Why do you care?” Silva sounded curious, rather than suspicious.

“Didn’t say I cared.  Just seems to me that you’ve gone to a lot of trouble to kidnap him, and you won’t get your money if he’s dead.”

There was a sudden silence.  Silva leaned threateningly across the table.  “Kidnapping, Señor?”

“Give me some credit.  He ain’t no saddle tramp.  He don’t look so fancy now, but his clothes are good quality and he’s well spoken.  Ain’t none of my business, but I reckon someone’d pay good money to get him back alive.”

“You are right,” Silva said softly.  “It is none of your business.”

“Look, it don’t matter to me how a man makes a living.  But, if all hell’s about to bust loose in this town, I’d like to know.”

Black spots were dancing in front of Scott’s eyes as he tried to follow the conversation.  It was becoming harder to breathe. He felt himself slipping sideways, helpless to prevent the rope tightening around his neck.  All he could hear was the sound of the blood pounding in his head. The chair fell away with a dull thud.  He struggled, trying to find something that would support his weight. He heard laughter, and shouting.  His chest heaved as he tried to draw air into his lungs. Slowly, painfully, the rope drew tighter and tighter. Then, there was nothing.

****

Someone was speaking to him.  He tried to concentrate, to make sense of the words.  The voice, annoyingly insistent, was angry and vaguely familiar.

“Goddamn, mule-headed Lancers.”

Scott almost smiled at the exasperated tone.  Turning his head toward the voice, he opened his eyes.  Bemused, he looked at the bounty hunter who was hunkered down by his side.  He seemed to be lying on the floor, his throat raw and aching.  A cold rush of memory brought back the sensation of suffocation as the rope had cut off his air supply.  He tried to raise a hand to his throat, only to feel the harsh bite of the metal shackles.

“What the hell were you doin’, provoking him like that?” Crawford hissed in his ear. “You ain’t got any more sense than that crazy brother of yours.”

Scott searched the unprepossessing face intently, seeking some sign of a trick.  His tongue felt swollen, hampering his ability to speak and, in some respects, he felt that was a blessing.  It would be too easy to blurt out an acknowledgment, only to find that this was some kind of trap.

“I know you ain’t got a clue who I am, and you’ve no reason to trust me,” the bounty hunter continued.  “The name’s Val Crawford and I’ve known Johnny for a lot of years.  I’ve ridden with him, and I’ve arrested him more’n once. A few years back, he saved my life.  I’m trying to return the favor.”

“Silva?” Scott whispered, trying to see past Val.

“One of his men turned up with news.  Seems he’d been following your pa, and Johnny caught him. Johnny’s going by the name Madrid and he’s spread the story that he’s being paid to provide your pa with protection.   It looks like he’s managed to hide his connection to Lancer. And, I gotta give your brother credit ‘cause he can be real sneaky when he puts his mind to it.  He sent Silva a message…”

“Is he conscious?”

Scott stiffened as he heard Silva’s voice.

“Just about.  You’re lucky he didn’t break his neck.”

“I wouldn’t be too concerned for his well-being.  Tomorrow, or the day after, he will be dead.”

Scott saw Val stand up.  “Figured as much.”

“That was an impressive shot, Señor.  Not many men could have severed the rope with one bullet.”

Scott realized then why he was still alive, hoping that he would get a chance to thank Val Crawford for his intervention.  He heard Silva ordering men to get him to his feet.  They weren’t gentle and it was only the grip on his arms that ensured that he remained upright.  Lifting his head to look at the outlaw was almost too much effort.

“Your father is on his way with the money.  It seems he does not trust me to keep my side of the bargain.” Silva chuckled.  “He is a wise man.  Unfortunately, he has made a poor choice for his traveling companion.  Have you ever heard of Johnny Madrid?”

Scott’s eyelids drooped as he fought to keep his face impassive.  “No.”

“He is a gunfighter.  He was one of the best.”

“Was?”

“Si.  He was captured by the Rurales and faced a firing squad.  No one knows how he managed to escape, but for a time, he disappeared.  Some say he lost his nerve.  All I know is that nothing has been heard of him for many months.  Now, all of a sudden, he is back and your father has hired him to guard the money.  I am looking forward to meeting him.”

“You said my father had made a poor choice. Why?”

“That does not need to concern you.”

Silva was looking far too happy for Scott’s liking.  What the hell was his brother playing at? “I’d say it was very much my business.”

“Has my little demonstration not taught you anything?  What do I have to do to force you to show me respect?”

“You don’t want respect,” Scott said wearily.  “You want me to fear you, and that’s something that will never happen.”

A hard slap across the mouth snapped Scott’s head to the right.  “You really need to learn to keep that mouth shut.” Val Crawford raised his hand again as Scott involuntarily tried to jerk back out of the way. “Give me five minutes alone with him,” Crawford said, “and I’ll teach him some manners.”

“Why should you care?” Silva asked.

“Don’t like mouthy prisoners,” Crawford growled.  “Besides, I’ve got a hankerin’ to meet Johnny Madrid again, and if this idiot doesn’t shut up and stop provoking you, I’d say he’s likely to be buzzard meat before his old man and Madrid even show up. I tried to take Madrid in once, only he gave me the slip.  I’d sure like to take another shot at him.”

“We can discuss it,” Silva conceded.  “We will talk in the morning.  Patricio, take our prisoner back to the jail.”

With his last reserves of strength, Scott tore himself free, colliding heavily with Val Crawford.  “The women – upstairs.  Get them out.” There was a brief flicker of acknowledgement before Crawford pushed him back into Patricio’s arms.  Too worn down to fight, he allowed the outlaw to drag him back to his cell.

**** 

“Will you talk to me, Son?”

Johnny stiffened. “I told you…”

“I don’t give a damn what you told me.” There was a hard edge to Murdoch’s voice.  “We’re miles away from anyone, and I think we should discuss what happened last night.”

Johnny kept his horse moving at a steady pace, acutely conscious of his father riding beside him.  “If you’re lookin’ for an apology, you won’t get one.”

Murdoch reached over, catching the bridle and forcing Johnny to stop.  “I don’t want an apology.  In fact, it seems to me that I’m the one who should apologize.  This…pretense, is hard, Son, and I nearly said more than I should. If it hadn’t been for your quick thinking, I could have ruined everything.”

Unable to look at his father, Johnny was still quick to offer reassurance.  “You’re doin’ fine.  It’s only natural that you’d be all wound up over Scott’s kidnapping. It ain’t easy to think straight when you’re worried about someone.”

“That’s no excuse.  Scott and Teresa are depending on us.  It might be easier if I could understand what your life was like before you came back to Lancer.” Murdoch loosened his hold, allowing Johnny to move ahead of him.  “Was it very lonely?”

“It could be.”

“What about…”

Johnny stopped, turning in his saddle.  “It’s in the past, Murdoch.  Talkin’ about it won’t help either of us.  I did things I ain’t proud of, and I did some things that made a difference. I’d just as soon be Johnny Lancer and a rancher, than have the Madrid reputation hangin’ over me.  But, right now, it’s Madrid who can get this job done, so that’s who I have to be.  I don’t like it, and I’d be a damn sight happier if you didn’t have to see it.  I’m gonna do everything I can to get Scott and Teresa back. That means playin’ dirty, ‘cause a man like Silva has no conscience. He’ll use Scott and he’ll use Teresa, then he’ll kill both of them.  What you saw last night doesn’t even come close to what you’ll be a witness to when we arrive in that town.”

Tugging on the reins, Johnny spurred forward again.  He couldn’t cope with the anguish on his father’s face, or the dread that, when this was over, the expression would be one of disappointment.  He didn’t know how far he’d have to go to secure the release of the people he had come to love, and neither could he afford to let himself worry about how Murdoch would react.  His own fears had to be set aside so that he could function as a cold-hearted gunfighter.  If the price of Scott’s life was facing his father’s revulsion, it was a price he was more than willing to pay.

As the miles passed, without Murdoch making any further effort to engage him in conversation, he found he could focus on his plans.  Val would have reached his destination.  Even if he’d been told to leave town, he’d be in the vicinity, and would be working on finding Teresa and Mary.  The message he’d sent to Silva should also have been delivered by now.  It should help to buy him some temporary immunity, as the offer was almost guaranteed to pique Silva’s interest. There was a twinge of guilt that Murdoch knew none of this. That guilt was easily suppressed.  This was his game – his rules – and it was a game he was playing to win.

**** 

After spending the night in exhausted sleep, Teresa woke feeling better than she had the previous day.  The shock of Silva’s assault was passing.  Apart from a few bruises, she was physically unharmed, thanks to Gabriel’s intervention.  Mary lay beside her on the bed, still fast asleep.  Her aunt’s presence had been a comfort to her, although she was still angry at Mary’s treatment of Scott. She’d managed to avoid answering any of the eager questions about Johnny.  Mary only knew that the youngest Lancer had been brought up in Mexico by his mother.  If Scott thought it was a good idea to keep the rest of the history quiet, she was happy to follow his lead.

She stripped off the dress she had been forced to wear, washed quickly in the cold water in the bowl, and put on her own clothes.  It felt good to look in the mirror and see a reflection she recognized.  She couldn’t understand how anyone could chose to dress that way, to invite the stares of drunken men and lead them on in the hope of earning a few coins.  She shivered as she remembered the feel of Silva’s hands, pawing her body.  If she had access to a gun right now, she’d kill the outlaw herself without an ounce of regret.

She backed away from the door as she heard the key turning.  When she saw who it was she smiled shyly, receiving an equally shy smile from Gabriel.

“I have brought you some breakfast,” he told her quietly.

He left the door open as he carried in the tray, setting it down on the dresser.  Teresa looked at the opening, battling the urge to bolt.  Despite her promise to Scott, panicked flight wouldn’t achieve anything.  A man that she didn’t recognize walked down the hallway, pausing to look in.  Their eyes met and he watched her solemnly for a minute before touching the brim of his hat and walking away. A light touch on her shoulder brought her attention back to Gabriel.

“Will you trust me?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Bueno.  My brother-in-law is not an honorable man.  He intends to take the ransom and kill you all.  I think this is not a surprise to you.”

“Scott warned us. Can you help us?”

“If Vicente finds out that I am even speaking to you like this, he will kill me, but I cannot stand by and let him do this.  I believe I can get you and your Tia away from here before the shooting starts.”

“What about Scott?”

“I am sorry, Señorita.  He is too well guarded.”

“You could leave town.  Find Murdoch and warn him.”

Gabriel shook his head.  “I have known Vicente my whole life.  He is my friend and I will not betray him.  I will not provide information that could get him killed. Getting you to safety will not hurt him.  Murdoch Lancer is expected to arrive tomorrow. Tonight, when everyone is asleep, I will let you out of here.  I will leave horses at the livery stable and will show you a way out of town, avoiding the sentries. If we are lucky, Vicente won’t realize you have escaped until it is too late.”

“Gracias, Gabriel.  I won’t forget your bravery.”

****

Scott couldn’t identify a single part of his body that wasn’t aching.  He lay face down on the narrow cot, trying unsuccessfully to block out the heat, his hunger and the discomfort of his bruised and parched throat.  Silva had clearly decided that there was no reason to give him food or water.  Why waste provisions on a hostage who would soon be dead?  As the day dragged on, it became very hard to maintain any optimism.

He could hear a lot of movement in the street as men hurried from one place to another.  The shouted commands meant little to him.  All he knew for sure was that Silva was setting up an ambush with the intention of wiping out his family.  It was difficult to be patient, even though he now had confirmation that Johnny had managed to conceal his true allegiance. That gave them the element of surprise.  Would it be enough? What message had Johnny sent to Silva?  And, what was it costing his brother to return to a life he had willingly left behind?

 

Chapter 8

There were still several hours of daylight left when Johnny turned off the trail to look for a camp site.  A sense of anticipation had been building steadily, causing his heart to beat unevenly in his chest.  Soon he would find out how his family was, and would meet the man responsible for their captivity.  Vicente Silva was a dead man – he just didn’t know it yet.

“Why are we stopping?” Murdoch’s voice was flat, belying the emotions that Johnny knew must be raging through him.  “If we push on we can make it to the town by nightfall.”

There was a clearing ahead of them, shaded by trees and with the sound of running water in the background.  Johnny sat quietly and listened, hearing only the normal sounds of a lazy sunlit afternoon.  He dismounted, looking up at his father. There was nothing he wouldn’t have given to ease the strain he saw on the older man’s face. However, now wasn’t the time for either subtlety or false promises.

“We need to check on the hostages before we ride in with the money. You stay here while I go into town.  Silva’s counting on dealing with a distraught father who can’t think straight. That’ll make him over confident.  If we’re lucky, he won’t be expecting this and he’ll make a mistake that could help us later.”

“I’m not waiting here while you ride into danger,” Murdoch protested fiercely.  “Besides, they’ve been in the hands of those men for days. I’m not leaving them there any longer.”

It took several deep breaths before Johnny recovered his equilibrium. It must be killing Murdoch to be so close to Scott and the others. If he’d thought for one minute that Silva could be trusted, he’d have had no hesitation in agreeing with his father. But they were dealing with the kind of man who would have no qualms about killing helpless prisoners. “If we go blunderin’ in with the money there’s a good chance Silva will kill all of us.  I have to find out exactly what we’re up against so that we can plan this right. I’m not gonna lose my family because we were too impatient.” He softened his voice, begging Murdoch to understand. “You need to trust me. I’ve run into enough banditos over the years to know how they think. I’ll be back in the morning.”

Murdoch dismounted stiffly.  It hurt Johnny to see him like this. He knew how hard this must be for a man who had waited so long for his family to be reunited. To be faced with the realistic prospect of losing his older son all over again must be tearing him apart.

“What if you don’t come back?” Murdoch asked.

“If I’m not back by noon, you’ll have to assume that something’s gone wrong.  It’ll be your call, but if you want my advice, you’ll turn round and go home.”

“Why would I do that?”

The catch in Murdoch’s voice suggested he already knew the answer, although it didn’t make the words any easier to say. “’Cause it’s likely we’ll all be dead.”

“I refuse to think like that.”

“Refuse all you like, old man.  It don’t change the facts.” Unwilling to continue a conversation that was hurting both of them, Johnny headed for his horse.

“You’re taking a big risk.” Murdoch’s voice stopped him in his tracks.  “How do you know they haven’t worked out who you really are? What if Scott or Teresa said something to make them suspicious?”

For his father’s sake he had to project a confidence he wasn’t feeling, so turned back. “It’s a risk I’m gonna have to take.”

“I…” Murdoch looked away and Johnny’s throat tightened.  With a visible effort, the rancher met his steady gaze.  “Good luck, Mr. Madrid.”

He held out his hand and Johnny took it, drawing strength from the firm grip. Johnny was in the saddle with his back turned when he heard his father’s whispered final words – words that he wasn’t sure he was meant to hear.

“I love you, Son.”

**** 

Johnny detected no guards on the approach to the town. Silva, after all, had no reason to stop him on the way in and the narrow streets could easily become a killing ground if the outlaw felt threatened.  He rode relaxed with his right hand near his gun and his keen gaze taking in the number and placement of his opponents. There were a few men on the main street, heavily armed and watchful, while others were on the low roofs and behind open windows, trying to be inconspicuous.  To his relief, the lawful citizens were wisely keeping out of sight. He had enough on his mind without having to worry about a stray bullet hitting an innocent bystander.

Johnny’s mouth curled in a cold smile at the sight of a man stepping out of the sheriff’s office. He registered Johnny’s presence before hastily making his way back inside.  Another man scurried along the boardwalk to enter the cantina.  Johnny headed in that direction, taking his time. Three men walked out of the building and he hid his surprise when he saw that Silva wasn’t any older than Scott.  The outlaw was flanked by a large older man and a young man who looked to be a few years younger.

Johnny remained in the saddle, forcing Silva to look up at him. It was a petty victory, although the visible annoyance on the outlaw’s face brought some satisfaction. After studying each other in silence for a moment, Johnny swung easily from his horse, looping the reins over the hitching rail.

“Señor Madrid.  It is an honor to meet you. You have brought the money?”

Johnny smiled.  “Do I look that stupid?”

“Then, why are you here?”

“Lancer wants proof that the hostages are still alive before he hands over the ransom.”

 “You have my word that they live.”

“Yeah? Well, you won’t mind if I see for myself.”

“You do not believe me?” Silva tried to look hurt that anyone would doubt him.

“I didn’t say that.” Turning round, Johnny scanned the street.  “You can’t blame him for being cautious.”

“I will consider your request while we have a drink.”

Johnny shrugged.  “Sure. I ain’t in any hurry.”

He followed Silva, uneasily aware of the two men who entered the cantina behind him.  Silva beckoned to the older man, moving out of earshot.  Johnny chose a table and sat, keeping his back to the wall.  He looked around, straining unsuccessfully to hear what was being said.  The room, which was almost deserted, was filled with an oppressive silence.  Clearly Silva had most of his men already in position.  A slight movement, glimpsed from the corner of his eye, drew his attention to the stairs.  A length of rope with a frayed edge was swinging gently from the railings.  It was so incongruous that a small frown creased his brow as he wondered why it was there.

He tried to relax and appear disinterested, wondering if he was failing as miserably as he thought. The Mexican border towns were unforgiving places, where any sign of weakness was immediately exploited. One slip on his part and it would all be over. Silva finished his conversation, sending his compañero on his way. The bartender hurried over, smiling obsequiously, as he took Johnny’s order for a beer.

“I received your message.” Silva pulled out a chair on the other side of the table.  “It is an interesting idea.”

“I thought it might appeal to you.  Lancer’ll pay a hell of a lot more than five thousand to get his boy back.”

“I was going to take the money and kill them all. Hostages, particularly these ones, are more trouble than they’re worth.”

Johnny clenched his fists under the table as the cold-blooded admission filled him with a murderous rage.  A bullet, he decided, was too quick and merciful for a man like this. “I kinda figured that, but you’d have been throwing away a fortune. You struck pay dirt when you stumbled across someone as rich as Lancer.”

“Murdoch Lancer will not be happy.”

“You think he’d be happy if you were to gun his son down in front of him?” The question came out with a sharp edge that Johnny hadn’t intended.  Fortunately, the arrival of the bartender with their drinks provided a sufficient distraction.

After pouring himself a shot of tequila Silva sat back, studying Johnny intently. “I am curious as to your involvement.  You always had a reputation for honesty. Why would you betray the man who hired you?”

Johnny had been anticipating this question, knowing that his answer had to be convincing if the game were to continue.  “Six months in a Mexican prison changes a man, and standing in front of a firing squad kinda brings home your own mortality.  I was lucky that day, or so they told me.  Turns out, they just wanted me to watch as they executed the men who’d hired me.  They thought it would be more amusing to let me feel the pain of their deaths.  They’d have gotten around to shootin’ me eventually, only I managed to escape.  It sure made me think about what kind of future I wanted.  Gunfighters don’t usually live too long, and I’m in no hurry to die.  I need money fast so that I can get away from here, settle down someplace and change my name to stop all those young guns tryin’ to make a reputation by finding me.”

“It sounds to me as if you have lost your nerve.”

Johnny’s right hand moved, and there was no mistaking Silva’s look of astonishment as his gun cleared leather.  With the barrel pointed right between Silva’s eyes, it took a supreme effort not to pull the trigger.  He heard other guns being cocked as the few outlaws in the saloon reacted to the threat against their leader.  “You might want to reconsider that last remark,” Johnny suggested softly.

It was a standoff and both men knew it.  Silva, however, didn’t seem to be in any hurry to die either. He gave a nervous laugh.  “It appears I was mistaken.”

Ignoring the guns pointed in his direction, Johnny eased the hammer back and returned his Colt to its holster.  He picked up his beer, taking a long swallow, eyes fixed on the outlaw. It was a display of raw courage designed to impress. “I want to see Scott Lancer, and then we can discuss my fee.”

Silva looked at his younger companion who had been waiting patiently at the bar.  “Patricio is over at the jail.  Tell him to bring Lancer here.”

Johnny sat back, his hands now idly playing with his glass.  He’d suspected that Scott would be held in the jail, but it was good to have that confirmed.  He wondered now about Teresa and her aunt.  There had been no sign of them and they hadn’t yet been mentioned.  He hadn’t seen Val either, which was an added worry.  He couldn’t afford to make his move until he knew where everyone was.

Waiting for the first sight of his brother was hard.  Silva didn’t strike him as the kind of man who would give much thought to the welfare of his prisoners, and Scott wouldn’t have tamely accepted his loss of liberty. When he finally saw Scott being manhandled into the cantina, wrists cuffed together, it was all he could do to stop himself from blowing Silva’s brains out right there. Scott’s face was bruised, his shirt torn and blood stained.  No amount of effort could disguise the pain and exhaustion marked by dark crescents under the hooded blue eyes. But, what almost pushed Johnny over the edge was the livid discoloration around his brother’s neck.  The significance of the rope he’d noticed earlier was suddenly horribly clear.

Scott’s shock at seeing his brother was quickly hidden. The look that passed between them was fleeting, yet, it was enough to reassure Johnny that there would be no inadvertent betrayal.  Scott’s glance slid away to settle malevolently on Silva.

“This is Johnny Madrid,” Silva said.  “I mentioned him last night, but you might not have been paying proper attention. He is the man your father hired to guard the ransom money.”

Obediently, Scott turned his attention to Johnny.  “Is my father alright?”

“Yeah.  He’s worried about his family, but he’s tough.”

“Why isn’t he here with you?”

“I’m just checkin’ that you’re still in one piece, before arranging the handover of the money.”

Scott licked his lips, looking indecisive. “You know that Silva doesn’t intend to keep his side of the bargain?”

A vicious punch to the stomach sent Scott to his knees, doubled over and gasping for breath.  Johnny tensed as the man identified as Patricio reached down and hauled the blond to his feet.

“It looks to me like he’s been giving you some trouble,” Johnny commented, surprised at how normal his voice sounded. “Is that why you tried to hang him?”

“He required a lesson.  I would have cut him down before he choked to death.”

Johnny tried to work through the implications of that statement.  It sounded as if it wasn’t Silva who had put a stop to the ‘lesson’.  “Killin’ him would be really stupid. Keep him alive and we can get that five thousand from Lancer as a good faith payment to guarantee his son’s continued good health.”

Scott’s head shot up.  “You’re going to double cross him?”

“Why not?” A pain started in Johnny’s stomach.  “He’s nothing to me.”

Scott’s mouth was set in a hard line and Johnny hoped that he was the only one that knew the anger wasn’t directed at him.  Then, hard on the heels of that thought, was the hope that his brother wasn’t angry with him.  The painful knot in his gut tightened.

“No honor among thieves,” Scott ground out sarcastically as Patricio raised a hand to strike him across the face.

“Hit him again and I’ll put a bullet in you,” Johnny warned.  “Murdoch Lancer’s on a short enough fuse.  You damage his son any more and I don’t know if I’ll be able to control him.”

Patricio’s hand wavered while he waited for Silva’s response.

The outlaw took his time, sipping his tequila while ignoring the stark challenge on Scott’s face. “Take him back to the jail.  See he gets food and something to drink.”

“What about the women?” Johnny asked.  He expected Scott to take a chance on answering even if it cost him.  However, the blond head dipped, but not before Johnny had seen Scott’s mute fury.

“They are safe where they are,” Silva informed him, dismissively. “Now, you should ride back to your employer and explain what is expected of him.”

“I can go back in the morning.”

“No, Señor Madrid.  It would not be wise for you to remain in town.  There is a bounty hunter who would like to claim the reward for your life.  While it would be amusing to see him try, I would rather postpone that meeting until after the money had been handed over tomorrow.  I am sure in a fair fight you could take him.  Sadly, I think he regards fairness as a sign of weakness.”

“He won’t be the first man who has tried to collect on me.  What’s his name?”

“Crawford.”

Johnny allowed his relief to blossom into a smile.  “He’s one tough hombre.  I reckon this might be interesting.”

“It will be of no benefit to me if he kills you.  I only allowed him to stay in town because I believe his efforts to capture or kill you will fail.  Perhaps you would prefer me to dispose of him for you.”

“I fight my own battles and I can take care of my own problems.  Besides, I ain’t leavin’ until we discuss my cut of the ransom.  I’m gonna be risking my neck riding shotgun on Lancer while he gets the rest of the money.” Johnny took a drink to wash away the sour taste in his mouth while he bargained with a man he would have preferred to kill.  It didn’t help either that Scott was looking longingly at the beer.  He vowed he would make Silva pay dearly for every minute of his brother’s captivity.

Belatedly realizing that Scott was still there, Silva growled an order to remove him.

Patricio’s hand landed heavily on Scott’s shoulder. “Vamanos.”

“Tell my father not to worry.” Scott didn’t wait for an answer before turning and walking away.

Allowing his brother to be taken away had to rank as one of the hardest things Johnny had ever done. He waited until he had some semblance of control over his emotions before speaking again. “What did you threaten him with to keep him quiet?” he asked.  “He knows where the women are, and he sure gave the impression that he didn’t have a problem mouthing off.”

“He is a very honorable man who will do anything to protect the girl and her aunt.  He was told that one of them would be taken out and shot if he betrayed their location to you.  We may be partners, but that doesn’t mean that I trust you with all my secrets.” Silva smiled complacently.  “I am sure your employer will be waiting anxiously for news, so I suggest that we get down to business.”

 

Chapter 9

Johnny rode out of town at a leisurely pace, forcing himself not to look at the jail or think about Scott’s condition. Too much emotion was dangerous. It made a man careless. Yet, he couldn’t pretend an indifference that he wasn’t feeling. His nerves were already rubbed raw with worry. He was walking a fine line and it would be all too easy to let his resolve slip.  Only the fact that so many other lives rested in the balance kept him in check.

He forced his mind away from the pain on his brother’s face, and the distaste that he was sure lurked just under his father’s polite façade, to review the information he had obtained.  He had to assume that Scott wouldn’t be in any position to help. Silva was keeping his valuable prisoner on too tight a leash. That left him, Val and Murdoch facing odds of something like four to one.  Added to that was the knowledge that Scott would be right in the line of fire.  Their best and only hope was for him to catch Silva by surprise and use him as leverage to get the other outlaws to throw down their weapons.  He wasn’t even prepared to chance that until Teresa and her aunt were safe.  The risk was that Silva, if he found out too soon that he’d lost two of his hostages, might kill Scott in retaliation.

Once he was well clear of the town limits Johnny cut off the road, finding a spot where he could watch for other riders.  He didn’t think Silva would have had him followed, but he wasn’t taking anything for granted.  And, if he was lucky, there was a chance Val would find a way to join up with him.

It was getting late, and he was starting to think that he should get back to his father, when he heard hoof beats.  Drawing his gun he stood quietly in the darkness.  There was only a thin sliver of moon to provide light and Johnny allowed the rider to pass before stepping out.

“You took your time,” he called.

He heard Val swear as the sheriff drew his gun while swiveling in his saddle to meet the potential threat.

“Damn, Johnny, you nearly gave me a heart attack,” Val groused.

Johnny returned his gun to its holster as he walked down the road to meet his friend.  “Did anyone see you leave town?”

Val’s face was still in shadow, but his answering snort was eloquent.  He dismounted as Johnny approached.  A strong smell of alcohol assaulted Johnny’s senses.

“This ain’t the time to get drunk.”

“I ain’t drunk,” Val replied, huffily.  “But, Silva thinks I am.  Far as he knows, I’m sleepin’ off too much tequila in the stables.”

Side by side they walked over to a secluded spot, out of sight of the roadway.  “Be careful of Silva,” Johnny warned.  “He’s playin’ with you and he’s lookin’ forward to seeing you gunned down by Johnny Madrid.”

Val didn’t look surprised.  “Figures.  There had to be some reason for lettin’ me stay around.  It’s likely to be payback because I spoilt his fun last night.”

“It was you that saved Scott,” Johnny guessed.  “I saw the mark around his neck.”

“Yeah, it was close, though. Scott said something that riled Silva up, and that was his punishment.” Val unhooked his canteen, taking a drink and pouring some water over his head. “Silva said you’d been in town.  He didn’t say anything about you seein’ Scott.”

“I’m gonna make that son of a bitch suffer for what he’s put Scott and Teresa through.” Johnny knew Val well enough to be comfortable letting down his guard so he made no effort to hide the full force of his fury.

“Your brother’s got real guts, although if he pushes Silva much further, he may not be alive when you get back tomorrow.  He won’t give an inch and Silva can’t afford to let him get away with it.  You two might not have been brought up together, but there’s a hell of a resemblance.”

“I owe you, Amigo.”

“Nah, reckon this makes us even.  Silva’s a snake.  It’ll be a pleasure to take him down.”

“Have you seen Teresa?”

“I caught a glimpse of her this afternoon.  She and her aunt are locked in a room above the cantina.  There’s usually a guard outside.” Val’s hand moved to the handle of his knife.  “I can take care of him real quietly.  You’d best be back in town early, though, cause once Silva finds out they’re gone, all hell’s likely to break loose.”

“Murdoch’s camped a few miles north of here.  I’ll fetch him while you try to get the women out.  We’ll meet back here at daybreak, get Teresa and Mary out of sight, then ride into town.”

“Johnny,” Val hesitated, chewing his bottom lip.  “You know our chances ain’t good?”

Johnny sighed heavily.  “I know, but we’ve gotta try.  You’ve seen what he’d done to Scott. Men like that only think about themselves and they don’t care who they hurt along the way. If you want to ride out once the women are clear I won’t hold it against you.  You’ve already done more than enough.”

“I don’t run out on my friends.”

Johnny’s smile was filled with gratitude.  “If we do get out of this, I know a town that could use a good sheriff. And, it just so happens, my old man is on the committee that’s responsible for the appointment.”

“I don’t know, Johnny.  I’m happy enough with my job in Visalia. I’ll give it some thought.”

Johnny slapped his friend on the back and headed for his horse. Green River could use a man like Val Crawford and he would make it his business to persuade the sheriff to take the job.

“Hold up a minute,” Val called.  “It was hard enough gettin’ Scott to trust me.  After all that little girl has been through, she’s not just gonna take my word for it that I’m a friend.”

“Tell her…” There was only one thing he could think of that would prove beyond doubt that Val knew him and it wouldn’t be an easy thing to say, even to such a good friend. “Tell her she was right about my mother.”

Although looking surprised, Val simply nodded.  “Give me a couple of hours.  Good luck, Amigo.”

A brief smile, poor enough acknowledgment for what he owed Val, crossed Johnny’s face.  “Be careful.”

****

Long after the bounty hunter had stumbled away to sleep off an excess of alcohol, Silva sat alone in the cantina.  His own faculties were dulled by tequila, but the fiery liquid had done nothing to reduce his anger and shame.  Facing Madrid’s gun had terrified him, just as backing down in the face of that threat had humiliated him.

Scott Lancer wouldn’t have backed down. Fury tore through him and he hurled his glass against the wall where it shattered into tiny pieces.  If only it had been that easy to break his prisoner.  Lancer had withstood everything, defiantly, and with a quiet courage.

Even before Madrid’s visit, Silva had sensed a change in his men’s attitude.  They admired Lancer and he was no longer certain that all would have gone along with his plan to kill the hostages.  He could count on Patricio, Gabriel and a few others to follow his orders, but the rest…

He looked around, squinting to focus as the tequila made his head spin.  Where was Gabriel?  Then, he remembered.  His brother-in-law had volunteered to guard the women.  Perhaps he still wanted to get better acquainted with that dark-haired little spitfire.  Gabriel was welcome to her.  She’d as likely kick a man between the legs than pleasure him.

Damn Madrid! What right did he have to ride into town and start dictating terms?  He should have had the arrogant gun hawk shot.  The only thing that had stopped him from giving the order was the ransom.  Without the money he had promised them, his men would turn on him.

He’d had enough.  Better that he’d just killed Lancer and the women when he first came across them.  He wouldn’t make that mistake again. To hell with his deal with Madrid.  Once the money was safely in his hands, Lancer, and everyone associated with him, was dead.  He’d get rid of Crawford as well and claim the bounty from the Rurales for Madrid’s dead body.

Too restless to sleep, he pushed away from the table, walking through the silent room and out into the street.  The air was pleasantly cool as he stood on the boardwalk, glancing right and left.  His men were taking turns to rest so that there was always some who were awake and on guard against treachery.

A faint light shone from under the blinds covering the front window of the sheriff’s office.  A raging need to make someone pay for his unaccustomed feelings of embarrassment drew him toward the building.  He opened the door quietly to find the sheriff asleep and snoring, with his feet on his desk.  He yanked viciously at one ankle, jarring the sheriff awake.  The man spluttered furiously until he realized who had woken him.  He suddenly became very quiet.

Silva ignored him, walking instead to the bars separating him from his prisoner.  Lancer, he saw, was lying on his back, one arm behind his head as he stared at the ceiling.  After a minute, his captive gave a brief sigh before pushing himself slowly upright.  The cautious movements betrayed the fact that he was in pain, leading Silva to conclude that Patricio had administered some punishment for Lancer’s behavior earlier in the evening.

“Are you afraid to die?” Silva asked.

“Death comes to us all eventually.”

“Johnny Madrid is afraid of death,” Silva sneered.  The slight reaction from his prisoner to that assertion wasn’t what he had been expecting. “That is why he is prepared to break his word to your father.”

“Why should I care about his reason?”

“That is an interesting question.  Why don’t you tell me the answer?”

The hesitation was very slight.  “I don’t understand.”

“And, I think you are lying.” Something wasn’t right, only Silva couldn’t put his finger on it.  He turned sharply to face the sheriff.  “Find Patricio.  Tell him to saddle a horse and bring it here.”

It pleased him to see his prisoner’s apprehension as the sheriff left to convey his message.  It was a very small balm to his wounded pride.

**** 

Scott was more than ready for this nightmare to be over.  Seeing Johnny had given him renewed hope, that at least, Teresa and Mary might make it out alive.  He was more resigned to his own fate.  If he understood correctly, Johnny had talked Silva into believing that he’d switched sides.  With the promise of more money, it was unlikely that Silva would instruct his men to start shooting as soon as Murdoch and Johnny arrived in the morning.  That would buy them precious seconds and provide the element of surprise.  Except that it appeared he, in his weakness, had just given something away.

Johnny had put a stop to the physical punishment in the cantina.  Once back in the jail, however, Patricio had made his displeasure about that very clear.  In chains, and restrained by the sheriff, Scott had endured a further beating which had brought tears to his eyes.  It was all he could do not to beg for mercy, knowing that it would be a waste of what little breath he had been able to suck into his lungs.  The muscles in his chest and abdomen ached from Patricio’s hard fists, and the pain had prevented him from finding release in sleep.  He didn’t know where he was going to find the strength to endure whatever Silva had planned next.

The outlaw’s skin was flushed, his eyes bright and his step not entirely steady.  Scott suspected he was drunk, with the alcohol enhancing his normal viciousness.  Would anyone dare to try and stop him this time?  Scott doubted it.

When the sheriff returned and opened the cell door he stayed, where he was. He wasn’t in any hurry to find out what awaited him outside.

“Come on, Boy.” The sheriff’s voice and the touch on his arm were gentler than Scott expected.  “Don’t make him any madder than he already is.”

They followed Silva into the street.  When Scott realized what was about to happen he took a step back, colliding with the sheriff.  He couldn’t keep the panic from his face as he turned to confront the man.

“Can’t you stop him?”

“Ain’t been able to stop him since he took over this town a year ago,” the sheriff admitted quietly.  “He gave me a choice that day.  I could either work for him or I could die.  Unlike you, I never did have much of a backbone.” The admission was made bitterly.  “My advice is to grovel to him.  Give him what he wants.”

“He wants to see me crawl.” Scott’s mind returned to the one time he’d given in, and the sour taste it had left in his mouth.  He’d watched a friend being brutally murdered and, although he couldn’t have prevented the death, he could have exposed the killer.  Young, afraid and at the mercy of the sadistic commandant of Libby prison, he’d spent a week in solitary confinement.  He’d been threatened with far worse if he ever spoke about what had happened.  By keeping silent, he had betrayed his friend’s memory and his own principles.  Never again would he give a man like that the satisfaction of seeing him lose his nerve.

When Patricio came for him he fought back.  The sheriff made no move to intervene, but there were plenty of others willing to do Silva’s bidding.  It took three of them to subdue him so that the rope could be bound around his wrists.  The other end was tossed to the man mounted on the horse, who tied it to the saddle horn.

Silva walked over.  “What is Johnny Madrid to you?”

Scott’s breathing was ragged.  “Nothing.”

With a sneer, Silva returned to the horse, slapping it hard on its rump.  It leapt forward, pulling Scott off his feet to land hard on the ground.  As his body twisted and turned, the rough ground tore through what was left of his shirt, and he closed his eyes, praying for the mercy of oblivion.

****

Wild shouts and cheers from the street startled Teresa awake.  By her side Mary was stirring and rubbing her eyes. For most of the day Teresa had sat by the window, watching as Silva deployed his men.  She’d known then that Murdoch and Johnny must be close. Her shocked gasp when she had seen Johnny riding into town had attracted Mary’s attention.  The older woman had stared distastefully at Johnny’s flashy clothes and low slung gun belt.

“Another unprincipled killer coming to sign on with that dreadful man.”

The disgust in her voice had almost led Teresa to telling her the truth.  It was only Scott’s warning, ringing in her head that had kept her silent.  Her heart had pounded painfully as she wondered if Johnny had brought the money and if they would soon be free.  The time passed slowly. They’d seen Scott being brought from the jail and Teresa could only imagine how hard it would be for the brothers to meet under these circumstances.  When Scott was returned to the jail she had almost cried.  Then, when Johnny left later, alone, she had held back a scream of frustration and fear.

She dragged her tired body from the bed and pulled back the drapes.  “Oh, my God! Scott!”  The name was ripped from her throat as an agonized shout.

“What is it?” Mary joined her at the window, her hand flying to her mouth as she saw what was happening in the street.  “Don’t watch,” she cautioned, trying to pull Teresa away.

The door opened to admit Gabriel.  Teresa turned to him, fury darkening her eyes.  “You have to stop them.  They’re killing him.”

“There is nothing I can do for him.  But, we will never have a better chance to get you out of here.”

“I can’t leave.  I won’t leave.” Teresa stamped her foot as her voice rose in volume.

“You promised him,” Mary reminded her.  “Staying here will do him no good.” She pushed Teresa toward the door.  “Let his death count for something.”

“You cold-hearted bitch,” Teresa shouted.  “You didn’t have a good word to say for him, even though he’s one of the kindest and most selfless men I’ve ever known. I wish we’d never come to fetch you!  I wish I’d never met you!” As her aunt reached out to her, Teresa backed away.  “Don’t touch me.  If we get out of here I never want to see you again.”

“We must leave now.” Gabriel’s voice was thick with fear.

“I’m only leaving because I promised Scott, and because I want to be able to tell Murdoch and Johnny how brave he was.  And, I won’t believe Silva will go as far as killing him.  I won’t…” She swallowed to clear the obstruction in her throat.

Gabriel led them down the back stairs into the alley. Keeping to the shadows, they made their way quickly to the livery stable on the outskirts of the town.  Gabriel slipped inside, beckoning for them to follow.  Teresa saw him frown as he noticed that three horses stood saddled and ready.  His hand dropped to his gun as a man burst out of the darkness. Too terrified to scream, Teresa saw Gabriel hurtling backwards from a bone jarring punch to the jaw.  He hit one of the support beams and slid to the ground.

The man who had hit him stepped into the light from a lantern.  Wide-eyed, Teresa realized it was the man she had seen briefly, earlier in the day.  The look on his face terrified her.

“I don’t know what’s goin’ on,” the man said, looking curiously at Gabriel, “but, he’s just made my job a hell of a lot easier.”

“Who are you?” Teresa stammered.

“Name’s Val Crawford, Ma’am.  I’m the sheriff in Visalia, and I’ve got the misfortune to be one of Johnny’s friends.”

She looked at him in confusion. “Johnny?”

“He asked me to help out, seein’ as I don’t have any direct connection to Lancer.” Val crossed to check that Gabriel was unconscious.  He gave a low whistle as he bent down to examine the boy’s face.  “If I’m not mistaken, this is Silva’s brother-in-law.  Now, he might be worth something.”

“How do we know we can trust you?”

Val shifted uncomfortably. “Johnny said to tell you that you were right about his mother.”

“I don’t understand what’s going on,” Mary complained stridently.  “You reek of alcohol and you don’t look like any sheriff I’ve ever seen.”

“With the greatest of respect, Ma’am,” Val said, “we ain’t got time for long explanations.  Ask Johnny when you see him.”  He grabbed a length of rope and began tying Gabriel up.

“What are you doing?” Teresa couldn’t help feeling concerned for the young man who had been so kind to her.

“Taking him with us.  He might be the edge we need to get Scott back.”

As her fright diminished, she remembered what was happening outside. “Scott!  They’re dragging him! You have to help him.”

“Ain’t nothing I can do.  I’m here to get you ladies to safety.  If I try and stop Silva now, he’s likely to put a bullet in me.” He pulled out a bandana, using it to gag his comatose prisoner.  “Help me get him over that saddle.  We have to get out of here now.”

“I don’t appreciate your attitude,” Mary snapped.  “You could show some respect rather than ordering us around.”

Val straightened up and walked over to confront her.  “I’m risking my life to help you, so I suggest you shut up and do as you’re told. And, I hope you can ride, otherwise, you’ll be travelin’ the same way as him.”

Mary’s mouth dropped open and she stared at him speechlessly as he and Teresa lifted Gabriel up, draping him across the saddle of the nearest horse.

Val shoved the reins of all the horses into Teresa’s hands.  “Walk them out the back way and keep them quiet.  I’m goin’ to check what’s happening out front.” He pulled the door open just enough for him to see down the street.  The entertainment appeared to be over and the outlaws were standing around in small groups, laughing and talking.

With a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach, he strained to see the figure lying deathly still in the middle of the street.  As he watched, Silva kicked the blond in the side, flipping him over onto his back.  Val growled in frustration as Scott lay there, unmoving.  He’d told the truth when he’d said there was nothing he could do, but that didn’t make it any easier.  As he closed the door again, he could only hope that Murdoch Lancer could rein in his younger son, because this news would send Johnny straight over the edge and Val had seen for himself what happened on the rare occasions when Johnny lost his self-control.

 

Chapter 10

Murdoch pulled out his watch for the tenth time in as many minutes.  It was a pointless exercise as it was too dark to see the delicate hands. All he knew was that time was moving excruciatingly slowly.  To the east, there was an almost imperceptible lightening in the color of the sky.  It would soon be dawn.  He glanced over to where Johnny was watching the road.  His son’s back was rigid, the stance in marked contrast to his normal easy grace.

His heart had been in his mouth by the time Johnny returned from town.  During the dark hours alone, he had alternated between wanting to know the truth, and the illusion that ignorance, at least, let him hold on to hope. More than once, he had walked with determined steps toward his horse, intent upon finding out for himself. Each time he had stopped short of following his heart, listening instead to his common sense.  The irony wasn’t lost on him.  If he’d followed his heart all those years ago, Scott would have grown up at Lancer where he belonged.

“They’re alive.”

Johnny had given him the gift of those words before his horse had come to a standstill.  Gratitude had flooded through him as he hurried to grip his son’s shoulders.  Johnny had stiffened under his touch, but had endured his searching stare.  The assurance that Scott was well had rung hollowly.  Before he could probe further, he had been distracted by a spill of words telling him, finally, all the twists and turns of Johnny’s plan.

His first impulse had been frustration that Johnny hadn’t trusted him enough to confide in him.  That was quickly banished.  Although Johnny probably didn’t realize it, his fears were plain on his face.  He was hurting, seeing his family torn apart, and was terrified that he was going to be judged harshly by the father he was only just getting to know.

Meeting his son’s tormented blue eyes he’d offered the only reassurance he could.  “I’m proud of you, Son. Thanks to you, they have a chance.”

Johnny’s smile had been tentative as if he didn’t trust himself to believe the words then, the moment was over.  Murdoch hoped he said enough.  Johnny had closed down again, almost immediately, taking charge and acting as if this was simply business.  Shortly after, that they had been on the road again, pounding toward this place where he hoped he’d be reunited with Teresa.

“Riders coming,” Johnny called softly, his posture immediately relaxing as he drew his gun.

Murdoch scrambled to his feet, fumbling to draw his own weapon.  As the riders drew nearer he saw that one was Teresa and his shoulders slumped in relief.  Johnny gave a low whistle and the riders turned in their direction. Murdoch’s eyes were fixed on Teresa.  She was as precious as a daughter to him and he needed to reassure himself that she was unharmed.  As soon as she saw him, she flung herself from her horse, throwing herself into his arms with a heart-wrenching sob.

**** 

Johnny watched the reunion with a broad smile on his face.  Turning to Val, he slapped his friend on the back.  Val grunted, but Johnny saw the momentary pleasure.  Then, he saw something else in Val’s expression – something that made his heart clench with fear.

“What’s wrong?”

“What is he doing here?” The high-pitched question drew his attention from Val to the large woman still mounted on the third horse.  “He’s one of Silva’s men.”

Johnny looked at her, dumb founded.

“Well, what are you waiting for?” she demanded, heatedly.  “Take his gun before he murders us all.”

There was a shattering silence.  Murdoch cleared his throat, stepping forward with one arm still wrapped protectively around Teresa’s shoulders.

“This is my son, Johnny.”

“Your son? *This* is your son?”

Johnny narrowed his eyes, far too overwrought to make the effort to exercise any tact.  “You got somethin’ to say about that?”

“Johnny,” Murdoch warned gently, although his shock at her words was obvious.  “I’m sure Mary didn’t mean any offence. She’s tired and…”

“Don’t make excuses for me, Murdoch Lancer. Look at him! Is it any wonder I didn’t know who he was? Neither Teresa nor that other son of yours bothered to tell me that he was a gunfighter, and I’ve seen enough of those over the years to have my own opinions.  Gunfighting may not be illegal, but it is immoral.” Mary frowned at the three men, showing no sign of being intimidated by their simmering anger. “Do none of you have the manners to help me down from this dreadful animal?”

Neither Johnny nor Val moved, leaving it to Murdoch to assist Mary out of the saddle.  Teresa flung her arms around Johnny’s neck, sobbing.

“Hush, querida.  No need for tears.  You’re safe now.” Johnny glared at Mary over Teresa’s head.

Val shifted awkwardly before holding his hand out to Murdoch.  “I’m Val Crawford, Mr. Lancer.”

Murdoch’s severe expression softened into a smile.  “Sheriff Crawford.  I don’t know how to express my gratitude.”

“Save it for later, Mr. Lancer.  I brought you something that might help.”

Val walked back to his horse and, for the first time, Johnny saw that there was something slung over the animal’s neck. He released Teresa, watching curiously as Val, with a few muttered oaths, tugged at the object.

“Be careful,” Teresa begged.  “He was trying to help us.”

“He?” Johnny walked closer. “What you got there, Val?”

“Silva’s brother-in-law.” Val pulled his prisoner to the ground, supporting him as the young man looked out through dazed eyes.

“Brother-in-law, huh?” Johnny reached over to pull down the gag, smiling coldly at the fear and confusion on the young man’s face. This was one of the men he’d seen in town with Silva and it appeared he hadn’t heard the revelation about Johnny’s identity. “What’s your name, Boy?”

“Gabriel Sandoval.”

“Johnny.” Val touched him on the shoulder.  “There’s something you need to know.”

Johnny continued to study his terrified prisoner.  “I know you’ve brought me the one thing that might get Scott back.”

“But, I thought you…” Gabriel licked dry lips, stammering to a halt, looking lost.

It was taking all Johnny’s self-control not to drive his fist into Gabriel’s face; to make him suffer as Scott had suffered.  “You thought I was sellin’ out my employer.  Only thing is, he ain’t my employer, he’s my father.  And, the man you’ve been torturing for the last week is my brother.  It don’t take much imagination to know that I ain’t real happy about that and, when I’m unhappy, I kill things.” Johnny’s hand dropped to his gun as Val held the trembling boy upright. “The only reason you’re still alive is because I can use you to get Scott back.”

“It’s too late.”

Johnny whirled round to face Mary who shrank back from his intimidating glare.  “What d’you mean? I saw him a couple of hours ago.”

“I’ve been tryin’ to tell you,” Val interjected.  “Hell, Johnny, there ain’t no easy way to say this.  Just before we left town Silva was having Scott dragged.”

Johnny stared silently at his friend as his world spun out of control.  He should have stayed in town.  He should never have left his brother at the mercy of Silva and his men.  His gun had been pointed at Silva.  Why hadn’t he pulled the trigger?  He sensed his father, standing by his side.  How could he ever justify his failure to protect his brother?

“How bad?” Murdoch asked his fear obvious.

“I couldn’t get close enough to tell.  I didn’t want to leave him, but it was the only chance I had to get the women away safely.”

It took a moment before Murdoch could speak. “You did the right thing, Sheriff.”

Johnny looked over at their prisoner, watching without a shred of compassion as Gabriel cringed away from him.  He could hear his own harsh breaths; feel the insistent call for revenge.  Scott had been weak and in pain.  To be dragged behind a horse was another unnecessary cruelty, one which could have fatal consequences.  His fingers flexed into fists as he strode over to Gabriel.  Only vaguely aware of his father and Teresa shouting at him, he slammed his fist into Gabriel’s gut before slowly and deliberately drawing his gun and pulling back the hammer.  Teeth bared in a ferocious scowl as he prepared to pull the trigger.

**** 

“Lay still, Boy. Let the doc take a look at you.”

Scott hurt so much that he didn’t think there was any risk of him moving any time in the near future.  His right shoulder was on fire, while every breath made him wince as his chest tightened.  He wasn’t sure where he was, or what had happened to him, and he wasn’t in any hurry to find out.  He ground his teeth together and kept his eyes firmly shut.  He could feel something wet trickling down his face and had a nasty suspicion that it was probably blood. Someone lifted up his arm.  The excruciating pain wrung a cry from him which rose in volume as his arm was pulled and twisted. His shoulder popped back into place, the pain immediately being replaced by a dull ache. That merely emphasized how much the rest of his body hurt so he tried to crawl back into the darkness.

“Is he alive?”

The slurred voice sent a shiver down his spine.  He opened his eyes and was hit by a wave of dizziness so intense that he felt his senses slipping away from him again.

“Barely!”

Scott didn’t know who was speaking, but he could identify contempt when he heard it. Unfortunately, the sound of Silva’s voice had been enough to resurrect his memories. He felt sick as he remembered the bone jarring thud with which he had hit the ground, the disorientation of being dragged, sliding helplessly from side to side, and the final collision with some immoveable object which had ultimately ended his torment. Bile filled his throat. He felt someone urging him onto his side just before his stomach rebelled.  By the time he’d finished he was sweat soaked and exhausted. He lay back and a cool cloth was laid across his forehead.

“You damn near killed him.”

Scott was surprised, and gratified, to hear the sheriff standing up to Silva.  Although, he would have preferred that support before he was dragged.

“It was his own fault.” There was a petulant edge to Silva’s words. “From the beginning he has refused to acknowledge that I am in charge.  He has challenged me at every opportunity.”

“He did nothing to warrant this.”

“He wouldn’t answer my questions.”

“About Johnny Madrid?” The sheriff sounded incredulous.  “How would a decent man like him know a lowlife like Madrid?”

Scott turned his head away, praying that he wouldn’t betray any reaction to this discussion about his brother.  Fingers gripped his jaw, forcing his face away from the pillow.  Fear coursed through him as he opened his eyes.  He was resigned to dying – he didn’t want to do anything to condemn his brother as well.

“When Madrid comes back I will take the money before I kill him, your father and the women,” Silva boasted.  “And, once they are all dead, I will teach you that I am worthy of your fear and respect. You will beg me for death before I am finished.”  He released his hold, turning to the doctor.  “Do whatever is necessary.  I want him on his feet when Murdoch Lancer arrives.”

“You’re asking a lot.”

“It is not a request.”

“It’s alright,” Scott whispered through a throat dry and clogged with dust.  “Do as he says.”  Johnny and Murdoch would be here soon and there was nothing that he could do to help them.  It wouldn’t be possible to disguise the fact that he had been hurt; the signs were all too obvious.  The best he could do would be to try and hide the extent of his injuries in the hope that they wouldn’t become too distracted by his condition.

It was a relief when Silva left.  He closed his eyes wearily wishing the day was over.

“You’re not fit to be out of bed,” the doctor said sternly.  “With proper rest you should heal.  I won’t answer for the consequences if you get up.”

“What choice is there?” Scott asked reasonably.  “One way or another, this will all be over soon.”  He asked his next question unwillingly, knowing it was necessary and hating it.  “Can you give me something for the pain?”

“At least you have sense enough to ask.” The doctor rummaged in his bag, withdrawing a bottle and a slender black box.  “You appear to be an intelligent man. You should have known better than to rile him.  Why couldn’t you just have played along?”

“I guess I inherited the Lancer stubborn streak.”

“Are all your family the same?”

Scott summoned up a smile.  “Compared to them, I’m told I’m very compliant.”

There was hope on the doctor’s face. “Then, maybe Silva will finally get what he deserves. And,” he turned to the sheriff, “maybe it’s time we found the courage to take our town back.”

The needle slid into Scott’s arm.  As the drug began to take effect, he drifted into a light sleep.

****

Johnny was cold.  He tightened his arms around his body, drawing his knees closer to his chest.  It had taken the combined efforts, verbal and physical, of his father and Val to stop him from killing Gabriel.  He shivered, despite the warmth in the air.  Killing a bound and helpless man would have made him no better than Silva.

He could hear Murdoch talking with Teresa and Mary.  Only by listening closely could he detect the depth of feeling in his father’s voice.  As he let the comforting sound wash over him, he searched within himself for the strength to put his own feelings aside.  Projecting an air of hard indifference had always been an act, a means of survival, and he needed it now more than ever.

“Why bother going back to that dreadful little town?”

Johnny’s head shot up at Mary’s strident question.

“All you are doing is endangering everyone’s lives,” she continued.

Johnny climbed stiffly to his feet, making his way over to his father. Murdoch’s expression was as unyielding as it had been on their first meeting six months earlier. On that occasion he had thought that Murdoch hadn’t cared about him and Scott. It had taken time to work out that he had been a long way short of the truth.

“Scott is my son and I don’t propose to give up on him.  I intend to bring him home.”

“You had twenty-four years to do that. This is suicidal.”

Johnny’s temper flared in defense of his father.  “What’s that got to do with you?  You’re just a bitter old woman who doesn’t give a damn about anyone else.”

“That isn’t true. I loved my brother and I owe it to him to keep Teresa safe.”

“Then, you should know how I feel about Scott,” Johnny shot back, rigidly aggressive.

“It’s alright, Son.” Murdoch squeezed his shoulder in a rare gesture of affection.  “We’re not leaving without your brother.” His stare challenged Mary to argue with him further. She folded her arms across her chest and glared in disapproval.  “Teresa, you and Mary stay here out of sight.  If we’re not back by nightfall, find someplace to spend the night then head for Visalia.  Stay off the main roads and keep your eyes and ears open.  From Visalia you can send a wire to the ranch.  Someone will come and fetch you. If none of us makes it back, go and see my lawyer.  He has papers gifting Lancer to you.”

Tears spilled down Teresa’s cheeks.  “I don’t want to lose anyone else.”

Murdoch gently brushed a strand of hair from her face.  “You won’t, darling.  Stay strong a little longer.” Once Teresa had given him a determined nod he turned to Johnny.  “Are you going to be able to do this? If Silva even suspects that you and Scott are related…”

“I know what I have to do and I won’t let you down.”

“I’ve never doubted you. It wasn’t easy for me to stand back and follow your plan, but you were right.  Teresa and Mary owe their lives to you and Sheriff Crawford.”

“I never wanted you to see this side of my life,” Johnny admitted.

“I know. I wish it hadn’t been necessary, but I also know that without your expertise I’d have walked into a trap from which none of us would have escaped.”

Johnny felt a small flicker of pride and relief. He’d spent a lot of years working hard to be good at his profession. In all that time he’d never imagined that his father would compliment him on those skills, or that it would mean so much to him to have that approval. “There’s a small cemetery about a mile outside of town.  Wait for me there.  And, understand this, Murdoch.  Silva’s mine.  I don’t care what deal we do with him, he deserves to die for what he’s done and I’m gonna be the one who kills him.”

 

Chapter 11

Sharp blows to his cheeks woke Scott.  He opened his eyes to see Silva’s furious face and the barrel of a gun.  Fear clutched his heart.  He’d known for days that this was how it was likely to end.  That didn’t make it any easier.

“Where are they?” The gun shook with the force of Silva’s ire.

Pure relief filled Scott.  He didn’t need to ask who Silva was talking about.  “Hopefully, on their way home.”  He was pleased to find that his voice was working.  The morphine had taken away the pain, but had left him feeling weak and shaky.

“What about Gabriel?” Silva shouted.

Scott stared in bemusement until he recalled who Gabriel was.  “How should I know?”

“Madrid’s coming,” Patricio called from the open doorway.  “He’s alone.”

“Get up.”

The command was accompanied by a jerk on his arm.  Having made it to his feet, Scott felt his knees buckle.  Silva swore, pushing him toward Patricio.

“Bring him out.”

Putting one foot in front of the other commanded all of Scott’s attention, until he made it out onto the street.  His breath caught in his throat as he saw Johnny, being held at gunpoint by several of Silva’s men.  Silva was advancing on Johnny who remained on his horse.  As the furious outlaw gripped the bridle, the horse reared, causing Silva to back off.  Johnny’s expression was bland as he steadied the animal.  Anyone who didn’t know him would think he was unconcerned about being the focus of so much animosity.

An unexpected shove from Patricio sent Scott sprawling to lie in the dirt, unable to make his body obey him.  The hands that helped him up were gentle, and he wasn’t surprised when he looked up and met his brother’s concerned gaze.  Belatedly remembering that he was supposed to believe that Johnny had sold out to Silva, he bit back his smile, shrugging Johnny’s hand off his arm. Patricio’s hand landed on his shoulder.  Knowing that he wouldn’t be able to stay upright he allowed the outlaw to lead him back to the boardwalk.  He sank down, resting his lacerated back carefully against one of the posts.

“You think you are so smart?” Silva snarled at Johnny.  “I may have lost the women, but I still hold him.” He pointed at Scott.  “Where are Lancer and my money?”

“There’s been a change of plan,” Johnny replied.

Spittle flew from Silva’s mouth as he sputtered with rage.  “Lancer has bought you off! How much did he pay you?”

“Let’s just say that he made me a very attractive offer.”

“Money is worthless to a dead man. Kill them both.”

“Kill us, and you’ll be buryin’ your brother-in-law as well.” Johnny continued to sound indifferent to the threats.

“Wait!”

Silva’s cry halted the impending execution, allowing Scott to breathe again. He bent forward, resting his arms on his thighs, hoping that his head would clear and that he wouldn’t have to make any sudden movements.

“I’ve come to offer you a bargain,” Johnny continued.  “You get the five thousand, and your brother-in-law, in return for Scott Lancer.  But, the exchange doesn’t happen in town and you only get to bring one man with you.”

“Why should I care about Gabriel?”

Scott raised his head, watching the men who still held rifles on his brother.  They didn’t look as confident as they had a few moments ago.

“Let me tell you how I see it,” Johnny replied, in the patronizing tone that sometimes made Scott itch to punch him.  “If you accept the terms you get the money and Gabriel.  If you refuse, you get nothing and, your men will know you have no honor.  A man who’d turn his back on family wouldn’t think twice before doin’ the same to one of them.  How long d’you think they’ll stay loyal?  Reckon it wouldn’t be long before one of ‘em shoots you in the back.”

The expressions on the faces of the outlaws indicated that Johnny had made a strong point.  If Silva allowed his pride to get Gabriel killed, he would lose their respect and their allegiance.

“Murdoch Lancer will not kill Gabriel in cold blood.”

“You kill his son and you’ll find out how wrong you are about that.  Besides,” Johnny smiled for the first time, “he won’t have to.  He’s got that bounty hunter on his payroll as well, and Crawford’s mean as a rattlesnake.”

“Bastardo,” Silva spat.  “Very well. Where do we meet?”

“Uh huh.  I ain’t leavin’ you alone with Lancer. Wouldn’t put it past you to kill him out of spite. His father’s waiting at the cemetery outside of town.  If we’re not there in fifteen minutes Crawford’s gonna start carving pieces off your brother-in-law.”

Scott swallowed painfully.  Until that moment he’d been afraid that Johnny was going to leave again and he knew he couldn’t survive any more of Silva’s tantrums.  As Silva began to yell orders, Johnny wandered over to sit beside him.  Scott clenched his jaw to prevent a welcoming, and relieved, smile from breaking out.

“You okay?” Johnny asked quietly, not taking his eyes away from the activity in the street.

“I’ll make it.”

“I’m gonna kill him.”

“I know.”

Johnny rose lazily to his feet as one of the outlaws brought over three horses.  Patricio grabbed Scott’s arm, causing him to moan as pain erupted in every muscle in his body.  He was shoved onto the nearest horse before Patricio tossed the reins to Silva.  Silva led the way with Scott slightly behind and Johnny riding side by side with Patricio.  Scott had no regrets about leaving the town.  He’d be happy never to see it again.  What he would like, though, was a nice soft bed and the peace to sleep for a couple of days.  For the first time since his kidnapping he was starting to believe that was a realistic dream.

****

Murdoch walked through the small graveyard, praying that Johnny’s choice of venue wasn’t a bad omen.  He’d been pacing aimlessly for the last fifteen minutes, unable to settle.  So many things could go wrong with this plan, yet, he clung to the thin thread of hope that his family was about to be reunited.

The sheriff and their hostage stood to one side.  He felt no compassion for Gabriel, despite Teresa’s assurance that the young man had tried to help.  So far, no one had told him much about the conditions in which they had been held.  When he’d tried to speak to Sheriff Crawford about it, the answers had been vague and evasive.  That was enough to alarm him.  Then, there was the thought of his son being brutally dragged.

Even though Gabriel hadn’t been a party to that barbarous act, a small part of him hadn’t wanted to stop Johnny from killing the outlaw. If he found that Scott was dead, he’d pull the trigger himself. Gabriel remained bound and terrified.  Val had replaced the gag to ensure that Gabriel couldn’t blurt out the truth of Johnny’s relationship with Lancer before they were ready. Murdoch looked over, seeing the young man cringe at the look he knew was on his face.

They had a clear view of the road leading from town.  A cloud of dust quickly cleared to reveal four horses headed in their direction.  As the riders drew closer, he could see both his sons.  Bowing his head, he said a brief prayer of thanks.

As he studied the men, he could see that Scott was clinging to the saddle horn, barely staying in the saddle and looking pale and sick.  Johnny was watching his brother like a hawk, and Murdoch had no doubt that his younger son would be there to catch Scott if he lost his tenuous grip on consciousness.  The man holding the reins for Scott’s horse was young, his face full of anger.  The fourth man was older, more heavily built, and a great deal calmer.

Silva pulled his horse to a standstill, several yards away.  Johnny walked his horse to one side, positioning himself so that he would have a clear shot at the outlaws if necessary.  Murdoch’s concerned gaze returned to Scott, who lifted his head long enough to give a glimmer of a smile.  Johnny dismounted, drew his gun and walked over to where Gabriel was cowering by the sheriff.  He took the outlaw firmly by the arm.

Silva leapt down, jerking Scott from his horse.  Murdoch bit back a cry of protest as his son landed heavily on the ground.  He flung the saddlebags containing the ransom toward Silva.  “Your money’s in there,” he ground out through gritted teeth.

Scott was pushing himself painfully to his knees as Silva’s companion walked forward to pick up the bags.  Ignoring his brother-in-law, Silva unfastened the straps, pulled out the money and counted it slowly.

“It appears you are a man of your word, Señor Lancer.  I will give you some advice.  Do not turn your back on Madrid or the bounty hunter.  Neither can be trusted.”

“I’ll bear that in mind.  Now, I’d like my son back.”

Murdoch wasn’t sure how Scott had made it as far as his feet.  After taking a couple of shaky steps Scott paused, head down, while he took several unsteady breaths.  Another slow step followed.  Murdoch heard Johnny swear, before his younger son hustled Gabriel in the direction of Vicente. Shoving the young outlaw toward Silva, Johnny caught Scott around the waist, supporting him while they covered the short distance back to where Murdoch was standing.

“Take care of him,” Johnny’s voice hitched as he relinquished Scott’s weight.

Murdoch nodded, knowing without a shadow of doubt what Johnny was going to do.  He should try to talk his son out of it, but knew he would be wasting his breath and, truthfully, he wanted to see Silva dead for what he’d done.  Val stepped to his side, his rifle cocked and ready.

Scott was leaning heavily against him so he tightened his grip.  “I was worried about you, Son.”

“Me too,” Scott answered faintly.  “Teresa…?”

“She and her aunt are both safe,” Murdoch reassured him.

There was a faint smile on Scott’s lips as his eyes slid shut and he want limp in Murdoch’s arms.

****

Johnny smiled at Silva’s look of unbridled loathing.  The outlaw would shortly have every reason to hate him.  Gabriel’s mouth was now unbound and it would only be seconds before the truth was finally revealed. He wanted to check on Scott, to reassure himself that he was safe.  That, however, would have to wait.  His brother was in good hands.  Murdoch would fight to the death, if necessary, to protect him.

“Vicente!” Gabriel had finally found his voice.  “He’s a Lancer.” He pointed at Johnny, his hand trembling.

“What?” Silva turned to stare at Gabriel in disbelief.  “You lie.  Johnny Madrid has no family.”

Johnny’s smile widened.  “Johnny Madrid didn’t have a family.  Johnny Lancer has a brother, father and foster sister.  You chose the wrong people to threaten.”

“Brother? That gringo is your brother?” Silva’s voice quivered.

“Yeah, he is.  And, I’m about to make you pay for all the pain you’ve caused him.”

“We had a deal,” Silva protested weakly.

Johnny laughed.  “The same kind of deal that would’ve seen you taking the ransom and still killing your hostages.”

Silva dropped the saddlebags and went for his gun.  He was no gunfighter, and panic made him clumsy. His revolver was only part way out of its holster when Johnny’s first shot caught him in the right shoulder, rendering his arm numb and useless.  The gun, slipping from fingers, which no longer worked, slid back into place.

A shot from Val’s rifle discouraged Patricio from joining the fight as Johnny’s second bullet struck its target. Blood sprayed from Silva’s shattered knee as he let out a howl of anguish. The outlaw dropped heavily to the ground, curling into a fetal position as he sobbed profanities.

Johnny walked over, snatched Silva’s gun out and tossed it away.  He bent down so that he could look the outlaw in the eye.  “I was gonna kill you, then I got to thinkin’ that would be too quick and merciful.  Course, you might still die from blood loss or fever, but if you don’t, you’ll have a permanent reminder of your stupidity.” He picked up his father’s saddlebags, slinging them across his shoulder as he stood up.

“My men will hunt you.  They will kill you all,” Silva threatened weakly.

“They can try.”

“No,” Gabriel said with an authority that surprised Johnny.  “It is over, Vicente.  Be grateful that you live.” He knelt to tie a bandana above the bullet wound in Silva’s leg. Vicente whimpered in pain as Gabriel tightened it to restrict the blood flow.  “We need to get you home, so that Tela can take care of you.”  He looked up at Johnny.  “I will make sure there is no retaliation.  The men will follow my orders.”

Johnny wasn’t so sure about that, especially as Patricio was glaring at him with murder clearly on his mind.  “I hope you’re right.  Val, gather up their weapons and send them on their way.”

“My pleasure.”

Johnny didn’t let down his guard until the three outlaws had disappeared from view.  Only then did he allow himself to relax.  While Val kept watch, he hurried over to his father and brother.  Scott was out cold, unmoving as Murdoch checked the severity of his injuries.

“How is he?” Johnny brushed the matted hair back from Scott’s forehead.  Every inch of skin, clearly visible through the tattered remnants of Scott’s shirt, was covered with bruising, grazes and lacerations.

Murdoch looked shaken.  “He’s…My God, Johnny, they tried to hang him.” His fingers were trembling as he traced the mark around Scott’s throat.

“I know.  We’ve got Val to thank for saving him from that.”

“I don’t know how to repay him.”

“Well, I’ve got an idea about that.  We can talk about it when we get home.”

“Someone tended to his injuries, but what he needs now is a clean bed, good food and a chance to rest.”

“That ain’t gonna be possible for a while,” Johnny replied regretfully.  “We have to get out of sight, in case Gabriel can’t control Silva’s gang.  We’re an easy target out here in the open.”

Murdoch grabbed Johnny’s sleeve.  “If we don’t get him some help soon he may not pull through.”

“Val and I’ll check out the town tonight.  If the outlaws have gone, we can take him back there.”

Rage suffused Murdoch’s face.  “I’m not taking him back there.  Even if Silva and his men have left, how can we trust the townsfolk?”

“We don’t have much of a choice.  Look, Murdoch, you remember what it was like in Morro Coyo when Pardee took over.  The people were terrified, and kept out of his way.  It didn’t make them bad or unfeeling.  They were just scared.  That’s what happens to a town when men like Day or Vicente Silva move in.  Once they’re gone, the townsfolk breathe a sigh of relief and go back to their normal lives.”

“They stood by and watched Silva torture my son.”

“No, they hid and hoped he wouldn’t do the same to them.”

“We should get going.” Val didn’t look comfortable at intruding.  “Get mounted up, Mr. Lancer, and we’ll hand Scott up to you.  Johnny and I will watch our back trail.”

The movement roused Scott, but he made no protest as he was settled in the saddle with his back resting against his father’s chest.  “Is it over?” he asked, his pain-filled eyes locked on his brother.

“Yeah, Scott, it’s over.” There would be plenty of time later to explain why he’d let Silva live. For now, what Scott needed was a feeling of security. “You hang on and we’ll get you back to Teresa.” Johnny gave his brother a reassuring pat on the leg before swinging into his own saddle.

Murdoch tightened his grip as he gently urged his horse into motion.  “Stay with me, Son.” There was a catch in his voice.  “Just a little while longer and you can rest.”

There was no answer as they headed for the camp where they had left Teresa and Mary.

 

Chapter 12


It had been a profound relief for Gabriel when Vicente had lapsed into unconsciousness.  Riding a horse while suffering from a shoulder wound was bad enough; the additional injury to the knee had left his brother-in-law screaming in pain.  Vicente only remained in the saddle because he was riding double with Patricio, and the larger man was starting to show the strain of supporting his leader’s weight.

Gabriel had been aware of Patricio’s dark stare boring into him ever since leaving the graveyard.  The older outlaw was devoted to Vicente and had never liked the calming influence that he’d sometimes been able to exert over his brother-in-law.  Lately that influence had been waning and, if he had any sense, he’d leave Vicente to his fate and disappear. But, they’d grown up together as friends.  He’d watched indulgently as his little sister fell in love with the charismatic young man.  At some point, Vicente had started to believe his own legend and had turned from a passionate idealist into a cold-hearted killer.  Even so, Gabriel couldn’t bring himself to abandon the man he loved like a brother.

A small group of men armed with rifles barred their way into town.  Gabriel pulled his horse to a standstill, exchanging a concerned look with Patricio. They were unarmed and vulnerable, and the townsfolk had no reason to show them any mercy.  He had been living in a constant state of fear since waking up to the realization that he had been taken captive.  He had hoped to find a sanctuary from that fear with his compadres in town.

A man stepped forward and Gabriel’s lip curled into a sneer as he saw it was the sheriff. The lawman had never dared to stand up to them before and the outlaws had always regarded him with contempt.

“You’re not welcome in this town,” the sheriff called out.

Gabriel ignored Patricio’s growl of protest.  “Vicente needs a doctor.”

“He won’t get one here,” another man shouted.

“So, you gutless worms have finally found your backbones,” Patricio mocked.  “Our men will cut you to ribbons.”

“Your men have either run off or been arrested,” the sheriff replied.  “Most of them didn’t expect Silva to be coming back so they pulled out.  The ones who stayed didn’t think we’d fight to take our town back.”

“He’ll die if he does not get help,” Gabriel pleaded, masking his shock.

“What about Scott Lancer?  Did your boss give a damn about his health?  That dragging coulda killed him.”

“Lancer is alive and back with his family.”

The sheriff came forward to inspect Vicente’s wounds. “Who shot him?”

“Johnny Madrid.” The name sent a cold chill running down Gabriel’s spine.

“Pity he didn’t kill the bastard.” The shout came from one of the armed men and there was a general swell of agreement.

“Your hands are not clean either, Sheriff,” Gabriel reminded him.

“No, they ain’t, and I’m prepared to face up to that.  Now, turn around and ride out. We’ve had enough of your kind.”

“Wait a minute.”  The doctor pushed his way through the small crowd.  “Much as I’d like to let him bleed to death, I took an oath.  I’ll patch him up then you can arrest him or send him on his way.”

The mutterings of disagreement were quickly quelled as the doctor glared at his fellow townsfolk.

“All right,” the sheriff said grudgingly.  “You,” he pointed at Gabriel, “can stay with him.”  He exchanged a hard look with Patricio.” He, however, gets locked up with the others.”

“One day I will come back and rip your heart out,” Patricio snarled.

Gabriel knew that wasn’t an idle threat and had no doubt that the sheriff was aware of it as well.  With a look of stoic resignation the sheriff escorted them to the cantina.  He gave orders for Silva to be carried upstairs and for Patricio to be locked in the storeroom with the other men.

Gabriel followed the doctor. He knew that Vicente’s chances for survival were slim and wondered how much of an effort the doctor would make to ensure that his patient made it safely through the operation.

****

As the hours passed, Teresa became more and more afraid that something had gone wrong.  She held her fears inside, unwilling to articulate them to the woman who had proved herself to be selfish and narrow-minded.  Mary’s callous disregard for Scott’s safety had cut her to the heart.  The unjustified and bigoted reaction to Johnny had exacerbated the problem.  She wished now that her aunt had never made contact.  The thought of taking Mary to Lancer was abhorrent to her.  With her patience in shreds Teresa had rudely rebuffed all overtures of reconciliation.  Finally, they had settled into an uneasy silence.

The sound of approaching horses brought Teresa to her feet.  She gripped the gun that Johnny had left for her.  If this were Silva and his men she’d shoot without hesitation.  She had no intention of allowing herself to be recaptured.

“Teresa?” Murdoch’s voice was strained as it filtered through the trees surrounding their hiding place, but to her it was the most wonderful sound imaginable.

“I’m here,” she called back.

Seconds later the horses came into view.  Teresa gasped when she saw that Scott was slumped, unconscious, in his father’s arms.  She hadn’t seen him close up for days and his body bore vivid evidence of the abuse heaped upon him by Vicente Silva.  Her few bruises were hidden by her clothing.  The invisible scars caused by her very public assault, were hidden deep inside and she was determined that they would never be revealed to anyone.

Johnny sprang down from his horse, rushing to relieve his father of Scott’s weight.  He grunted with the effort as he carefully lowered his brother to the ground. To Teresa’s surprise, Mary immediately pushed forward and took charge.

“Fetch a bedroll and some blankets,” she ordered, staring Johnny down as he looked to be on the verge of protesting.  “Murdoch, get a fire going.  Sheriff, there’s a small stream just behind those trees.  I need plenty of water – some for him to drink when he comes round and some to be heated so that we can clean him up.  Teresa, find something to rip up for clean bandages.”  She looked around at the stunned faces.  “What are you all waiting for?”

“Do as she says,” Murdoch said wearily.  “Then, we’d better take it in turns to watch the road, in case of trouble.”

“You’d best be damned careful with him,” Johnny warned Mary coldly.  “He’s suffered enough.”

“Mind your manners, young man.  I have no intention of doing anything except helping him.”

Teresa stepped between them.  “Please, Johnny, just do as she asks.  Whatever you might think of her, I don’t believe she would do anything to hurt Scott.”

“Thank you for the support, Teresa.  However, I am perfectly capable of standing up for myself.  We don’t have time to argue about this.  Scott’s welfare should be our only concern.”

With a brief nod, Johnny strode back to the horses, removing the bedroll with quick, angry movements.  Teresa found a couple of spare shirts in the saddlebags, carrying them over to where Murdoch was building a small fire. As she tore the material into strips her eyes kept returning to Scott, who lay unmoving where he had been put.

“How badly is he hurt?”

“We haven’t had a chance to find out.  He was conscious while the ransom was being handed over and then he passed out.  He hasn’t come round since then.”

“Is Silva dead?”

Murdoch kept his eyes on the pile of twigs and moss.  “Johnny wounded him – severely – then let him go.”

“Why?  After all he did, why is he still alive?” Tears sprang to her eyes and she hastily brushed them away.

Murdoch’s face was haunted as he looked up at her. “If Silva survives, he’ll spend the rest of his life in constant pain.  Johnny crippled him.  I’d say that is punishment enough.”

****

Johnny sat by the fire, watching as Mary tended to his brother.  They had been there for several hours, and in that time, he couldn’t fault her actions.  She had been briskly efficient, and amazingly gentle.  Scott had woken several times, clearly in a lot of pain.  Mary had held his hand, encouraging him to relax in soothing tones, so unlike her normal strident voice.  He, Murdoch and Teresa had all played their part, reassuring Scott that all was well and that he could sleep and begin to heal. The trouble was, that they were miles away from everywhere except the town where Scott had been held prisoner and tortured, and his condition was worsening.

“He needs more help than we can give him here.” Johnny was sure that he was only echoing Murdoch’s thoughts.  “I don’t see that we have any choice.  Val and I’ll head back to town.  Even if it isn’t safe to take him there, we should be able to get our hands on some food and something to help with the pain.  If we’re lucky, we might find a wagon.  He won’t last five minutes if he has to travel by horseback.”

“I wish there was another way.” Murdoch took a sip of coffee, his gaze never wavering from his older son.  “The thought of taking him back there…”

“It’s better than losing him, and I just don’t see him having the strength to make it to Visalia.  Sending someone to fetch help from there would take at least two days, so that ain’t an option either.”

Murdoch’s face was lined with worry. “You’re right, Johnny.  We don’t have a choice.”

Johnny stood and made his way over to where Scott was tossing restlessly. His brother’s shirt had been removed and he was now wrapped in a blanket. He hunkered down, resting his hand briefly on his brother’s forehead.  “He seems cool enough,” he commented in relief.

“Yes, we can be grateful for that at least.” Mary finished checking the bandages.  “There’s no new bleeding from any of the cuts, but I can’t be certain that they are all clean and some are very deep.  There are two or three that should be stitched. Last time he was awake he told me that the town doctor gave him some care, but he was still being held in the jail at that time, and I can imagine what the conditions were like.”

“Thank you for lookin’ after him.  I know you ain’t got any time for my family…”

“I think I may have been mistaken,” Mary interrupted him.  “I judged you and your brother unfairly, based upon a grudge that should have been buried a long time ago.  I hope you will accept my apology.”

Johnny’s surprise gave way to a sincere smile.  “Ma’am, anyone who can tend a wounded man with the compassion you’ve shown to Scott can’t be all bad.”

Mary’s severe expression softened and a hint of mischief filled her face.  “I think that may have been the nicest compliment anyone has ever paid me.”  She looked down at her patient.  “I’ll go and fetch some fresh water.  Why don’t you sit with him for a while?  I’m sure he’d rather have his brother by his side.”

Johnny held his hand out and assisted Mary to her feet.  He watched her walking toward Teresa, noting with sadness that Teresa pointedly turned her back on her aunt.  He was starting to suspect that underneath her gruff exterior Mary had a good heart.  It would be a shame if Teresa didn’t come to recognize that as well.

“Johnny?”

“Hey, Brother, I didn’t realize you were awake.  How’re you feeling?”  Johnny carefully hid his concern at hearing the strain in Scott’s voice and seeing the pain on his brother’s pale and bruised face.

“Been better.”

“I can see that.  Look, Scott, me’n Val are gonna ride back to town.  See if we can get that doctor to come out and take a look at you.”

“Not safe…Silva’s men…” Scott reached for Johnny’s sleeve.  The movement jarred his injured shoulder, causing him to bite back a cry of pain. His blue eyes were vivid in a face that was now devoid of any color.

“Take it easy,” Johnny cautioned, gently pressing Scott back. “We can handle any of them who’re still around.  You gotta trust me.”

Scott’s forehead was beaded with sweat as he stammered out his response. “Do trust you.  Be careful.”

The fact that Scott didn’t raise more of an argument was enough of an indication to Johnny that his brother was in deep trouble. Scott never gave up without a fight and the fact that he was backing down now frightened Johnny.  Listening to his sibling’s uneven breathing, he suspected that the pain was worse than Scott was admitting to.  “I’m always careful,” he said seriously. “You lay still, do what Mary tells you and we’ll be back soon.” The look that crossed Scott’s face at the mention of Mary O’Brien gave Johnny pause.  “She’s not the monster she likes to make out, you know.”

Scott’s eyes were closing again, his features relaxing as he slipped back into sleep.  Standing up, Johnny paused to gaze solemnly down at his brother.  “You hold on, Scott.  You’ve come this far and we’re gonna get you home.”

****

Night had fallen as Johnny and Val made their way from the livery stable on the outskirts of town.  They’d led their horses the last half mile, keeping to the shadows at the side of the road.  Lamps were lit in many of the buildings, but the streets appeared deserted.  They paused at the mouth of one of the alleyways that ran off the main street.

“Any idea where we’d find the doctor?” Johnny whispered to Val, who didn’t look happy to be back in the town.

“Nope.  The townsfolk kept themselves out of sight mostly, and wanderin’ around, snoopin’, wasn’t healthy.”

“Then, I guess we start at one end of town and work our way down until we find him.”

“You reckon all of Silva’s men have gone?”

“Seems likely, but we can’t afford to take chances.  Besides, we’re both linked with Silva in the eyes of the townsfolk and I don’t fancy gettin’ a bullet in my back from some trigger-happy local boy.”

“Good point.”

It was slow going as they methodically worked their way up one side of the street past a general store, a gunsmiths and a small dressmakers shop.  All the businesses were shut up tight. They were careful to avoid the jail, despite Johnny’s urge to pay the sheriff a visit and personally ‘thank’ him for taking care of Scott.  A small house sat alone a few hundred yards away from the end of the boardwalk.  They silently covered the distance and climbed the two steps leading to the front porch.  The drapes were closed across the front windows, with only a faint light seeping around the edges of the heavy material.

Reaching into his pocket, Johnny pulled out a match, striking it on the rail.  A small brass plaque was screwed into the door.  “James Adams, M.D,” Johnny read quietly.  “Looks like we found our doctor.”

“Now what?”

“Now, we pay him a visit.”  Johnny drew his gun and knocked on the door.

“Who is it?” The voice was suspicious.

“My name’s Johnny Lancer.  I’m here to get help for my brother.”

A key turned in the lock and the door edged open.  The man who peered out took one look at Johnny and tried to slam the door shut again.  Johnny’s foot prevented him from being able to close it completely.  “Look, Doc, I know we have some explainin’ to do, but Scott is my brother, and if you don’t help him I’m afraid he might die.”

Johnny was getting ready to push the door open when the doctor, skepticism clear on his face, stepped back to allow them to enter.

“The last time I saw you, you were calling yourself Johnny Madrid.”

“Long story.  I am Johnny Madrid and I’m also Johnny Lancer.  This is Sheriff Val Crawford.”

The doctor shook his head in disbelief.  “That was quite some act you two put on.  Did you tell Silva any of this before you shot him?”

Johnny stepped into the small hallway.  “Yeah, I told him. How did you find out that I shot him?”

“His brother-in-law brought him back here.  By that time, his men had either run out or been arrested.  I patched him up before the sheriff sent him and his men on their way.”

“Why didn’t the sheriff hold them for trial?” Johnny’s expression turned hard.  “Oh, yeah, I forgot. He was workin’ with them.”

“It wasn’t quite that straightforward.”

“Never is.” Johnny’s voice dripped sarcasm.  “If Silva and his men have gone, it’ll be safe to bring Scott back here.”

“How is he?”

“He’s not doin’ so good.  He said you helped him after that bastard had him dragged.  I’m real grateful to you for doin’ that.”

“I tried to tell Silva that your brother needed to stay in bed, but he was adamant that Scott had to be on his feet when the ransom arrived.  I dosed him up with morphine early this morning so that he could get some rest.  I can only imagine how much pain he’ll have been in since that wore off.  You’ve seen the state he’s in.  He has a dislocated shoulder and any number of other injuries which, of themselves, aren’t life threatening.  But, it was obvious that he’d been subjected to repeated abuse – beatings, lack of food and water – so he was weak even before he was dragged. With proper care, and medication to control the pain, he should recover.”

“Why didn’t anyone help him?”

The doctor looked away in shame.  “Because we were all cowards, Mr. Lancer. It was his bravery that finally brought us to our senses. You must care about him very much to have taken the risks you did.”

“He’s my brother,” Johnny declared. “He’d have done the same for me.”

“I’m sure he would. How far away is he?”

“About five miles outside of town.”  Johnny followed the doctor through to his back room, where the man opened a black bag and began to fill it with supplies from the neatly organized glass fronted cabinets.  “We’ll need a wagon.”

“That won’t be a problem and I have a spare room he can use.  The only other alternative is the cantina and I don’t think he will want to go back there.” He fastened the clasp on the bag.  “Let’s go.  It’s time this town started to make amends to your family.  I’m only sorry that we didn’t do something sooner.”

 

Chapter 13

“I think we may have some trouble,” Val called from his post by the front window.

“What do you mean?” the doctor asked, worry creasing his brow.

Johnny drew his gun, joining his friend so that he could look outside.  Silently, Val eased back the drapes and gestured toward the town.  A group of heavily armed men were headed toward them, accompanied by others who were carrying torches.  The flames wavered in the slight breeze, casting shadows over their faces. As they drew closer, the sound of their heated voices could be heard.

“Guess someone must’ve seen us,” Johnny remarked sourly.  The need to get help back to Scott was all he could think about.  Any delay could be disastrous and this development could be downright dangerous. “What a hell of a time for them to decide to display some guts.”

“What’s going on?” the doctor pressed.

“Some of your friends are coming callin’…with rifles.” Johnny pulled back the hammer of his Colt.

“I’ll go out and talk to them,” Dr. Adams offered.  “We’ll get this cleared up.”

“What if they won’t listen to you, Doc?” Val asked.  “They look pretty riled up and I don’t have any real urge to find myself on the wrong end of a lynching.”

“I’ll make them listen.  There’s been enough violence in this town over the last couple of days.  Put your guns away, follow me out and don’t make any sudden moves.”

Johnny and Val exchanged glances.  Johnny bit his bottom lip in indecision.  Stepping out to confront a group of armed and angry men had to rate as a seriously stupid move.

“Trust me, gentlemen.”

“Mierde,” Johnny swore, ramming his gun back into its holster.

The doctor waited for Val to follow Johnny’s example before opening the door.  “Travis?” he called.  “We’re coming out so you’d better make sure no one gets an itchy trigger finger.”

 

Johnny left the house a few steps behind the doctor, keeping his right hand well clear of his gun.  His gut tightened when he recognized the sheriff.  If the lawman was still on Silva’s payroll they were as good as dead.

“These two were seen sneaking into town,” the sheriff called.  “Don’t’ know what they want with you, Jim, but I’d advise you to move away from them real quick.”

Johnny scanned the crowd.  He’d seen mobs before, fired up with blood lust and immune to reason.  It didn’t take much for such men to open fire.  He stepped cautiously to his left, to remove the doctor from the line of fire and so that he would have a clear shot if it came down to it.

“Stay still, boy,” the sheriff ordered, “and lose the gun belt.”

“You’ve got it all wrong, Travis,” the doctor called back, a slight hitch in his voice betraying his apprehension.  “He’s Scott Lancer’s brother and he came to ask for help.”

The sheriff frowned.  “Did he tell you that?”

“Yes, he did and we can’t afford any delay.  You saw how badly hurt Lancer was. You could still have his death on your conscience if you don’t let us pass.”

The sheriff turned his attention back to Johnny, who had made no move to surrender his gun.  “Why should we believe you?  I saw the two of you together and it sure didn’t look to me like you knew each other.  Now, all of a sudden, you’re askin’ us to believe you’re brothers?”

“I don’t care what you believe, Sheriff.” Johnny’s soft drawl still managed to carry to the ears of the angry crowd.  “What I do care about is that my brother is badly hurt and no one in this piss poor excuse for a town, apart from the doc here, lifted a finger to help him.”

“String ‘em up, Travis,” one of the men shouted.  His call was echoed by many in the crowd. “We saw them both with that bastard, Silva.  Hell, that one there,” he pointed at Val, “was drinking with him last night.”

The sheriff turned to glower at the man.  “I told you earlier that I wasn’t gonna be a party to any lynchin’.”

“Yeah, and we shoulda known better than to listen to you. You were quick enough to lick Silva’s boots this last year.  Lettin’ those outlaws go was downright dim-witted.  Who’s to say they won’t come back?  I say we send Silva and others like him a message.”

The air was heavy with the threat of violence. They were heavily outnumbered and unless they could talk their way out, Johnny knew that he and Val could end up with ropes around their necks.  In no mood to be conciliatory, he went on the attack. “And, what message would that be?” he asked aggressively.  “That scum like Silva can run roughshod over your town, but that you’re willing to hang a couple of innocent men?  My brother suffered for days.  He was beaten, dragged and still has the mark around his neck from a noose.  Where the hell were any of you when that was happening?  Cowering under your beds like little children?”

The force of his anger and revulsion caused a few of the men to lower their heads in shame.  Rifles, which had been pointed straight at him, began to waver, but he wasn’t finished with them yet.

“My friend here, who’d never even met Scott, was willing to put his life on the line.  D’you know why that was?” He swept on without waiting for an answer.  “’Cause he’s a decent man who doesn’t like to see others being hurt.  It’s thanks to him that Teresa and her aunt were rescued.  He gave us the edge we needed to take control of the negotiations.  Silva was intending to kill all of them once the ransom was paid.  Did you know that?  Would you have stood back and watched them being gunned down in cold blood?”

“Easy, Amigo,” Val cautioned.

“No!” Johnny’s hands were clenched into tight fists.  “Why should I go easy on them?  While they’re holding us up, Scott is suffering.”

“That’s enough!” Dr. Adams walked down the steps from the porch to confront his fellow townsmen.  “You’ve only got to listen to him to know that he’s telling the truth.  If you’re still intent on this stupidity then come with us, but I have a patient who needs my attention and I’m not waiting any longer.”

“All right,” the sheriff conceded.  “Me and a couple of the boys’ll ride along with you.” He turned to look at Johnny and then Val.  “I don’t suppose either of you are gonna give up your guns?” he asked hopefully.

Johnny’s expression was as unyielding as granite as he stared back.  “What do you think?”

“I think we should be leaving.” The doctor hastily stepped between the two men.

For a period which felt like an eternity to Johnny, the outcome hung in the balance.  There were still men willing to argue against the sheriff’s capitulation.  The debate raged as Johnny and Val readied themselves to fight should that become necessary.  Gradually, the mood changed to sullen acceptance and the mob started to disperse.  Johnny let out a shaky breath, all the while staying alert in case someone decided to take a shot at them.

As the sheriff organized those who would accompany them, and those who would stay in town, Val walked over to stand by Johnny.  “You know they could just as easily have shot us or hung us from the nearest tree?”

“Yeah.”

“Then, why did you tear into them like that?” Val’s face was pale and he looked as shaken as Johnny.

“Guilt,” Johnny explained, tiredly.  “I wanted them to feel they owed Scott, which they damn well do. And, I’ll tell you something.  If they thought facing me was bad, wait until Murdoch gets hold of them.”

****

Since Johnny and Val’s departure, Scott had alternated between a restless sleep and a state of semi-consciousness where the pain was unrelenting.  He had long since stopped trying to respond to anyone, being afraid that if he opened his mouth he would start to scream without having the strength of will to stop.  His one consolation was that the bastard who’d done this to him was dead.  He tightened his grip on Murdoch’s hand as the pain assaulted him in wave after wave of agony. His father’s strong comforting presence was all he had left to anchor him to sanity. Gritting his teeth, he tried to will himself away from the reality of his present situation.  Tears leaked out the corners of his eyes as his resolve started to crumble.

“Hey there, Brother.  Told you I’d be back.”

He turned his head to find Johnny bending over him.  He could hear other voices as he concentrated on his brother’s face.  There was a sharp sting in his arm, followed by a feeling of such relief that he nearly sobbed in gratitude.  For once in his life, he welcomed the sensation of his limbs becoming heavy and his senses being stripped away from him.  His vision dimmed as he embraced the darkness, trusting in his family to watch over him.

****

“Good morning.”

The voice was familiar only from a nightmare that he’d believed had ended.  Involuntarily, his shoulder and neck muscles tensed and he bit back a groan.  If he opened his eyes, would he be confronted by the sight of solid iron bars?  Was his rescue and reunion with his family just the product of a feverish dream?

The bright clean room bathed in early morning sunlight, chased away his lingering fears.  The concerned man looking down at him was the doctor who had tended to his injuries in the jail. The bed, he now realized, was soft and comfortable.  His body still ached, but the edge had been taken off the agony he could still remember far too clearly.  The lethargy he felt in his limbs explained that.  He had been dosed up with pain medication.

“Morning,” he croaked in response.  “Where…?”

“You’re at my house.”  The doctor stuck the stethoscope into his ears, spending several minutes listening to Scott’s heart and lungs.  He pressed two fingers against the pulse in Scott’s neck, counting under his breath.  Finally, he straightened up.  “Your heartbeat is steadier and your pulse is good and strong.  There’s no trace of fever.  I’ll check your stitches later and put on fresh bandages.  How does your shoulder feel?”

Scott’s left arm now rested in a black sling so there was little pressure on his injured shoulder.  “Better.”

“Keep your arm supported for a few days to give the ligaments a chance to heal.  You gave your family quite a fright, you know.  It’s fortunate that you were healthy before Silva got his hands on you, and that your brother came to fetch help.  I’ll make sure you get small meals on a regular schedule to help rebuild your strength.  With plenty of rest and nourishment, you should be up and about in a few days.”

Scott gave a weak smile.  “Thank you.”

“Just doing my job.  I gave you another shot of morphine a few hours ago.  If you take it easy I should be able to reduce the dosage, but it’s important that you tell me if the pain becomes too much for you to handle.”

“Johnny? Murdoch?” Scott found it hard to push the words out.

“They’re downstairs having breakfast.  I’ll send them up in a few minutes, and then you have to get some more sleep.  Understand?”

Scott nodded.  Sleep sounded wonderful.  He fought to keep his eyes open, wanting the reassurance of seeing his father and brother.  With the familiar jingle of spurs, a brief glimpse of Johnny’s beaming smile and Murdoch’s more restrained relief,  he fell back into a sound sleep.

****  

“Teresa?” He’d opened his eyes a few minutes ago to find her sitting in the chair by his bed, a piece of embroidery lying in her lap and her attention a million miles away.  She looked sad, drained of her usual vitality.

“Oh, you’re awake. I’ll fetch the doctor,” she said hurriedly.

“Wait.”  He sensed a gulf between them that hadn’t existed before and it wasn’t hard to guess the reason.  “How are you?”

She’d never had trouble looking him in the eye before, but now avoided his gaze.  “I’m fine.”

He caught her hand as she started to rise.  “Don’t go.”

With a look bordering on panic, she pulled away from him before replying. “All right.” Her tone and the tension in her body showed her reluctance to remain, although, she did return to her chair.

“I’m sorry, Teresa.”

Tears sprang to her eyes.  “There was nothing you could have done.”

“Yes, there was.  I could have stopped fighting him.  Maybe then, he’d have left you alone.  He was trying to punish me by hurting you.”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Teresa….”

“Don’t you understand?  It’s bad enough that you saw what happened – saw me wearing that awful dress and him pawing at me…” Her voice rose hysterically.  “I don’t want anyone else to know!  Swear to me that you won’t tell them!”

“I won’t say anything, if you’re sure that’s what you want.”

“It’s for the best,” she told him forcefully, discouraging any argument.  Her hands, tightly clasped together on her lap, trembled.

Scott lay back wearily, not convinced, but willing to acquiesce for now.  It was Teresa’s decision to make and he wouldn’t add to her burden by pressing the issue.  Maybe, once they were back at Lancer, she would change her mind.

“I wish…I wish Johnny had killed him,” she blurted out suddenly as a tear ran down her cheek.

Scott looked at her in shock.  “What?”

Her eyes widened.  “You didn’t know?”

“Know what?”

“Silva’s still alive.”

No, that couldn’t be right.  Johnny had told him…Scott sorted through his muddled thoughts.  He’d asked if it was over and Johnny had said that it was.  For the first time, Scott realized that no one had ever said that Silva was dead.  He’d just assumed that Johnny had carried through on his threat.  Now, the possibility that Silva was still alive left him cold.

****

Johnny sat alone on the bench on the doctor’s front porch, staring morosely toward the town.  He could see the townsfolk going about their normal lives, acting as if nothing out of the ordinary had ever occurred there.

“Mind if I join you?”

He’d heard the front door open and the heavy tread of his father’s footsteps, so his expression was bland as he shifted over to make room.

“I brought you some coffee.”

Johnny glanced sideways before accepting the drink.  Since Scott’s rescue, he had managed to avoid being alone with Murdoch and he wished now that he’d sought somewhere more private to brood.  He’d looked in on his brother a short time earlier and there had been a definite chill in the air.  Assuming that Scott was blaming him for being left in Silva’s hands, he’d tried to explain only to be cut off abruptly. The conversation after that had been stilted, until the doctor had arrived and he’d gratefully made his escape. He’d come out here to be alone.

“Scott’s doing better.”

He couldn’t tell what Murdoch was thinking from the tone of his voice.  He had never found it easy to read the older man, now it was damn near impossible.  The easy relationship they had discovered over the last few weeks had disappeared as if it had never existed, leaving Johnny feeling its loss as a physical ache.  “Yeah.”

There was silence as Murdoch sipped his coffee.  Feeling uncomfortable, Johnny sought an excuse to leave.

“I’ve often wondered what it would be like to ride free, without any responsibilities,” Murdoch began pensively.  “Just drifting, with no destination in mind.  I had my life all planned out, even before I left Scotland.”  His gaze turned reflective.  “I was going to build a grand ranch, marry and have a houseful of children.”

“Life doesn’t always do what you want it to,” Johnny commented neutrally while his gut churned. He didn’t imagine his father had ever considered having a gunfighter as a son.

“No, it doesn’t, so we have to make the best of what we’re given.  I lost two wives and two sons.  I could have let that destroy me.  I chose, instead, to play the hand I’d been dealt.”

Johnny couldn’t cope with this dancing around. “If you’ve got something to say to me, old man, say it.”

Murdoch smiled.  “Do you always attack when you feel threatened?”

Unwillingly, Johnny’s expression softened.  “Yeah.  Where I come from, you gotta do it to them before they do it to you.”

“Then, why are you having such a hard time dealing with what you did here?”

“Who said I was havin’ a hard time?”

“It’s obvious, Son. Do you think I’m going to reject you? Tell you that you’re no longer welcome at Lancer?  Is that what you’re afraid of?”

Johnny’s eyes turned hard.  “I ain’t afraid of anything.”

“Yes, you are,” Murdoch contradicted gently.  “You’re afraid of losing your family.  Do you honestly think I’m going to condemn you for saving Scott and Teresa? Or, what’s worse, that I’m going to let you condemn yourself? I knew what I was getting into when I paid the Pinkertons to find you.”

“Did you?” Johnny challenged.

“Yes.” Murdoch didn’t flinch from Johnny’s anger.  “I was getting my son back. Tell me something, Johnny.  I’ve seen how hard you work.  I’ve watched the pleasure and pride on your face when you do a good job.  Did you take pride in being Johnny Madrid?”

“Sometimes,” Johnny admitted.  “I was good at what I did.”

“I know.  Why do you think I followed your plan for rescuing Scott and the others?”

“I didn’t give you a choice.”

“There’s always a choice.  I chose to trust your instincts and to rely on your expertise. I let you ‘call the tune.’ You can’t separate Madrid and Lancer.  Both are part of who you are and always will be.”

“I don’t want to be Johnny Madrid any more,” he admitted, miserably.  He’d been ready to put that behind him, to concentrate on being Johnny Lancer – rancher.

“I know, Son, but all those years when you were on your own helped to make you the man you are today.”

“That’s just it, Murdoch, I don’t know who I am.  I thought I did, but now…” he shrugged helplessly.

“You’re my son and Scott’s brother.  You’re part owner of a thriving ranch.  You have a home, and friends, and, a future.  Sometimes, though, you have to fight to hold on to all of that.  When those times come you have to call upon all that you’ve learned to protect what’s yours.  That’s what you did here.  You have done nothing to be ashamed of.”

“Haven’t I?  I left Scott in the hands of a man who’d already shown that he thought nothin’ of torturing and killing his victims.  If I’d stayed in town, I would’ve been able to protect him.”

“You’re being too hard on yourself.  You’d have been surrounded by his men.  What could you have done?”

“I could have shot Silva.”

“If you’d done that, I have no doubt that you and Scott would have been dead before Silva hit the ground. No, Johnny, you did the only thing you could do.”

“Tell that to Scott.”

“Tell me what?”

Johnny leapt to his feet at the sound of his brother’s voice, the coffee cup slipping from his fingers to shatter on the wooden floor.  Scott was standing in the doorway, leaning heavily against the doorframe, his face bathed in sweat.  “What are you doing out of bed?” Johnny demanded.

“I want to know why Vicente Silva is still alive.”

 

Chapter 14

“I think we should go inside.”

Scott acknowledged his father’s suggestion with a brief nod.  Getting down the stairs unaided had been harder than he’d expected.  If he didn’t have something to hold onto now, he’d probably fall flat on his face.  He hadn’t intended to be so abrupt and confrontational.  He’d been prepared to ask calmly for an explanation.  Unfortunately, the morphine was muddling his senses and stripping away his normal self-possession. He glanced at Johnny, who was looking at the ground, his expression hidden as he murmured a soft agreement.

Once settled in the doctor’s parlor, Scott repeated the question that had driven him from his bed.  This time he managed to make it sound less like an accusation.

Johnny, standing by the fireplace, finally raised his head. “I couldn’t do it.  Oh, don’t get me wrong, I wanted to kill him.  I saw what he’d done to you, and how frightened Teresa was, and I could imagine pullin’ the trigger and watching him die.”

“But, you didn’t.  Why?” Even though he was shaking from the effort, Scott kept all his attention on Johnny’s face.  The remorse he saw was painful, and yet, he couldn’t back away now that the issue had been raised.

“What would you have done, Scott?” Johnny asked almost plaintively.  “He never stood a chance of outdrawing me.  By the time he found out who I was, you were all safe and he wasn’t a threat any more.”

“As long as he’s alive, he’s a threat.” Scott stopped to compose himself.  He knew he was pushing himself too hard.  At the same time, he knew he wouldn’t be able to rest until he had this out with his brother.  This wasn’t just about personal revenge for all that Silva had subjected his prisoners to. His family needed to be warned that they had made a deadly enemy. “You don’t know him, Johnny.  He’s not the kind of man who’ll just give up.”

“D’you want to know what I did to him?” Johnny rested his hand on his gun, as if for reassurance.  “I put a bullet in his shoulder and then I shattered his knee.  Every hour of every day he’ll be reminded of what he did.”

“You’re wrong.  He’ll spend every waking minute planning his revenge.” All the horror of his captivity came crashing down on Scott.  Pain and weakness had whittled away at his innate strength, leaving him vulnerable. He’d believed the danger to be past.  Instead, he was facing the very real possibility that Silva would somehow find a way to seek retribution. “Have you any idea what it was like being his prisoner?  The first time I said something he didn’t like, he…”  His promise to Teresa brought him to a stumbling halt.

“He what?” Johnny stepped closer, a dark glower on his face. “What did he do, Scott?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“I think it does.”

“Leave it alone, Johnny.”

“Why did he have you dragged?” Johnny asked, sharply.

“He didn’t need a reason.  That’s what I’m trying to tell you.  He lived and breathed violence.  It was all he knew.  If someone didn’t show him respect, he killed them or…or tried to break them.”

“And, you wouldn’t break, would you, Brother?”

“No.”

Scott leaned back, closing his eyes.  There were too many things about his captivity that his family didn’t need to know.  How could he tell them that he was dragged because Silva had felt that he had been humiliated by Johnny Madrid?  How would that make his brother feel? He’d heard the sheriff and the doctor talking while they had been tending to him in the jail.  The story of how Johnny had drawn on Silva, forcing him to back down, had quickly become the talk of the town.

“You should go back to bed, Son.  We can talk about this when you’re feeling stronger.”

Scott could hear his father’s worry, yet he couldn’t allow himself to be swayed. He forced his eyes to open, focusing again on his brother.  “I want a straight answer.”

“It’s simple enough.  I’m tired of killin’.  Seems that’s all I’ve done my whole life.” In an unconscious gesture, Johnny began fiddling with one of the conchos on the side of his pants. “I looked at Silva and I knew he deserved to die, but I couldn’t do it.  I couldn’t be the one who sent him to Hell, because that would have made me no better than him.  And, I want to be better.  So, I gave him somethin’ to remember us by, and let him go.”

“Trust me, Brother, you’re nothing like him.”

Johnny finally crossed the distance between them, hunkering down by the side of the chair and looking up to meet Scott’s gaze.  “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you.  I was going to, but you were so damn sick I just wanted you to rest easy.”

“I know that.”  Scott couldn’t condemn his brother.  How could he, when he could see for himself the depths of Johnny’s remorse? No matter the circumstances, it was never easy to take a life.  He’d found that out for himself during the war.  “And in answer to your question, I don’t know what I would have done if I’d been in your place.  I do know that Silva’s like a rabid dog. He killed the stage driver in cold blood because he was of no use.  He’d have killed us after the ambush if he hadn’t found out who I was and decided I had value.  Mary and Teresa were used to control me. If he thought there was a chance of me stepping out of line, he threatened them. Even so, he only intended to keep us alive long enough to collect the ransom.” The conversation was taking its toll. Scott could hear his words slurring together and could see Murdoch’s concerned frown.

“So, you’re sayin’ I did the wrong thing?”

“I’m saying that he’s one of the few men I’ve met who deserved death.  Part of me wishes you’d killed him.  Maybe tomorrow, or the day after, I won’t feel like that. Mostly, I’m just glad that your conscience is clear, because I’d hate to think of you losing sleep over scum like that.”

“I thought…earlier on…that you were angry with me for leavin’ you there.  I swear, Scott, if I’d known he was going to hurt you again he’d have had to shoot me, ‘cause I wouldn’t have let you out of my sight.”

The passion of Johnny’s words brought a brief smile to Scott’s lips. He had to hang on long enough to offer some reassurances of his own.  “I never doubted you, Johnny. You couldn’t have stopped what happened. It was all a game to him.”  He fought against the darkness that was threatening to descend again.  “He told me he’d never kidnapped anyone before. He even boasted that he never left anyone alive to identify him.  He was playing with all of us, and you out-maneuvered him.”

“Well, I had some help.” A measure of peace had returned to Johnny’s features.

“I’m very glad you did.”  Scott could feel himself losing his grip on consciousness.  As he began to slip sideways he heard Johnny’s startled oath.  His mind flew back to the aftermath of the battle with Pardee, when he had been the one left standing to catch Johnny when his injured brother’s strength gave out.  “It’s your turn, Brother,” he whispered as he finally surrendered to the darkness.

****  

Although it was only early evening, Murdoch was bone tired.  Scott was still sleeping and he’d finally persuaded Johnny to go to the saloon for a few drinks with Sheriff Crawford.  His younger son was finding it hard to release the tension that they had both been living with since news of the abduction had reached them. His heart ached for Johnny, even while he felt pride that his son wanted to leave his old life behind and start over.  Their discussion earlier in the day had been revealing, and he hoped that he’d said enough to ensure that Johnny returned home with them.

Scott’s reaction to the news of Silva’s survival was of concern, clearly demonstrating the emotional and physical harm caused by his imprisonment. His son would need careful handling during the healing process. Although he would happily have killed Silva with his bare hands, he admired Johnny’s restraint.  He’d only killed one man in his life, and that had been in self-defense.  Nonetheless, it was one man too many.  Even though they had only known each other for six months, he knew instinctively that Scott felt the same and that the brothers had a strong enough friendship that would allow them to talk this out. And, he was determined that he would be there every step of the way to provide support and encouragement.

Johnny and Val had passed on the warning of a possible retaliatory attack.  The townsfolk would be vigilant for a time, but would then become complacent.  That was how it always was.  He felt no pang of conscience at leaving them to their own devices once Scott was ready to travel.  If the town were to survive, the people in it would have to learn to fight to protect it.  That wasn’t Lancer’s problem.

As he picked up his glass of whiskey and stared into its amber depths, he turned his thoughts to Teresa and Mary.  There was some source of discord between the two women, one which he hadn’t had time yet to explore.  Mary could be difficult – he’d learned that at first hand many years previously, and her initial reaction to Johnny suggested she hadn’t changed much.  However, her care of Scott had been exemplary, and Johnny seemed to have reached an understanding with her.  He smiled at that.  Trust Johnny to find a way past her prickly exterior.

He sniffed the liquor appreciatively, taking a sip and allowing the flavor to roll around in his mouth.  When the door opened, he expected it to be the doctor returning from seeing a patient, or Johnny coming back.  He stumbled gracelessly to his feet at the sight of Mary O’Brien.

“Do sit down,” she told him.  “I only came to ask about Scott.  Teresa wasn’t very forthcoming when she returned earlier.”

Teresa and Mary were staying with the minister and his wife, allowing Johnny and Murdoch to utilize the only other spare room in the doctor’s house.  “He’s been asleep for most of the day,” he told her, returning to his chair.  He didn’t feel inclined to tell her about Scott’s earlier ill-advised trip downstairs.  “Now that the pain is under control he is resting more comfortably.  We should be able to start the journey back to Lancer in three or four days.”  He looked at her enquiringly.  “Will you be returning with us?”

Mary smoothed her skirt as she sat on the sofa.  “That depends on whether I am welcome there.”

“I don’t hold you responsible for what happened here, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“Ah, Murdoch, you never did lie well.  You can’t honestly tell me that you haven’t thought it was my fault for inviting myself, and insisting upon having an escort.”

“Why did you decide to come?” Murdoch asked, feeling a touch uncomfortable.  There had, indeed, been times when that very thought had crossed his mind.

“I wanted to see Teresa.  Was that so wrong of me?”

“Of course not.  But, why, after all these years?”

“I could ask you the same thing about Scott.  You knew exactly where he was and did nothing to bring him home.”

“That was different,” Murdoch said defensively.  He wasn’t in the mood for overt or implied criticism. “Besides, it isn’t a decision I have to justify to you.”

“One day you might have to justify it to him, although I think he might be too well-mannered to ask,” she responded tartly. Silence fell as she appeared to consider whether or not to say anything further. A deep sigh heralded her decision. “The truth is, Murdoch, that I’m lonely.  No doubt you’ll tell me that is my own fault.”

“I understand what it’s like to be lonely.”

“Do you?  You’ve always had your ranch, friends, and neighbors – and now, you have your sons.”

“There is a big difference between being alone, and being lonely.  Even surrounded by hundreds of people, I would still have felt the loss of my sons.”

She lifted her chin, her mouth set in a determined line. “Paul and Teresa were my only relatives, and you made it quite clear that I wasn’t welcome at Lancer.”

“Yes, I suppose I did.  Paul was my friend and he was afraid that you were going to try to take Teresa away from him.”

“I only wanted what was best for her.  You know, I’ve watched you and your boys together, and I’ve seen how you all feel about Teresa.  You’re a lucky man, to be surrounded by such a close family.”

Murdoch had to admit to himself that this wasn’t the same domineering woman he remembered. There was a sad note of longing in her voice that he’d never expected to hear. “When Teresa received your letter she was overjoyed.  She was so excited by the thought of getting to know you.  What happened?”

“I underestimated her love for you and your sons.  I let my resentment against you color how I dealt with Scott.  I’d hoped to persuade Teresa to come and live with me, to give me some companionship.  I was expecting a fight from you. I suppose I resented the fact that Paul had entrusted her guardianship to you, rather than to his own sister.  I blamed you for that, convincing myself that you’d used your influence and money.  When we were taken prisoner, I was terrified, and, I blamed Scott for not protecting us.  The truth is that he displayed a dignified courage and was treated intolerably as a result.”

“And, Teresa?  How was she treated?”

Her eyes slid away from his piercing stare. “Most of the time we were left alone.  I think, now, that a lot of the credit for that can be given to Gabriel.  There was one night, though, when she was taken downstairs and something happened.  I believe that only she and Scott know the truth of it.  When Gabriel brought her back, she was bruised and she’d been crying.”

Murdoch felt himself go cold.  “Was she raped?” Fear and anger intermingled as he waited for the answer.

Mary shook her head, emphatically.  “It didn’t go that far.”

“That was what Scott…” He sighed, deeply.  Teresa must have asked Scott not to say anything, and it was probably as well.  If Johnny were ever to learn of this, he wouldn’t rest until Silva had been hunted down and killed. No wonder Scott had been so upset at finding their captor had survived. “Has Teresa spoken to you about it?”

“She barely says two words to me.  I’m afraid she hates me.”

“I think you underestimate her.  When my sons came home, I had every reason to think they would hate me.  Before the battle with Pardee I said that to Teresa.  Her reply surprised me.  She said they didn’t hate me – that they wanted to love me.  She’s a very wise young woman sometimes.  I think the same is true for you.  Teresa wants to love you.  You just have to find a way to tell her that you want that love.”

“You make it sound very easy.” Unshed tears glittered in her eyes.

“It isn’t easy. I’m still working on it with Scott and Johnny, but we’re making progress. When they first came home, I was afraid to let them get too close to me, or to open my heart to them.  I worried that they would leave and there were times, especially with Johnny, when that fear almost became a reality. That was when I realized that we had to work on our relationship.  Now, we’re all closer than I could ever have dared to expect. The choice is yours, Mary.  You can turn around and go home, or you can talk to Teresa and come to Lancer so that you can spend some time with her. Take it from me, she’s well worth getting to know.”

“After all that has happened, why should she care about a bitter old woman?”

“Family is important to her.  She never knew the love of a mother.  Don’t deprive her of the chance to know the love of her aunt.”

“All these years, I’ve believed that you would have poisoned her mind against me.  When we were being held prisoner, she told me that you’d never said one critical word.  I have a lot to apologize for.  When Scott is feeling better, I will speak to him in the hope that he’ll understand how sorry I am for the way I acted.  For the present, I have a niece that I would very much like to be reconciled with.”

“I can’t leave Scott here alone, but I don’t like the idea of you being out on your own either.  The doctor should be back soon.  Why don’t you stay a while and then I’ll walk back with you.”

“Thank you.  While we wait, perhaps you could tell me more about Teresa.  I’d like to know what her life’s been like since Paul died.”

**** 

The air in the small house was stiflingly hot, despite the early hour. Turning in the doorway, Gabriel looked back at the villagers standing huddled together, waiting for news.  For all his faults, Vicente had always been good to the people here.  If he died, it would affect them deeply.

Notwithstanding the severity of his injuries, and the substantial blood loss, Vicente had survived the slow journey home in the back of a wagon.  They had the doctor’s skills to thank for that.  He’d allowed no trace of his personal feelings to intrude as he dealt with the two bullet wounds.

Gabriel had felt ill at the sight of shattered bones and torn muscles.  According to the doctor, the knee was a lost cause.  Vicente would never be able to bend it again and would have to live with a level of pain that would steadily worsen as he aged.  After the operation they had been sent on their way, with water and a supply of laudanum.  It had taken the better part of a day to accomplish the journey, finally relinquishing Vicente to the care of his wife the previous evening. The remaining half dozen men had been subdued and dispirited.  Only Patricio had left the town with a vow of vengeance hanging heavily in the air.

He entered the bedroom, meeting Tela’s tearful gaze.  She believed that they had been ambushed by the Rurales, barely escaping with their lives.  Vicente had never wanted his wife to know the truth about his activities, and Gabriel wasn’t going to betray his brother-in-law’s wishes now.  He had enough on his conscience, including guilt at allowing himself to be captured and bartered for Scott Lancer’s life.  The outcome might have been very different if he hadn’t tried to help the girl.  His fear was that Vicente and Patricio suspected his duplicity.  In spite of the heat, he broke out in a cold sweat. Vicente, he saw, was awake, having drifted in and out of consciousness for the last day and a half.  Gabriel walked quietly to the opposite side of the bed from his sister.

“Fetch Patricio,” Vicente whispered.

Gabriel stiffened, fearful of the significance of that request.  “You should rest.”

“Get him.” Even though Vicente’s voice was weak, it was still laced with malevolence.

Gabriel found Patricio by the small corral, waiting with the rest of their remaining men.  “Vicente wishes to see you.”

Patricio had been on a short fuse since the shooting.  His first act after settling Vicente in bed had been to rearm himself from their store of weapons.  Since then, he had waited.  Gabriel trailed along after Patricio, a bad feeling settling over him.  He passed Tela on his way back into the house.

“He sent me away,” she told him as tears trickled down her face.  “I have never seen him so angry.  Take care of him, mi hermano.  I will be next door with Dominga.” She caught his arm.  “I know he plots his revenge.  I hope that Patricio kills the bastard responsible.”

He watched her leave, her words ringing in his ears. Entering the bedroom again, he saw Patricio bending over the bed, listening intently as Vicente spoke in halting phrases.

“We do not have many men left, Vicente.  I need time to recruit.”

“No.  You must hit them now.  They will be complacent, believing that we are beaten.  Attack the town to teach them that there is a price to be paid for turning on me, then find Johnny Madrid – and kill him.”

 

Chapter 15

It was late when Johnny eased open the door leading to Scott’s room.  He and Val had spent several hours in the cantina. The other patrons had all clamored to buy them drinks, as if that would make up for past failings. Neither of them had made the mistake of consuming too much alcohol.  Scott’s warning, coupled with their own innate caution, had kept them sober. Still, it had been a welcome respite from the events of the last few days. Eventually, Val had made his way to his room above the bar and Johnny had walked slowly back to the doctor’s house.

He hadn’t expected Scott to be awake. It was a surprise, therefore, to hear the bed creak and to make out some movement.  “Sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you.”

“You didn’t.  It’s hard to sleep at night when you’ve been sleeping for most of the day.”

Johnny took a couple of steps into the room, closing the door behind him.  “Do you need anything?”

“Some company?” Scott suggested.  “It’ll be a long night if I have nothing to do except lie here looking at the ceiling.”

Johnny sat down at the bottom of the bed, leaning back against the frame.  There was just enough light from the lamp on the bedside table for him to be able to study his brother.  A little of the unhealthy pallor had gone from Scott’s face, although the bruises still stood out starkly. More bruises and lacerations covered Scott’s arms and every part of his chest that wasn’t covered in bandages.  “How’re you feeling?”

“Like a whole herd of cows trampled me into the ground.”

“I’m sorry.”

“For what?  You and Sheriff Crawford risked your lives for us.  Silva would never have let us go, even if the ransom had been paid.  It seems to me that I’m the one who should be apologizing.  I haven’t exactly been expressing my gratitude.”

“I was worried for a while that you were mad at me,” Johnny confessed with a sheepish grin.

“Let me tell you, Brother, when I saw you in that cantina, you were the most welcome sight I’d seen in days.”

“D’you want to tell me what went on?”

Scott closed his eyes, shaking his head briefly.  “Not really.”

The longer Johnny looked at his brother, seeing the weakness and pain, the more he regretted his decision to let Silva live.  “I should’ve killed him.”

Scott’s expression was serious, without any of the anger he’d displayed earlier. “I was thinking about something you once said to me. ‘It’s easy to kill a man, and impossible to bring him back to life.’  You didn’t take the easy course.  You’re a better man than Vicente Silva, and don’t you ever think otherwise.  I’d say you’ve finally found a way to let Lancer and Madrid live side by side.”

“Murdoch said the same thing – more or less.  I know he didn’t like some of the things he saw – it was clear on his face.  But, you know what, Scott?  He never once turned away from me.  I used to worry, you know?  Some mornings, I’d wake up convinced that he was going to change his mind about havin’ a gunfighter in the house.”

“You underestimate him.”

“I know that now.” Johnny removed his hat, flinging it down on the bed.  “Damn, I hate this town.  I’ll be glad to get home.”

Scott’s expression became thoughtful. Johnny would have been willing to bet that his brother was still worried that they hadn’t seen the last of Vicente Silva’s men.  He wasn’t going to discount that possibility, but with the outlaw having been so badly wounded, he just wasn’t convinced that an attack would happen.

“I wonder if Silva made it home.  He took me there, you know?”

“Where?” Johnny looked up from where he had been tormenting the edge of the blanket.

“His village.  He even introduced me to his wife.”

Johnny’s thoughts turned speculative.  “Where is it?”

“Why?  Are you regretting letting him live?” 

“Sometimes,” Johnny admitted.  “How about you?”

“Sometimes.”

“So,” Johnny prompted.  “Where does he live?”

“I have no idea.  I was blindfolded for most of the journey.  It’s about half a days ride from here, but I couldn’t tell you in what direction.”

“What’s his wife like?” Johnny asked curiously.

“Young – wild.  Completely oblivious to what he does to make his money.”

“How’d he explain keeping you prisoner?”

“She never knew.  He threatened me with Teresa and Mary’s safety if I told her the truth or tried to escape.  The night we spent there, he drugged me to make me sleep.  He told me that his people treated him like a hero, and he was right.  It’s a sad thing when people are so downtrodden that they’ll turn to a monster like Vicente Silva for salvation.”

“Yeah, and he ain’t the only one who uses that as an excuse to rob, rape and murder.”

When Scott turned away, Johnny had an unpalatable thought. “Is there somethin’ you and Teresa ain’t telling us?”  His voice turned ice cold.  “If he touched her…”

“She wasn’t raped,” Scott said quickly – a little too quickly for Johnny’s liking. “I’m not saying he wasn’t capable of it, but he didn’t go that far.”

“How far did he go?” Johnny persisted.  “I want the truth, Scott.”

Scott shook his head. “You’ll just have to trust me.  Teresa’s stronger than she looks, and she’ll get over what happened here, given time.”

“You’d better be right about that, Brother, or I’m gonna find that bastard and finish what I started.”

“If I’m wrong, you’ll have company.”

Although Johnny didn’t like it, he knew that he’d be wasting his breath pressing his brother.  Scott could close up tighter than a clam when he was of a mind. He’d just have to keep a close watch on Teresa to make sure she was all right. “Do you really think his men will try something?”

“I don’t know.” Scott’s eyes were starting to close again.

“Well, if they do, they’ll regret it,” Johnny said softly as he retrieved his hat.  “Get some rest and I’ll see you in the morning.” He waited until he was sure that Scott had returned to sleep before leaving the room.  

****

“It sure has been quiet around here these last coupla days.”  Val pulled off his hat, running his hand through his straggly hair.

Johnny sat on the rocking chair outside the cantina, rocking gently back and forth, and watching the townsfolk hurrying past.  His presence intimidated them, a fact which was causing him some grim amusement.  “Spit it out, Val.”

The sheriff kicked a small stone off the boardwalk. “I’ve been thinkin’ of heading back to Visalia. You seem to have things under control here and Scott’s healing fast.  I don’t want my deputy to be getting too comfortable.”

“I’ve already told you we could use a good sheriff in Green River.  According to Murdoch, the town’s really grown over the past couple of years. The last sheriff quit when Pardee arrived and no one’s been in any hurry to step up and take his place.  There’s a house goes with the job, too.  The mayor’s a pompous fool, but you wouldn’t have to answer to him, seein’ as the sheriff’s appointed by the Cattleman’s Association.”

Val shook his head.  “Sorry, Johnny.  I’m happy where I am.”

“There’s gotta be some way we can thank you for all you did.  If you hadn’t agreed to help, I don’t think we’d have got everyone back.” Johnny tipped his head back to look up at his friend.

“We’re friends, and friends help each other out.  You know, Johnny, I always thought you were hell bent for nowhere. I’m glad that I was wrong and that you found your family.  Your pa seems like a decent man, and that brother of yours has a helluva lot of guts.  Course, he’s as willful as you are.  It’s as well your pa already has gray hair, ‘cause I can’t see either you or Scott being content with a quiet life.”

“We try, Val, really we do.  Just seems trouble has a way of catchin’ up with us.” Johnny didn’t try to hide his disappointment, but he knew Val.  Eventually, the sheriff would get a hankering to move on and, when that day came, he might just head north and find his way to Green River.  “I ain’t gonna stop you.  You’ve done more’n enough already. Take care of yourself and keep in touch.  If you ever change your mind, you know where to find me.”

“Say good-bye to your family for me.  Never could stand farewells.”

“I will.” Johnny stood up and held out his hand.  “See you around, amigo.”

It was with a sense of sadness that Johnny watched his friend leave.  Although Val was a reminder of the life he was trying to leave behind, the memories were mostly good ones.  Footsteps sounded on the boardwalk and he turned slowly.  The only reason they were still here was so that Scott could recover from his injuries.  Johnny had no interest in getting to know the townsfolk, and most of them avoided him and his father anyway.  His mouth curled up with amusement as he recalled the delegation that had turned up at the doctor’s house the day after their arrival.  The solid, upright citizens had come to express their sympathy over Scott’s injuries and to offer their assistance.  Oh boy, had Murdoch laid into them!

Johnny’s good humor fled when he saw that it was the sheriff standing behind him.  This worthless piece of trash had done Silva’s bidding and had kept an innocent man locked up.  Worse than that was the failure to protect his prisoner, turning a blind eye to Scott’s suffering.  Johnny’s fingers twitched with the desire to pound his fist into the sheriff’s face.

The sheriff stayed quiet as he watched Val collecting his horse.  “I guess he wasn’t a bounty hunter,” he eventually said into the uneasy silence.

Johnny looked at him in disgust.  “He’s the sheriff in Visalia and, unlike you, he’s a credit to his badge.”

“I’ve offered my resignation to the town council.  If your brother decides to press charges against me, I’ll stay and face them.”

“Mighty decent of you, ~Sheriff ~.”

Sheriff Johnstone looked at the ground and sighed.  “There ain’t no reason for you to believe me, but I’m sorry for my part in this.”

“Save your apology for Scott – if he’ll listen.” As the sheriff turned to leave, Johnny caught his arm.  “Why’d you let Silva and his men loose?”

“This is a small town, Mr. Lancer.  The circuit judge comes through here every six months or so.  D’you really think I coulda kept them locked up that long? A lot of his men left before we worked up the guts to fight back. You can bet they’d have come back quick enough if I had kept him in jail. The border runs only about a mile south of town and, once back in Mexico, I’d have no jurisdiction.  Why’d you think he chose this town as his staging post?  He’d commit all his crimes on American soil then he’d jump back and forth across the border, depending upon who was out for his blood at any given time.”

“If he wasn’t operating in Mexico, why would anyone be after him there?”

The sheriff sneered. “He liked to think of himself as a revolutionary, not as some cold blooded cutthroat.  He was always urging the peasants to rise up against the landowners.  That didn’t sit too well with anyone who relied on the local peons to work their land.  Last I heard, there was quite a price on his head.” The sheriff stepped into the roadway.  “You’d have done everyone a favor if you’d killed the bastard.”

**** 

Scott finished packing, making a quick visual check of the room to ensure that he hadn’t missed anything.  The stagecoach had been discovered abandoned at the back of the livery stable and Murdoch had declared that he was perfectly capable of handling it for the journey back home.  The thought of once again being confined in the stuffy coach with Teresa and Mary wasn’t an appealing one.  His suggestion that he was fit to ride had been met with identical disbelieving stares from Johnny and Murdoch.  Recognizing that this was one argument he was destined to lose, he had given in as gracefully as he could.

He caught his breath as an unwise move reminded him that his shoulder was still healing.  He had discarded the sling the previous day when the doctor had declared himself satisfied with his progress.  The majority of his muscles still ached and his skin had turned a myriad of interesting colors as the bruising finally started to fade.  He didn’t need to be told that he’d been lucky not to have suffered more serious injury. Over the past week, he’d been weaned off the pain medication to the point where he only needed a small dose to help him sleep at night. He picked up his gunbelt as the door flew open to admit his brother.

“Doesn’t anyone around here ever knock?” Scott asked good-humouredly.

Johnny smiled in response.  “Nope. You ready?”

Scott eased the gunbelt around his hips, fastening it in place.  “I certainly am.”

Johnny picked up the bag and gestured toward the door.  “After you.”

The stagecoach was waiting outside the house.  Teresa smiled broadly when she saw him, running over to take his hand and kiss him on the cheek.  That simple gesture reassured him that she was finding a way to cope with what had happened to her.

“You look happy.” He slipped his arm around her shoulder, relieved when she relaxed against him.

“I am.  I can’t wait to get back to Lancer.”

“What about your aunt?” Scott looked at the stage. Mary was already inside, looking out of the small window.

“She’s coming to stay for a while.  She apologized for the way she’d been acting.”

“Did she?”

“She’s not as bad as you think.  We had a long talk and she told me lots of stories about my father. She’s really sorry for how she acted toward you and Johnny and she did take good care of you before the doctor arrived.”

“I know, and I’m grateful for that.”

“Give her another chance.  Please, Scott.” Teresa looked up at him, eyes wide and pleading.

Scott smiled, kissing her gently on the top of her head.  “When you look at me like that, it’s very hard to refuse,” he teased.

“Come on, Scott.  What’re you waiting for?” Johnny had thrown the case up to Murdoch and was now mounted on his horse.

“I’ll be right there.”  Scott helped Teresa into the stage, before turning to the doctor who was waiting to see them off.  “Thank you.”

“Don’t overdo things for a week or so, and you’ll be fine.  Goodbye, Scott.”

Scott turned toward the stage, taking a last look at the town, which had brought him and his family so much grief.  He narrowed his eyes as he saw a plume of smoke rising from the far end of the main street.  Before he could say anything, a bell started to chime frantically.

“Fire,” he said, almost to himself. He looked at Johnny. They all knew how devastating fire could be in towns where all the buildings were made of wood.  If the wind turned the wrong way, the whole settlement would become nothing more than a pile of ash.

“Get the women back into the house,” Johnny shouted as he spurred his horse toward the smoke.

“Wait,” Scott yelled.  “It could be a trap.”

Johnny reined his horse around.  “That’s why you’re staying here to guard the women.  Get inside, Scott.”

“Do as he says, Son.” Murdoch climbed quickly down from the driver’s seat.

Scott stood indecisively watching his brother ride away.  If this was something more than an accident, who would back Johnny up?  “Give me your rifle,” he demanded, reaching his decision.  “I’m going after him.”

“Scott…”

“Don’t argue with me, Murdoch.  He risked his life to save us.  I’m not leaving him unprotected now.”

There was a momentary tense silence before Murdoch acquiesced. “All right, but you be careful.”

Murdoch ushered Teresa, Mary and the doctor toward the front door.  They had almost reached it when the first shot sounded.

 

Chapter 16

Johnny bent low over his horse’s neck as he spurred it to greater speed.  The town was in chaos as its citizens rushed to the scene of the fire.  Johnny could see now that the smoke was coming from a barn next to the livery stable on the outskirts of town.  The building was burning fiercely, and the thick black smoke convinced him that someone had used oil to ensure that the fire took hold.

Immediately after that thought crossed his mind, he heard the crack of a rifle, followed by a scream of pain.  More shots followed as he hauled back on the reins and flung himself out of the saddle.  He sought the dubious shelter of a doorway, drew his gun and waited for his breathing to steady.

A cautious glance up the street showed him a nightmarish scene.  The fire forgotten, the townsfolk were scrambling to find places to take cover as bullets rained down. Johnny saw a man drop, clutching the top of his leg.  He watched helplessly as the man tried to crawl away, only to be brought to a shuddering halt by a bullet in the back.

Women’s screams filled the air along with the pitiful cries of terrified children. Only sporadic shots were being fired toward the buildings where the attackers were hidden.  Johnny shut out all sounds except the rifle fire as he tried to work out how many men they were facing. His conclusion was that there were at least three men on the top floor of the livery, and an equal number in the building opposite to it. Bullets flew indiscriminately, some in the direction of the main street to discourage anyone approaching to render aid.  The attack had been designed to cause maximum injury and loss of life and, so far, was being horribly successful.

Most of the defenders were now trapped between the burning building and the deadly hail of bullets.  The air began to fill with smoke and ash as the fire raged unabated. Wishing that he had thought to grab his rifle, Johnny looked around for his horse.  It was standing, quivering, about twenty yards away.  For the first time, he cursed his decision not to bring Barranca.  The palomino would have come at his signal.  This animal wouldn’t respond.   As he debated making a move, he heard someone running toward him.  Johnny spun his gun cocked and ready to fire.

“Easy, Brother.”  Scott slid to a halt.

“What the hell are you doing here?  I thought I told you to stay with the women.”

“This is one fight I have no intention of missing.”

The determined set of Scott’s jaw made it clear that he wasn’t going to be dissuaded.  Besides, Johnny had to acknowledge that his brother had the right to be involved.

“How many?” Scott asked tersely.

“Half a dozen, I reckon.”

Scott chambered a round in his rifle.  “I’ll cover you while you get your rifle.  At this range, handguns won’t be of any use.  You take that side of the street and I’ll take this one.”

Johnny didn’t waste any time arguing.  He slipped his Colt back in its holster, slapped Scott lightly on the shoulder and prepared to run.  Scott flung himself behind a water trough by the side of the road and began to fire.

Johnny sprinted to his horse, yanked the rifle out of its sheath and gave a sharp blow to the animal’s rump.  Under cover of the dust thrown up by its hooves, he ran to the far side of the street. He took a minute to catch his breath and consider his options.  Some of the townsfolk had found sufficient shelter from which to return fire but, if they made a move, they would be cut down.  That left it up to him and Scott to find a way to disable or kill the attackers.

“Lancer!”

Johnny turned round, ready to fire as he recognized the sheriff’s voice.  “Plannin’ to shoot me in the back?”

“I’m plannin’ to help you.”

“Sorry.  I work better alone, and I sure don’t trust you.”

“That’s your right, I reckon, but with two of us we’ve got a better chance of getting into that building.”  The sheriff edged past.  “And, I’m going whether you trust me or not.”

Johnny risked a glance across the street.  He could just see the top of Scott’s head and his rifle.  He whistled to attract his brother’s attention.  Scott acknowledged him with a quick wave of his hand.  Johnny stepped away from the wall, firing rapidly.  Out of the corner of his eye he saw Scott lurch to his feet and reach the boardwalk, disappearing into the entrance of an alley.  A bullet grazed his arm as he backed away out of the line of fire.

The sheriff, meantime, had entered the building behind them.  “It’s clear,” he shouted and Johnny joined him in the small store.

“Now what?”

“We go round the back.  There’s an outside staircase that leads to the first floor of the building they’re using.”

“They know we’re here.  They’ll be expecting us.”

“You got a better idea?”

Johnny couldn’t help himself.  Ever since he’d found out that something had happened to Teresa, he’d been fighting the urge to head for Mexico and to hell with the consequences.  He grinned at the startled sheriff.  “Nope.  Let’s go.”

****

From the shelter of the alley, Scott watched his brother and the sheriff enter a building.  His shoulder ached and his body was bathed in sweat as it protested against the exertion.  He didn’t pay it any attention.  How often had he railed against his helplessness while being held captive?  Now, armed and determined, he was going to take back control.

The gun battle continued to rage on the main street.  The townsfolk, armed only with handguns, stood little chance of hitting any of the outlaws, but they were at least keeping them occupied.

Scott ran to the far end of the alley, looking carefully around the corner of the building.  Keeping to the shadows, he made his way toward the livery stable.  A few horses were milling around in the small corral as he rolled under the bottom rail.  He glimpsed a movement through the partly open door leading to the stables.  A man peered out, his eyes widening in shock a second before Scott pulled the trigger.  It was a killing shot, as he’d meant it to be.  He had neither the time, nor the inclination, to seek only to disarm his opponent.

He moved immediately, barely escaping from several quick rounds fired from the upper level.  He recognized Patricio’s voice, filled with fury as the outlaw spat out a stream of curses.  Scott smiled coldly as he ducked down behind several bales of hay that were piled against the side wall of the building.

Knowing that Patricio couldn’t ignore the presence of at least one gun at his rear, Scott was prepared to be patient.  Rushing in would only get him killed.  He had to draw his quarry out.  He laid down his rifle and drew his revolver.  The shooting had become sporadic.  Soon Patricio would find that he was the one who was trapped.  The only sensible course of action for the outlaws was to try and escape.  With that in mind, Scott looked around, smiling when he saw three horses standing saddled and waiting.  Bending low, he ran to where the animals were tethered.  A bullet hit the ground far too close for comfort.  He jerked hurriedly on the reins and the horses, already unsettled by the fire and gunshots, took off.

“I’m going to kill you, Lancer.” Patricio’s words were almost incoherent with rage.

“You had your chance,” Scott shouted.  “Throw out your weapons and surrender.”

That suggestion was met by a barrage of bullets.  Then, Scott heard another voice shouting excitedly in Spanish.  Time was rapidly running out for Silva’s men.

A creaking noise caused Scott to look up in time to see a man leaping through the top floor opening and lunging for the rope hanging from the pulley.  Scott stood up and fired.  With a yelp, the man lost his grip, plunging to the ground.  A bad feeling washed over Scott. Before he could turn round he heard a gun being cocked behind him.

“It is time for you to pay for what your bastard of a brother did to Vicente.”

There was no time for Scott to react before he heard the gun being fired.

****

Johnny crouched behind a stack of boxes, peering upwards.  He had no doubt that there was someone near the top of the stairs with a gun trained on the street.  So far, though, the man hadn’t shown himself.

“We need to draw his fire,” he said thoughtfully.

“Are you as good as they say, gunhawk?” the sheriff asked.

Johnny’s eyes narrowed in annoyance at the term.  “Yeah.”

“Good.  Don’t miss.”

The sheriff fired upwards before darting out into the space between the two buildings.  Johnny saw the movement he had been waiting for as a man leaned out of the window beside the staircase.  He fired at the same time as the outlaw and then ran for the stairs, taking them two at a time. He kicked the door open, seeing two startled faces turning his way.  He knew that he held all the aces.  Before the men could bring their rifles to bear, he’d sent two quick shots in their direction.  A third shot behind him sent him spinning into a crouch.

The sheriff stood unsteadily in the doorway, blood pouring from his shoulder.  The final outlaw lay at his feet.  “You just winged him.  He was about to put a bullet in your back.”

“Thanks.” Johnny helped the sheriff to sit with his back propped against the wall.  He pulled out a bandana and shoved it into the sheriff’s hand.  “Hold that over the wound.”

 He checked that the other outlaws were dead, gathering their guns and throwing them into a corner.

“Killing doesn’t come easy, does it?” the sheriff asked.

Johnny shook his head.  “I shoulda killed Silva, though.”

“Reckon it wouldn’t have made any difference.  Patricio had killing on his mind.”

Johnny looked again at the three dead outlaws.  Patricio’s features were fixed clearly in his memory.  “He ain’t here.”

He slowly realized that silence had fallen except for the sounds of the fire.  He flinched when he heard a shot.  When a further shot sounded moments later, he whispered Scott’s name and headed for the door.

Clearly seeing his sudden panic, the sheriff pushed himself to his feet.  “Go on.  I’ll be fine.”

As he left the room Johnny felt a fleeting emotion that he had never expected to feel for the sheriff – respect.

****

Scott’s body was rigid with fear as he heard the shot.  It took time for him to understand that he hadn’t been the target.

“Are you alright, Son?”

Murdoch’s worried question finally encouraged him to move.  Patricio was standing behind him, his right hand cradled to his chest with blood seeping between his fingers. Scott gave his father a weak smile.  Murdoch was standing only yards away, his gun pointed at the outlaw.

“How…?” Scott swallowed and tried again.  “I thought you stayed with Teresa?”

“The doctor had a rifle and was quite prepared to use it.  He offered to keep an eye on Teresa and Mary.  Not that I think any of the outlaws would have made it past Mary.  She looked ready to tear them apart with her bare hands.”

Scott smiled at the picture that conjured up in his mind.  “She can be a forceful lady.”

Murdoch walked over, kicking Patricio’s gun out of the way.  “Are you hurt?”

“Only my pride.  I should have been more cautious.”  Scott looked at the fiercely scowling outlaw, finally noticing that the gunfire had ceased.

“Scott! Murdoch!” Johnny’s relieved shout heralded his arrival.  “I was worried about you, Brother.”

“It Murdoch hadn’t turned up, you’d have had cause.” Scott frowned as he saw the blood staining Johnny’s sleeve.  “You’re bleeding.”

“It’s just a graze.  The sheriff caught a bullet, though.  We should get him to the doc.  And,” he gave Patricio a cold smile, “I suppose we should bandage him up before we throw him in a cell.”

“One day, Madrid, I will see you in hell,” Patricio spat.

Johnny shrugged.  “Ain’t the first time I’ve heard that.  So far, everyone who’s said it has ended up there before me.  Let’s go.”

They herded their prisoner out onto the main street.  Now that the threat was ove,r the townsfolk were tackling the fire and tending to those who had been wounded.  The undertaker and his assistant were loading the few dead bodies onto a wagon, surrounded by grieving widows and sobbing children.  Through the swirling smoke and red tinged shadows it was, Scott thought, a scene straight out of a nightmare.

Johnny turned to Murdoch.  “You’d best get him locked up.  If they see him right now he won’t make it to a trial.”

“You’re right.” Murdoch hurriedly pushed Patricio toward the jail.

The brothers stood side by side in the center of the street, too tired now to be more than spectators as the town struggled to deal with the aftermath of the brutal attack.

“You gonna say ‘I told you so’?” Johnny asked.

Scott shook his head.  “No, and I don’t want to hear you blaming yourself either.”

Johnny’s thoughts were well hidden as he put an arm around Scott’s shoulders.  “We should go and fetch the doc, and let Teresa and Mary know what’s happened.”

“I guess we won’t be going home today.”

“Reckon not.”

“If we stay another couple of days, I’ll be able to ride,” Scott said hopefully.  Now that the fight was over he could feel every ache in his body returning with full force.  His steps faltered and Johnny’s arm moved to his waist to support him.

“We’ll see about that,” Johnny replied.  “Besides, if you’re ridin’ in the stage it’ll give you a chance to use all that Boston charm on Teresa’s aunt.”

“She’s immune.”

“Then, you must be losing your touch,” Johnny said smugly.  “’Cause I’ve got her eatin’ out of my hand.”

“In that case, Brother, next time she’s looking for an escort, I’ll volunteer you.”

 

Epiilogue : One Month Later

Johnny dumped the last of the bags in the back of the buggy, standing back as Scott threaded rope through the handles to fasten them in place.

“I never would’ve expected the old man to volunteer for this trip.”

Scott stood back to survey his handiwork.  “She has become easier to get along with, and Teresa’s happy about her decision to move to Green River.  I’m surprised Mary didn’t invite you along, though, seeing as how you and she get along so well.”

“Jealous, Brother?” Johnny grinned.

“Not at all.  I’m quite happy to let her call on you when she wants some work done around her new place.”

Johnny grimaced.  He had become quite fond of Mary O’Brien – in small doses.  She had mellowed considerably from the woman whose first impulse had been to demand that he be shot.  Scott, on the other hand, had remained politely distant and had resisted all of Johnny’s efforts to find out why.

The journey home, delayed for two days by the fire and Patricio’s attack, had been blessedly uneventful.  They had stopped in Visalia, persuading a very reluctant Val Crawford to join them for dinner.  The sheriff had been extremely upset at having missed the final showdown with Silva’s men. The following day, Scott had refused to travel any further by coach and, ignoring all their perfectly valid protests, had hired a horse. Sheer determination had kept him in the saddle for the remainder of the journey.

It had been a week after their return before Scott was cleared by Sam to return to work.  His mood had improved noticeably from that point on.  Johnny had noticed that Scott and Teresa had been spending quite a lot of time together.  He’d refrained from making any teasing comments, guessing that they were providing each other with mutual support following their shared ordeal.  He’d resigned himself to never knowing exactly what had happened; being content to watch Teresa slowly returning to the laughing, carefree girl she’d been before her ill-fated journey.

Now, waiting in the bright sunshine, the events that had led him to return briefly to the life of Johnny Madrid were becoming a distant memory.  He had his family and no longer lived in fear that his father would show him the door because of his past.

“Boys!” Murdoch strode quickly out of the house.  “Is everything ready?”

“Yes, Sir.  We’re just waiting for you and Mary.”

“She’ll be out in a minute.  I wanted to tell you something before we leave.  A telegram arrived earlier from Sheriff Johnstone.  Patricio Maes escaped from jail a few days ago, killing the deputy who was on duty.  They followed his trail to the border before having to turn back.”

“I see.”

Johnny noticed that his brother had gone a little pale.  “Any news about Silva?”

Murdoch shook his head.  “Nothing since we heard from the authorities in Mexico that he and his whole family had disappeared.”

“He’ll turn up again,” Johnny said.  “A man like that ain’t gonna stay hidden.”

“Are you all right, Son?” Murdoch was looking at Scott in concern.

“I’m fine.  We should get on the road if you’re going to be in time to catch the afternoon stage.”

The brothers went to collect their horses while Mary and Teresa said their goodbyes.  It wouldn’t take Mary long to dispose of her house and the plan was that she and Murdoch would then return with her possessions.  She had purchased a small house in Green River so as to be closer to Teresa, without wearing out the Lancer hospitality.

Johnny and Scott had decided to accompany them to town on the pretext of buying some provisions and bringing back the buggy.  From the indulgent look sent their way by Murdoch, Johnny was sure that he knew their real motivation was the chance to relax and have a few drinks in the saloon.

Scott was quiet as he saddled his horse.  He mounted as soon as he was ready, heading out without waiting for anyone else.  Johnny spurred after him.  “I’ll keep an eye on him,” he yelled back to his father.  “See you in town.”

It didn’t take long to catch up to his brother.  They allowed their horses to run for a while before slowing them to a more sedate pace.  Scott kept his attention on the road, his silence a barrier between them.

“Silva will get what he deserves eventually.”

“Will he, Johnny?”

“Yeah.  Take it from me.  A man who lives his life surrounded by violence doesn’t die in his bed of old age.”

Scott turned his head, looking thoughtful.  “Maybe you’re right.  We’ll probably never know what happens to him.”

They reached Green River and continued on toward the stage depot.  “Murdoch should be…” Johnny’s train of thought was interrupted as he looked up the street at a dusty, disheveled rider approaching from the opposite direction.

“Is that who I think it is?” Scott asked.

Johnny grinned.  “I do believe it’s our new sheriff.”

 

 

~end~
June 07

Vicente Silva (1845-1893) - Vicente Silva was the clandestine leader of a vicious gang of Mexicans called Silva's White Caps, or Forty Bandits, or the Society of Bandits. Born in Bernalillo County, Silva arrived in Las Vegas, New Mexico in 1875. Silva ran a prosperous business by day and at night he led the feared outlaw gang. The White Caps, a Klan-like organization, sought through fence-cutting, arson, and physical assault, to drive settlers from lands that had once been common pasture.

Committing a variety of crimes, the Mafia-like gang was one of the meanest and cruelest ever assembled in New Mexico. Often meeting in Silva's Imperial Saloon on Moreno Street, the gang held the area in a virtual stranglehold until October, 1892, when they decided to hang fellow gang member Pat Maes for an infraction.

At the request of Silva, three crooked lawmen by the names of Jose Chavez y Chavez, Eugenio Alarid and Julian Trujillo lynched Patricio Maes on October 22, 1892.  Several months later Silva began to fear that his brother-in-law, Gabriel Sandoval, was about to inform on the group for the lynching of Maes.

Requesting help once again from Chavez, Alarid, and Truillo, Sandoval was shot and killed in February, 1893 and his body mysteriously disappeared.

Afterwards, Silva's wife began to ask numerous questions about her brother’s questionable disappearance. Silva soon decided that she too had to be killed.  Afterwards, he ordered his trusty trio of crooked lawmen to dig a grave for his wife’s body. However, as the men dug the grave, their discussion turned lethal, as they were dissatisfied with the paltry $10 payment and deciding that Silva was out of control.  When Silva appeared with his wife's body, the trio robbed and murdered him, burying his body along with his wife’s.

After Silva's death, the gang disintegrated. Chavez, Alarid, and Truillo were eventually arrested for the murder of Maes and sentenced to life in prison.

Information taken from legendsofamerica.com

Want to comment? Email Caroline