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Caroline

 

 

FThe Devil's Daughter
The story carries an overall FRM (R) rating for some adult themes plus references to black magic. This is a sequel to last year’s Halloween story, “Of Gods and Men.”  You will need to have read that for this story to make sense.

 

Chapter 1 

Johnny plopped down contentedly on the gently-sloping grassy bank.  He tilted his face up to the sun, drinking in the warmth.  The extreme heat of summer had passed, giving way to the gentler weather of early fall.  The leaves on the trees were changing color to rich reds and oranges before drifting silently to the earth.

He had missed this last year, being deep in Mexico within a hidden valley where no rain had fallen for two years.  Everything there had been brown, withered and lifeless. For a few days he had been resigned to the fact that he would end his life there – a sacrifice to the old beliefs. An involuntary shudder shook him and he pushed those images away.

Reclining on one elbow he turned his attention to his brother.  Scott was lying flat on his back, his hat resting on his face to shield it from the sun’s rays.  A smile touched Johnny’s eyes and mouth.  The events of twelve months ago had left a deep impression upon all three of the Lancer men.  For a long time, Scott had brooded about what had happened, trying to make sense of it.  Then, one day, it was as if he had closed a door on the memory and life had returned to normal.

Now, Johnny was convinced that his sibling was hiding something from him.  Since returning from a trip to town earlier in the week, Scott had been looking mighty pleased with himself.  In Johnny’s experience, that look could only mean one thing.  His brother had fallen for a girl.  Unsubtle hints hadn’t garnered any information, leaving the youngest Lancer almost bursting with curiosity.

“Hey, Scott.  You awake?”

“No,” his brother replied good-naturedly. “Go away.”

“Murdoch won’t be happy if he finds you slacking off,” Johnny persisted.

“Murdoch’s spending the day in Spanish Wells at that stock auction, so I don’t think there’s much risk of him finding out.  Besides, I’m just resting my eyes.”

“Come on, Scott.  You know it ain’t polite to keep secrets from your brother.”

With an explosive sigh, Scott removed his hat and turned his head just enough to stare balefully at Johnny. “What secrets?” he enquired.

“You’ve been wanderin’ around with a puppy dog look on your face for the last two days.  Who is she, Brother?”

“I have not,” Scott protested, but Johnny didn’t miss the slight flush the appeared on his cheeks.  “Besides, you’re jumping to conclusions.”  Scott stood up, brushing dust and blades of grass from the back of his trousers.  “If you’re not going to let me sleep, we might as well get back to work.”

Several hours, and a dozen stray cattle later, Johnny was still no closer to finding out what was going on.  “I thought I might go into town tonight.”

“Uh huh.”

“Want to come with me?” Johnny asked innocently.  “You might see your girl – whoever she is.”

“Damn, you’re persistent,” Scott responded without rancour.  “I don’t know why you’re so interested.”

“Don’t like secrets.” Johnny grinned.  “So, who is she?”

Scott conceded defeat with a resigned sigh. “You can meet her on Saturday.  I’m taking her to the dance in town.”

The reply suggested to Johnny that this mysterious woman was new in town, and that intrigued him even further.  “What’s her name?”

“Her name?” Scott looked puzzled.  “I…I don’t know.”

“You asked her to the dance and didn’t bother to find out what she’s called? What happened to all them fancy manners of yours?”

“I haven’t…” Scott swayed slightly in his saddle, an unfocused look settling on his face.

“Whoa, Brother, are you feeling alright?” Johnny put out a hand to steady the blond.

Scott straightened, his expression clearing.  “I’m fine.  Do you think you could finish up without me?  I have a lovely young lady to visit.”

“I don’t know, Scott.” Johnny looked at the position of the sun.  “We’ve a lot of ground to cover and…” A sharp pain in his stomach caused him to hunch over in the saddle, gasping for breath.  The pain pulsed and grew to a crescendo before disappearing as abruptly as it had started.

“I’ll be home in time for supper,” Scott continued, giving no sign of having witnessed his brother’s momentary agony.

Johnny frowned deeply as he watched his brother ride off.  The griping in his stomach had been unexpected, but not as unexpected as having his brother ignore the fact that he was obviously in pain. Scott wasn’t acting normally and it bothered him. His usual preference was to avoid any form of organized entertainment, but nothing was going to keep him from the dance on Saturday.  Something was going on, and he was determined to find out what it was.

*****

Johnny finished harnessing the matched pair of horses to the buggy.  Teresa had been pleased and curious when he suggested accompanying her to the dance.  His father had given him a very odd look as well, before making some remark about it being time he took a more active part in local events.  Being unable to explain why he felt so strongly about keeping an eye on his brother, he had just nodded meekly and made his escape.  Scott had already left, smiling vaguely at Johnny’s teasing about being ‘all fancied up.’

He leapt up to take the reins and drive the buggy round to the front of the house.  The pulse of pain came and went so quickly that he wondered if he had imagined it. He was often scolded by his family and Maria for bolting his food, and wondered if his stomach was finally rebelling against his love of spicy dishes and an unseemly haste when eating them.  The only thing was that the pain hadn’t seemed that localized, not like the incident the other day.  Maybe he was coming down with something.  The thought of telling anyone, and then being fussed over, wasn’t appealing.  Teresa and Jelly between them would come up with the most atrocious concoctions for him to drink, Maria would treat him like a child and his father would no doubt send for Sam.  All things considered he decided the best course of action was to ignore the problem.  He felt better having settled that in his own mind and slapped the reins on the horses’ backs to set them moving.

Teresa was waiting by the front door, almost bouncing up and down with excitement.  Her enthusiasm brought a genuine smile to his face.  He felt a little guilty at having used Teresa to spy on his brother and resolved to ensure that she had an enjoyable evening.  If he was lucky, one of the local boys would take her off his hands – if not, he would just have to be her gallant escort for the evening.

A cold gust of wind caught him by surprise and he shivered.  He jumped down and strolled over to Teresa.  “Can you wait a minute while I fetch my jacket?” he asked.

“Don’t take too long.  The dance will be starting soon.”

“I’ll be right back,” he assured her.

His short black jacket was hanging tidily in his wardrobe.  He ran a hand over the red silk lining, enjoying the sensuous feel of the material.  The jacket and matching trousers had been a gift from his father at Christmas.  Having spent so long being poor, wandering from town to town owning not much more than the clothes on his back, he delighted in beautiful things.  The combination of soft leather and silk, and the memory of the pleased expression on his father’s face when the gift had been so enthusiastically received, never failed to make Johnny smile. 

He had intended to go straight back downstairs.  Instead, he found himself falling to his knees by his bed and pulling out a small chest.  It didn’t take long to find what he was looking for and he didn’t question the impulse that made him slip the slender gold chain over his head.  He tucked it carefully under his shirt, feeling more at ease now that he had it nestling against his chest.  Whistling cheerfully, he stood up and left the room.

*****

It didn’t take long for Johnny to spot his brother, once he and Teresa arrived at the large barn just outside of town.  Normally, according to Teresa, the dances were held in the church hall.  An unexplained fire just over a week previously had caused superficial damage to the building, rendering it unusable until the townsfolk had time to repair it.

Scott was standing in a corner, with his back to the room.  He had one arm outstretched, his hand resting against the wall and his head dipped down as if he was listening to someone.  Johnny handed Teresa a glass of fruit punch and saw her to a chair by a group of her friends.  The young women all acknowledged him with appraising looks that made him feel decidedly embarrassed. He bestowed his brightest smile on them and prepared to move off.

One of the older girls, Millie Carter, pouted at him.  “I thought your brother was a gentleman.”

Johnny raised an eyebrow.  “That’s what he keeps tellin’ me.” He knew that Scott had escorted Millie to a few of the local gatherings lately, although his brother had assured him that the relationship wasn’t serious and that he was a long way from being ready to be corralled by any young woman.  From the look Millie was directing at Scott’s back, it appeared that she might have had a rather different view of their relationship. “What’s brother Scott done to get you all riled up?”

Millie looked at her friends then stood up and took Johnny’s arm, steering him away from their eager stares.  “He invited me to this dance, then called by this morning to say that he was taking someone else,” she hissed, coloring with mortification.

“That ain’t like Scott.  D’you want me to speak to him?”

“Oh no.  It’s humiliating enough, without him knowing I spoke to you.”

“Yeah, I guess it is.” Johnny continued to stare at his brother as Millie left him.  It wasn’t at all like Scott to embarrass a young woman.  His eastern charm had ensured him more than his fair share of female attention in the eighteen months since his arrival in California.  He had an easy way with women and managed to remain on good terms with them even after a relationship had run its course.

He slowly made his way through the crowd, distractedly acknowledging greetings from friends and neighbors.  As he got closer Scott turned, smiling warmly as he saw his brother approaching.

“Johnny, I was hoping you would be here.”

"Scott.  Is everything alright?”  Johnny felt a prickle of unease which reached a screaming pitch as a woman stepped out from his brother’s shadow.  His right hand moved, not toward his gun, but toward his chest.  The crucifix that he had impulsively donned earlier burned hot against his skin. 

She was undeniably beautiful, and that beauty both attracted and repelled Johnny.  Her long black hair hung loose around her shoulders, catching the light from the lamps and smothering it in the inky blackness.  Her slender body was encased in a gown of pale pink silk, cut daringly low at the bodice.  Johnny swallowed hard and tore his eyes away from the enticing cleavage.  A smile curled her mouth upwards, and Johnny found himself imagining what it would be like to kiss those lips.  Then, he looked into her eyes and took a step back. 

Heart pounding, he searched his brother’s face for some sign that Scott was aware of the power residing in this woman.  Scott’s smile hadn’t wavered, yet Johnny sensed a coolness directed toward him. Scott put his arm round her waist, pulling her closer, in an almost challenging manner.

“Who’s your friend, Scott?”  Johnny broke the uncomfortable silence.

Scott turned to the woman.  “Isabelle, this is my brother, Johnny.”

She held out her hand. “I’m very pleased to meet you, Johnny.  Scott has told me a lot about you.”

He hesitated, licking his lips, until he saw Scott’s smile turning into a frown.  He took her hand and felt an unpleasant jolt run up his arm. He pulled away as her smile broadened into a look of pure malicious pleasure.  “Ma’am,” he touched a finger to the brim of his hat in acknowledgment.  “I don’t wish to be rude, but I need a word with Scott.”

“Can’t it wait?” Scott bent his head and brushed a light kiss on Isabelle’s bare shoulder. “I’m a little busy.”

“No, it can’t wait.” Johnny grabbed his brother’s arm and tugged.  “Now, Scott.”

Scott’s mouth was set in a hard line as he turned his attention back to the woman by his side.  “I apologize for my brother’s lack of manners.  Will you wait for me?  I won’t be long.”

“You have no idea how long I’ve waited for you, Scott Lancer,” she purred, smiling up at him.

Scott took her hand and carried it to his lips, kissing first the back and then the palm.  Johnny looked away, embarrassed and unsettled. 

“Let’s get some air,” he suggested.  “I never did like crowds much.”

Once they were outside, Scott leaned against the wall of the barn and folded his arms across his chest.  “What was so important that it couldn’t wait?”

Johnny paced back and forth a few times, finally coming to a halt a few feet away from his brother.  He kept his head down and scuffed the toe of his boot in the dirt.  “What do you know about this woman?”

“What’s that got to do with you?”  The question was sharp and unfriendly.  “I don’t have to answer to you when I decide to ask a lady out.”

“No – no, you don’t,” Johnny conceded.  “Only you don’t seem to be quite yourself and I was worried.”

“I appreciate the concern, but I don’t need the likes of you watching out for me.”

Johnny felt like he’d been punched in the stomach.  “What does that mean?”

“It means,” Scott began, then he stopped and frowned.  “I don’t know what it means.  I’m sorry, Johnny.  I don’t know what made me say that.”

“I guess you were just sore that I’d dragged you away from your girl.”

“Yes, that must be it.” Scott didn’t look convinced.  “I should get back inside.”

“I was talking with Millie earlier.  It’s not like you to drop a girl like that.”

“Millie?” Scott sneered.  “Well, Brother, I wasn’t going to pass up a better offer.”

The unexpected callousness of Scott’s words shocked Johnny. “That’s a mite cruel, ain’t it?”

“Sometimes the truth is cruel.”

“Be careful, Scott.  I’d say this woman’s bewitched you.”  Johnny made the remark lightly and was completely unprepared for the change that came over his brother.

Scott grabbed him by the front of the shirt, swung him round and pinned him up against the wall of the barn.  “You mind what you say about her, boy,” the blond snarled.

“Hey, lighten up.  I didn’t mean any offense.”  Johnny raised his hands to push his brother away.

The rough handling had caused the crucifix to edge out from under his shirt. Scott caught it and held it cupped in his hand.  “It’s a little late to be wearing this, don’t you think?” he asked spitefully, before tugging sharply on the chain.

Johnny hissed as the chain parted.  The sudden blast of pain in his chest made his legs collapse from under him and left him dangling in his brother’s firm grip.

“Don’t interfere, Johnny,” Scott warned, releasing his hold and allowing him to slide to the ground. 

As Johnny’s vision darkened he saw Scott hurl the crucifix into the brush at the edge of the road.  He couldn’t catch his breath and his plea for help was lost in the darkness as Scott strode away from him.

 

Chapter 2

 

When Johnny opened his eyes the next morning he was lying in his own bed.  The angle of the sun streaming in through his windows indicated that he had slept late.

He lay still, hoping that the events of the previous evening had just been a horrible nightmare.  Unfortunately, he knew better than that. The light was hurting his eyes and he turned away with a groan.  He didn’t remember returning home much less making it as far as his own room.  He sat up slowly and carefully and lifted the covers.  His suspicions were confirmed. Someone had undressed him and put him to bed.  Being a man who had an almost paranoid fear of being vulnerable, that thought made him feel sick. 

A sour odor assaulted his senses.  It took a minute to identify it as cheap whiskey, and to recognize that the smell was coming from him.  As fragments of memory coalesced, he realized that he did feel sick and that he was exhibiting all the symptoms of a raging hangover.

He remembered the pain that had felled him and Scott abandoning him.  His stomach knotted and his throat filled with bile as he felt once again his stunned disbelief. As he’d tried to crawl back to the dance, rough hands had grabbed him, dragging him away from the barn and into the darkness.  He hadn’t been able to see their faces and had been in too much pain to call for help. He’d been forced to drink, the raw liquor splashing over his hands and clothes as he tried to resist.  No words had been spoken and the men had worked with ruthless efficiency. Finally, the hands had left him alone and he’d sunk gratefully into oblivion.

He fell back against the pillows and waited for his head to stop spinning.  He’d been well and truly set-up.  He couldn’t explain where the pain had come from, or why someone would do this to him. If it was some kind of joke he sure wasn’t appreciating it.  He shuddered as he saw in his mind Isabelle’s gloating face. Why would a woman he had never met before be trying to turn his brother against him? He’d been joking when he made that remark about her bewitching Scott – now, ridiculous as it seemed, he wasn’t so sure.

It took time to get out of bed.  He washed up as best he could using the cold water in the bowl on his dresser.  After pulling on clean clothes, he gulped down two glasses of water and looked around for his gun.  It hadn’t done him any good last night.  One of the men had held him down while the other poured the whiskey into his mouth.  They hadn’t eased up, even when he’d been convinced he was going to drown.  In the end reflex had made him swallow and today his throat felt bruised and sore.

His rig was no where in sight.  Whoever had tended to him last night must have left it downstairs. A feeling close to panic bubbled to the surface. He left his room and made his way down to the great room.  It was Sunday morning and his father should be at church.  Should be…but wasn’t.  As Johnny propped himself up against the door frame, Murdoch lowered the paper he had been reading and glanced in his direction.

“Good morning.”

Johnny knew he wasn’t imagining the chill in his father’s voice.  “Morning,” he mumbled.  “Thought you’d be at church.”

“I would have been, except that I thought I had more important matters to attend to here.”

“Meaning?” Johnny queried, heading slowly for the comfort of one of the sofas.  He groaned faintly as he sank into the soft cushions.

“Meaning you, Brother.”  Scott strolled into the room carrying a cup of coffee and perched on the edge of the desk.

He looked faintly amused, causing Johnny’s temper to snap. “How about that little matter of you walkin’ away from me last night, when I was sick?”

A genuinely puzzled look crossed Scott’s face.  “I didn’t walk away from you.  When Joe came to tell me you were blind drunk I brought you home.”

“Joe?  From the saloon?”

“I suppose it isn’t surprising that you can’t remember, given the state you were in,” Murdoch snapped.  “What on earth possessed you to embarrass yourself – and us – like that?  Can you imagine how Teresa felt?  You abandoned her at that dance and then had to be brought home in the back of a wagon.”

“It wasn’t like that,” Johnny protested.  “Tell him, Scott.”

“I’m sorry, Johnny, but I couldn’t cover for you this time.”

“This time?” Johnny’s voice rose as the implication of his brother’s words sank in.  “Just what the hell are you trying to say, Brother?”

“Johnny, please lower your voice.  Scott was worried about you.  You can’t blame him for telling me about your drinking.  I don’t know why I didn’t see the signs earlier…”

“Because there ain’t no signs,” Johnny snarled back.  “I don’t know what’s going on, but I ain’t got a problem with drink.”

Murdoch sighed and exchanged concerned glances with his older son.  “It’s only natural to deny the problem.  Perhaps, if you told me what was on your mind, I might be able to help.”

Johnny’s thoughts were too confused to allow him to articulate them in front of his father and brother.  They’d think he was crazy.  He detected no malice in his brother.  Scott really didn’t seem to remember what had happened.  He lowered his eyes.  “Ain’t nothing on my mind and it won’t happen again.”

“Very well, but you do owe Teresa an apology,” Murdoch told him sternly.

Johnny felt claustrophobic.  He needed to get out into the fresh air and think.  He absentmindedly rubbed the back of his neck, wincing as his fingers touched a bruise.  His heart thudded painfully as he remembered Scott tearing the crucifix from him and tossing it aside.  He had to go and find it.  Standing up he announced, “I’m going for a ride.”

Scott straightened up.  “Would you like some company?”

“Not from you.”  The minute he said it, he regretted the words.  “Sorry, Scott.  I don’t think I’m fit company for anyone right now.”

“Make sure you’re back in good time for supper.  Scott’s young lady is joining us.” There was no warmth in Murdoch’s voice and the order was clearly not intended for debate.

“Sure, Murdoch.  I wouldn’t want to miss that.” Johnny saw his father’s head shoot up and he was fixed with a forbidding stare.  He stared right back until Murdoch chose to acknowledge the words, rather than the tone, with a sharp nod of his head.  Johnny gave a sigh of relief and headed for the hat rack by the front door to retrieve his gun.

*****

The ride into town helped clear Johnny’s head.  He refused to believe that Scott had willingly turned on him.  There had been a sad honesty about his brother this morning – a marked contrast to the spitefully vicious way he had acted the previous evening.  Johnny resolved to find his crucifix before going to the saloon to confront Joe.  The bartender must know that he hadn’t been in there getting drunk.  The men who had attacked him must have left him there after he passed out.  If he could get a description of them he could find them.  Then – he smiled grimly and rested his hand on his gun – he could force the truth out of them.

He reached the barn where the dance had been held and ground tied Barranca.  The horse was skittish and he took time to calm the animal down.  His own senses were on high alert, although he couldn’t see or hear anything out of the ordinary.

He headed for the area of undergrowth where Scott had thrown the cross and knelt down, parting the scrubby bushes.  The crucifix had belonged to his mother.  She had always worn it, not that it had protected her.  He sat back on his heels, wondering where that thought had come from.  Sure, he had railed against God when she died, but as he had grown he had accepted that she had died because of the drunken cruelty of a man.  It was a human, rather than a divine act, which had caused her death.

The night she died he had made a deal with the Devil; at least that’s what his ten year old mind had believed.  He’d accepted that idea for so long, finally laying it to rest last year.  If the Devil had owned his soul, he’d have died on an Aztec altar, his heart torn from his body by his own brother. 

Although he had taken the crucifix from around his dead mother’s neck, he had never worn it…not until last night.  For years, he had felt that he didn’t have the right.  Recently he had felt that it wasn’t necessary as he had his father and brother to look out for him.

Time passed and his search became more desperate, until his scrabbling fingers closed over the cold metal.  He raised it up, brushing off the dirt and noting the broken chain.  When he got home he’d apologize to Teresa and see if she could let him have a replacement.  He wouldn’t feel settled until he was wearing it again.

Barranca whinnied in fright and a shadow blotted out the sun.  “Did you find what you were looking for?”

The melodious voice sent chills through his body and he reached for his gun. A blast of pain behind the eyes made him cry out. Raising his hands to his throbbing pain he squeezed his eyes shut and bowed his head.  He felt his gun being lifted out of his holster before the pain disappeared.

“Now we can have a civilized conversation without me having to worry about being shot.”  Isabelle smiled sweetly as Johnny looked up, squinting against the bright sunlight.

He pushed himself to his feet and tucked the cross in his pocket, feeling faint warmth radiating from it.  “Don’t reckon I’ve got anything to say to you,” Johnny hesitated for a second, before producing his brightest smile and adding, “yet.”

He could tell that two men were standing behind her and tried to focus on their faces.  He frowned, unable to get a clear look at them.  It was like looking at something through thick glass, the shape was there, but the details were blurred.

“That is such a shame,” Isabelle continued placidly.  “We have so much in common.”

“We have nothing in common,” Johnny snapped.  “How about you give me my gun back and let me get on with my business?”

“In a minute,” she replied.  “I want to talk to you first. Your brother is an interesting man, handsome, well educated.  I can’t imagine why he cares about you so much.”

The comment stung, not least because Johnny had sometimes wondered the same thing himself.  “Is there a point to this?”

“That’s very much the point.  You are his weakness and I am very good at exploiting weaknesses.”

Furious, Johnny took a step forward.  “I don’t know what game you’re playing and I ain’t gonna stand around and wait to find out.  You leave my family alone.”

“Oh, it’s far too late for that.  If I leave, Scott will come after me.  There’s nothing you can do about it.  Soon, I will have what I came for.”

“What do you want?”

She drifted closer to him and reached up to kiss him on the cheek, laughing as he recoiled from her touch.  “Wouldn’t you like to know?”  She turned her back on him and began to walk away.  “You can give him his gun back now,” she called to her men and Johnny heard the thud as his Colt landed in the dirt.  “I’ll see you later.  I am looking forward to meeting your father and Teresa.” The words floated back to him on the breeze and then she was gone.

*****

Johnny was in a foul mood when he arrived at the saloon.  His black brows were drawn down in a forbidding scowl, while his steps from the hitching rail to the doors were reminiscent of the prowl of a hunting cat.  He stopped at the batwing doors and looked around.  When he caught the eye of the bartender he saw the man visibly pale.

“J…Johnny,” Joe stammered.  “I hope you ain’t looking for any trouble.”

“Now, why would I be looking for trouble?” Johnny drawled, pushing his hat back so that his piercing blue eyes were visible.  “Just want to ask you some questions, is all.”

“Sure.  Can I get you a drink?”

“Nope.  Reckon I had enough to drink last night.” Johnny watched Joe closely to gauge his reaction.

The bartender’s hands were shaking as he picked up a towel and began wiping the counter.  He seemed unable to look Johnny in the eye.  “I’m sorry ‘bout tattling to Scott, only you were in a bad way.  I was only bein’ neighborly. And I ain’t said nothin’ to him before.”

“Before?” Johnny asked softly. 

“I kept quiet like you asked.” A bead of sweat ran down Joe’s face.

“What are you talking about?  I ain’t never asked you to keep quiet about anything.”

“If you say so, Johnny,” Joe agreed doubtfully.

Johnny reined in his frustration.  “Just tell me what happened last night,” he asked patiently.

“You came in about eight o’clock, bought a bottle of your usual whiskey and sat in that corner over there and drank it.”

Johnny leaned over the bar and grabbed the startled man by the shirt, pulling him over to face him.  “That’s a downright lie.  How much is she paying you?”

“W…who?”

Johnny took in the man’s clear confusion and pushed him away.  “Never mind.  I’ll have that drink now.”

A bottle of whiskey was hurriedly placed in front of him.  “What’s that?  I don’t drink that rotgut. Get me a beer.”

He carried the glass over to his usual table where he could sit with his back to the wall and watch the comings and goings.  He sipped thoughtfully.  It appeared that there was a conspiracy underway to discredit him, which meant that someone was worried about what he might find out.  If Isabelle wasn’t behind it, she was certainly working for whoever was in charge.  What did they want with Scott?  And what had she meant when she described him as his brother’s weakness?  The effort to think was exhausting him.  He leaned back in his chair, his eyes drifting shut.  His mind screamed at him that it wasn’t safe to sleep in such a public place.  He fought to no avail to lift tired eyelids and gently slipped into a deep sleep.

 

Chapter 3

The empty chair opposite him taunted Scott.  On any normal Sunday, his brother would be sitting there, eating enthusiastically and entertaining them with his quick wit and good humor.  There had been nothing good humored about Johnny when he had walked out that morning, but Scott hadn’t believed for a second that his brother would disobey Murdoch’s direct order to be present for dinner.  He knew that Johnny was angry with him, and he hated the feeling that he had let his brother down.  He was also disappointed.  He wanted Johnny to be happy for him and to get to know the incredible woman who he could already imagine as his wife.

He glanced down the table at his father.  Murdoch was doing his best to be a polite host, but every time his father looked at the empty chair his expression turned thunderous.  His hand crept under the table, unseen by his father and Teresa, and he caught Isabelle’s hand, squeezing it proprietarily. She turned her dazzling smile in his direction and he felt himself falling even further under her spell. She had made an immediate favorable impression upon both Murdoch and Teresa.  Scott hadn’t doubted that she would and, once again, gave silent thanks for his good fortune. 

As he clung onto her hand, he began to feel the first stirrings of anger at his brother.  What right did Johnny have to spoil his happiness like this?  It wasn’t his fault that his sibling was drinking himself into oblivion.  It was probably the only way the gunfighter could live with his conscience, and the memory of all the men he’d killed.  It was pure selfishness to make his family suffer for his misdeeds. Perhaps he should speak to his father, get Johnny sent away.  It had been a mistake for Murdoch to welcome his younger son back in the first place.  It would have been best if Johnny had died in front of that firing squad…

Scott released Isabelle’s hand, lifted his glass and almost choked as he saw the deep red wine swirling round in front of his eyes.  His mind filled with the picture of Johnny’s lifeless body lying in the dirt, blood covering his chest and forming a crimson pool in the dust.  Deep blue eyes stared at him reproachfully as he slammed the glass back onto the table, the liquid teetering on the brink of spilling over the top and staining the pristine white tablecloth.

“Is something wrong, Scott?”

Isabelle looked at him with loving concern and her hand found its way to his leg, where it rested, calming his shattered nerves.  The unpalatable vision drained out of his mind as he watched her mouth moving, before giving way to the impulse to kiss her.  The kiss, inappropriate at the dinner table, lasted a long time.  She responded enthusiastically and he felt his blood begin to race. When he looked up again, he saw an approving smile on his father’s face.

“Perhaps you two young people would like to be alone?” Murdoch suggested, with a knowing wink.

Scott felt his heart beating faster and an insistent tingling in his loins as he imagined making love to the dark-haired beauty.  Standing eagerly, he offered Isabelle his hand.  She was reaching out to him when the front door opened.

*****

Johnny knew he was in trouble.  He’d opened his eyes to find that it was dark and that the saloon was full of men enjoying a drink before wending their way home.  A stream of curses left his lips as he shouldered his way through the crowd, mounted Barranca and shot out of town.

Now, he stepped into the room, spurs jingling, and removed his hat.  He’d been prepared for Murdoch’s wrath, well deserved on this occasion even if his lapse in manners had been unintentional.  He wasn’t prepared for the look on his brother’s face as Scott turned around.  The expression of pure unadulterated lust brought him to a standstill, his mouth hanging open. As Scott moved purposefully toward him he got his first look at Isabelle.  Waves of venomous hatred poured off her and her eyes burned with green fire.

“What are you doing here?” Scott demanded, standing so close that Johnny could see his dilated pupils and flushed skin.

“Back off, Scott,” Johnny warned.

“Why? So that you can make a move on my woman?”

“Trust me, Brother, that ain’t gonna happen.  And since when has she been your woman?  You’ve only known her for a few days.”

Scott’s heavy breathing lessened and some of his belligerence leeched away.  “She’s…she’s important to me, Johnny.”  His words held a hint of uncertainty.

“Scott,” Isabelle purred from behind him, gently touching his arm.  “Your brother is only jealous of what we have. You aren’t going to let him come between us, are you?”

Johnny felt his opening slipping away.  “It’s not like that,” he began defensively.  A hand landed on his shoulder and he was wrenched round to face his father.

“I told you to be home in time for dinner,” Murdoch roared furiously.  “How dare you ignore my order?”

Johnny watched in stunned horror as his father drew back his arm.  He made no effort to evade the blow which rocked him backwards.  Raising shaky fingers to his cheek he felt heat invade his face.  “Don’t ever do that again.”

“I should take a belt to you,” Murdoch raged, seemingly oblivious to the ice in Johnny’s eyes.  “You’re not too old to have some manners beaten into you.”

Johnny stood rigid with disbelief.  “Better men than you have tried.”  Rather than anger, Johnny felt a searing pain.  So many men had hurt him when he was a child, helpless to defend himself.  He’d never expected Murdoch to follow that same path. His father had never hit him before or threatened violence.  What was happening to his family?

Scott stood with his arms folded across his chest, making no protest.  Isabelle’s beautiful, cold face expressed only satisfaction.  He forgot about his father as he stared at her, unable to look away. Dios, he wanted her - wanted to wrap his fingers in her long black hair and…His eyes turned to Teresa sitting demurely at the table as if nothing was happening. Suddenly, the thought of touching Isabelle made him feel ill.  He dropped to his knees, retching and heaving, shaking convulsively.

“Johnny!”

“Leave him, Scott. He’s being punished for all the bad things he’s done in his life.  It is just a foretaste of what is waiting for him.  He deserves to be punished, doesn’t he?” 

Isabelle’s voice insinuated itself into his mind and Johnny found himself contending with a procession of images, gruesome and unsettling. The last time this had happened he had been in Mexico, a prisoner of the black priest, and he had been alone. The crucifix tumbled out of his pocket and Isabelle hissed like a startled cat. He looked up pleadingly.  “Scott – help me.”

*****

A myriad of conflicting emotions warred within Scott.  He could feel Isabelle, pressed against his side, hot and alluring.  His body responded and he groaned softly.  Then, he looked down at his brother writhing in agony on the floor and he knew where his priorities lay.  He gently disentangled Isabelle’s hand from his arm and knelt beside Johnny.  “I’m here, Brother.  I’ll help you to your room and then I’ll fetch Sam.” He brushed sweat soaked dark hair out of Johnny’s eyes.  “Where’s the pain?”

“Everywhere,” Johnny panted in a strangled voice.

“Scott, what are you doing?  He hasn’t shown you any consideration, so why are you helping him?”

Scott turned his puzzled gaze to Isabelle, disconcerted by her unfeeling attitude.  “He’s my brother and he needs my help.”  He looked over at his father, who was standing watching and making no move to assist.  “Murdoch, can you give me a hand?  Teresa, could you go ahead and turn down Johnny’s bed?”

As if a spell had been broken, Murdoch and Teresa began to move, exclaiming in concern.  With his father’s assistance, Scott managed to half carry his brother to his room.  Shutting Teresa and Isabelle out, he helped Johnny to undress and get into bed.  Johnny had his knees drawn up to his chest, panting as waves of pain surged through him.  Finally, he gave a sharp gasp and collapsed into unconsciousness.

“I’m going to fetch Sam.” Scott rose hastily to his feet. 

“Hurry,” Murdoch urged. 

Scott reached the great room and smiled apologetically at Isabelle.  “I’ll hitch up the buggy and take you home on my way to Sam’s.”

With easy and natural grace she rose from her chair.  “You’ll make better time on horseback and I’m sure the doctor won’t mind taking me home when he’s finished here.  Besides, I’d like to sit with Johnny for a while – to make up for my rather callous attitude earlier.”

“I’m sure he’ll appreciate your concern.” Scott looked adoringly at her. “Make yourself at home.  I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

*****

Isabelle sat in the chair by Johnny’s bedside and examined her nails.  They were long and tapered to a sharp point, perfect for ripping into flesh.  She ran one nail down the unconscious man’s arm, drawing a thin line of blood, and then she licked her finger distractedly.  It had looked as if it was going to be so easy to ensnare Scott.  He’d fallen for her charms, just as she’d expected, and had turned so satisfyingly on his brother at the dance.  It was all going to be so simple to complete her mission - to make Johnny Madrid Lancer suffer and to take from Scott Lancer his most precious possession – his soul.

She had made her own pact with the Devil many years ago, an eternity of servitude in return for youth, beauty and the ability to attract any man who caught her eye.  Her surrogate father came to her in dreams, calling her his ‘most beloved daughter.’  She had never failed him and did not intend to do so now.

Scott would surrender his soul willingly, either through love of her or to save his brother further torment. It was rare for a man to go against her wishes. Most were easily swayed, and she looked forward eagerly to meeting the challenge with Scott.  And he was a handsome man.  She didn’t have to pretend to be attracted to him.  The thought of their final consummation sent thrills coursing through her body.  But that was for later.  She had only been playing with him this evening.  The time was not yet at hand.

Johnny moaned and stirred, opening pain dulled blue eyes.  Leaning forward, she brushed a kiss on his forehead, knowing how much the contact would hurt.  Her laugh was malicious as she saw him bite his lip to prevent the agonized cry that was bubbling up in his throat.

“Can you imagine what it will be like to suffer such pain for eternity?” She sat back, satisfied that he would not be able to move until she gave him leave.  “You should have died last year,” she continued.  “My father was not pleased. The Priest failed him.  I will not make the same mistake.”

“Your father?”  The question came through gritted teeth.

“You know who he is.  You belong to him, and soon he will own your brother as well.  Scott Lancer shouldn’t have interfered.” Her voice turned hard.  “If he had fulfilled his appointed role, his soul would already have been forfeited.”

Johnny couldn’t hold back the memory.  Bound and helpless on an Aztec altar, he had watched Scott raise the ceremonial knife ready to plunge it into his chest.  Only, Scott had resisted the evil spell laid upon him, turning the knife instead on the monster responsible for almost destroying an entire valley. “My brother’s a good man.”

“Yes, he is which is what makes this all the more satisfying.” Her voice was as sweet as molasses.

“Murdoch!”

Johnny’s voice was stronger than she had anticipated and she hurriedly pressed her hand over his lips.  “He won’t believe you, and neither will Scott.” She stared deeply into his eyes.  “Do you want me, Johnny?  Your brother does.  Have you thought about what it would be like?”  She removed her hand and bent her head.  As her lips touched his she released him from his paralysis and his arms surrounded her, pulling her hard against him.  He returned her kiss with a desperate fervor as she moulded her body to his.

Suddenly, he pulled away. “You’re just like a bitch on heat,” he said harshly, shoving her from him so that she tumbled from the bed to the floor.

She scrambled to her knees.  “You’ll pay for that.”

*****

Scott arrived back at the house ahead of the doctor.  As soon as he opened the front door, he heard Johnny’s tortured screams.  He took the stairs two at a time, hurtling toward his brother’s room.  When he opened the door, the noise ceased and he saw Isabelle solicitously rearranging the bedclothes.

“He was having a nightmare,” she told him softly.  “It’s over now and he’s asleep.”

Gratitude welled up in Scott.  Isabelle was as caring as she was beautiful.  He took her in his arms and kissed her deeply.  “I love you,” he murmured huskily into her ear when the kiss had ended.  “I want to be with you forever.”

“Are you willing to bind yourself to me, Scott?  To merge your soul with mine?”

“NO!”

The cry came from the bed and Scott turned hastily to look at his brother.  There was fear in Johnny’s eyes as he tried to sit up.  “Promise me, Scott.”

“Promise what?”

“Not her…please, Brother, not her.”  Johnny sank back, hollow eyed with exhaustion.

“I don’t understand what you have against Isabelle, and now certainly isn’t the right time for this discussion,” Scott replied icily. “Sam will be here soon.”

“Not sick.  Get her out of here and I’ll be fine.”

“You can both leave while I examine my patient,” Sam’s distinctive voice floated over to them from the doorway.

As Scott ushered Isabelle from the room, Sam put his bag on the table and looked enquiringly at Johnny.  “Well, young man, what seems to be the problem?”

*****

Half an hour later, Sam joined the Lancers in the great room.  Scott released Isabelle’s hand and stood to pour the doctor a cup of coffee.  “How is he?”

“I couldn’t find anything wrong with him.  He’s exhausted and he was babbling some nonsense about the Devil, but apart from that, he seems perfectly healthy.”

“I don’t understand.  He was in severe pain when I left to fetch you.”

“Well, whatever was causing the pain has disappeared.  He’s sleeping now and I don’t see any reason why he shouldn’t be his normal self in the morning.”

“I’m sorry to have wasted your time,” Scott said contritely. “Do you really think he’ll be alright?  He’s been acting very strange lately.  He doesn’t seem to be quite himself.”

“I did hear in town that he’s been drinking heavily.  That could be having an effect on him.  Keep an eye on him and let me know if he exhibits any more unusual symptoms.”

“We will, Sam,” Murdoch assured him.  “I’ll see you out to your buggy.”

“And I believe I have a delightful travelling companion this evening.”

Isabelle blushed and lowered her eyes.  “If you’re sure it won’t be any trouble?”

“No trouble at all, my dear.  In fact, it was worth the trip out here just to have your company on the way back to town.”

Scott held her back as his father and Sam left the room.  He pulled her into his arms, bending his blond head to kiss her neck.  His hands moved urgently from her waist to her breasts as his kisses became more ardent. Pushing her against the wall, his right hand dropped to her leg, pulling up her skirt as he pressed against her.  “Marry me,” he panted.

She easily evaded his hands and stepped sideways, straightening her clothing.  “I thought you would never ask,” she told him, and walked sedately from the room leaving him dizzy, confused and elated.

 

Chapter 4

Johnny dragged himself out of bed at sun-up, every muscle in his body protesting. He felt as if he had endured a severe beating, only he had no bruises.  There was nothing to show for the agony of the previous evening. He had woken in a cold sweat from a vivid and disturbing dream.  Now though, the images were draining from his mind like water through a sieve.  The harder he tried to hang onto them, the more elusive they became. 

He was no longer sure what was happening.  The events of last night were blurred.  He recalled Sam examining him, asking questions to which he had no answers.  And Isabelle – he felt his heart quicken as he thought of her.  Only, she wasn’t his. She belonged to Scott, and the unfairness of that knifed deep into his body.

Pausing in the act of buttoning up his shirt, Johnny re-evaluated his last thought.  His mind cleared.  The stark warning from his dream resurfaced and the danger crystallized.  This was his fault! If he hadn’t reached out to Scott last year, if he’d just accepted his fate, his brother would be safe.  He might be damned for all eternity, but he wasn’t going to stand by while Scott’s soul was torn from him.  He’d kill the bitch himself if he had to, in order to prevent that.

Hurriedly, he stuffed his shirt into his trousers and headed downstairs.  The smell of bacon frying reminded him that it had been a long time since he’d eaten.  Maria offered a subdued greeting, casting wary glances at Murdoch and Teresa.  They appeared oblivious to the atmosphere, chatting quietly as they ate.

Johnny studied his father, feeling again the sting of the unexpected slap.  Even though he knew that his father hadn’t been in control of his actions it still hurt – emotionally more than physically. Murdoch looked up from his plate and smiled as if nothing unusual had happened.

“How are you, Johnny?” He hurried on before Johnny could respond. “You just missed Scott.”

Every nerve in Johnny’s body was on fire.  The danger was pressing in around Lancer, and soon it would be too late.  “Where is he?” he asked, through a suffocating feeling of panic.

Murdoch ignored the question as he exchanged a conspiratorial glance with Teresa. “I’m sure he won’t mind me telling you his news.”

A low murmur of sound reached Johnny’s ears.  Maria was reciting a prayer, begging for God’s protection, the words barely audible.  He turned sharply just in time to see her cross herself.  If Murdoch had noticed, he chose to say nothing, just waiting until he had Johnny’s attention.

“Your brother is getting married.”

Johnny raced from the kitchen, hearing, but not heeding Murdoch’s surprised shout.  He reached the barn and wrenched the door open, yelling for Scott.  The horses stamped uneasily, tossing their heads in response to the intrusion.  Scott stopped what he was doing, raised an eyebrow and then smiled.

“Good morn…”

Reaching out, Johnny gripped Scott’s arms, shaking him violently.  “Are you out of your mind?” he bellowed.

The smile disappeared from Scott’s face.  “Take your hands off me.”

“Not until you agree to listen.”

“Listen to what?” Scott demanded.  “More of your jealous lies?” He made no effort to escape from Johnny’s imprisoning hands as he threw his challenge in his brother’s face.

Johnny dropped his hands, shaken by the venom in Scott’s voice, and stepped back.  “I know you don’t want to hear this, but I don’t care.  She’s evil, Scott.  She doesn’t love you.  All she wants is to finish what the Priest started last year.”

Scott’s fist rocketed out, the force of the blow sending Johnny hurtling into the wooden partition between the stalls.  He scrambled to his feet, launching himself at the blond and wrestling him to the floor.

Scott raised his knee, driving it hard into Johnny’s groin and tearing a scream from his throat.  Johnny pulled his legs up, rolling onto his side and gasping for breath.  As his senses cleared he pushed himself backwards, resting his back against a bale of hay.  He looked up into the barrel of a gun and his blood ran cold.  Scott pulled the hammer back and tightened his finger on the trigger.

“I’m not armed,” Johnny ground out, blinking sweat from his eyes.

“That’s your misfortune.”

“No.” Johnny carefully eased himself to his feet, the gun following his every move.  “’Cause even if I was, I wouldn’t shoot my own brother.” The gun remained trained on his heart. He knew that he had to find a way to reach his brother otherwise, they would both be lost.  “D’you remember last year? You tracked me all the way to Mexico.  You were supposed to kill me then and send my soul to hell.”

Scott’s resolute expression wavered, and Johnny saw confusion as he pressed ahead.  “Anyone else would’ve gone through with it. They wouldn’t have had the strength to resist what that bastard did to you.” He allowed his passionate hatred for the Priest to blaze out.  Strong emotion was the key, he realized.  It was the deep bond of brotherhood that had won through the last time they had fought this enemy. “Do you remember, Brother?”

“Remember?” Scott tilted his head to one side, eyes now vague and unfocused.

“The temple – the altar.” Johnny suppressed a shudder. “That whole valley was enslaved by evil. The fear was so strong you could taste it. You need to believe me, Scott. That same evil is here now, in our valley. Do you want the same thing to happen here?”

“Yes, I…I remember.” Scott’s voice was hesitant, uncertain, his brow creased in thought.

“You saved me then,” Johnny stated emphatically. “Now, the Devil wants his revenge. He wants to make you pay for what you did.”

“The Devil doesn’t exist.” Scott’s denial lacked conviction.

“That wasn’t what you said then,” Johnny reminded him.  “I thought we’d beaten him. Guess I was wrong.  If you pull that trigger, Brother, you’ll damn both of us.  Is that what you want?  You fought him once, and won.  You need to do it again.”

Scott’s face cleared.  The anger and animosity drained away, and he lowered his head. “Can’t fight him alone – not this time. Help me,” he begged.  His arm fell to his side, the gun slipping from his fingers.

“That’s why I’m here,” Johnny assured him, catching him around the waist as he swayed unsteadily.  “Sit down.”

Scott sank down on the hay bale, bowed his head and began to massage his temples.  “Head hurts,” he explained quietly.

There was a bucket of clean water by the door.  Johnny dipped the ladle into it and carried it over.  Scott drank deeply and straightened up.

“I feel,” he paused as if unsure of his words. “I feel as if I’ve been living in a dream.”

Johnny hunkered down so that he was level with his brother.  He caught and held Scott’s tormented gaze, seeking to instil a sense of reassurance. “More like a nightmare,” he replied gently. “Now, ~we~ have to figure out how to make it end.”

*****

Isabelle sat in front of the mirror, rhythmically brushing her long, dark hair.  She felt an immense sense of satisfaction.  She had Scott Lancer and his family exactly where she wanted them.  Tonight they would celebrate their engagement.  In a few days, they would be married and Scott would be lost for all eternity.  And the sweetest thing would be opening his eyes to his fate when it was too late for him to avoid it.  Would Johnny continue to put up a fight?  She smiled sweetly at her reflection.  She had her contingency plans in place, just in case.

As the day wore on, she began to feel a twinge of anxiety.  She had expected Scott to arrive well before now to escort her to Lancer.  If that brother of his had interfered again… She wished she could just kill him, but her instructions were clear.  She could damage him, cause as much pain as she wished, but he was to be alive at the moment Scott surrendered his soul.

Her emerald green gown clung to her body, the color highlighting her eyes.  She had taken even more care than usual with her appearance.  This was an important night. She could feel the presence of her two bodyguards, fallen angels assigned to protect her. Their faces were so strikingly beautiful that the sight of them would drive anyone insane. When they walked among mere mortals they veiled themselves, except when she ordered them to unleash their full force on an unsuspecting man or woman.  They had fallen from grace when they had chosen to mate with mortal women.  Their children were demons, damned for the actions of their parents. Their inhuman strength made them useful in a more primitive fashion, and Johnny had already been on the receiving end of their cruel delight in inflicting pain.

A frown marred her normally smooth forehead.  Gazing into the mirror she summoned her allies. Something felt wrong.  Anger coursed through her and she sent out a silent order.  Within five minutes her buggy had been harnessed and she was on her way to Lancer.

*****

The brothers had spent the day away from the house, working on a section of damaged fencing, and talking.  Neither was naïve enough to think that it would be easy to convince their father or Teresa of what was happening.  Although Murdoch had been a witness to the events in Mexico, he had never acknowledged it as being anything other than a scheme devised by an evil man.  He had been openly scornful of Don Pedro, the owner of the land, for failing to fight against the Priest and his followers.  From the moment they had reached the end of the pass through the mountains on their way home Murdoch had firmly discouraged any mention of Aztec gods – or the Devil.

Val might be more receptive, but Isabelle’s grip on the townsfolk was strong, and any misjudgement now could prove fatal.  Try as they might, they couldn’t think of an easy way to dispose of the problem. Neither was yet ready to acknowledge the unspoken solution. Both felt a reluctance to return home, but neither wanted to leave their family unprotected.  They rode into the yard to find Isabelle’s buggy already there.  Two men stood beside it, faces blurred.  Johnny recognized them by their general build as being the two thugs who’d attacked him in town, and could feel them watching him with a keen anticipation.

The brothers entered the great room side by side. A bottle of champagne sat on one of the tables, surrounded by four glasses.  Murdoch glowered at them from his place by the fire.  Isabelle looked up from an intent discussion with Teresa and her brilliant smile lit up the room.

“I’ve been waiting for you, Scott. Your father is anxious to toast our engagement. And, we have so much to discuss…”

“Guess I ain’t invited,” Johnny interrupted rudely, stepping further into the room and interposing himself between the woman and his brother.

“What are you doing here?” she hissed.

“Giving Scott some moral support,” Johnny smirked.  “And, this is my home.  You’re not welcome, so I suggest you leave.”

Scott remained by the door, looking uncomfortable.  She stood up and glided gracefully across to him, taking his arm.  “Scott?  Are you going to let him talk to me like that?  This is your home too.”

Johnny held his breath.  Would Scott be able to resist her?  He saw his brother tense and then move away from her touch. “Johnny’s right.” Scott looked at his brother, and Johnny nodded encouragingly.  “I’m afraid it was all a mistake.  I can’t marry you.”

Green eyes narrowed.  “Can’t, or won’t?”

“I have no excuse for my behavior,” Scott continued.  “I could say that I was carried away by your beauty…”

“But, that would be a lie,” Johnny finished for him.  “Did you really think I wouldn’t be able to convince him?  You’ve lost, just like the Priest did last year.  Personally, I don’t have any objection to you ending up with a knife in your gut, same as him.  But, we’re gonna give you the chance to walk away.”

Isabelle walked slowly toward the large window behind the desk.  There was an ominous silence as she looked out over the land – land that all the Lancers had killed to protect.  When she turned, her face was sorrowful.  Framed by the light she fixed all her attention on the blond Lancer.  Scott took a hesitant step forward and Johnny’s strong fingers dug into his arm.

“Keep away from her, Brother.”

“You poor deluded boy,” Isabelle said pityingly. 

With one click of her fingers she summoned Murdoch and Teresa to her side.  Both looked expressionlessly at the brothers, leaving them in no doubt that there was only one course of action left open to them.

“We will be married,” Isabelle continued placidly, “because if you refuse me, your brother will die in the most exquisite agony.  Only, it will be nothing compared to the suffering that awaits him after his death.”

Johnny went for his gun. “Don’t listen…Dios!” The oath tumbled out as he sank to his knees.

“Johnny!” Scott knelt, reaching with shaking hands for his brother.  “Let him go,” he pleaded.

Isabelle stared fixedly at the young man writhing on the floor, barely able to breathe and incapable of speech.  “I want your word, Scott, or I’ll stop his heart now and you’ll spend the rest of your life with his death upon your conscience.”

 

Chapter 5

“You need to listen to her, Son.” Murdoch stepped away from Isabelle, leaning down to draw Scott to his feet.  He didn’t even spare a glance for the son lying in tormented agony on the rug.

The grip on Scott’s arm was bruising.  He looked from his brother to Isabelle in anguish. “Alright.  Make it stop.”

Her laughter rang around the house.  “You know what you are giving up?  Is he worth it?”

“Yes, he is.”

“Scott…don’t.  Not for me.” Johnny’s words came in short bursts.

Murdoch aimed a kick, catching Johnny in the side.  “Be quiet.”

“What are you doing?” Scott yelled.  “You’re his father!  You should be protecting him.” The grip on his arm tightened as he tried to twist away.

“He’s corrupted you,” Murdoch replied flatly.  

Scott turned his furious glare on Isabelle.  “I’ve given my word!  Leave Johnny and my father out of it!”

“Oh, I can’t do that.  Weddings are a family occasion after all.”

“You bitch!”

The backhanded blow caught Scott across the mouth and snapped his head around.  “Your behaviour is shameful!” Murdoch roared. 

“I think it would be wise to keep them apart until the ceremony,” Isabelle suggested sweetly.  “I’m sure Scott will come to his senses – given time and the proper encouragement. Can I trust you to keep him safe for me?”

Murdoch’s other hand landed hard on Scott’s shoulder.  “He’ll be here when you need him.”

“Good.”  Isabelle crossed the room and looked thoughtfully down at Johnny, who glared back in silent defiance.  “The wedding will take place in two days.  I’ll send word to tell you where.” 

Scott tried to back up as she approached him, only he was held fast.  She put her arms around his neck and gazed deeply into his eyes.  “Our wedding night will be an experience you will never forget,” she promised.

She pulled his head down so that he couldn’t avoid her passionate kiss.  His body betrayed him, stirring in response.  His struggles to free himself took on a new urgency.  He ignored the feeble pleas from his brother.  He wanted this woman…needed her in his bed.  As the kiss ended he gasped for air, the words of love just waiting to be spoken.  He looked at her beautiful face and saw…evil…hastily recoiling as she laughed at him.

“I’ll see you in two days,” she assured him.  “In the meantime, I’ll make sure that Johnny is looked after – just so you don’t try to get out of our bargain.”

“I’m not letting you take my brother.”  Scott fought with everything he had to get free and return to Johnny’s side.

“You don’t have a choice.”

Johnny pushed himself painfully to his knees.  “Yes, you do.  Tell her to go back to Hell.”

Isabelle licked her lips, a vicious smile contorting her features.  “I see you both need another demonstration of my power.” 

“No!” Scott screamed as he saw Johnny clutching his chest, gasping for breath. He couldn’t meet his brother’s pain-filled eyes.  “I’m sorry, Johnny,” he whispered. “I can’t let her hurt you.”

Isabelle’s two men appeared by her side.  One lifted Johnny to his feet, brushing away his feeble attempts to free himself.

“Put him in the buggy,” she ordered.  “As for you,” she caressed Scott’s cheek.  “I think, my darling, that you should be safely locked away until I’m ready for you.”

“I’ll see to it,” Murdoch assured her.

Her smile made Scott feel sick. His protests and pleas were ignored as his father hauled him from the room.

*****

Scott spent the night in a deep and peaceful sleep.  It hadn’t been his choice, but was the inevitable result of a forcibly administered sleeping draft. When he woke his first thought was that it had all been a bad dream.  The locked door, however, quickly dashed that fragile hope.

Worry for his brother rendered him almost incapable of rational thought.  Common sense told him that this couldn’t be happening.  Only, he’d seen Isabelle’s power - graphically demonstrated to cause Johnny unimaginable pain.

The key rattled in the lock and he pushed himself to his feet.  His grim-faced father watched him coldly and threw a pair of manacles onto the bed.  “Put them on,” Murdoch instructed.

Scott stood his ground. “No.”

“It’s your choice.” Murdoch appeared unconcerned with Scott’s defiance.  “You can stay in here, or put those on and come downstairs for breakfast.”

The cold metal gleamed in the early morning light, taunting and teasing him with memories of his time in Libby. Gritting his teeth he nodded his acquiescence. He couldn’t achieve anything locked in his room.  With even a limited amount of freedom he might be able to find a means to slip away and check on Johnny.  He snapped the shackles around his wrists and waited passively while Murdoch checked their security.

“That’s better.” Murdoch visibly relaxed, laying an arm around Scott’s shoulders.  “It’s good to see you coming to your senses, Son.”

Down in the kitchen Teresa and Maria were preparing breakfast.  With his heightened sense of anxiety the smell repelled Scott.  He looked at the back door as he entered the room.  His father followed his gaze, smiled and steered him to the chair farthest away from that dubious route to freedom.

“Your breakfast will be ready in a minute,” Teresa called brightly. 

When the plate was laid in front of him Scott smiled wryly.  He was being trusted with a fork, but not a knife. 

Teresa filled his coffee cup before plopping down on the seat opposite him. “It’s so exciting,” she babbled.  “I know you only want a small wedding, but we’ll make sure that everything is perfect.”

“I don’t want a wedding at all,” Scott responded in a low voice as he fumbled to scoop up some eggs.

Murdoch’s fist hit the table, causing the china to rattle. “You chose to propose to the girl,” he thundered.  “I intend to make sure that you honor your promise.”

“And Johnny?” Scott challenged.  “When do you intend to stop her torturing your son?”

Murdoch leaned forward intently.  “Your brother has been filling your head with lies.”  He glanced at Teresa and lowered his voice.  “We both know he’s been drinking too much.  It’s made him aggressive and unpredictable.  Your lovely fiancée offered to help.”

“She isn’t helping,” Scott hissed.  “She’s tormenting Johnny for her own amusement.  You have to get him back…bring him home.”

“That isn’t a good idea, Scott.”

“I’ll keep away from him,” Scott offered, “and I’ve already given my word that I’ll marry Isabelle.  Please, Murdoch, I just want to know that he’s safe.”

His father patted him encouragingly on the shoulder.  “I’ll see what I can do.  But, Scott, a lot depends on Johnny.  His behavior recently has been unacceptable.  Unless he shows a willingness to change – well, it might be better for all of us if he went back to being a gunfighter.”

Shocked disbelief rendered Scott temporarily speechless.  He heard a shaken intake of breath from behind him.  Maria! Was it possible that she remained unaffected by Isabelle’s power?

“You would be condemning him to death.” Scott’s mouth was dry.  Johnny was still fast, probably the fastest man with a gun he had ever seen, but he’d lost his edge.  Eighteen months as a rancher had ensured that.

Murdoch nodded sadly.  “I know, but he chose his path a long time ago.”

“He changed.  You gave him a chance to get out and he took it.”

“And now, he’s throwing it away.  No, Scott, you have to face facts.  All Johnny has to look forward to is an eternity of hellfire and damnation.”

*****

A man can only take so much pain before he gives up and begs for death. Johnny didn’t have that luxury. Death for him meant greater agony than anything Isabelle could devise.  And then there was his pride. Even had he been capable of speech, he would not have begged her to end his misery. His throat was raw from hours of screaming, helpless to defend himself, and incapable of keeping the promise he had made to himself to suffer in silence.

Isabelle hadn’t even bothered to have him bound, a fact which only emphasized the hopelessness of his plight.  His muscles were in constant spasm and he lay on the cold cellar floor, too weak to move.  Through it all…through his hoarse screams…he had heard her voice in his head, promising an eternity of damnation for him and his brother.

He hadn’t been able to understand why no-one had come to his aid, until he remembered her powers.  It was likely that her neighbors hadn’t even heard his cries for help.  A feeble grunt escaped him as one of the men kicked him in the ribs.  It was the first time any of them had touched him.  The pain had all come from inside, striking at his heart, lungs, stomach. At times, a violent fever had raged through his body, only to be doused by a wave of cold more intense than Johnny had ever experienced before.  Strength had drained from him until he could no longer even lift his head a few inches from the floor.

Isabelle leaned down until her mouth was right by his ear.  “It’s been fun,” she told him, “but now I need you to sleep and recover some of your strength.  I don’t want Scott to be too distracted with worry on our wedding day.”

Sleep – yes, that would be wonderful.  The pain left him and Johnny gratefully closed his eyes.  Then, he knew he couldn’t sleep.  He had to find a way to kill her.  That was the only thing that would guarantee Scott’s survival. 

“Don’t you want to rest?” she asked sweetly as he forced his eyes to open again.  “I thought you might still have some fight left in you.  I’ve asked Dr. Jenkins to call.  It can be hard for a body to cope with the sudden deprivation of alcohol or drugs, and everyone in town knows how dependent you have become on whiskey.  I’m sure when he sees the pain you are in that he’ll agree that a dose of morphine is the answer.”

Strong hands lifted him from the ground and he was slung over someone’s shoulder like a sack of grain. The jostling further unsettled his stomach which had long ago been emptied of its contents.  Bile filled his throat and he gagged, choking and coughing miserably.

When he was deposited in a clean, soft bed he almost moaned with sheer pleasure.  His soiled clothing was stripped away while Isabelle watched with an intensity, which would have been embarrassing had Johnny had the energy to care.  A brightly patterned cover was tucked around him while he lay with eyes half open, apprehensively awaiting the next blast of pain.

Isabelle made herself comfortable in a chair by his bedside, gazing at him solicitously.  “You need to accept that this is one fight you can’t win.”

“Don’t,” Johnny choked on the words.  Forming any sounds was agonizing.  “Don’t be so sure.”

“I’m not going to make the mistake of underestimating you or Scott,” she continued.  “As long as I have you, he will do as he is told.  How does it feel to have a brother who will give up everything for you?  I can’t understand how a man like you can inspire so much devotion.”

Johnny felt his anger rising in response to her taunts.  He had spent too many years doubting his self-worth.  He’d had no trouble accepting his reputation as a gunfighter – that was earned with blood and sweat.  But, what kind of a man was he?  He’d asked himself that question over and over during his years of wandering, and had finally received his answer when he had found not only a brother, but also a friend.  Scott respected him because of who he was, rather than because of his prowess with a gun.  And his sense of self-respect had grown.  He was humbled by Scott’s willing sacrifice, but wasn’t going to diminish it by claiming that he wasn’t worthy of his brother’s love.

Johnny would have laughed at the look on Isabelle’s beautiful face if he’d been capable of it.  She’d been expecting him to crumble under a heavy load of guilt.  Well, he wasn’t going to give her the satisfaction.  He couldn’t maintain eye contact for long, he was too tired for that, but it was enough.

She left his bed-side then and the door slammed closed behind her.  Alone and unguarded for the first time since being removed from Lancer, he tried to move.  A sob caught in his throat as he attempted to force his body into motion.  A slight twitch of his fingers was the best he could manage before the door opened again and Sam bustled in.

“S…Sam.  Gotta h…help me.” His throat closed at the sight of Isabelle standing behind the doctor with a hand on his shoulder.

“That’s why I’m here, young man.” The tone was disapproving.  “Isabelle tells me you’ve had another collapse.  I’m surprised at you, Johnny.  You have a good life at Lancer.  Your father took you back, despite your reprehensible behavior and this is how you repay him.”

Sam rummaged in his bag, withdrawing a long slender box and a small bottle.  Johnny watched helplessly as the syringe was filled.  Sam held it up to the light, flicking a finger against the vial. “Your body needs time to recover, and you’ve demonstrated often enough your contempt for my advice.” He reached for Johnny’s arm.  “So, I’m going to sedate you for your own protection.”

“D…don’t,” Johnny gasped as the needle penetrated his skin.  Isabelle’s smile was the last thing he saw before the darkness closed in.

*****

Silently berating himself, Scott tried again to force his right hand through the tight metal restraints.  Hearing his father condemn Johnny had provoked an outburst which had been both passionate – and very unwise.

Murdoch’s face had turned purple with rage, the veins throbbing in his forehead.  Scott had braced himself for a blow, only it appeared he was to remain untouched.  He supposed bitterly that Isabelle didn’t want him showing up to the wedding with a split lip or black eye.

Now, he was back in his room, wrists secured behind his back.  This, according to Murdoch, was his punishment for standing up for his ‘worthless’ brother.  When the door opened again, he looked up from his task defiantly.  Maria entered, carrying a tray which she set down on the nightstand.

“I have brought your lunch, Senor.”

Scott looked at the doorway where Murdoch was waiting.  “I’ll be back in twenty minutes,” the rancher announced coldly.  The door closed and the key turned in the lock.

“Maria…” he began, stopping as she laid a finger on his lips.

“I will have to feed you, Senor,” she told him, a shade too loudly.  “I have not been trusted with the key to the shackles.”

He nodded his understanding as she uncovered a bowl of soup.  For several minutes, she fed him spoonfuls of the beef broth in silence.  Finally, she laid the bowl down and leaned closer.

“You cannot marry her.  She is the spawn of the Devil.”

“It’s the only way to protect Johnny,” he argued.

“You think you will buy his life with your sacrifice?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Then you underestimate your opponent.  You must find a way to get him away from here.”

“No, you’re wrong.” Scott finally saw his path laid out clearly before him.  “I know what I have to do.”

 

Chapter 6

No amount of argument was going to dissuade Scott once his mind was made up.  As the key turned in the lock again, Maria laid a hand on his cheek.  “May God protect you, Senor Scott.”

“Gracias, Maria.  Be careful that they don’t suspect you.”

By the time the door opened, she was occupied with tidying up.  With a final fond look at him, she lowered her head and hurried from the room.

“Murdoch, wait,” Scott called as his father began to pull the door closed.  “I want to apologize.”

“I’m listening.” The tall rancher stood with folded arms and an unfriendly expression.

“You were right – about Johnny.  But, you have to understand how close Johnny and I have become.  It isn’t easy for me to accept that he’s turned bad.  I thought,” he stopped, choosing his words carefully.  “I thought he’d put all that behind him.”

“He was raised in wickedness.  His mother trapped me into marriage.  As soon as I realized what she had done, I threw them both out.”

Scott’s breath caught in his throat.  Murdoch was living with a distorted image of his past, the truth having been twisted out of all recognition.  “Yet, you gave him a second chance.” Scott almost gagged on the words.  “You did what any loving father would do.”

Murdoch moved further into the room, his aggression gone to be replaced by an eager need to explain.  “Yes, and to have that love hurled back in my face is painful, Son.  And, to watch him corrupting you – well, I almost felt like shooting him myself.”

“You need to send him away,” Scott counseled.  “You don’t want to soil your hands with his blood.  He isn’t worth it.”

Murdoch fumbled in his vest pocket and Scott saw that his father was now holding the key to the handcuffs.  He swiveled around, barely breathing.  The knot in his stomach tightened as Murdoch hesitated.  “I’ve given my word.  Have you ever known me to break a promise?”

“No, Scott.”

The metal around his left wrist snapped open and then both hands were free.  He hissed as his shoulders protested.  His eyes were hooded as he bent to rub the circulation back into his leaden arms.

“A message came from Isabelle,” Murdoch informed him.  “The wedding will be celebrated at midnight tomorrow, at her house.”

“The time can’t come soon enough,” Scott spoke truthfully.  His direct gaze sought his father.  “If it’s possible, I’d like to go outside.  I don’t feel comfortable being closed in. Those twelve months in Libby left their mark.”  He withstood the searching scrutiny without flinching.

“You won’t try to leave Lancer?”

“No.”

Murdoch nodded and stood aside.  Scott collected his longer brown jacket and pulled it on.  Although his father followed him downstairs, he made no move to follow him outside.  However, watchful eyes were on him whichever way he turned.  Men and women went about their work in silence, each ready to stop him if he tried to ride away without permission.

Hours of solitary thought had convinced him that he would stand no chance of spiriting Johnny away beyond Isabelle’s reach.  His plan now was quite different.  He spent a long time standing by the corral, before entering the barn and gathering together the implements necessary to groom his horse.  Once he had finished, he turned his attention to Barranca, who was fretting at Johnny’s absence.

Men came and went as he concentrated on his task.  When he was sure that he was alone, he unlocked the tack room and began his search.  His smile was cold and calculating as his fingers closed over the cloth-wrapped bundle.  He gave thanks for Johnny’s predictability.

After unwrapping the gun, he checked that it was loaded.  He stuck it in the waistband of his pants, certain that the back of his jacket would conceal it.  After tidying up, he walked confidently back to the house.

***** 

Johnny drifted on a wave of well-being, neither awake nor asleep.  Each time he felt reality tugging at him, there would be a pressure on his arm and he would sink back into his twilight world.  It was a comfortable existence, and he had no urge to relinquish it.  When he was finally allowed to wake up, he found Isabelle watching him and knew that the peace had only been an illusion.

Life flooded his body and he looked at her in puzzled enquiry.  She had already shown that she was more than capable of keeping him passive. He edged cautiously up the bed, responding cynically to her slight smile as she looked at his bare chest.  “Why not marry me instead?” he offered. “You said yourself that we were two of a kind.”

She tilted her head to one side, eyes alight with mischief.  “I’m sure it would be interesting, but your brother is a handsome man too – and he has something you no longer have.”

Johnny did his best to look hurt.  “Hey, that kind of remark ain’t good for a man’s self-esteem,” he commented wryly.  He could see that she was tempted, and allowed the blanket to fall lower. “And what happens after the wedding?”

“We all live happily ever after.” Her laugh sent chills down Johnny’s spine.  “Well, to be brutally honest – I live happily ever after,” she amended.

“What about Scott?”

“He’ll be my devoted husband, until I get bored with him.  Then I’ll send him to my father.  Don’t you want to know what my plans are for you?”

Johnny shook his head.  “Nope. I figure you’ll get rid of me as soon as it suits you, but death don’t scare me.  I’ve had a long time to come to terms with the bargain I made.  But, I’ll tell you this, one day you’ll stop being useful and then you’ll get a taste of what you’ve been dishing out.  I sure hope you’re ready for that.”

The look of loathing on Isabelle’s face was tinged with fear.  She walked quickly to the door and opened it.  Johnny heard her giving instructions to someone outside.  He stretched lazily and put his hands behind his head, lounging back against the headboard.

Underneath his calm manner, his mind was working furiously.  There was little chance of getting his hands on a weapon, yet, Isabelle had to die if he was to save Scott.  The idea of killing a woman was abhorrent to him.  He’d never laid a hand on a woman in anger before.  But, he couldn’t think of her like that and still hold on to his resolve.  Even knowing what she was, he couldn’t deny the physical attraction. He had to get past his appreciation of her surface beauty and concentrate on the evil that lived beneath the skin.

The chill night air brushed gently across his chest and he shivered.  He’d feel a damn sight more comfortable if he had some clothes on.  As if in answer to his wish, Isabelle returned and dumped an armful of clothing on the bed.

Johnny smiled insolently.  “How about a little privacy while I get dressed? Or…” He shifted invitingly on the bed.

He watched her preen herself, so confident in the power of her charms that she didn’t see the danger.  “I should go and get ready.”  She twirled a lock of dark hair between her fingers and looked at him hungrily.

“Don’t I deserve a little fun?” he asked.  “You’ve won – we both know it and I haven’t lived this long by backing lost causes.”

She moved slowly toward the bed and he held out a hand to her.  “Just think how much you’ll enjoy telling Scott that you slept with me before the wedding. It should appeal to your twisted sense of humor.”

For a moment, he thought he’d gone too far, but she laughed delightedly and came into his waiting arms.  He kissed her with a desperate passion, twinning his fingers in her hair.  Pulling her head back, he gazed deeply into her enchanting green eyes.  Running his right hand down the side of her neck, he felt her shiver as he caressed her smooth skin.  “Dios, you’re beautiful,” he gasped.

Her satisfied smile changed to a look of abject terror as he swiftly wrapped his hands around her neck, and squeezed.

*****

Scott looked at himself in the mirror.  He had chosen to wear a dark suit and white shirt, and knew he made a striking figure. The gun rested comfortingly in the waistband at the back of his pants.  In the last twenty-four hours, he had cleaned and oiled it, checking over and over that it was in working order. He had also claimed one further piece of property.  Johnny’s crucifix, recovered from where it had dropped when his brother was taken, rested against his chest and it was his intention to give it back as soon as he could. 

He had been left largely to his own devices since Murdoch had released him from his room, and had worked hard not to arouse any suspicion.  The uncertainty about Johnny’s condition was killing him, yet he managed to maintain his act.  In a few minutes, it would be time for him to leave for his wedding.  It wasn’t exactly the happy occasion he had envisaged while growing up.  In fact, if everything went according to plan, he would end the day as a widower and probably facing a hanging, for the crime of cold-blooded pre-meditated murder.

He took a last look around his room, feeling surprisingly calm.  He hoped that Johnny would understand.  It was doubtful that anyone else would, and he spared a thought for his grandfather back in Boston.  Harlan Garrett would be devastated, yet that gave him no pause.  Saving Johnny was all that mattered.

He reached behind his back and fleetingly gripped the handle of the gun.  Then he rearranged his jacket, brushed a stray strand of blond hair back into place and left the room.  His father and Teresa were waiting for him in the great room, each dressed in their Sunday best.  Would Isabelle allow them to understand what was happening?  He hoped not.

Scott’s heart sank when his father held out the handcuffs.  “Those won’t be necessary, Sir.”

Murdoch looked apologetic.  “This isn’t a matter of choice, Son.”

For just a second, Scott saw confusion on his father’s face, but the look was gone almost before it could register.  “There’s always a choice, Murdoch.  Does any of this feel right to you?  Isabelle is holding Johnny hostage for my good behavior.  You’ve been keeping me here against my will.  Think about it…fight it.  I need your help to free my brother.” He paused for a heartbeat before adding, “Your son.”

“Oh, Scott.” Murdoch shook his head sadly.  “Johnny has poisoned your mind to the truth.  It was wrong of me to bring him here, but I can make things right, if you’ll let me.”

Scott backed away as his father walked toward him.  He couldn’t allow himself to be bound, and neither could he betray the fact that he was armed.  Murdoch’s gun was resting in its holster on the hat rack by the front door.  Scott lunged for it, pulling it clear and pointing it with shaking hands.

Murdoch stopped, a look of fury on his face.  Scott continued to retreat until he felt the wood of the door pressing against his back.  He fumbled behind him for the handle. “I’m sorry, Murdoch.  I’ll go through with the wedding, but I can’t let you put those shackles on me.”

Once he was outside, he raced for Murdoch’s horse which was waiting placidly beside the buggy.  Flinging himself into the saddle, he hurled the gun away.  Murdoch and Teresa arrived at the front door in time to see it arching away into the darkness.  Hopefully, they would tell Isabelle that he had relinquished it, and it wouldn’t occur to her that he might be armed with another weapon. He urged the horse into motion, desperate now to see Johnny and bring this nightmare to an end.

*****

Scott slid from the saddle as soon as the horse stopped outside Isabelle’s house.  The door opened as he approached and he entered without breaking stride.  The hallway was dimly lit with candles and he walked quickly from room to room, calling Johnny’s name and becoming more frantic with each passing second.  With a rustle of silk, Isabelle was by his side.  He could smell her perfume, sense her presence and every nerve in his body screamed out in a mixture of desire and revulsion.

When he turned, he found she was dressed in a deep crimson gown – the color of blood.  It clung to her body, providing a stark contrast to the creamy skin of her breasts and arms.  A matching scarf circled her neck and trailed seductively across her cleavage. Without any volition on his part, he traced the hollow between her breasts, feeling her tremble in response to his touch.

“I left orders.” Her voice was husky.  “You were to be brought to me in chains.”

Scott slipped one arm around her waist and rested the other hand on the back of her neck.  He bent his head until his mouth was only inches from hers.  “Then I wouldn’t have been able to hold you like this.”  His lips fastened on Isabelle’s and he pulled her against him, allowing her to feel and savor his desire…his need.

When he pulled gently away, it was only so that he could whisper in her ear.  “What are we waiting for?”

Her fingers entwined with his and she led him to the steps disappearing down into the cellar.  The room blazed with light from dozens of candles.  Strange and unsettling symbols had been chalked on the floor, but Scott saw none of it.  All he saw was his brother, arms chained above his head, sagging against the far wall.  Johnny’s chin was resting on his chest, his dark hair falling around his face and hiding his features. Scott couldn’t even tell if he was still breathing.

“What have you done?” Scott asked, aghast.

Her fingers dug into his arm as he turned to look at her.  “He tried to kill me.” She ripped the scarf from around her throat, the bruising standing out starkly against her perfect skin.  “He had to be punished.”

 

Chapter 7

“Johnny?” Scott gently tipped his brother’s face up, the movement causing the chains tethering him to the wall to rattle

Eyelids fluttered open to reveal dull blue eyes.  “Don’t…” The word emerged as a whisper.

“I told you to keep silent,” Isabelle hissed.

Johnny convulsed against his chains, his breath coming in heaving gasps.  Scott grabbed him and held him tight until the spasms passed and Johnny’s head once more lolled forward.

“You immoral bitch!  Did you think either of us would give up without a fight?” he yelled.

When Isabelle answered, there was a timbre to her voice that Scott hadn’t heard previously, and it frightened him more profoundly than anything that had gone before.  True, uncaring evil had invaded the house.

“I would have been disappointed if you hadn’t fought me.  I have collected enough souls of weak cringing fools.”

Scott stepped away from his brother.  “Then, let’s get on with it.”

“Scott!” The plaintive cry came from Johnny as he struggled to lift his head and get his feet under him.

“It’s alright, Brother, I know what I’m doing.”

“N…not for me.”

The desperate plea touched Scott. “There was never any choice,” he explained patiently.  “Even if I don’t go through with this I lose.  How can I stand back and watch as you’re tortured to death?  Where would that leave my humanity…my soul?”

“She…” Johnny swallowed painfully.  “She said I was your weakness.”

“She was wrong,” Scott assured him.  “You’re the reason I have the strength to do this.”

A touch on his arm directed him to the center of the design laid out on the floor. Isabelle’s two men had arrived, one taking up position by the stairs and the other standing beside Johnny.  Murdoch and Teresa were also present, and Scott welcomed their lack of reaction.  If would be a kindness if they never learned the truth.

He didn’t flinch when Isabelle took his hand.  Words – unintelligible, harsh words were tumbling from her lips.  The air grew hot and oppressive.  Sweat trickled down Scott’s back and only the pressure of the gun in his waistband reassured him that he could still salvage something – the most important thing of all.  He could still save his brother’s life.

He had never understood why Don Pedro hadn’t fought the Priest.  Despite feeling sorry for the man, he’d also harbored a measure of contempt.  The Mexican landowner had been willing to stand by and let Johnny be sacrificed.  Murdoch had never forgiven the Don and only Johnny’s intercession had protected the man from his father’s wrath. Don Pedro said he had made that hard choice because he had believed it was the best thing for his people.  Now, Scott had made his own choice, and he was at peace with himself.

A swirling darkness obscured his view of his brother, and a gust of wind extinguished the candles.  When the light inexplicably returned, Scott saw that Isabelle was holding a knife.  Shaken, he raised his eyes to her face.

“You recognize it,” she stated.

Scott couldn’t find his voice as he nodded.  Johnny was staring in horrified fascination at the weapon that should have ended his life on the Aztec altar.  The serrated blade was dark with blood – the Priest’s blood, Scott realized.

“Give me your hand.” Isabelle raised his left hand, palm facing upwards.  “The time has come for you to surrender your soul.”

For one dreadful moment, Scott thought she was going to kill him.  The blade swept down and across his palm, opening a deep cut.  He bit his bottom lip, hearing Johnny crying out.  She released his hand and quickly drew the knife across her own palm.

She caught his hand with her own, their blood mingling.  The wound burned and Scott waited.  Surely he would feel something?  Isabelle’s expression of ecstasy faded, to be replaced with a look of puzzlement.  Johnny strained against his chains, almost incoherent with rage and despair.

“Let him go.” Even to Scott, his voice sounded strained.  “I’ve done what you asked.”

“Not yet. The marriage is not complete.”

“You expect me to…?” Scott gasped.

Isabelle draped herself against him.  “You can’t deny you want me.  Is it really such a bad way to seal your pact?”

She was the most perfectly beautiful woman Scott had ever seen – and the very last one he wanted to make love to.  The thought of what he needed to do left him feeling debased and dirty.  Johnny’s voice had died away, only the sound of his harsh breathing breaking the silence.

Scott pulled away and walked over to his brother.  He removed the crucifix from around his neck and slipped the chain over Johnny’s head.  No one tried to stop him and Johnny gave a soft sigh as the tiny cross settled against his bare chest.

He touched the cold metal encircling Johnny’s wrists, wishing he could free his sibling from his fetters. “I’ll be back for you, Brother,” Scott promised.  He turned back to Isabelle, indicating his father and Teresa.  “You don’t need them any longer. Send them home.”

“You can go.” She dismissed them without a thought.  Holding out her hand to Scott she imperiously demanded his presence by her side.

*****

The bedroom was surprisingly normal after the cloying unreality of the cellar.  Scott finished unfastening the row of buttons at the back of Isabelle’s dress and the material slid to the floor, forming a red pool around her feet.  She was wearing no undergarments and he couldn’t stifle the appreciative sound that started deep in his throat.

Pressing against her, he forced her backwards until she lay on the bed.  He walked away and slowly undressed, careful to secrete the gun in the folds of his shirt, and laid his clothing on a chair by her dressing table.

It was disgusting that a part of him wanted to explore her body and take pleasure in it.  When he lay down, he could feel the heat rising from her skin.  He pulled her into his arms and kissed her, allowing his baser instincts to drown out coherent thought. The blood from the deep cut to his hand stained her flesh, and her own bloody fingerprints marked him as her property.

As he dug his fingers into her soft flesh, she moaned with pleasure.  He wasn’t gentle, sinking to a level of violence that only seemed to arouse her to greater heights of passion.  Pinning her to the mattress, he looked deeply into her eyes.  “Is this what you want, bitch?”  He thrust viciously again and again as she sobbed, raking his back with her nails.

“Yes,” she gasped.  “And you want it as much as I do.”

The sudden stark recognition of what he was doing would have made him pull back, only it was far too late.  Her sobs and moans reached a crescendo as he exploded inside her.  His voice mingled with hers and then fell silent.

Filled with revulsion for what he had done, he rolled out of bed, shivering violently.  He pulled on his clothes and still had his back to her when she finally spoke.

“There will be a child.”

He bowed his head.  “No.” When he turned around he was pointing his gun at her.  “I’ve paid my price by marrying you, but now it’s over.  As for wanting you,” his laugh was harsh, “all I ever felt for you was contempt.”

She stretched languidly and smiled complacently. “You can’t kill me.  My father protects me, just as he will protect the child conceived tonight.”

When Scott pulled the trigger her mouth opened in a soundless gasp of surprise.  Blood spilled from the ugly hole in her chest and her face settled into an expression of horror.

“Your father can protect you in hell,” Scott said coldly and fired again.

As the light faded from her eyes he heard a malevolent laugh and a sinister voice in his head.  “Now, you belong to me.”

*****

Minutes before Johnny heard the shots, the two men guarding him simply faded.  The manacles holding him to the wall snapped open and he slid to the ground.  When the shots sounded, he knew what had happened as surely as if he had witnessed it.  He closed his eyes and clasped his hands together to stop them shaking, trying to hold back the tide of grief that threatened to destroy him. Almost immediately he heard unsteady footsteps on the wooden stairs. With a shuddering breath he looked up.  Scott was deathly pale as he crossed the room and sank down on the cold floor.  He drew his legs up to his chest and wrapped his arms around them. Johnny edged over so that they were sitting shoulder to shoulder, and waited.

“She’s dead,” Scott finally said.  “That was what ~he~ wanted all along.”

“I tried…” Johnny spoke hoarsely, clearing his throat.  “I tried to kill her for you.”

“I know.  She didn’t understand that she was to be the sacrifice.” Scott closed his eyes momentarily, taking deep shuddering breaths.  “I need…I need to tell Val.  I shot her in cold blood.  I murdered my wife.”

Johnny had no doubt that his brother was in shock and put an arm around the older man’s shoulders.  “That was no marriage.”

Scott shook his head. “It doesn’t matter.  No one will believe us.”

“Where is she?”

“In her bed.  We…” Scott’s voice faltered and Johnny wondered if his brother was going to be sick. “She was terrified at the end, when she realized…”

Scott raised his left hand and looked at it with a puzzled frown. Johnny could see that it was still bleeding.  “We need to get that cleaned up.” He took hold of Scott’s hand to examine it more closely.  The edges were already red and inflamed.  “We should ask Sam…” Johnny knew it was irrational, but he wasn’t sure if he could ever trust the doctor again.  However, regardless of his feelings, Scott needed medical attention.

“You’re cold,” Scott sounded surprised.  He stripped off his jacket and Johnny gratefully pulled it on.  Apart from a pair of trousers he had been left with no other clothes.

“My things’ll probably still be upstairs.”

“I don’t want to go up there again.”

Johnny didn’t think he’d ever heard his brother sounding so uncertain and afraid. “We should check that she is dead before fetching Val.”  In truth, he needed to see for himself.  He had to know that she was no longer a threat to his family.  They’d figure the rest out later.  He wasn’t going to let Scott hang for killing a creature of such unadulterated evil.

“Help me up?” he asked.  “I’m still feeling kinda weak.”  He had hoped that appeal would garner a reaction, and he wasn’t disappointed.  Scott was immediately on his feet offering support.

Although Johnny could feel the resistance in Scott’s body, his brother accompanied him up to the top floor of the house.  The bedroom door was closed. Whatever had happened in there had made a lasting impression and Johnny worried again for a minute that Scott was going to be physically ill.

Scott entered the room first, stopping abruptly as soon as he passed through the doorway.  Johnny urged him forward until he, too, had a clear view of the room.  The cross burned against his skin as he looked at the bed.  It was neatly made – and empty.

*****

They searched the house from top to bottom, finding nothing to indicate that Isabelle had ever existed.  All clothes and personal possessions had disappeared as completely as her body.

“She was dead,” Scott whispered brokenly. They were sitting in the parlor, trying to make sense of the inexplicable. “Her blood was all over the bed.”

Johnny fought his rising panic.  They weren’t dealing with any natural force, so trying to come to a logical conclusion was likely to be a lost cause.  “I guess her father took her back.  Look on the bright side.  If there’s no body, you don’t have to worry about a murder charge.”

The sun was rising and Johnny could hear the sounds that indicated the town was coming back to life.  He was feeling almost back to normal now that Isabelle’s influence had been removed.  He’d retrieved his clothes and his gun belt, breathing a sigh of relief as the familiar weight settled on his right hip.

“You need to see Sam,” he reminded his brother.

Scott had barely spoken since finding that the body had disappeared.  Johnny had no doubt that Isabelle was dead, but he would have liked to see that for himself.  The main thing they had to establish now was whether or not any of her evil still permeated the valley.  He remained apprehensive about seeing Sam, and even more so about returning to Lancer.  It would take a long time for him to get past Murdoch’s behavior toward him even knowing that it hadn’t been voluntary.

Then, there was Scott.  How would he cope with the knowledge of what he had done – of what he had surrendered?  As a child, the significance of his bargain had been lost on Johnny.  It had been brought back to the forefront of his mind with sickening force a year ago.  His reprieve had led him to believe that some benevolent power had been watching over him.  Now, his faith was shattered, but that wasn’t going to prevent him offering support and compassion.  If there was any way to undo the damage caused by Isabelle he would find it.

“Come on,” he encouraged, helping Scott to his feet.

The short journey to Sam’s house was accomplished in silence.  The few townsfolk who were out that early looked curiously at the brothers, but Johnny felt no hint of the ‘wrongness’ that had hung over the town like a cloud.  He reached for his cross, grasping the cool metal.  The heat that had scorched him back in Isabelle’s bedroom had gone. His hesitation was almost unnoticeable as he reached out to knock on the door.  Sam answered immediately, exclaiming in surprise when he saw the state of Scott’s hand.

“How did that happen?”  He ushered Scott into his examination room and sat him on the couch.  “You’ve got a nasty infection brewing in that wound.  How do you feel?”  He peered intently at his patient who, from where Johnny was sitting, looked as if he was about to pass out.

“It was an accident, Doc,” Johnny explained, before adding in concern, “he doesn’t look so good.”

Scott’s pale complexion took on a greenish tinge and Sam shoved a bowl under his chin.  Johnny leapt to his feet and supported his brother while he was sick, then lowered him into a prone position on the couch.  Scott closed his eyes and turned his face away.

“The infection’s making him sick.  How long ago did this happen?” Sam sat on a chair and began to clean out the wound. 

“Not sure.  What time is it?”

Sam shot him a puzzled look before pulling out his pocket watch.  “It’s seven thirty.”

“Then it was about seven hours ago.”

“Why didn’t you bring him here right away?  Surely you could see how serious it was?”

Johnny ducked his head.  “Sorry, Sam.  Neither of us could get away.” He looked up at the doctor to see if there would be any reaction to that comment.  When Sam continued to glower at him, he decided to press the issue further.  “Scott was with Isabelle, you know?”

“Isabelle…Isabelle?” Sam’s brow creased in thought.  “Is that someone new in town?” He frowned severely.  “Not that she can be very reputable if she’s the sort of girl that would entertain a man all night.”

Some of the tension drained out of Johnny. He’d suspected that the townsfolk would have no memory of Isabelle, and Sam’s words had served to affirm that belief.  “You don’t have to worry about her, Doc.  She’s left town.  I’ll get Scott home as soon as you’ve patched him up.”

Apart from the occasional sharp intake of breath Scott gave no sign that he was aware of what was happening around him.  Johnny knew that his brother had retreated deep within himself, trying to block out the memory of all that had happened.  He couldn’t allow that.  The emotional wound would fester more surely than the physical reminder of that travesty of a wedding.

Sam finished bandaging Scott’s hand and indicated that Johnny should move out of earshot.  “I’m concerned that he is so unresponsive.  He is running a slight fever, but that wouldn’t explain how he’s acting.  What exactly happened to him?”

“He’ll be alright once the shock wears off.  Trust me, Doc.  I’ll look after him.”

“You’re avoiding the question, young man.”

“I guess I am.  You’ll just have to take it from me that there’s nothing you, or any other doctor, can do to help Scott.”

“Johnny?” Scott had finally turned to look at them, a wealth of sadness in his expressive eyes.

“Hey, Brother. Good to have you back with us. Sam was getting worried about you.”

“I think you should stay here today and get some rest. And, perhaps you might like to tell me how you ended up with a cut like that. You’re lucky that no permanent damage seems to have been done.”

Johnny looked with concern at his brother as Scott gave a bitter laugh.  Given his present state of mind it was quite likely that Scott would blurt out something that would lead the doctor to question his sanity.  “You know, Sam, I think he’ll do much better if I take him home.”

“No!” Scott’s refusal was emphatic.  “Can’t go home.”

“Damn,” Johnny murmured as he rapidly reassessed his intentions.  Taking Scott back to Lancer before they had a chance to talk probably wasn’t the wisest course of action to take. It was unlikely that Murdoch would remember what had happened, so he would doubtless demand an explanation that Johnny wasn’t keen to supply.  He couldn’t leave Scott here either.  He reached a decision and hurriedly crossed to the bed.  “Time to go, Brother.” He bent down so that only Scott could hear him.  “How about we hole up at one of the line shacks for a few days?  We’ll go home when you’re ready.”

Scott looked at his brother in gratitude, nodding to signal his agreement.  He co-operated with Johnny’s efforts to get him to his feet, breathing deeply to keep the nausea at bay.

“I’m not happy about this,” Sam complained.  “He should be resting, and what’s this nonsense about not going home?”

“It’s personal, Doc,” Johnny said, as he slipped his arm around his brother’s waist for support.  “Can you get word to Murdoch?  We’ll be gone for a couple of days.  Tell him not to worry.”

*****

It was a beautiful sunset.  Scott sat by the stream, listening to the water lapping gently at the reeds growing by the banks.  The fish they had caught earlier was cooking on the spit and he could smell the coffee brewing.  The first twenty-four hours had passed him by without him being aware of it.  After leaving Sam’s they’d ridden to the line shack in the far north end of the ranch.  At this time of year it would be deserted as the cattle had already been moved closer to the hacienda for the winter.  He’d slept off his fever, waking soaked in sweat in the early hours of the morning.  He flexed his hand, staring at the bandage covering the deep cut.  He couldn’t control the shudder that wracked his body as he thought of his blood mingling with hers.  Before the feeling could overwhelm him, he felt a gentle pressure on his shoulder as Johnny came over to join him.

His brother hadn’t asked any questions – he’d just been there, quietly supportive.  Scott supposed that they had won a victory of sorts.  Isabelle was dead and could no longer hurt anyone he cared about.  He’d made his choice willingly, knowing what the cost would be.  Now, he had to get back to living and making the most of the time left to him.  He studied Johnny’s profile, drawing strength from the quiet determination he saw there.  Finally, he broke the silence.  “I expected to feel different.”

Johnny turned, a half-smile on his face.  “When I was little, my mama used to talk about ‘redemption.’  She’d usually had too much to drink, and I never really understood what she meant.  She’d say that if you were real sorry for doing something bad then God would forgive you.  Reckon she was tryin’ to convince herself mostly.  Thing is, Scott, I did some bad things, but I also did things that just maybe’ll count in the other side of the balance.  If there wasn’t a hope of redemption, I’d have died in front of a firing squad or on that altar in Mexico.  What you did in town the other day wasn’t done because you were selfish or greedy or wanted anything for yourself.  It was probably the most unselfish thing I’ve ever seen.  That has to mean something.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t intend to go down without a fight.  As far as I’m concerned, the Devil may think he has a right to our souls, but I’m not giving up hope of reclaiming them before this is all over.”

Scott thought about that.  He knew he wasn’t a bad person at heart, and neither was Johnny.  They had their failings like everyone else, while still trying to keep to their high moral standards.  Was there a way to buy back their souls?  Was that why he didn’t feel empty inside?  A small seed of hope took root.  Maybe you only truly lost your soul if you gave up.  Well, it wasn’t in his nature to quit.  He watched the sun sink below the horizon.  The colors washed out of the sky as darkness descended.  Johnny moved quietly from his side to tend to their meal, and the stars appeared as they ate.

“I’d like to go home tomorrow,” Scott said later as they tidied up and prepared to return to the shelter of the line shack.  “We owe Murdoch an explanation.”

“I have a feeling he won’t ask for one,” Johnny replied.  “And we’ll only go back if you’re sure you’re ready.”

“I did what I thought was right.  I can live with that.  Yes, I’m ready to go home.”

Continues in The Final Sacrifice  

~end~
Oct 06

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