The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Caroline

 

 

FMisplaced Trust

A Sequel to Railroaded

 

Chapter 1

“Hold him steady,” Johnny instructed quietly when the chestnut stallion sidled away from him again.

Crossing his arms over the top rail of the fence, Murdoch watched his son and the young hand helping him.  He silently cursed the fact that he had let the youngest and most inexperienced of the ranch hands assist Johnny.  Brad, whose father owned the general store in Spanish Wells, had only been working for the Lancers for the last few weeks.  Brad was pleasant enough most of the time, but he didn’t take well to being reprimanded and wasn’t over-endowed with intelligence. He’d already heard Johnny instruct the boy three times in the correct way to hold the unbroken horse so that he could finally get himself into the saddle.

Johnny reached over to pat the horse’s neck, speaking softly as he did so.  The animal snorted and pawed the ground irritably.  He took hold of the saddle horn and put his foot in the stirrup, swinging gracefully up onto the horse’s back.  “Let go,” he ordered settling himself for the fight Murdoch knew was to come.

Brad released his hold on the bridle and hurriedly backed away as the stallion leapt forward bucking furiously.

Murdoch sucked in a cautious breath and held it. Although Johnny’s talent with horses was undeniable, he could never quite suppress a hint of fear each time he saw his son take on another unbroken animal.  This particular animal had been rounded up with some mares the previous week.  In Murdoch’s view the stallion was vicious and should have been released back into the wild.  Several sections of fencing had fallen victim to its temper and flying hooves.

“Mr. Lancer?”

The question came from behind him.  Murdoch turned away from the mesmerizing sight of his son to look at the young stranger who had ridden into the yard.  The man looked to be about Johnny’s age.  He dismounted and removed his hat, revealing short dark hair and striking hazel eyes.  Murdoch’s appraising gaze raked over him, noting the dusty, threadbare clothes before settling on his gun.  The gunbelt was in beautiful condition and Murdoch would have been willing to bet that the Colt itself would be immaculately cared for.  He suppressed his feeling of unease and addressed the man politely.

“I’m Murdoch Lancer.  What can I do for you?”

“I was told in town that you might be hiring.”

“What’s your name, son?”

“Alex.”

Murdoch waited for Alex to offer a surname, finally realizing that the information wasn’t going to be forthcoming.  “Where are you from?”

Alex shrugged.  “Around.  Don’t rightly have any place I’d call home.”  He looked toward the corral where the stallion was continuing to put up a fight and walked closer to the rails.  “That’s a fine animal.”

Murdoch ignored the change of topic.  He wasn’t going to underestimate the boy, just because he didn’t appear overtly dangerous.  Most of the time, his youngest son didn’t appear dangerous either.  “We’ve done all the hiring we need to do.  I’m sorry. There might be other ranches around…”

“Nope.  Yours was the last one.”  There was a deep disappointment in Alex’s voice as he gathered up the reins and prepared to leave.  “Sorry to have troubled you.”

“No trouble, son,” Murdoch replied, adding, “Good luck,” as he turned his attention back to the corral.

The stallion had settled and Murdoch saw Johnny relax his hold on the reins.  Brad rushed forward eagerly and the animal side-stepped, before tossing its mane and kicking out with its back legs.  Unprepared for the sudden movement, Johnny lost his grip and went flying through the air.  He landed hard on his side, the breath knocked out of him.  Brad’s startled cry further incensed the horse and it began to rear up dangerously close to Johnny’s unprotected body.

“Johnny,” Murdoch gasped, rushing forward.

Alex didn’t hesitate.  He vaulted over the rails and grabbed the trailing reins, forcing the stallion away from Johnny.  The leather slid painfully through his unprotected hands as he hung on grimly.

“Find Jelly,” Murdoch bellowed at Brad as he arrived by his son’s side.  He was relieved to see that Johnny was conscious and moving.  “Can you stand?” Murdoch asked and received a nod in reply.  He helped Johnny to his feet and over to the fence.

Johnny leaned heavily against the wooden rails, shaken and gasping for breath, but appearing otherwise unhurt.  His eyes shifted and Murdoch followed his son’s gaze, watching as the young man wrestled with the horse, imposing his will and calming it down.

 

“He’s good,” Johnny said breathlessly and Murdoch found himself nodding in agreement.

“What in tarnation’s going on here?”  Jelly’s querulous voice could be heard coming from the direction of the barn.  The old handyman speeded up when he saw what was happening in the corral. “I can’t leave you alone for five minutes,” he scolded Johnny.  “I done told you to wait until I could give you a hand.  Not that anyone ever listens to me.”  He continued to grumble as he bent down, checking Johnny over for injuries.  “Who’s the boy?”

Johnny grimaced, trying to bat Jelly’s hands away.  The older man huffed in disapproval and turned his attention to the young stranger.

“His name’s Alex,” Murdoch replied.  “He’s here looking for work.  I was just about to send him away.”

“Why?” Johnny queried.  “He’s a natural with horses and he sure ain’t lacking in guts.”

Murdoch shifted, feeling slightly embarrassed.  “His gun,” he offered and watched as Johnny looked closer at the young man as he handed the horse over to Jelly and walked back toward them.

“Don’t recognize him,” Johnny replied.  “Although that don’t mean a lot these days.  Hard to believe I’ve been out of the game for eighteen months.  He looks like he could use a square meal at least.”

Johnny’s eyes narrowed and Murdoch saw what caused his son’s concern.  Alex was looking anxiously at his hand.  He realized just as Johnny said “Damn, Murdoch, he’s hurt,” that the young man wasn’t wearing gloves.

Alex reached the two men and leveled his direct gaze on Johnny.  “You okay?”

“Yeah, just winded.  Thanks.  That horse would’ve stomped all over me if you hadn’t grabbed him like that.”  Johnny held out his right hand.  “I’m guessing you’ve got some nasty rope burns.  Let me take a look.”

“I’m fine,” Alex argued, ignoring the outstretched hand.

Johnny laughed.  “Tell that to someone who’ll believe you.”

Murdoch watched the exchange with interest, his son’s gaze travelling meaningfully to Alex’s rig.

“An injury like that’ll slow you down,” Johnny continued. “You might want to let us take care of it for you.  You’re welcome to stay for a few days while it heals up, then if you’re still interested, we can see about hiring you on.”

“Your boss said there were no jobs going,” Alex looked from Johnny to Murdoch without bitterness.

“Murdoch’s my father.  My name’s Johnny and we can always use someone who’s as good as you are with horses.”

“Johnny’s right,” Murdoch conceded gratefully.  “Besides I owe you for saving my son’s life.  Come inside and we’ll get some cream on those burns.”

Alex flexed his fingers, his face skewing with pain.  “I guess I could use someplace to rest up for a day or so.”

“Good.  Johnny will take you to Teresa.  She’s my ward and she’s had plenty of practice doctoring Johnny and my other son, Scott,” Murdoch explained quickly. He turned to Johnny and said quietly, “I’m going to have a word with Brad.  That boy’s a liability.”

“Don’t be too hard on him, Murdoch.  He’s young and it’ll take time for him to learn.” Johnny looked toward the barn.  Raised voices could be heard as Jelly made his views known to the luckless ranch hand.

Murdoch shook his head. “He’s not that much younger than you,” he refuted. “He hasn’t an ounce of common sense.  I’ll speak to his father next time I’m in Spanish Wells, but we can’t afford to give him any more chances.”

*****

Johnny sat back in his chair and took a sip of his coffee.  Teresa had put cream on Alex’s hands and had bandaged them securely.  Johnny had taken a look at the marks and knew, from experience, that they would be painful for several days.  After taking care of the injury Teresa had given Alex a large plateful of cold roast beef and potatoes, explaining that supper wouldn’t be ready for another couple of hours.  Despite the difficulty of wielding a knife and fork Alex had fallen on the food with a ravenous hunger and had cleared his plate.  A thick slice of apple pie had also been devoured before the young man sat back with a contented sigh.

“That was the best meal I’ve had in a long time ma’am.”

Teresa smiled happily.  “It’s nice to be appreciated.” She cleared up the plates before excusing herself to get vegetables for supper from the garden.

Johnny and Alex watched each other appraisingly for a few minutes.  “I couldn’t help noticing your rig,” Johnny commented.  “It makes my old man kinda nervous.”

“I’m not looking for any trouble.  All I want is to earn a few honest dollars.  Work’s been hard to come by these last few months and I don’t fancy having to sleep rough when the winter comes.”

Johnny could understand that sentiment all too well.  Most of his life had been spent in Mexico where the winters were considerably warmer.  So far, he had only spent one winter at Lancer and had found it hard to adjust to the colder weather.  “You could always head for the border if you decide not to stay here.  There’s no chance of you getting frost bite in Mexico.”

Alex looked away uncomfortably.  “I’ve spent some time down there.  It’s not a real healthy place for me right now.”

Johnny knew better than to ask for any details.  “Where’d you learn to work with horses like that?”

“I’ve been around,” Alex answered evasively.  “I should go and see to my horse.  I guess someone can show me the way to the bunkhouse.”

“Your horse has been taken care of and you can stay in the hacienda while your hands heal up,” Johnny offered.

“I’m not looking for any special favors.  That was a fine meal and I’m grateful for it, but now I should get back where I belong.”

Johnny sensed that pressing the young man would only cause embarrassment.  “I’ll introduce you to Jelly.  His bark’s worse than his bite so don’t pay any attention to most of what he says to you.  Cipriano is our Segundo.  He’ll be back in with the work crews shortly.  Make sure you come back up to the house tomorrow so that Teresa can change your bandages.  And Alex…I hope you’ll think about staying.  We can use you, despite what Murdoch said.”

*****

“I hear you and that stallion had a disagreement,” Scott commented as he helped himself to a spoonful of mashed potatoes.

“Nothing serious.  He’s as good as broke.”

“Nothing serious?” Blond eyebrows raised sharply in disbelief.  “According to Jelly you were almost trampled to death.”

“Jelly exaggerates.  He wasn’t even there when it happened.”

“I’ll have you know, Brother, that he described the incident in great detail.  I expected to find you lying at death’s door.”

“He was lucky.”  Murdoch pointed his fork at his dark-haired son.  “And I don’t want to see you on that stallion tomorrow.  That was a nasty fall you took.”

Johnny said nothing and Scott bit back a smile.  Both sons knew that it was pointless to argue with their father when he used that tone of voice.  Besides, Scott strongly suspected that Johnny knew that Murdoch was intending to ride over to Spanish Wells in the morning.  If their father wasn’t on the ranch, he couldn’t see Johnny riding the horse and Scott knew that would suit his brother just fine.

“Care to tell me about your mysterious savior?” Scott continued.  “Jelly reckons he’s a gunfighter.”

Johnny rose to the bait as Scott had known he would.  “Jelly gossips like an old woman.  Alex saved my hide and I ain’t gonna judge him without getting to know him.”

“I wasn’t suggesting that you should,” Scott continued placidly.  “I assume I don’t need to tell you to be careful?”

Johnny sighed.  “I’m always careful.  When’re you leaving for Modesto?”

Scott colored slightly.  “Tomorrow.  Murdoch, I was wondering if I could speak to you after supper.” He was uncomfortably aware of Murdoch’s curious look and of Johnny grinning down at his plate.

“Of course.  There’s nothing wrong is there?”

“No, sir.  I’d just welcome your advice about something.”

Johnny’s grin had broadened into a smirk and he appeared completely undaunted by the scowl being directed toward him.  “I’m going over to the bunk house to play some cards.  You can fill me in later.”

Scott sighed, resigned to the fact that he was going to find himself teased unmercifully.  He wiped his mouth on his napkin and stood up, anxious now to get this over with.  He wasn’t entirely sure how his father was going to take his news.

Once they were alone in the great room Scott poured himself and his father some brandy.  Murdoch was watching him expectantly and he cleared his throat a few times, feeling more nervous than at any time since coming to live at Lancer.

“I, uh, I’m thinking of asking Mika to marry me,” he blurted out.  “I know I don’t need your permission, but I’d like your blessing.”

*****

Murdoch’s heart sank.  He was fond of Mika, although he had serious reservations about the relationship.  He had experienced, first hand, the kind of prejudice a mixed marriage evoked.  It had been hard enough for Maria to settle in a community where Mexicans were not unknown and were broadly tolerated.  A marriage to a member of the Chinese community was something entirely different.  To a large section of the population, the Chinese were regarded as workers to be exploited and nothing more.  Mika had been welcomed at Lancer for Scott’s sake, but Murdoch had hoped that the attachment would run its course, without any harm being caused on either side.

He took a deep breath.  “I’m not sure that’s such a good idea.”

Murdoch waited for the inevitable explosion from his son.  He hadn’t meant to be so blunt and certainly didn’t want to hurt Scott.  He was surprised to see that Scott was looking at him seriously and without any outward signs of anger.

“Do you think I haven’t given this a lot of thought?” Scott asked.  “I know all the arguments against it.”

“Scott, I want you to know that Mika is always welcome here.  I’ve become very fond of the girl and I’ve no doubt she would make you a wonderful wife.  I’m urging caution for her sake and the sake of any child you might have together.  I’m the last person to advocate bowing to public opinion.  Both my marriages brought controversy with them.  I was hardly considered a suitable match for your mother and there were many people who didn’t consider Maria a suitable match for me.  I married both times because I was in love and it didn’t matter a damn to me what people thought.”

“Then why should it be different for me?” Scott queried. “Mika and I love each other and we want to be together.”

“And how will you feel if she is slighted by your neighbors or the shopkeepers in town?  More importantly, how will she feel?  It was hard enough for Maria.  Folks round here have very little experience of the Chinese community.  All most of them know is that the Chinese are tolerated because they provide cheap labor.  They have no legal rights and in many ways are treated worse than slaves.”

“I’m not going to give her up because of ignorance or prejudice,” Scott responded forcefully.  “Once she’s my wife she will be shown the proper respect.”

“And what will you do if someone doesn’t show her that respect?  Do you think she would want you to spend your life defending her honor or worrying about the safety of your children?  You’ve seen the problems Johnny has had in his life.  Even now, there are those who won’t accept him because he is a ‘half-breed,’” Murdoch said the hurtful term with distaste.

“Johnny wouldn’t have had those problems if he’d been brought up at Lancer,” Scott argued.  “Most of the wariness around here comes from the fact that he used to be a gunfighter.”

“That certainly didn’t help,” Murdoch conceded.  “Have you discussed this with him?”

“He knows I’m thinking about it.”

“What about your grandfather?”

Scott colored angrily.  “I wrote and told him about Mika.  His reply was…insulting.”

Murdoch watched his son with concern. He knew how close Scott had been to his grandfather and could see the hurt behind the anger. He wondered what his former father in law had said, but knew he could never ask if Scott chose not to volunteer the information. His son certainly wasn’t naïve or blinded by his feelings for Mika, but there would be problems to be overcome and having the support of his family was important. “It’s your decision, Son,” he said sincerely. “We all want you to be happy.  I know you won’t make this decision lightly.  If you are sure that this is what you want then you have my blessing and my support.”

Scott sighed, and Murdoch wondered if it wasn’t out of relief or gratitude. “Thank you, sir.  I’d better go and pack.  I’ll see you at breakfast.”

An unworthy thought crossed Murdoch’s mind as he watched his son leave the room.  Perhaps if Mika loved Scott as much as he clearly loved her, she would reject his proposal.  Either way, both Scott and Mika were potentially looking at some serious heartache.

*****

Johnny sat back in his chair and stretched.  He had just lost his third straight hand of poker, mainly because his mind wasn’t on the game, being filled with too many competing thoughts.  He picked up the bottle of whiskey and poured himself another shot.  While he waited for Jelly to shuffle and deal the cards he looked lazily around the bunkhouse.  His gaze settled on Alex who was lying down, apparently asleep.  Johnny had the feeling that this was a misleading impression.  He couldn’t read the young man and that intrigued him.  Alex was displaying no obvious curiosity about the Lancer family. Of course he hadn’t yet seen Johnny wearing his rig and that might provoke some questions.  It fleetingly occurred to Johnny to wonder how fast Alex was.  Maybe Murdoch was right and it wasn’t such a smart idea to encourage him to stay around.

He turned back to the table and picked up his cards, sorting them automatically.  It was another lousy hand.  After the first couple of rounds of betting he conceded defeat and placed his cards face down on the table.  This time, when he looked at Alex, he found himself under scrutiny.  He poured two glasses of whiskey and pushed back from the table.  He offered one glass to Alex who took it awkwardly with his bandaged hand.

“How’re you feeling?” Johnny asked.

Alex smiled.  “I’d tell you I’m fine, but you wouldn’t believe me.”

“Probably not.”

“You planning on working that horse again tomorrow?”

“Yeah, although I’m gonna have to wait ‘til the old man leaves.” Johnny grinned at Alex as he raised an enquiring eyebrow.  “He gets kinda over protective sometimes.”

“You’re lucky.  I never had a father who gave a damn about me.”

Although Alex was trying to appear unconcerned, Johnny sensed some deep emotions lurking just below the surface. “I am lucky,” Johnny agreed without hesitation.  He drained his glass and set it back on the table.  “Think I’ll turn in.  I’m going into town tomorrow night if you want to come.”

“What about your brother?”

“Oh, Scott’s off to Modesto tomorrow to see his girl.”

Alex frowned at the mention of Modesto.  “That’s a good couple of days ride from here.  How’d he get himself hooked up with a girl there?”

“Long story.  How about I tell it to you over a few beers tomorrow night?”

Alex looked down at his hands.  “Not sure I want to go any place too public while I can’t hold a gun.”

“I’ll watch your back.”

“Thanks, but that’s not how it works.”

“I know how it works,” Johnny said seriously.

Alex nodded, looking thoughtful. “Yeah, I believe you do.  I’ll think about it.”

“Fair enough.  Don’t forget to let Teresa check your hands tomorrow.  Good night.”

*****

Johnny found his father sitting in his leather armchair nursing a glass of brandy and staring into the distance.  “Hey, Murdoch.  How’d it go with Scott?”

Murdoch refocused his eyes and smiled thinly at his younger son.  “I’m afraid I didn’t handle it very well.”

“How’s Scott?”  Johnny sat on the sofa and leaned forward intently.

“He’s a very determined young man.  I wish I could be happy for him.  Mika is a lovely girl, but there are all sorts of reasons why she isn’t right for him.”

“Did you tell him that?”

“Not in so many words.  I’ve told him we will support his decision.  God, Johnny, how cold does that sound?  He’s my son, he’s clearly in love with her, so why was that the best I could manage?”

“Maybe you don’t want him to make the same mistakes you did.”  Johnny tried to disguise the bitterness.

“I have made many mistakes in my life, Johnny.  Marrying your mother wasn’t one of them and neither was having a son with her.”

Johnny looked at the floor, ashamed of his outburst.  “Sorry.  I was outta line.”

Murdoch stood up and walked over to his son, squeezing his shoulder reassuringly.  “No apology necessary.”  He sat down beside Johnny and stared at the Lancer crest above the fire place.  “What are your impressions of Alex?”

Johnny folded his arms and leaned back.  “Not sure yet.”

“Is he a threat?”  Murdoch pressed.

“Any gunfighter’s a potential threat.  I haven’t seen him handling his gun so I don’t know how good he is.  He’s young, but that don’t mean he ain’t fast.  I’m not getting any bad feelings about him and I don’t think he’s here for me.  I don’t even think he knows who I am…was,” Johnny corrected himself hastily.

“If he stays around here he’s bound to find out.”

“I reckon you’re right.  Look, Murdoch, if he’s going to call me out he will, whether or not we send him away.  I say he’s earned the right to stay if he wants.”

“Very well, but if there is even a hint that he is a threat to you or anyone else on Lancer he’ll be asked to leave.”

“If I think he’s a threat I might just call him out myself.” Johnny spoke flippantly, but the sharp glance from his father warned him that wasn’t a train of thought he wanted pursued. “Think I’ll go and speak to Scott before I turn in.  D’you want me to lock things up?”

“No, Son.  I’ve some paperwork to catch up on before I go to bed.  I’ll see you tomorrow.”

 

Chapter 2

Scott looked at his half-packed saddlebags indecisively.  Mika wasn’t expecting to see him for another few weeks and he had intended this visit to be a surprise.  Now, after talking with his father, he wasn’t sure if he was doing the right thing.  Was he being selfish in wanting Mika to be his wife?  He was tolerated by the Chinese community in Modesto, but wondered what would it be like to live among them?  By proposing to her, he would be asking Mika to come and live with him in an environment that would be equally foreign to her.  He believed she had the strength to cope, to adjust to a new way of life, but what if he was wrong? Perhaps, it would have been better for both of them if he had just ridden away for good after Johnny had been saved from Armstrong’s murderous scheme.

His head was filled with doubts, while his heart was filled only with love for the beautiful young woman.  They had never discussed marriage, although the bond between them had continued to grow stronger with each fleeting visit.  During Mika’s last stay at Lancer, they had consummated their love under the stars and it had been an experience that Scott would never forget.  He wasn’t proud of his past record with women, which had been one reason why he had been hesitant to allow the relationship to develop. Both before and after the war, he had often sought refuge from his grandfather’s house in the arms of some willing lady of his acquaintance.

Mika, on the other hand, was young and inexperienced.  He had taken her virginity and, in return, she had captured his heart.  It was that one night which had led his thoughts to the future. Their love making had been unplanned and for her sake he would have drawn back from it, except for her insistence that now was the right time and that she was ready.  She had cried in his arms afterwards and he had been afraid that he had hurt her.  Her reassurances and the soft stroke of her hands had aroused both of them again, and he had finally fallen asleep, confident that she had no regrets.

Now, he had to think about the present rather than the past.  The doubts expressed by his father had unsettled him and had given him pause. He was still sitting, deep in thought, when the door opened to admit his brother.  He’d been expecting Johnny to stop by and felt grateful that he had someone to talk to about his dilemma.

Johnny looked from the saddle-bags to Scott, apparently reading his brother’s indecision.  “You’re not having second thoughts?”

“Some,” Scott admitted sheepishly.  “My talk with Murdoch wasn’t exactly an unqualified success.”

“Yeah, he told me.  He worries about both of us, you know? And he‘s kinda wary about marriage. You can‘t really blame him for that.”

“I love her, Johnny, but does that give me the right to take her away from her own people and, quite possibly, expose her to prejudices and unkind gossip? Am I just being selfish?”

Johnny wandered over to the bed, sat down and began to stuff the remaining items of Scott’s clothing into the saddle-bags.  “This ain’t your decision alone, Brother.  Mika deserves the right to make up her own mind.  I can’t say that Modesto is someplace I ever want to go back to, but I’ll ride shotgun on you the whole way if that’s what it’s gonna take.” Johnny’s blue eyes sparkled with mischief as he finished the packing.  “So what’s it gonna be?”

Scott held up his hands in defeat. This was what he had needed to hear, what he had counted on his brother to say.  “You win.  I’ll ask her.”  A thought occurred to him.  “What if she says no?”

“Then you come home and we get very drunk together.” Johnny’s expression turned serious.  “It’s clear as daylight that she loves you.  I’d say you’ve nothing to worry about.”  Obviously satisfied that he’d achieved his objective, Johnny stood up and ambled over to the door where he paused.  “I know you don’t say much about Modesto and I’m grateful for that.”

Johnny faltered and Scott felt a chill run down his back.  He could only imagine how oppressive the memory was for his brother, standing on the scaffold, the noose around his neck, waiting to die.

It took time for Johnny to ask his question. “I was wondering…did anyone ever hear what happened to Armstrong?”

“Nothing definite.  Sheriff Driver’s been keeping his ears open and there was some suggestion that money has been disappearing from Armstrong’s bank accounts in San Francisco.  He was a very wealthy man and some of the accounts only came to the notice of the authorities when withdrawals were made.  He doesn’t seem to have been very open with his wife about his assets.”

“Where’d the money go?” Johnny asked curiously.

“No one knows.  Anyway, it’s been over nine months since he disappeared.  I doubt if we have to worry about him.”

“I ain’t worried about him,” Johnny stated decisively. “I’d just welcome the chance to put a bullet in him.”

“You and me both, Brother.  I’ll ask around while I’m there and see if anyone’s heard anything more.”

Johnny nodded and said good-night.  For long periods at a time, the family could ignore Armstrong and what had happened in Modesto.  Scott wondered what had made Johnny think about it tonight and, if Armstrong really had finished with the Lancers.

*****

The following morning after breakfast Johnny walked out to the yard with Scott.  Scott’s horse was saddled and waiting and Johnny leaned on the hitching rail as his brother fastened the saddle bags in place and checked the girth.

“No more doubts?” Johnny asked.

Scott pushed his hat onto the crown of his head and collected his gloves from their resting place across his holster.  “None.”

Johnny grinned.  “So who am I supposed to raise hell with on a Saturday night when you’re a respectable married man?”

“From what I’ve seen, you are more than capable of raising hell all by yourself.” Scott returned his brother’s smile before sobering.  “My being married is bound to make a difference, but there’s no reason we can’t still go out for a few drinks.”

“Don’t worry about it, Scott.  I’ll be fine.  Besides, someone has to console all those young women who’ve been pining after you.”

“And you are just the man for the job.” Scott slapped his brother lightly on the back and gathered up the reins.

As Johnny idly looked around, he spied Alex walking out of the bunkhouse. “Hold up a minute, Scott.  I want to introduce you to someone.” Johnny gave a piercing whistle to attract Alex’s attention and waved him over.  “Alex, this is my brother, Scott.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Scott told him.  “I understand I have you to thank for the fact that Johnny is walking around and not laid up in bed complaining. How are your hands?  From what I’ve heard, you’re just about as reckless for your own safety as my brother.  It takes courage to put yourself within range of a wild horse like that.”

“Some might consider it stupidity, Mr. Lancer.  Never was noted for my sense.” Alex looked down at his bandaged hands.  “I was hoping that Miss Teresa could give me some more of that cream.”

Johnny watched the expressions that crossed Alex’s face.  He could sympathize with the young man’s concern.  Without full use of his right hand, he’d be a sitting duck for any gunfighter out to add to his tally of kills.  “She’s in the kitchen.  Why don’t you go round and see her.  You might even be able to persuade her to make you some flapjacks.”

“Sure, Johnny.  I’ll see you later.” He nodded slightly to Scott. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Lancer.”

Scott’s efforts to leave were further thwarted when his father hurried out the front door.  “I’m glad you haven’t left yet, Son.  There’s something I’d like to give you.”

Johnny sensed that this was a private moment, so he excused himself after wishing his brother a safe journey.  Wandering over to the corral, he put one foot up on the bottom rail and crossed his arms along the top one.  He lowered his head so that his chin was resting on his arm and thoughtfully watched the stallion.  The animal was magnificent and would greatly enhance their breeding program, if he could be tamed.  Johnny always tried hard not to break a horse’s spirit, opting instead to come to an understanding with it, although that wasn’t always possible.  It wasn’t something he could explain to anyone else, although he wondered, after Alex’s display the previous day, if the young man might understand.  The horse was still skittish, but seemed calmer than it had been previously.

Johnny could tell the superb animal was aware of him and longed to go into the corral to interact with it again.  He sneaked a look over his shoulder.  His father was still talking to Scott, and he knew that he would be in for an ear blistering if Murdoch caught him going anywhere near the stallion that day.  He decided that discretion was called for.  His father would be leaving soon and was likely to be out for most of the day so he would have plenty of time.

“I know what you’re thinking, Johnny Lancer, and Murdoch won’t be happy.”  Jelly walked up to stand beside the young man and regarded him from under lowered brows.  “He’s done given me instructions to keep an eye on you.  He don’t trust you any more than I do.”

“Look at him, Jelly.” Johnny was absorbed with his study of the horse.  “See the way he moves?  When he’s older, he’ll be almost a match for Barranca.”

Jelly sighed. “You were just born stubborn.”

“Haven’t you got something you should be doing?” Johnny asked.  “I thought I heard Murdoch telling you to fix those roof tiles on the outhouse.”

“I ain’t slacking off, iffn that’s what you think.  Came over to tell you something.” Jelly lowered his voice.  “The boss fired Brad first thing this morning.  I’ve never seen that young ‘un lose his temper with your pa before, but he was mad enough to spit nails.  Said it was all your fault for not hangin’ onto that horse.”

A frown creased Johnny’s forehead.  “I didn’t ask Murdoch to fire him.  He’s not a bad kid at heart…just kinda slow on the uptake.  This’ll be the third or fourth job he’s lost.  His pa’s gonna be hard pressed to find anyone else willing to take him on.”

“It means there’s an opening if Alex is still interested.” Jelly sniffed disapprovingly.  “Don’t trust that boy.”

Johnny regarded his friend seriously.  “Boy, you and Murdoch sure are two of a kind.  Alex came here looking for honest work.  Since he’s been here he’s saved my life, damaging his hands in the process, but is anyone giving him any credit?  He’s young and maybe there’s still a chance of pulling him out of the kind of life he’s been living.  People can change.” Johnny pushed away from the fence.  “I changed.”  He turned and walked toward the house without a backward glance.

“Folks can only change if they want to,” Jelly muttered just loud enough for Johnny to hear, before heading to the barn to collect his tools.

*****

Murdoch pulled a small box out of his pocket and handed it to Scott.  The box, which was no more than two inches square, was made of a dark wood, hinged along one side.  Scott regarded it curiously for a moment before opening the lid.  Inside, lay a ring consisting of a plain silver band and a small white stone.  As Scott lifted the ring out, the stone caught the light, reflecting all the colors of the rainbow.

“It’s an opal,” Murdoch informed him, with a catch in his voice.  “When your mother consented to marry me I wanted to buy her a ring…the very best ring I could afford.  I remember she laughed and told me to save my money for the grand ranch we would one day own.  When I insisted, she chose this one.  It doesn’t have much monetary value, but…”

“It’s beautiful.”  Scott turned the ring around in the palm of his left hand, marveling at the ever changing display.  “I remember this ring.  I’ve seen it before.”  He bowed his head and thought back.  “She was wearing it in one of the portraits.”

Murdoch nodded.  “Your grandfather commissioned a portrait when we became engaged.  It was very formal and he wasn’t happy about her wearing the ring.” His face softened in remembrance.  “She insisted.  Your mother was a very strong-willed and beautiful woman.”

Scott looked searchingly at his father.  It was rare for them to touch on such a personal subject.  Murdoch still subscribed to the view that the past was over and done with. “I used to think it was odd.  It didn’t match what she was wearing, or any of the other jewelry, but it looked right somehow.  I didn’t understand the significance until now.”  Scott laid the ring back in its box and held it out to his father.

Murdoch made no move to accept the ring.  “She swore she would never take it off then, when she was expecting you, her fingers became swollen and she couldn’t wear it anymore.  She had to leave in such a hurry when Haney started raiding that she didn’t have time to pack much.  It was only afterwards that I found it in her jewelry box.  I put it away for a very long time.  I used to wish that she had been wearing it so that it could have been buried with her.” His voice caught and he cleared his throat self-consciously.  “Now, I know that there is a better use for it.  If you’re willing, I would like you to give it to Mika.”

Scott slowly closed his fingers over the box.  He had never had a tangible link to his mother before.  This ring had been given and received in love.  He had no doubt that Mika would be as overwhelmed as he was by the significance of the gesture.  “I’d be honored, Sir.”  He tucked the ring safely into the inside pocket of his jacket.  Words were inadequate to express his feelings and he could see from Murdoch’s expression that none were needed.  He shook hands with his father, mounted up and rode away filled with a host of unaccustomed emotions.

*****

Johnny waited until Murdoch had left for Spanish Wells before heading back to the corral.  He wasn’t surprised to find Alex waiting for him.  Nothing was said between the two young men.  Johnny’s entire attention was directed toward the task at hand and Alex acknowledged that by his silence. He collected the saddle and tack, and walked slowly, but confidently toward the horse.  The animal allowed him to approach and surprisingly, waited patiently while he saddled it.  Getting onto its back also proved to be easier than expected.  Johnny gathered up the reins, talking softly the whole time.  He didn’t make the mistake of relaxing as he had the previous day. This time, he was ready for the sudden explosion of movement when the stallion decided that he had no wish to have this unaccustomed weight on his back.

The fight between man and beast for supremacy was shorter, but no less violent, than the day before.  Johnny gave himself over to the sheer thrill of the battle.  The wind whipped past him and dislodged his hat, leaving it dangling down his back by its stampede strings.  He held tightly to the reins with one hand and flung his other arm out to balance himself against the unpredictable movements.  He was almost disappointed when the horse suddenly gave up its struggle.  He always felt a momentary sadness when a wild horse was tamed and lost its sense of individuality. And, each time he spared a thought for Wes, the friend he had lost under the hooves of a horse not unlike this one.

He rode around the corral for a few minutes, giving time for both himself and the horse to cool down from their exertions.  Once he was satisfied, he rode over to the fence where Alex was standing.

“You given any thought to going into town tonight?” he asked as he pulled out a bandana and used it to wipe his brow and the back of his neck.  “I’d be glad of the company, what with Scott being away and all. Besides, I reckon I owe you a drink or two to repay you for yesterday.”

Alex’s normally solemn expression was wiped away by a smile.  “Sure.  Just keep in mind your promise to watch my back.”

“There’s a job here for you if you want it once your hands are healed.” Johnny dismounted and slowly walked the horse toward the barn to unsaddle it and rub it down.

“Thanks, but I think your father would be happier if I moved on and I know that Jelly would prefer it if I left.”  Alex looked over his shoulder to where Jelly was hovering just out of earshot.

“Well, if you change your mind let me know.” Johnny was disappointed, but not really surprised. He knew what it was like to have folks regard him with suspicion and distrust.  He wished that Murdoch had been more welcoming and hadn’t been so quick to judge, but the rancher had a home and family to protect and that would always be Murdoch’s priority. “I’ll see you at six.”

*****

It was late afternoon before Murdoch returned to the ranch.  His earlier good mood had evaporated following an acrimonious encounter with Brad’s father.  Matthew Hopkins wasn’t even close to being a good friend of the Lancers.  He resented the fact that they bought most of their supplies in Green River, or Morro Coyo rather than from his store.  He was the kind of man who would be nice to your face, while being thoroughly unpleasant behind your back.  He refused to accept that his son was slow and careless, and blamed everyone else for Brad’s failure to hold down a job.  Murdoch had been acutely embarrassed when Hopkins had asked him to employ the boy.  He had agreed to take him on a trial basis.  That trial had come to an abrupt end so far as Murdoch was concerned, when Brad’s actions had almost cost him his younger son.

Unfortunately, Brad had reached his father first, blaming Johnny for the accident and complaining that he was being unfairly treated.  Murdoch had tried his best to keep his temper under control, but when Hopkins referred disparagingly to Johnny’s mixed heritage and previous occupation, his anger had surfaced.  The ensuing discussion had been loud and vocal, attracting a great deal of unwanted attention.  At the end, Murdoch had pushed his way through the interested crowd of spectators, not noticing the nondescript little man who stood watching him from the shadows.

He was relieved to be home.  A glass of his good whiskey would help ease his sour mood. He handed his horse over to one of the men and looked around.  His eyes narrowed as he caught sight of the horse that had come so close to trampling Johnny to death.  If it had been up to him the animal would have been shot.  It was trotting sedately around the corral, all its nervous energy gone.

Murdoch strode into the house, bellowing his younger son’s name. He paced up and down, until he heard Johnny running down the stairs. He took up a position with his back to the fireplace feeling irritated. He allowed his son to take a couple of steps into the room before starting in on him.

“You’ve been working that horse again, haven’t you?  I told you not to go near it today.  Is there the slightest chance, just once, that you could pretend to be a dutiful son and do as you’re told?”

Johnny walked warily over to one of the small tables and picked up an apple from the fruit bowl, studying it intently before shooting his father a quick look.  “No harm done.” Taking a bite, he wandered over to the sofa.  “I couldn’t leave him…I almost had him yesterday.  If I’d waited too long it would all have been wasted.”

Murdoch could feel his temper increasing in the face of Johnny’s nonchalance. “And what if he had thrown you again?  You were lucky yesterday, but someday your luck is going to run out.”

“Hasn’t so far.”

“You are not indestructible and you take far too many risks.  Didn’t what happened in Modesto teach you anything?” Murdoch still had nightmares about what would have happened if he’d arrived even seconds later. He had come so close to losing this vibrant young man before ever having had the chance to really get to know him.

Armstrong’s escape from justice rankled him and, unknown to his sons, he had been making discreet enquiries to see if the former railroad director had resurfaced.  He had recently received information that suggested Armstrong was in Mexico.  The report was lacking in details and Murdoch was in two minds about saying anything.

Johnny squirmed uneasily under his father’s piercing gaze.  “Yeah,” he conceded.  “Sorry.”

His hopeful smile melted Murdoch’s heart. “You mean too much to me, Son.  I don’t want anything to happen to you.”

“You’re pretty important to me too, old man.”  Johnny took a final bite from the apple and stood up, stretching lazily.  “I’m going into town.  Alex’s coming with me.”

Murdoch swallowed back his concern.  “Enjoy yourself.  I need to go and speak to Cipriano, so I’ll see you in the morning.”

After Murdoch had left, Johnny collected his gunbelt, fastening it comfortably in place, then brushed his dark hair out of his eyes and settled his hat on his head.  He walked out into the warm air and saw Alex waiting for him with his horse and Barranca all saddled and ready.

As Johnny stepped off the porch Alex looked at his low slung rig.  “I guess there’s something you forgot to tell me,” he said.

*****

On the ride into town Johnny told Alex a little about Green River and its inhabitants.  When he mentioned Val, he noticed a shadow crossing Alex’s face.  “D’you know him?”

Alex shook his head.  “Don’t recognize the name.”

“Then what’s wrong?” Johnny pressed.

Alex looked at him quizzically.  “Our kind ain’t exactly welcomed by sheriffs.”

“I’ve known Val a long time.  He doesn’t judge a man by how he wears his gun.”

“Why didn’t you tell me…about being a gunfighter?”

“I ain’t lived by my gun for nearly two years.  I don’t think of myself as a gunfighter any more.”

“Were you good?”

Johnny’s white teeth shone as he grinned broadly.  “Yeah, I was good.  That’s why Murdoch didn’t want you here.  He thought you’d come to challenge me.”  There was a question in Johnny’s voice that he didn’t bother to hide.

“I’m not looking to make a reputation.  Just want to make enough money to get by.  What name did you use?”

Johnny waited a heartbeat before answering.  “Madrid, Johnny Madrid.”

Alex reined his horse to a standstill and looked searchingly at his companion.  “I heard Madrid was dead…shot by a firing squad.”

“Madrid’s dead all right.” Johnny agreed.  “He’s been dead a long time and I’d like to keep it that way.”

“Your father pulled you out?”

“More than once.  There’s one thing you need to know.  If anyone threatens me or my family…well, I’m still good with a gun and I don’t back down from a fight.”

“I’m not looking for a fight.  So how about you tell me that story you promised?  How come your brother’s girl is two days ride away? And what exactly happened in Modesto?”

 

Chapter 3

Scott arrived in Modesto the following afternoon, hot, dirty and suffering from a severe case of nerves.  He stabled his horse at the livery before booking into the Modesto House Hotel.  The proprietor, Mrs. Harland, greeted him warmly, inquiring as to his health and that of his brother.  Although Johnny hadn’t returned to Modesto since the trial, his ordeal had left a deeply ingrained impression upon the townsfolk.

The fear that had pervaded the town while Martin Armstrong had been in charge had dissipated in the months following his disappearance, and the Lancer family was credited to a large extent with engineering his downfall.  Modesto continued to grow and prosper, but Scott could never feel comfortable there.  Whenever he was in town he avoided passing the courthouse.  One memory that would never leave him was of being incarcerated in a cell there, believing his brother was dead.

He signed the register and climbed the stairs to his room.  For a long time he sat, lost in thought.  He hadn’t expected the memory to fade, but he had expected his need for vengeance to diminish.  Yet, every time he arrived in Modesto that need reasserted itself. Scott’s hands clenched into fists at the thought. Out of respect for Johnny’s feelings he hadn’t discussed this with him as his brother had made it clear, from a very early stage that he wanted to put the whole incident behind him. Johnny had cautioned him about the dangers of letting hatred eat away at him, and was speaking from bitter experience. Scott knew it was good advice, even if he was having trouble following it.  He, therefore, made a conscious effort to relax.

In any event this wasn’t why he was here.  His mission this time should be a happy one.  He drew the ring from his pocket and a faint smile touched his lips.  He had never felt particularly close to his mother, and had given little thought to her relationship with his father.  Now, holding the symbol of his parents love for one another, he felt a connection to Catherine Lancer that hadn’t existed before.

As he looked at the ring, he remembered another occasion when he had proposed to a woman.  Julie Dennison – the love of his life, or so he had thought.  It had all been very proper.  First, he had sought permission from her father, permission which had been eagerly granted.  Scott hadn’t been naïve enough to think that Mr. Dennison had only been concerned with his daughter’s happiness.  The Garrett money would be a welcome addition to an ailing business.  He had loved Julie with all of his heart and that love had been reciprocated.  Then…then he had thrown it all away.  His family knew nothing about that engagement and neither did Mika. He planned to keep it that way.  It was in the past and, as Murdoch would say, ‘the past was dead and gone.’

It was the future that concerned him now.  He tucked the ring back into his pocket, cleaned up and walked determinedly downstairs.  Mika would still be at work.  It angered him that she had to slave in the laundry, but she had refused his offer of money and had insisted upon continuing with her job.  She was proud of the fact that she contributed to the income for herself and her brother, and she was happy spending the days with her friends.  He felt a pang of guilt.  Did he really have the right to ask her to leave everything and everyone she knew?  A faint smile appeared as he recalled his long discussion with his younger brother.  If he went home without speaking his mind to Mika, he had a feeling Johnny would hog tie him and drag him straight back to Modesto.

He stepped out into the late afternoon sunlight.  Dust swirled everywhere, settling in a thin layer on his clothes and causing him to narrow his eyes.  It was too early to disturb Mika, so he would see to his other errand first. He settled his hat more comfortably on his head and headed toward the jail.  Sheriff Driver had been unanimously re-elected to his post following his handling of the Armstrong situation.  Scott recalled how badly he had misjudged the sheriff, accusing him of being involved in the plot to railroad his brother.  In truth, Clay Driver was an honest and honorable man who had worked tirelessly to protect Johnny from the machinations of Armstrong and his men.  Scott always made a point of calling in to see the lawman whenever he was in town.

This time, he felt a new imperative.  Talking about Armstrong had unsettled him.  Now that Johnny had re-introduced the subject he wouldn’t let it rest, and Scott knew he would face an interrogation upon his return.  Armstrong wasn’t the kind of man to quit.  It was only going to be a matter of time before he resurfaced.

Scott turned as he heard someone calling his name.  A genuine smile appeared when he saw J. D. Spencer, the publisher of the local newspaper, hurrying in his direction.  Scott offered his hand and a greeting, only to have both ignored.

“Come with me,” J. D. said, taking hold of his arm and steering him in the direction of his office.  “I’ve some news for you.  I was on my way to send you a telegram when I saw you leave the hotel.”

“What’s the hurry?” Scott asked, as he was hustled along the street.

J. D.’s eyes darted around, and Scott could feel the man’s anxiety.  He pulled to a halt.  “Tell me,” he demanded.

“It’s about Theodore.” The newspaperman pulled out a handkerchief and focused all his attention on cleaning his glasses.

An unreasoning fear gripped Scott.  Theodore Young had defended his brother against the trumped up murder charge.  It had been no fault of his that Johnny had been convicted.  In addition to his professional services, he had become a trusted family friend.  If something had happened to him… Just when Scott though his patience was about to run out, J. D. gave a heavy sigh and looked up at him, his expression one of profound regret and sorrow.

“He’s dead.”

“Dead?”

“We kept in touch, you know, after the trial.  His wife wired me a couple of days ago.  Apparently he was on his way to see a client, only he never arrived.  The search party found him the next day pinned under the wheel of his buggy.  It looked like it had hit a rock and overturned.  He had a number of broken bones, but it was an injury to the head that killed him according to the local doctor.”

The words rolled through Scott’s mind.  It was always a shock when someone suffered an untimely death.  Theodore had been a good man and a gifted lawyer.  Then something registered with Scott beyond the obvious sadness and he looked inquiringly at his companion.  “There’s more?” he guessed.

“Yes, and I’d rather we didn’t discuss it here.”

Five minutes later, they were in the office of the Stanislous County News.  The large room was as disorganized as Scott remembered.  The glass of whiskey pressed into his hand by his agitated host proved to be of the highest quality. The publisher kept a personal supply of the liquor ‘for medicinal purposes.’ Scott sat as J. D. wandered restlessly between the presses and bales of paper.

“There is something wrong in town,” J. D. eventually explained.  “For a while now, I’ve had the feeling that someone has been watching me.  I’ve been very careful not to be out on my own after dark, and I’d caution you to be careful while you’re here.”

“What has that got to do with Theodore’s death?”  Scott sat forward, listening intently.

“When I heard what had happened, I spoke to Sheriff Driver and he contacted the Marshal in Sacramento. It seems that the doctor can’t be certain that the head wound was caused by the crash.  The Marshal is conducting a murder inquiry.”

The implication took root and Scott slammed his glass down.  “Armstrong?”  Hard on the heels of that thought was another equally unpalatable.  “If he’s out for revenge then anyone who helped Johnny is at risk.  I need to find Mika.”

“Find her and her brother and get them out of here,” J. D. advised.  “We might be jumping to conclusions, but I can tell you that there’s an undercurrent in Modesto again.”

Scott hurriedly got to his feet and then paused.  “What about you?”

“I’ve taken precautions. A couple of the local lads are watching out for me. Be careful, Scott.”

*****

Matthew Hopkins closed the door of his store after the last customer had left, pulled down the blind and locked up.  He untied his apron and turned, gasping in fear as a man stepped out from the back room.  The man was small and wiry and Matthew was afraid of him.  “What do you want?” His voice quivered.

“You were paid well to do one simple thing.” The man wandered over to the counter and began to pick up and then discard various items.  Finally, he picked up an unlit lamp.  “Fire is a terrible thing, don’t you think?  Once it takes hold, there’s no stopping it.”

“I did what you asked.”

“You were paid to ensure that your son found work at Lancer.”

“And he did.” Resentment flared as Matthew thought of Murdoch Lancer.  “Do you know how much pride it cost me to beg Lancer to give my son a job?”

“A job he was too stupid to keep,” the man snapped irritably.  “We’ve been trying for months to get someone in place, and your boy ruined it within days of being hired.  So, my employer wants his money back…or you can find a way to persuade Murdoch Lancer that he made a mistake in firing him.”

The storekeeper would have been happy to pay back the money except that most of it had already been spent.  His wife had a taste for the good things in life, things that he couldn’t afford on the meager profits generated by his small business.  “How am I supposed to persuade him?” he asked sullenly.

“You could start by apologizing for what you said yesterday.  Oh, don’t look so surprised – the whole town heard you badmouthing that son of his.”

“What if I can’t get him to change his mind?”

The man pulled out a match, lit it and touched the flame to the wick of the lamp.  “Then you’d better start praying that there isn’t an accident.”

The sound of laughter echoed in Matthews ears long after he had been left alone.

*****

Scott entered the section of town inhabited by the Chinese community.  It was like stepping into a different world.  He was tolerated here because of his connection with Hannu and Mika, but he had never been under any illusions.  If he ever did anything to hurt either one of them, he would wind up dead in an alley with, as his brother so elegantly put it, ‘ants crawling over his eyeballs.’  He suppressed a shudder, not because of any fear for his own life, but because of how vulnerable Mika was.  He had to persuade her to return with him to Lancer.  At least he could protect her there.

He headed for the laundry, his spirits lifting the minute he saw her.  Her enthusiasm for life, her decency and compassion, made her a joy to be with.  If she hadn’t had such a generous spirit she would have turned her back on him when he was first brought to her, unconscious following a vicious beating.  There had been no reason why she or her brother should have helped him.  He was a stranger, and from a race of people who regarded the Chinese as cheap labor, rather than as people with their own hopes and dreams.  He stood in the shadows and watched her, once again conflicted.  He was about to ask her to give up everything she had ever known.

Perhaps sensing that she was being watched, Mika straightened up from tending the large vat of laundry and scanned the street.  Scott stepped forward and saw a huge smile light up her face.  She flew across the street, trailing soap bubbles and ignoring the stares of the passers-by.  He held out his arms and she came eagerly into his embrace.

“I didn’t expect you.  Why didn’t you say you were coming?” She tipped her face up to his, eyes shining with excitement.

He could feel her trembling in response to his touch and his breath quickened.  He lowered his head and captured her lips with his, tightening his grip.  He didn’t want the kiss to end.  Her mouth was sweet and her response fervent.  “God, you’re so beautiful,” he said softly when they parted.

“I have missed you,” she confided.  “How long can you stay?”

“Not long, but I have something to ask you.”

There was very little privacy in the maze of alleyways and it took some time to find a secluded spot.  They sat together on a low wall.  Scott laid his hat and gloves beside him and reached into his pocket for the small box.  Mika waited patiently while he found the words he wanted to say to her.

“I love you,” he said simply.  “When I’m with you, I feel complete and it breaks my heart every time one of us has to leave.  I don’t want any more separations.” He opened the box and lifted out the ring.  “My father gave this to my mother when she agreed to be his wife.  I’d like you to have it, and for you to come back to Lancer and marry me.”

“I love you too, Scott, and the ring is beautiful.  Only…only I never expected this.  I…I don’t know what to say.”

“I know this is sudden, and that we have never discussed marriage.  Tell me you will think about it.  I want to spend the rest of my life with you, and I’d hoped you felt the same way.”  Scott couldn’t conceal his disappointment. Yet, what right did he have to expect an immediate answer.  It had taken him weeks to think through the implications of this proposal.

She took his hand in both of hers and looked earnestly into his eyes.  “It is not a straightforward thing that you ask.  If it were, I would accept without hesitation.  I love you with all my heart and nothing would make me happier than to be with you always.”

“Then…”

She laid a finger gently against his lips.  “You are an important man, Scott Lancer, and you need a wife who will belong in your society.  My kind aren’t welcome in your world.”

Scott pulled back angrily.  “Have you ever felt less than welcome at Lancer?”

“Oh no,” she replied hastily.

“Then what’s wrong?”

“What does your father think?  Or your grandfather?”

“Murdoch wouldn’t have given me this ring if he hadn’t approved.  As for my grandfather – he hasn’t approved of any of my actions over the last couple of years.  But then, I haven’t needed his approval for a very long time.”  Scott reached for her and pulled her close to his chest, feeling her heart beating wildly against him.  “I’m not a naïve fool, Mika.  I know that we will face problems and prejudices.  I’m sure Murdoch felt the same when he married Johnny’s mother, but that didn’t stop them.”

“That marriage didn’t last, Scott.” Mika’s voice was muffled by the material of his shirt.

“Ours will.”

She drew back and he could see tears glistening in her eyes.  A tentative smile returned to her face.  “You are a very determined man.”

“Yes, I am.  We can make this work.  I know we can.  I would never let anyone or anything hurt you.”

Tears spilled down her cheeks.  “I want to believe you.  I love you so much.  I’m afraid…”

He cut off her words with his mouth, letting his body convince her of his sincerity.  There was no mistaking her response.  He ached to take her back to his hotel room, to hold her close and make love to her as he had done during that one glorious evening at Lancer.  But, she wasn’t some saloon girl, selling her body to anyone with enough coin.  He would show her the proper respect, exercising restraint until they could legitimately enjoy each other’s bodies.

“We should speak to my brother.”

Her words came out with a half-sob and Scott pulled hastily away.  This intimacy was no easier for her to bear.  She was a passionate young woman and it would be too easy for them to get carried away by their needs and desires.  Then, the meaning of her words filtered through the confusion in his head, and he laughed aloud in delight.  Carefully removing his mother’s ring from the box, he slipped it on the third finger of Mika’s left hand.

Hand in hand they walked back to the home that Mika shared with so many other families.  Hannu was sitting at the entrance with a small group of his friends.  Scott’s smile disappeared and he looked uncertainly at Mika.

Although Hannu had expressed initial reservations, he hadn’t stood in the way of their relationship.  He had accompanied Mika on her visits to Lancer and had quickly been put at his ease.  Scott couldn’t claim that there was a deep friendship between them, but neither had he thought there was open antagonism either – until now.

Scott stood stiffly in front of the man he hoped was about to become his brother-in-law. After his initial unfriendly glance, Hannu ignored him, continuing to converse with his friends.  They all knew Scott and he could see that they were as puzzled as he was.

Finally, Mika lost patience and said something to her brother in a sharp voice.  Hannu scowled and acknowledged their presence.  “Why are you here?”

“Can we talk inside?” Scott didn’t feel inclined to discuss this very personal matter in front of an interested crowd of spectators.

“I am comfortable here.”

Mika squeezed Scott’s hand and stepped forward to confront her brother.  “We are to be married,” she told him, daring him to contradict her.

Hannu rose to his feet.  He was a stocky young man, far shorter than Scott, but he exuded such ferocity that Scott found himself taking a step backwards.

“Go inside,” Hannu ordered his sister.

She silently shook her head, moving closer to Scott’s side. He put his arm around her and held her against him.

“I am the head of this household.  You will not dishonor me by your disobedience.”

“Hannu, if you would just listen…” Scott began.

“I will not listen.  This was a mistake.  I should have left you bleeding that day.  Becoming involved in the business of your family had caused us nothing except trouble.  I indulged my sister, believing she would soon grow out of this infatuation.  Now, it is time that she married one of her own people and settled down.”

“I love him,” Mika shouted.  “I want to marry him.”

“Go inside,” Hannu roared.

Mika began to tremble, moving reluctantly away from Scott.  “I will see you later?”

“Yes,” he assured her.

Once Mika had disappeared from sight, Hannu advanced on Scott.  “You will leave now and not return.”

“I can’t do that.  She has accepted my proposal of marriage and I intend to take her back to Lancer with me.”

“She cannot marry without my permission, and I will not allow her to marry you.  Your family has shown us kindness in the past, and for that reason I will let you walk out of here.  If you try to return you will not be so fortunate.”

“You have made a threat like that before, yet you changed your mind,” Scott reminded him.  “I would never do anything to hurt Mika.  If I didn’t love and respect her, I wouldn’t be offering marriage and you know that as well as I do.  Why are you standing in the way of her having a better life?”

Hannu ignored the pleas.  “Get him out of here,” he ordered and two of the men closed on Scott.

Scott backed up, holding up his hand in warning.  A quick punch sent one man reeling and then Scott found himself defending against a flurry of blows.  He kept fighting, even after more men joined the fray.  Even as the sheer weight of numbers overwhelmed him, he didn’t consider giving up.  Strong fingers clutched at his left arm and it was twisted painfully up behind his back.  The fight was over unless he wanted to risk a broken arm.  He gasped for breath, his muscles aching from the pounding he had taken.

“Armstrong,” he wheezed, seeing a flicker in Hannu’s eyes.

“Wait.” The younger man moved closer.  “Do you think I do not hear things?”

“Then why?” Scott twisted desperately against the hands holding him. “Why stop me taking Mika away?  She’ll be safe at Lancer.”

“She will be safe here.  Go back to your own side of town, and leave us alone.”

Hannu didn’t allow his feelings or thoughts to show on his face as Scott was hauled away.  He had to speak to his sister, and then he had to request the meeting that would keep her safe.

 

Chapter 4

After being ejected from Chinatown, Scott stood on the main street at a loss.  He had no intention of leaving town without Mika, yet, taking her against the express wishes of her brother was fraught with difficulties.  He pulled out his watch, disconcerted to see that his hands were trembling with anger and frustration. It was too late to send a wire to Lancer tonight.  He would wait until the morning to see if Mika could persuade Hannu to change his mind.  If not, he would contact his father for some advice.

He wondered if Murdoch knew about Theodore. The attorney was a great loss, both as a friend and as an able advocate.  It wasn’t often that he felt lonely. After being confined for a year with so many men, and without any privacy, he enjoyed spending time on his own. But, right now, he wished Johnny was with him.  He didn’t want to be alone to brood, especially in this town which held so many unpleasant memories.  He looked restlessly around, finally fixing on the jail.  He would see if Sheriff Driver could be persuaded to join him for supper.

The sheriff was an imposing figure who would make a formidable opponent.  Fortunately for Johnny, he had proved to be a thoroughly decent man, who hadn’t been afraid to take on Armstrong and his minions.  Scott was pleased and relieved to find him at his desk, scowling fiercely at some paperwork.  In Scott’s experience the really good lawmen hated this aspect of the job, regarding it only as a necessary evil. He had a feeling that Clay Driver and Val Crawford were two of a kind, despite their difference of opinion at the time of Johnny’s arrest for murder.

“You look like you could use a break,” Scott greeted him.

“You have no idea.” Driver slammed his pencil onto the desk, staring intently at the younger man.  “Take a seat.”

Scott withstood the searching scrutiny without comment.  He’d come to know the sheriff well, and a friendship had developed. Clay Driver wouldn’t pry, but would listen if he chose to tell him what was on his mind.  “I heard about Theodore.  Do you think Armstrong had something to do with it?” His temples were aching with the beginning of a headache.

A bottle of whiskey and two glasses appeared out of the bottom drawer.  “Hard to say.” The sheriff spoke thoughtfully, although he didn’t appear surprised by the question. “He was always good at covering his tracks.”

“But, you think he did,” Scott pressed.

Driver poured out a generous measure of the liquor and pushed the glass across the desk. “I think you should get word to Lancer, and that you and Johnny need to be careful.”

Scott accepted the drink.  “I’ll wire Murdoch in the morning.” He lapsed into silence.

“Planning on staying in town long?”

“No longer than I have to,” Scott replied with asperity, before shrugging apologetically.  “Sorry, just being in this town puts me on edge.  It’s hard having everyone acting friendly and concerned, when they’d have stood by and watched Johnny hang.”

“I know, Scott, but you’ve got to remember that they had families and businesses to protect.  It’s not an excuse, I know that.  A lot of folks feel badly about what happened to your brother and I don’t reckon any of us will forget what happened here.”

“And, it’s going to happen all over again if we’re not careful.  Oh, maybe not in Modesto, but somewhere.  Men like Martin Armstrong don’t give up and disappear.” The throbbing in Scott’s head increased in tempo.

The sheriff put the top back on the bottle, stood and reached for his hat.  “I’d say you need some company.  I’m hungry and I happen to know that, tonight, they’re serving a very good pot roast in the café down the street.  After something to eat, and a few drinks, you might get round to telling me what’s on your mind.”

Scott chuckled, feeling some of his tension diminish.  “You might be right.”

*****

The following morning, after everyone had left for the day, Alex sat on his bed and carefully unwrapped the bandages from around his hands.  The cream that Teresa had supplied had helped keep the skin on his palms supple and moving his fingers wasn’t as painful as it had been the day before. He still had to be carefully how much pressure he applied to the area marked by the rope burns, but he was satisfied that he was making progress.  He tried to draw his revolver, only to fumble and have it slip from his fingers.  He swore softly and intensely before returning his gun to its holster and trying again.  This time his draw was smoother, although it was far slower, and less graceful, than normal.  It would take days of concentrated effort to regain his speed. In the meantime, he felt like a sitting duck, despite Johnny’s assurances that he was safe at Lancer.

He had taken an immediate liking to the youngest Lancer, even before finding out how much they had in common.  He was happy that Johnny had found a home and family, although that happiness was tinged with a hint of jealousy.  There would be no happy ending for him.  All he had to look forward to was an early death and an unmarked grave.

For a long time, he sat and looked at his hands, his thoughts dancing around like a feather on a breeze.  Finally, he made up his mind and headed for the barn to fetch his horse.  Saddling the animal was hard and there was no one around to help.  Not that he would have asked for assistance – that would have meant displaying weakness.

He rode at an easy pace to Green River, the reins held loosely in his hands. It was a hot and dusty ride, but it passed quickly enough as Alex became lost in his own thoughts.   Arriving in town, he sent a telegram and ambled over to the saloon, alert for any possible danger.

A man he didn’t recognize was watching him from across the street.  The presence of a badge pinned to his rumpled shirt told Alex that this was Sheriff Val Crawford. Johnny had been full of praise for the lawman, which didn’t lessen Alex’s wariness.  He touched his finger to the brim of his hat in acknowledgment and smiled mischievously.  The sheriff just kept right on staring at him.

The young gunfighter settled in the saloon with a beer and waited.  His hazel eyes sparkled with amusement when the sheriff arrived.  Lawmen were so predictable.

“Mind if I sit down?” The sheriff pulled out a chair without waiting for a response.

“Afternoon, Sheriff,” Alex greeted him politely.  “Something I can do for you?”

“I heard you were out at Lancer.”

Alex waited, his face expressionless while his heart beat faster in anticipation of danger.

“Johnny Lancer’s a good friend of mine,” Val continued.  “Word is, you saved him gettin’ his sorry hide stomped all over by one of them horses he keeps insistin’ on trying to tame.”

Alex looked at the sheriff’s right hand, which was now outstretched toward him.

“Wanted to thank you,” Val explained.

Reflexively, Alex offered his hand in return, biting his lip as the sheriff’s firm pressure sent a jolt of pain up his arm.  Val’s eyes narrowed and he turned Alex’s hand over before the younger man could prevent it.

“You should keep that covered,” Val stated.  “Only I reckon you can’t do that, can you?  Not in public at any rate.”

Alex snatched his hand away.  “Aren’t you going to warn me off, Sheriff?”

“Nope.  Figure if you try anything at Lancer, Johnny’ll take care of it.”

“I’m not here to cause trouble.”

Val shrugged.  “Never did judge a man by how he wears his gun.  I do my job and if you cross the line in my jurisdiction, I’ll deal with it.  Unless that happens, I ain’t worried if you stay or go.  Only came by to thank you for saving a friend’s life.”

Alex watched the sheriff leave, having the grace to feel some shame for having jumped to the wrong conclusion himself.

*****

In Modesto, Scott had spent a long sleepless night worrying about Mika, Hannu and Armstrong.  Since before dawn, he had been trying without success to find a way to get to Mika.  By now, she must know what Hannu had said.  Surely she wouldn’t think that he would just accept her brother’s words and leave her?  He was sure she would come to him if she could.  It was likely that the men posted around the routes into Chinatown to discourage him were also under orders to ensure that Mika didn’t leave.  He kicked a stone out of the way and morosely surveyed the street.  Once again he wished that Johnny were with him.  Between the two of them, they would find a way.  Alone – well, he would probably end up with his throat cut.

After drinking rather too much the night before, he had confided in Sheriff Driver.  Not that it had helped.  The lawman was sympathetic, but had pointed out several obvious facts.  Mika was underage, so taking her without permission was morally unsound.  The members of the Chinese community had no legal rights, so he wouldn’t face criminal charges, but that wouldn’t make his actions any more legitimate.  He would also be violating a very strict code of honor, which could result in potentially fatal consequences for himself and anyone else who became caught up in the vendetta.  With a disheartened sigh, he turned toward the telegraph office.  Maybe his father would have some ideas that might help.

*****

“Mr. King is here to see you, sir.”

“Show him in.”  William Ralston, founder of the Bank of California and a prominent businessman, rose from his chair and walked to the door to greet his visitor.

Clarence King was a geologist working on the government sponsored ‘California Geological Survey.’  He was just approaching thirty and he had been privately investigating a mining project in Wyoming.  They hadn’t met previously and Ralston was curious about his guest.

Some months earlier, two men had deposited a bag of diamonds in the bank vaults.  They had eventually been persuaded to divulge the source of the diamonds, which turned out to be a mine in Wyoming.  The find had been enthusiastically verified by an engineer retained by a group of interested investors, Ralston included.  The mine had then been purchased for over six hundred and fifty thousand dollars by the wealthy consortium.

King had heard about the mine and had requested permission to visit so he could conduct an appraisal.  Having no reason to refuse, the investors had given him their blessing.  From the look on the young geologist’s face, Ralston quickly realized that something was amiss.

“I’m afraid, sir, that you and your colleagues have been the victim of fraud,” King said without preamble, after taking a seat.  “I uncovered stones that had clearly been partially polished.  They would never have occurred like that naturally.  I also found small pieces of ruby, emerald and sapphire which most certainly didn’t belong in such close proximity.  It was an elaborate and costly trick, but it netted the men concerned a significant profit.”

Ralston was stunned silent.  He had always been a risk taker, but this venture had shown every sign of being a significant success.  “How much would you estimate the stones are worth?” He choked out the question with a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach.

“Including the ones in your vault?”

King had been given access to the stones before making his trip to Wyoming.  Ralston nodded, not trusting his voice.

“No more than thirty-five thousand.”

Ralston paled.  His personal loss, if what King had told him was correct, would exceed one hundred thousand dollars.  Far worse than the loss of the money, was the loss of face.  His business interests relied heavily upon his reputation and would suffer if this became common knowledge.  He was already having financial problems with that damn railroad, and the Directors were looking around quietly to see if they could find a buyer.  The Bank itself was operating on a very low profit margin and all his spare cash had been channeled into building projects that were far from complete.

“Are you sure?”

“Quite sure.  Have you any idea who might have been behind the scheme?”

William Ralston had a very good idea, and it wasn’t the two men who had fronted the deal either.  Philip Arnold and his cousin John Slack might have been very convincing conmen, but they didn’t strike him as having the brains or the means to set up such an operation. This bore all the hallmarks of a scheme devised by his former partner, Martin Armstrong. “Yes, Mr. King, I think I can guess whose idea this was.  Proving it might be rather harder.”  He looked thoughtfully at his visitor.  “You understand how embarrassing your news will be for the business community?  I wonder if we might come to some arrangement which would allow you to keep this information to yourself for a few days.”

Clarence King stared in disbelief at the banker. “There is not enough money in the Bank of California to induce me to delay this announcement a single hour. Good day, sir.”

*****

Martin Armstrong studied the chess board and the game in progress, before leaning back in his chair and taking a sip from his brandy glass.  The liquid slipped smoothly down his throat. It was only late afternoon, but he was feeling in a celebratory mood.  He picked up and re-read the telegram that had been delivered earlier.  Lost in thought, he considered the effect the news would have on the game.

He bore little resemblance to the ragged fugitive who had crossed into Mexico nine months earlier.  He was impeccably groomed and expensively dressed, sitting at ease in a beautiful hacienda. It had taken time to re-establish his power base without betraying his location.  His enemies would find out where he was, if and when he was ready.  Some would never know – they would just be ruined or die. He moved one of the red pawns and swept a white bishop from the board.  It lay on its side, lost and abandoned, just like the lawyer who had put up such a fight for Johnny Lancer’s life.

The white king and queen still stood side by side.  They hadn’t yet made their first move.  They were an interesting pairing and had been instrumental in his losses in Modesto.  He should have ordered his men to kill the girl when they had the chance.  He’d been foolishly arrogant then, believing that nothing could stand in his way.  Who could have anticipated that Scott Lancer would be able to enlist the support of the Chinese community?  It had been even more unexpected to find that Lancer had maintained his relationship with the girl.  Unexpected – but not unwelcome.  It added spice to the mix.

He reached over and picked up one of the white rooks.  He turned it over and over in his hands before laying it back in its position in the corner of the board.  His secret weapon – a piece that would lead to the downfall of the Lancer family. A wolf in sheep’s clothing. The image amused him. It was time to make his next move.  He brought one of the white knights forward to protect the king – an ironic smile on his face. Johnny Madrid Lancer was no knight in shining white armor – he was a hardened killer who had deserved to die at the end of a rope. However, during their last game, it had been the king that had protected the knight, with Scott preventing his brother’s demise. This time, there would be no last minute reprieve for the brother who had been marked for death.

His hand hovered over his pieces, considering where the next attack should be made. His concentration was momentarily broken as a young woman slipped into the room. She sank to the floor at his feet, curling up like a cat.  He stroked her dark hair as he considered his play. Making up his mind, he moved a bishop diagonally across the board to threaten the queen.  Satisfied, he sat back again, enjoying the feel of the girl’s back pressed against his legs.  Sometimes sacrifices were necessary to gain the ultimate victory.

*****

Johnny rode into the yard and swung gracefully from Barranca’s back.  He was hot, tired and only just in time for supper.  He threw the reins to Pedro, flashed a grateful smile and strode toward the front door, spurs jingling.  He tossed his hat onto the rack in the entranceway and removed his gunbelt.

“Hey, Murdoch,” he called, walking into the great room.  Blue eyes narrowed when he saw that his father wasn’t alone.

Matthew Hopkins’ smile looked forced as he acknowledged Johnny.

“I didn’t realize we had company.” Johnny strolled over to a chair, noting his father’s glower.

“Mr. Hopkins came to ask if I would reconsider my decision about Brad.”

A year ago, Johnny would have given his own opinion, which, in this instance, would have been different from Murdoch’s.  He’d learnt the hard way to keep his peace in front of others, debating the point in private later.  He’d discovered that his father was far more receptive to reasoned argument, than to what he saw as disrespect undermining his authority.

“Uh huh,” Johnny replied, noncommittally and waited.  He had a suspicion that there was more going on than he knew about.  Murdoch had sure been steamed when he’d returned from Spanish Wells a couple of days back.  And, it hadn’t just been because he’d worked out that his edict against riding the stallion had been ignored.  It didn’t take much imagination to guess what had probably happened the last time these two men had spoken.

“I’d be interested in hearing your opinion,” Murdoch said, catching Johnny by surprise.

He considered his words carefully.  He didn’t like Hopkins any more than the shop owner liked him.  However, he wasn’t going to let that influence his feelings about Brad.  “A ranch ain’t no place for carelessness.  A man can get hurt or killed if he doesn’t pay attention. But, I think Brad just made a mistake and, hopefully, he’ll have learnt his lesson.” He couldn’t tell from his father’s expression what the older man was thinking.  “We all do stupid things sometimes.  It’s nice to be given a second chance.”

A slight twitch at the corners of Murdoch’s mouth indicated that he’d appreciated the deeper meaning lying beneath Johnny’s words.  “Well, Matthew, it appears that Johnny is in a rather more forgiving mood than I was.  Tell Brad to be here at sunup tomorrow.  However, if there are any more incidents, I will send him away and there will be no further chances.”

Matthew Hopkins stood up and Johnny thought the man looked like he’d bitten into something sour.  “Thank you, Murdoch.” He turned briefly toward the younger man. “Johnny.”

“I’ll see you out.  Johnny, there’s a wire from Scott on my desk.  I haven’t had a chance to open it yet.  See what he has to say.”

Johnny grinned.  “I hope it says I’m about to get a sister-in-law.”

“So do I, Son.”

 

Chapter 5

Anger coursed through Johnny, sweeping away his previous good mood and optimism. He gripped the telegram so hard that the paper crackled in his hand.  Scott’s words had been carefully chosen; the message neutrally phrased as he had conveyed news of Hannu’s opposition to the marriage and of Theodore’s death. Yet, Johnny knew his brother well enough by now to sense the underlying emotions. It wasn’t often that he and Scott misread each other’s moods. He didn’t have to think about his response and strode toward the door, almost colliding with his father in his haste.

“Johnny?” Murdoch laid a hand on his shoulder to stop him. “What’s wrong?”

Johnny thrust the crumpled telegram at his father.  “I’m going to Modesto.” His body was rigid with fury as he waited for Murdoch to read the message, watching carefully for a reaction.

“Come and sit down, Son.” Although Murdoch’s brow was furrowed with concern, there was neither surprise nor alarm on his face.

Johnny stayed where he was, his suspicions confirmed.  “You knew,” he accused.

“About Theodore? Yes. I found out just after Scott left. I was going to tell you both when he returned.”

There was more – something that Murdoch was keeping from him. “What else?” Johnny probed. There was silence and he could see his father’s indecision.  He was icily calm, harnessing his anger, making it work for him. “I ain’t a child, Murdoch, and I don’t need protecting.”

“Don’t you?” Irritation and concern were mingled in Murdoch’s voice. “You made it quite clear that you didn’t want to talk about what happened in Modesto. You might have decided to ignore that fact that Martin Armstrong is still on the loose, but I’m afraid I couldn’t. He is a dangerous and ruthless man, and I fully intend to protect my family.”

As there was some justification for his father’s words, Johnny forced a little of his tension away.  “Just because I don’t talk about it, don’t mean I’m ignoring it.  I didn’t stay alive all those years down on the border by bein’ careless.  So, are you gonna tell me?”

“Teresa’s away tonight.  We can talk over supper.”

Johnny shook his head.  “I already told you.  I’m going to Modesto.”

“Not tonight.”  The steel in Johnny’s eyes was equally matched by his father’s.

Johnny’s mutinous expression didn’t waver as he stared Murdoch down.  The battle of wills was short, only due to Murdoch unexpectedly changing tack.

“I’m not saying you shouldn’t go, just that you should wait until the morning.”

Johnny couldn’t help responding to the plea in his father’s voice. “Scott’s hurting, Murdoch.” Of all the news contained within Scott’s wire, this was what bothered him the most.  Outside threats he could deal with coldly and rationally.  Knowing that his brother’s hopes and happiness had been shattered, touched him on a deeply emotional level.

“I know, and it’s hard being so far away from him.  But, it will take you over a day to get there and you’ll make better time if you leave in the morning.” Murdoch hesitated, before continuing. “Besides, I don’t want you going alone.”

Blue eyes narrowed. “You let Scott go alone.”

“That was before I heard about Theodore. Things have changed and I’m not prepared to take chances with either one of you.”

“What about Scott?  He’s in Modesto on his own and he ain’t gonna be thinking straight cause of what’s happened with Mika.”

“I’ll wire him and Sheriff Driver in the morning.  Scott knows to be careful.” Murdoch offered a conciliatory smile.  “Come and eat.”

Johnny battled the urge to push past his father, saddle Barranca and leave.  However, honesty and common sense compelled him to accept the truth. He was tired, as was his horse, and he would likely only gain a couple of hours before having to stop for the night. As much as he wanted to get to Scott, to offer his support, riding off like this would be stupid. He gave a reluctant nod.

“I thought, as there are just the two of us, that we’d forego the formality of the dining room.” Murdoch deftly steered his younger son in the direction of the kitchen with its tempting aromas.  “Maria is fixing some of your favorite dishes.”

Johnny relaxed as food and a glass of milk was placed in front of him.  He managed a smile for Maria and a few words of thanks.  He picked at his meal, not really tasting what he was eating, and waited until he and his father were alone to demand, “Tell me.”

Murdoch laid down his fork and leaned back in his chair. “I’ve been making inquiries since we got home from Modesto,” he explained.  “For six months, there was nothing.  Then, there was some activity that led my investigators to think that it was possible Armstrong had holed up in Mexico.”

“And you didn’t think to discuss this with Scott and me?” A tight knot of tension began to form again in the pit of Johnny’s stomach, chasing away what little appetite he had managed to summon up.

This time there was no prevarication. “Of course I thought about it, but there was nothing definite.  It wasn’t a surprise to hear that Armstrong might be in Mexico, and you know better than me how easy it is to disappear down there.”

The underlying bitterness in Murdoch’s voice caught Johnny unprepared.  “Yeah,” he finally said softly.  “It ain’t difficult to go to ground.  But, it also ain’t hard to find someone if you know who to ask.”

“I want your word that you won’t go running off to Mexico to try and find him.” There was a thread of panic in Murdoch’s voice.  “Promise me, Johnny.”

And, of course, this was the heart of the matter for his father.  Murdoch was worried that he would just take off.  Johnny acknowledged that, in the past, there would have been that risk.  Now, he knew better.  They were stronger as a family, and that was how they would deal with this. “I wasn’t planning on it.” His faint smile greeted his father’s sigh of relief.  “Look, Murdoch, all I’ve ever wanted is to put this behind me.  If Armstrong comes after us, then I’ll fight back.  Right now, I need to get to Scott, make sure he’s alright, and help him find a way to bring Mika home.”

“Her brother has forbidden the match.”

“And that’s the end of it?” he burst out.  “She’s old enough to know her own mind.”

“That may be, but without Hannu’s blessing…”

Johnny pushed his plate away and stood up, his anger returning in full force.  “So, you’re sayin’ Scott should just forget all about her.  You don’t know your son very well if you think that’s gonna happen.”

“Oh, I think I’m starting to get to know my sons rather well.” Murdoch’s smile caught Johnny by surprise.  “Be careful, and watch out for your brother. And, I meant what I said about you not going alone.”

Johnny couldn’t stay mad at his father.  Murdoch’s heart was in the right place, even if they didn’t always agree about everything.  He knew that if Scott succeeded in extracting Mika from Modesto, she would be welcome at Lancer.  “I don’t mind some company,” he conceded.  But, you need to stay here and keep an eye on things in case Armstrong does get any funny ideas.  You’d best get Teresa home and keep her close.” There was devilment in Johnny’s smile as he made his next announcement.  “I thought I’d see if Alex wants to come with me.”

*****

Hannu looked around him uneasily.  Unlike many of his friends he had never indulged himself in any of the opium houses, preferring to keep a clear head and maintain his self-control.  This particular house was run by a man named Jiang.  He had arrived in Modesto a few months previously from San Francisco and had taken over the business by the simple expedient of killing the previous owner.  No one had protested, not even the man’s family. Jiang was not a man to be taken lightly. He had soon surrounded himself with young men, who were dependent upon the sweet smelling drug.  Although he had left Mika and Hannu in peace, Hannu knew that they were being watched and had come to believe that the man had been sent to Modesto by Armstrong.  This was the reason why he wanted to distance himself and his sister from the Lancer family.  Perhaps then, they would be left alone.

“You asked to see me.”

The harsh voice came from behind him and Hannu jerked in surprise.  He scrambled to his feet, turned and bowed deeply.  “I have come to seek your advice,” he said cautiously.

Jiang’s face was expressionless as he waved Hannu back to his seat on a mound of cushions.  He was tall and thin, his skin pockmarked and sallow.  Hannu suppressed a shudder of revulsion.  The man looked like a walking corpse and exuded an air of menace.

“A wise decision,” Jiang told him.  “You have meddled in things that were not your concern.”

“My sister was threatened,” Hannu spoke more sharply than he had intended.  It had taken Mika a long time to recover from the trauma of being attacked by two of Armstrong’s men.  “It was my duty to protect her.”

“What do you think I can do for you?” Jiang’s eyes narrowed in response to the outburst.  “You have powerful enemies.”

The air was thick with smoke, causing Hannu’s eyes to water.  The fumes were making it hard to concentrate and the taste of the drug lay heavily on his tongue. “I ask that you intercede on my behalf. I wish to keep my sister safe.”

“Assuming I could do this, what would you offer in return?”

Hannu’s voice caught in his throat.  Mika was the most important person in his life. He hoped that one day she would forgive him for what she saw as his stubborn pride. “No price is too high.”

“Payment must be made in blood,” Jiang told him after a long interval of silence.  “You have allowed your sister to be defiled by an outsider.  There is only one way to regain your honor and appease those you have displeased.  You must kill Scott Lancer.”

*****

The knock at his door was so faint that Scott’s first thought was that he had imagined it.  It was only when it was repeated that he roused himself from his dispirited preoccupation and pulled the door open.  He vaguely recognized the young girl standing uneasily in the hallway and wracked his brain for her name.

“Dongmei.” He bit back a relieved sigh at having remembered.  “What are you doing here?”

She shrank further back into the shadows.  Her hands were clasped firmly in front of her and she kept her eyes fixed on the carpet.  “Mika asked me to come.”

Scott stepped quickly out of his room, causing Dongmei to take a nervous step backwards.  “Is she alright?”

“She said to tell you that her brother will not let her leave.  She sends a warning that you should not try to go to her, as she fears for your safety.  She will try to slip away before dawn tomorrow, and asks that you have horses ready at the barn just outside of town on the east road.  Do you know the place?”

“I can find it.” His heart was beating wildly at the prospect of escaping Modesto with Mika.  Soon, he would have her safely back at Lancer.  “Thank you.”

The girl finally looked at him, and he was taken aback by her contempt.  “I came because she is my friend.  As her friend, I urge you to leave and never come back.  She belongs with her own people.  There are many young men who would be happy to marry her. You will bring her nothing but trouble and heartache.”

“If I believed that, I would leave.  But, you’re wrong.  I love Mika and I’m not going to abandon her.”

“Those are fine words.  I hope you mean them.”  The young woman lowered her eyes again and hurriedly walked toward the staircase, quickly disappearing from view.

Filled with renewed energy, Scott returned to his room to make his plans.

*****

Johnny was awake and dressed well before dawn.  He found Jelly grumbling in the barn as he saddled the two horses.  The handyman offered his opinion as soon as he saw his young friend.

“I don’t hold with you takin’ that boy with you.”

A rustling noise caused Johnny to turn, his hand automatically seeking his gun.  Alex was standing just inside the doorway, carrying his saddlebags.  He’d clearly overheard Jelly’s words and looked hurt and resigned, rather than angry.  Johnny recognized the feelings, and flashed him a reassuring smile.

“Jelly ain’t never learnt any tact,” he told the young man, ignoring Jelly’s aggrieved huffing.  “I’m glad you’re coming with me.”

“Thanks, Johnny.”

Alex hadn’t hesitated the previous evening when approached about the trip to Modesto.  In fact, he had shown a distinct pleasure at being invited along.  Johnny wondered how long Alex had been on his own.  He didn’t like to pry, but, unlike Jelly and his father, felt that the gun hawk wasn’t a lost cause.  Besides, he liked Alex and found him to be easy company.  And, having someone along who was good with a gun could be a definite advantage. He saw his companion looking at his right hand and flexing his fingers.

“How is it?” Johnny enquired.

A nonchalant shrug answered him as Alex pulled on a pair of gloves.  “Reckon it’ll take a few more days to heal completely.”

“Think you can handle a gun if we run into trouble?”

Alex looked at him curiously.  “Are we expecting trouble?”

Now, it was Johnny’s turn to feign a disinterest he wasn’t feeling.  “It never hurts to be prepared.”

With a blur of movement, Alex’s gun cleared leather.  Jelly’s horrified gasp died away to silence as the weapon remained pointed steadily at Johnny’s chest.  Johnny hadn’t moved, despite having seen Alex’s intent a split second before the gun was drawn.  Blue eyes and hazel eyes locked, and time stood still.  Tension filled the air, before Alex deftly returned his gun to its holster.

“Yeah, I can handle a gun.”  Taking hold of the reins, he led his horse outside, seemingly oblivious to Johnny’s appraising stare.

“Don’t say anything,” Johnny warned the old handyman, without taking his eyes off the doorway through which Alex had just left.  The slight flutter of apprehension in his stomach strengthened.  He didn’t want to admit to what he had seen – not even to himself.  For one fleeting moment, he had been looking into the eyes of a cold blooded killer.

*****

Scott paced restlessly around the barn.  He had been waiting there for the last hour, nervous, worried and excited all at the same time.  It had taken a supreme effort on his part not to go blundering into Chinatown.  Mika was right – it wasn’t safe for him, and he would only have increased the danger for her.  He was convinced that Hannu would do nothing to physically hurt his sister.  That didn’t mean he wouldn’t do all in his power to prevent her leaving Modesto.  Questions raced through his head. Had she been able to slip away undetected?  What would he do if she didn’t arrive?

All the uncertainty came to an abrupt end as the door opened and Mika flung herself into his arms.  Her bottom lip was quivering as she fought to hold back her tears.  Scott pulled her close and held on tightly.  “It’ll be alright,” he reassured her, while seeking also to reassure himself.  “I’ll look after you.”

They didn’t have the luxury of time. Scott took her hand and led her outside to where he had left the horses.  He had taught her to ride during her visits to Lancer, but there was a world of difference between a gentle ride over familiar territory and the kind of hard journey they were facing.  He looked at her anxiously.  Her face was a study in misery and his heart sank.  This wasn’t how it was meant to be!

“Are you sure?” he asked.

Her answering nod was determined, even if she was too overwhelmed to speak.  He squeezed her hand and then guided it to the reins and prepared to help her to mount.

“You are not taking her.”

Scott released his hold, spinning round and reaching for his gun.  Seeing that Hannu was alone, he deliberately moved his hand away from his weapon.  He had no intention of shooting Mika’s brother.  Mika clung desperately to his left arm, pale with fright.

“She’s coming back to Lancer with me.”

Hannu moved closer, ignoring Scott and appealing to Mika.  “You are my only family.  All I want is to do what is right for you.”

“Then come with us,” Mika urged, stepping away from Scott.  “Stand with me when I marry the man I love.”

Hannu shook his head.  “That is not possible. Please forgive me.”

As Scott began to turn back to Mika, he felt a sharp pain in his side and something wet soaking through his shirt.  Instinct took over and he blocked Hannu’s next lunge, grasping the younger man around the wrist and straining to keep the knife away from his chest.  Blood was oozing from the wound and the sight of his own blood on the blade made him feel queasy.  His side burned painfully.  It was becoming harder to breathe. A buzzing noise invaded his ears and Mika’s screams came to him from a long way off.  He could feel his grip loosening.  His vision began to blur as he sank to his knees.  The last thing he heard was Hannu telling him that he was sorry.

 

Chapter 6

The journey to Modesto was a great deal more comfortable than the last time Johnny had made the trip.  On that occasion, he had been a prisoner facing a trumped-up murder charge.  He and Alex made good time, arriving at the outskirts of the growing community just before noon on the second day.  Neither man had made reference to the incident in the barn at Lancer, with Alex having reverted to his previous affable manner.  Johnny had made sure to keep his gun close at hand, even when they snatched a few hours sleep.  He didn’t want to believe that he might have misjudged his companion, while being unable to shake the feeling that Alex might not be what he seemed.  He hoped, without any real conviction, that Jelly had kept his mouth shut. Murdoch had not been happy about him bringing Alex along, and hearing what had happened would only serve to increase his father’s anxiety.

His gut tied itself in a knot as he looked around the town where he had almost lost his life.  It hadn’t been the first time he’d faced a violent death, but he had railed against the injustice that had almost cost him the chance to get to know his family.  Worse was the thought of what his death would have done to his father and brother.  He still saw moments of darkness in Scott that deeply concerned him.  He had carefully steered clear of talking about Armstrong and his murderous plots, in the hope that Scott would forget his need for revenge.  Unfortunately, his brother had visited Modesto too often for events to fade into a distant memory.  Scott’s black moods had never lasted long, and were partly caused by the enforced separation from Mika, but they were worrying nonetheless.

None of his thoughts showed on his face as he and Alex rode slowly down the street toward the hotel.  Both were unobtrusively watchful of their surroundings, and each unconsciously carried with them an aura of danger which drew many pairs of eyes in their direction.  Alex smiled, and Johnny knew that the young man was enjoying the attention.  Johnny’s own heart quickened in response.  How many times had he deliberately done this knowing the effect he was creating?  Now, all that mattered was finding Scott and getting everyone back to Lancer as quickly as possible.

It dawned on Johnny slowly that there was something wrong – something more than his deep rooted hatred for this town and its gutless citizens.  He couldn’t put his finger on it, yet the feeling made his skin crawl.  He urged Barranca into a trot, leaving a surprised Alex in his wake. When he reached the hotel he dismounted, hastily tied the reins to the hitching rail and hurried inside.  A well-dressed couple were standing at the front desk, talking to the owner.  Johnny strode to the counter, jostling the man out of the way.  He recognized the woman behind the counter. He and his family had stayed at the hotel for several days after his reprieve from execution and she had been gushingly anxious to please.

“Ma’am, I’m looking for my brother.”

“Excuse me, sir,” the man protested.  “We were in the middle of registering.”

Johnny’s intense blue stare was coldly intimidating and the man hurriedly shuffled backwards.  Mrs. Harland wordlessly held out a room key, which the man snatched from her hand before shepherding his female companion toward the stairs.

Johnny watched them go, acknowledged Alex’s arrival, and then returned his attention to the proprietor.  The woman looked uncomfortable and his feeling of unease increased. “Scott Lancer – where can I find him?” he pressed.

“He’s…oh dear, you haven’t heard, have you?”

“Heard what?” Johnny’s heart leapt into his throat. “What’s happened to him?”

*****

The telegram from Sheriff Driver had arrived only hours after Johnny had left Lancer.  Murdoch hadn’t been able to take in the news at first, his mind refusing to accept the truth of the words that were staring him in the face.  As the numbness retreated, it was replaced by a feeling of panic.  There was no possible way to warn Johnny before he arrived in Modesto. And, once he found out what had happened to Scott, there would be no force on earth that could prevent him from seeking swift and deadly revenge.

He had closed his eyes then and pictured his older son, blond hair glinting in the sunlight, and his normally serious face lit up with a smile as he spoke of Mika, or indulged in some good-natured teasing with his sibling.  The news imparted by the telegram conjured up quite a different picture, one that had been haunting Murdoch for the last twenty-four hours.  Hurried preparations had been made and he was soon on his way, leaving Jelly and Cipriano in charge.  His brusque refusal of company hadn’t been questioned by anyone except Jelly, and he had soon dealt with that.

The heat of the midday sun forced him to stop and seek some shade and water.  With luck, he would reach Modesto by nightfall.  Would he be in time?  Or would he arrive only to find that he had lost both his sons?  He cursed the day that Lancer had become involved with that godforsaken town and its inhabitants.

*****

Teresa went about her daily chores mindlessly.  Her thoughts were many miles away from Lancer and only the knowledge that she would have slowed Murdoch down, had prevented her from begging him to let her go along.  Jelly had railed against the edict to remain at the ranch, but then Murdoch had spoken to the elderly handyman in private and Jelly’s attitude had abruptly changed.  Even through her pre-occupation, Teresa was aware of subtle precautions being put in place.  The ranch was starting to feel like a place under siege.

Jelly joined her for the midday meal, neither making more than a pretence of eating.  A few days ago, she had been eagerly anticipating the arrival of Scott and his bride-to-be.  Now…She pulled out her handkerchief and dabbed her eyes discreetly.  She had to remain strong and in control.  Despite her best intentions, a small sob caught in the back of her throat.  Never, since the death of her father, had she felt so alone.

A thunderous knocking on the back door caused her to jump in alarm.  Jelly pushed himself to his feet.  “Hold your horses,” he grumbled and Teresa heard the catch in his voice.

Brad Hopkins stepped into the kitchen.  “About fifty head of cattle have broken through a section of the fence over at Black Mesa.”

Teresa looked up sharply, coloring as she caught the hint of a leer on Brad’s face.  She had never been particularly fond of the young man, but since his dismissal, and re-employment, his attitude had disturbed her. At first, with the news about Scott, she had thought perhaps she was over-reacting. Now, she wasn’t so sure. She realized that Maria must have seen the look as well when the older woman deliberately positioned herself between the two young people.  Standing with her hands on her hips, Maria was a formidable presence and she soon had Brad wilting under her forbidding gaze.

“How in tarnation did that happen?” Jelly grabbed his hat and jammed it onto his head.  “Well, don’t just stand there.  Go and round up some of the men.”

Teresa knew that Jelly was hurting as much as she was, yet the needs of the ranch had to be attended to.  “You’d better go and see what needs to be done,” she told him.  “We’ll be fine until you get back.”

Jelly nodded and cleared his throat noisily.  “Why don’t you send someone into town?” he suggested.  “There might be some more news.”

“I’ll do that.”

Maria touched her arm in sympathy.  Teresa gave her a weak smile before collecting the dishes from the table.  She had to keep her mind and body occupied.  It would be too easy to curl up on her bed and cry until exhaustion overtook her.

*****

Martin Armstrong was angry.  When he had been in Modesto, he had felt like a spider living in the center of a large web, with every strand radiating out from his hands.  Occasionally, one of his men had acted without orders, but it was a mistake they only made once.  Only rarely, had the consequences put him in such a towering rage. He had recruited Jiang in San Francisco, needing to put someone into the Chinese community in Modesto as his eyes and ears.  He had not granted the man the latitude of independent thought, yet Jiang had taken it upon himself to pronounce a death sentence on Scott Lancer. What the fool should have done was to encourage Hannu to approve of his sister’s marriage and then accompany her back to Lancer.  Of course, he would have gone on a long leash, with the treat of harm to Mika being dangled over his head if he didn’t do exactly as he was told. Now, that opportunity had been lost through the utter stupidity of one of his underlings.

He swept the chess pieces from the board, causing them to scatter into all corners of the room.  Yolanda watched him with a half-smile on her face.  She had no fear of him and was more than a match for him in cunning and cruelty.  She had been the mistress of the previous owner of the estancia, an old man whose power had been fading.  When the man died suddenly, many had speculated that she had killed him.  Armstrong had bought the estate for a fraction of its worth, and had inherited Yolanda along with it.  He was very careful never to turn his back on her.  In return for her companionship, he had promised her a present – a dark-haired young gunfighter – and wasn’t fussy about how prolonged or painful she made his death.

But, he wasn’t ready yet for any of the Lancers to die.  The events in Modesto had upset his carefully thought out plan, and now he would have to change course.  He clenched his hands in fury.  Months of planning and waiting had gone to waste.

“Your anger will not change what has happened,” Yolanda told him with infuriating patience.  “Sometimes, the game does not go exactly as you expect and you have to change your tactics.”

She bent down and picked up one of the white knights, turning it thoughtfully in her hands.  “All is not lost.  Your enemies have been hurt, but not defeated.  They are vulnerable now to further attack, and the most effective form of attack comes from within.” She held the piece out to him.

“They will be on their guard,” he complained sourly.  “I don’t have everything in place yet.”

“Let me go to Morro Coyo…”

It was a plea she had made many times since he had told her about Johnny Madrid Lancer.  She had heard stories about him as had most people who lived around the border, and was anxious to see the man behind the legend. Each time, Armstrong had resisted her entreaties and today was no different. She was his red queen, the most valuable of his pieces, and he wasn’t yet ready to fully involve her in the game. “No, my dear.  Eventually he will come to us.  Be patient.”

He bent to gather up the chess men, placing them carefully back on the board.  Once they were all back in position he beckoned her over and together they began to formulate their new strategy.

*****

Johnny strode quickly toward the doctor’s office, Alex by his side.  Since being given the news by the flustered hotel proprietor he had experienced a range of emotions.  Only Alex’s calm presence, and the fact that no one knew exactly where Hannu was, had stopped him from rampaging through Chinatown and probably meeting his own death in the process. As they approached the building, they found their way barred by two young men, both armed with rifles.  They wore badges proclaiming them to be deputy sheriffs.  Johnny snorted softly.  In this town, in his experience, that hadn’t meant a whole helluva lot.  The two ‘deputies’ who had accompanied Sheriff Driver to Green River had proved to be nothing more than thugs hired by Martin Armstrong to beat him into submission.  A cold smile settled on his face as he recalled the satisfaction of sending Seth to hell with a well placed bullet.  The other man had subsequently been hanged for his part in Billy Ralston’s murder. By his side, Alex stood watchful and wary, seemingly content to follow his lead.

“What do you want?”

Johnny detected no hint of nerves in the man’s voice.  It appeared that some things in Modesto had taken a turn for the better. If the man had been deputized by Clay Driver he was likely to have his fair share of guts.  “I’m Johnny Lancer.”

The rifles were lowered.  “Sorry, Mr. Lancer.  Sheriff Driver told us to stand guard here until you or your father arrived.”

They stood aside and Johnny looked enquiringly at Alex.

“You go on.  Think I’ll sit out here and keep the deputies company.” Alex strolled over to the rocking chair on the porch.  He drew his gun and rested it in his lap, settling himself comfortably.

Johnny climbed the two steps leading to the porch and hammered on the door. His knock was answered by a kindly looking woman, who introduced herself as Dr. Gilmore’s wife. He gave his name, enquiring anxiously about his brother.

“Mr. Lancer, we weren’t expecting you yet.  The sheriff told us it would probably be tomorrow before anyone could get here in answer to the telegram.”

“I was already on my way.  I didn’t know what had happened to Scott until I got here.”

“It must have been a shock.” She patted his arm sympathetically. “Please come in.”

“Can I see him?”

“Yes, of course.  His young lady is here as well.  She hasn’t left his side since he was brought here.”

“Mika’s here?” Johnny felt the first stirrings of relief.  Mrs. Harland hadn’t said anything about her and Johnny had feared that Hannu had spirited her away from Modesto.

“She was with him when he was stabbed.  Treat her gently.  She has been through a very traumatic ordeal.”

Johnny followed Mrs. Gilmore up the stairs.  She quietly opened one of the doors and ushered him into the room.  Mika looked up at him uncertainly from her place by the bed.  He could imagine how tired and confused she must be.  He gave her a reassuring smile. When she saw the expression on his face, she stood up and walked slowly toward him.  He pulled her into his arms and her tears soaked the front of his shirt.  Holding her tight, he looked over toward the bed.

“I knew I shoulda come with you,” he informed his brother.  “It just ain’t safe to let you out on your own.”

Scott’s weak smile quickly faded.  He was unhealthily pale and looked to be in severe pain.  Mrs. Gilmore tutted, reaching for a glass that was sitting on the nightstand. Scott’s lips compressed into a thin line as he regarded the liquid.

Mika disentangled herself from Johnny and gave him a watery smile.  “I am glad you are here.  Scott has been refusing his medication even though the sheriff has left men to guard us.”

“That right, Scott?  How often have I had to listen to you lecturin’ me on doin’ what the doctor ordered?”

“Worried about Mika,” Scott whispered, his voice rough.

Johnny noted that Scott’s gunbelt was hanging over the bed post.  He doubted if Scott possessed the strength to draw his gun, yet admired the stubborn streak that kept his brother from admitting that. “Yeah, well, you don’t need to worry about that any more.  I’ll make sure nothing happens to her.”

“Would be good to sleep,” Scott told him haltingly.  With his eyes fixed on his brother he submitted to Mrs. Gilmore’s urging to drink the drug-laced water.

As soon as he was satisfied that Scott was asleep, Johnny took Mika’s arm.  “I think you’d better tell me what’s been goin’ on.”

*****

They were directed to the small sitting room and provided with tea and sandwiches by the doctor’s wife.  Her husband was out on his rounds and was expected back within the hour.  Mika looked young and heartbreakingly vulnerable as she huddled in an armchair.

“When did you last sleep?” Johnny asked her.

“I don’t remember, but the doctor and his wife are nice people.  They let me stay with Scott.”

Johnny could understand her gratitude.  He had been in enough situations in the past where he hadn’t been welcome, to know what it felt like.  For Mika, it would be far worse.  A young Chinese girl wouldn’t be accepted in many homes in Modesto and could easily have found herself barred from the side of the man she loved.

“Why did Hannu attack him?” This had been puzzling Johnny as he had come to know Hannu well.  They had spent a lot of time together at the ranch when Scott and Mika had taken the opportunity to be alone.  “He didn’t find out that you…” Johnny saw her embarrassment and shut his mouth abruptly.  Scott hadn’t said anything, but to Johnny it had been blindingly obvious that there had been a change in the depth of their relationship.

“No, he does not know about that.” She stared at the carpet. “It was my fault.  I dishonored him in front of his friends.  When Scott is stronger, I will leave.”

“No!” Johnny looked at her hands, which were clasped together in her lap.  “That ring – I’ve never seen you wear it before.”

A gentle smile lit her face.  “Scott gave it to me.  It was his mother’s.”

Since Scott had never mentioned the ring, Johnny concluded that this was what Murdoch had wanted to talk to his brother about before he left the ranch. He had no doubt about Scott’s feelings for Mika or how his brother would feel if she left. “You’ll break his heart if you leave.”

“How can I stay when I am responsible for the fact that he nearly died?  It was my brother that did this to him.”

“You ain’t to blame for your brother’s actions.” Johnny’s tone hardened.  “Do you know where he is?”

“He ran off.  After he stabbed Scott, I screamed at him and tried to hold him back.  He was too strong for me and was going to stab Scott again, but then a man arrived and that frightened him off.  We had to tend to Scott. He was bleeding very badly and by the time we had sent for the doctor and the sheriff, Hannu had disappeared.  Sheriff Driver even went into Chinatown to look for him.” Tears began to roll down her cheeks.  “I love my brother.  How could he do this?”

Johnny shook his head.  He had no answers – not yet anyway.  He wasn’t even sure what he would do if he managed to get hold of Hannu.  He couldn’t blame Mika for loving her brother, despite his actions.  It would hurt her beyond measure if they found themselves in a situation where he took revenge on her only close family member.

“How bad was the wound?”

“The doctor said he was lucky that the knife did not damage his kidneys or liver.  The wound was deep and jagged, and Scott lost a lot of blood.  So far, there has been no fever and that is good.  He is weak and in pain.  He is also angry and was worried about what you would do when you found out.”  Her expressive eyes were sad as she looked at him.  “What will you do?”

Johnny didn’t hesitate.  “Lancer takes care of its own, but we do it within the law.” He wasn’t sure whether or not he was telling the truth.  If Hannu crossed his path, would he go out of his way to let the law take its course?  Or would he seek swift retribution?  All he knew for certain was that Mika needed to be reassured.  “As soon as Scott’s fit to travel, we’ll get both of you home.” His grin held a hint of mischief.  “Guess we’ll have to wait for him to heal before havin’ that wedding. We wouldn’t want him to exert himself too soon.” He was pleased to see an answering shy smile from Mika. It wasn’t hard to see why Scott was so smitten with the girl. “My big brother’s fallen for a few pretty faces in the time I’ve known him, but I ain’t never seen him fall as hard as he has for you.  You’re a very special lady and I’m real pleased you’re joining the family.”

“I hope your father feels the same.  My brother’s actions have shamed me, and I would not blame your father if he were to forbid the match.”

“I’d like to see him try.  In case you haven’t noticed, my brother has inherited a full measure of Lancer stubbornness. Besides,” he consoled her, “this won’t make any difference to Murdoch’s feelings about the marriage.”

 

Chapter 7

Murdoch was bone weary, his horse almost foundering beneath him. The sun was setting as he reached the town, urgently seeking directions to the doctor’s house.  The first person he saw when he arrived there was Alex, lounging in a rocking chair on the porch.  Jelly had related, in great detail, the events in the barn.  For once, Murdoch was convinced that the old man wasn’t exaggerating. If he’d heard that tale before Johnny had left, he would have shaken some sense into his son!  He detected a change in Alex’s demeanor, a self confidence that had been missing before. A cold chill now ran down his back as he met the young gunfighter’s amused gaze

“Where’s Johnny?” he demanded, gritting his teeth against the protest in his muscles as he dismounted.

“He’s inside.” Alex rose lazily to his feet, full of a dangerous grace that was so reminiscent of Johnny. “I’ll see to your horse.”

As Alex approached him, Murdoch reached out and took firm hold of the younger man’s right arm.  Although Alex raised one eyebrow and looked down at the hand restraining him, he made no protest.

“I intend to make sure that no more harm comes to my family,” Murdoch ground out.  “Are we clear on that?”

“Shouldn’t you be checking on Scott?” Alex didn’t appear concerned by either the bruising grip or the insinuation.

Suppressing the urge to wipe the bland expression from Alex’s face, Murdoch nodded sharply.  “Don’t forget what I said,” he warned, loosening his grip.

“Don’t worry, Mr. Lancer.  I have a very good memory.”

Was that a threat? Murdoch couldn’t be sure as he thrust the reins into Alex’s hands.  “Take good care of him,” he growled.

“Yes, sir.” Alex patted the horse on the neck, threw a cheeky grin in Murdoch’s direction, and then led the animal slowly down the street.

With Alex out of the way, Murdoch could get back to worrying about his sons.  The telegram from the sheriff had given only brief details.  He had been warned that it was a bad injury, but it had been too soon to give a prognosis.  Alex’s reference to Scott, at least, had the benefit of reassuring him that his older son was still alive.  As a myriad of different thoughts passed through his mind the front door opened and Johnny stepped out onto the porch.

“Hey, Old Man, you made good time.”

Murdoch looked searchingly at his youngest.  Mixed in with his worry about Scott, had been a fear that he would arrive to find that he would be dealing with Johnny Madrid, rather than Johnny Lancer.  His son’s dark alter ego frightened him, because he was afraid that, one day, it would take over completely and he would lose Johnny forever.  Over the last few months, Madrid had made very few appearances, and Murdoch had started to think that Johnny might finally have banished that specter from his past. But, this attack on Scott was exactly the kind of thing that might resurrect the cold, emotionless gunfighter.

“Are you comin’ in or are you gonna stand there all night?” Johnny asked, with an amused smile.  “Scott’s bein’ a very bad patient.  I reckon he needs a good talking to.”

Murdoch’s mouth curved upwards in an answering smile.  “Then I’d better go and put on my ‘stern father’ act.” He reached his son, resting a hand on each of Johnny’s shoulders.  “How is he, Son?”

The smile faded.  “He’s pretty messed up, but the doc says he’ll make it.  He’s sleeping, finally.  He was so worried about Mika that he was refusing to take anything for the pain.”

Mika! He realized, with a guilty start, that he hadn’t given her any thought during his long journey.  “Is she here?”

“She’s upstairs.  It was lucky that the owner of the barn turned up when he did. If Hannu hadn’t been disturbed he’d have killed Scott and taken off with her. Murdoch,” Johnny’s soft voice was filled with an earnest plea, “treat her gently, okay?”

“I’ll do my best,” Murdoch promised.  “Now, how about you show me where Scott is?”

Johnny bounded eagerly up the stairs.  Murdoch, muttering sourly to himself about the energy of youth, followed more slowly.  Scott, as Johnny had told him, was asleep, curled up on his side.  The bedclothes were tangled around his legs as if he’d tossed and turned restlessly before finally finding some peace.  Pristine white bandages circled his son’s lean torso.  He looked at them anxiously for signs of fresh bleeding, breathing out a relieved sigh when he found none.

A movement from the side of the bed drew his attention to Mika.  The girl’s face was filled with apprehension and he saw her eyes dart to Johnny for reassurance.  Almost involuntarily he looked at her left hand.  She was wearing a ring – Catherine’s ring – and, despite the fact that he had given it to Scott with this express intention, he still felt a faint stirring of anger.  He heard a stifled sob, and realized, with a sense of shame, that he had allowed his feelings to show.  He couldn’t – wouldn’t – hold Mika to blame for the actions of her brother.

As he walked toward her, she began tugging at the ring.  He laid his large hand gently over her smaller one and pushed the ring back into place.  “Scott loves you, my dear.  This ring is a connection between the past and the future.  Perhaps, one day, you will give it to your son to pass on to the woman he loves.” He could feel her trembling under his touch and his heart went out to her.  “You have had a dreadful few days, and this isn’t how I was hoping to welcome you to the family. Why don’t you get some rest and I’ll sit with Scott for a while.”

“Thank you.” A shy smile brightened her face.  “I was afraid you wouldn’t want me to be with Scott.”

“I think Scott might have had something to say about that.  You have probably noticed that he isn’t easily swayed once he makes his mind up about something.”

There was relief on Johnny’s face as he put an arm around Mika’s shoulders.  “Let’s find you someplace to lie down.  Murdoch?  I’ll talk to you outside when you’re ready.”

Murdoch didn’t miss the hard edge that crept into Johnny’s voice.  He had a feeling that there was more to Hannu’s actions than meets the eye.  “I’ll be along in a while.”

The door closed behind Johnny and Mika, leaving him alone with his older son.  He sat down in the chair recently vacated by Mika and leant forward.  Scott was breathing at a nice even pace, his features relaxed in sleep.  A tinge of color, in an otherwise pale face, hinted at a trace of fever, but nothing alarming.  Scott’s blond hair fell limply across his forehead, dark and heavy with sweat.

“Well, Son, you gave us quite a scare,” he told the oblivious young man. “This isn’t going to be easy to untangle, and I have a feeling that Armstrong is involved somehow.  Johnny tells me you need a lecture about following the doctor’s orders.” He smiled with open affection.  “Somehow, I think I’ll save the lecture for another day.  It’s good to see you, Scott.”

Scott mumbled something unintelligible in his sleep.  He started to turn, opened his eyes slowly and gave a hiss of pain.  His hand traveled to hover over the place where Murdoch could see padding under the bandages.

“Scott?  Can I get you something for the pain?” Murdoch asked in concern.

Scott appeared to be struggling to focus, to make the transition from sleep to wakefulness.  “Murdoch?  How…” he stopped and licked his dry lips.  “How long have I been asleep?”

“I don’t know,” Murdoch answered honestly.  “I only arrived a little while ago.” He helped Scott to raise himself against the pillows, offering a glass of water, which his son accepted gratefully.

“Where’s Mika?  And Johnny?” Scott frowned.  “I didn’t imagine it, did I?  Johnny was here?”

“Yes, Son, he’s here. Mika’s resting, but I’m sure she won’t stay away for long.”

“Keep her safe for me, and…and don’t let Johnny do anything stupid.”

They shared a look, a common fear born out of love for the youngest member of their family.  “I don’t think you have to worry about Johnny.  If he had been hell bent on revenge, he wouldn’t have been here when I arrived.  No, Scott, I’d say your brother is growing up.”

Relief flooded Scott’s face as his eyelids started to droop again.  Murdoch eased him back down into a comfortable position and pulled up the covers.  “Rest and get well, Son.  We’ll talk when you’re stronger.”

*****

Murdoch found his younger son occupying the rocking chair on the porch.  There was no sign of Alex, for which Murdoch was grateful.  Johnny stood up, offering the chair to his father.  Murdoch was too stiff and tired to indulge in false bravado.  He sank down gratefully, sighing softly in relief.

“Scott was awake for a little while.  Hopefully, he’ll rest easier now that he knows we’re both here to take care of him and Mika.”

Johnny perched on the porch rail.  “What you said to her…it was real nice.  I know you have your worries about them gettin’ married, but you’ve only got to look at them together to see how they feel about each other.”

“I only hope that is enough to overcome all the prejudices.  It won’t be easy for either of them.  And, if Hannu is captured or killed, how will Mika react?  If he’s caught, he’ll hang for sure.”

“I just don’t get it, Murdoch.  He didn’t stand in the way of their relationship.  He must have known that there was a chance it would develop into something permanent.  Why wait until Scott proposed?  And, even if he didn’t approve, he didn’t strike me as the kind of man who’d resort to murder.  This town gives me a bad feeling, and I don’t think that stabbing was Hannu’s idea.”

“Was Mika able to tell you exactly what happened?”

“She’s as confused as the rest of us.  One thing, though.  She said that Hannu apologized right after he stabbed Scott.  It just don’t add up.”

“You’re thinking this is Armstrong’s doing,” Murdoch stated.  “What does the sheriff think?”

“He stopped by earlier this afternoon when he heard I was in town.  I’m pretty sure he came mainly to warn me not to take the law into my own hands.” Johnny’s slight smile didn’t reach his eyes, which remained cold and remote.  “It ain’t easy for the law to find anything out in Chinatown, but that didn’t stop him tryin’.  The people there close ranks, you know?  He’s pretty sure Hannu has left town and he has men out looking for him.  They have orders to take him alive if they can.  There’s no proof that this was Armstrong’s doing, but with Theodore’s death – well, let’s say I don’t believe in coincidences.”

Murdoch nodded, considering his son’s words carefully.  “I increased the security around Lancer before I left, and I would be happier if Alex didn’t come back with us.”

The fact that Johnny didn’t immediately leap to Alex’s defense was concerning.  Since the young man’s arrival, Johnny had been arguing against pre-judging him.  “Jelly told me that he drew on you.  What I want to know is why you, apparently, decided not to respond.”

Johnny bowed his head, hiding his expression from his father.  Murdoch waited patiently to see if he was going to get an answer.  Finally, Johnny looked up again and shrugged.  “I’ve been askin’ myself the same thing,” he admitted.  “I knew he was goin’ to draw.  If you know what to look for, the signs are always there.  I guess I trusted him not to fire.”

“Could you have outdrawn him?”

“Yeah, although it would have been close.  Not sure about when his hand’s fully healed, though.  He’s fast, Murdoch.”

“It’s not like you to be so trusting.” Murdoch hoped that didn’t sound too critical.  Johnny had grown up surrounded by lies and deceit.  Self-preservation had made him wary, and it had taken time for his family to penetrate his rather cynical trait of not giving anyone much credit for good intentions.  Murdoch conceded to himself that, where Alex was concerned, there might have been a little jealousy on his part.  He had worked hard to get Johnny to trust him, yet, Alex had been offered that courtesy almost from the moment the two young men had met.

“I thought I saw something in him,” Johnny continued.

“Would it be fair to say you saw a reflection of yourself?” Murdoch guessed.  “Only he doesn’t have a family to rely on.  It’s commendable to want to help someone less fortunate, but…”

“Maybe that was part of it,” Johnny interrupted.  “That wasn’t the whole of it.  Alex is fast, and he’s dangerous, but there’s something about him.” He shook his head, apparently irritated by his failure to explain.  “I became real good at assessin’ a man’s true nature.  It’s part of what kept me alive.  There were men that’d shoot you in the back if they were given the chance, and there were others who had their own kind of honor.  Alex isn’t what he seems, and maybe all this soft living has blunted my edge, but I think he operates by his own code.  If he means me harm he’ll call me out and it’ll be a fair fight.  It might be that the only reason he’s waiting is because of the injury to his hands.  But, I swear, Murdoch, I don’t think he knew who I was when he came to Lancer.”

“If he does call you out, can you take him?” Murdoch asked bluntly.

There was no fear on Johnny’s face as he responded.  “I sure as hell hope so.”

*****

Alex sat in the saloon, hands clasped loosely around an almost untouched glass of beer.  It had been a long time since his last visit to Modesto and there was no reason why anyone would remember him.  That last time, he had only been learning his trade and hadn’t yet killed his first man in a gunfight.  He’d made a bad misjudgement becoming involved with Martin Armstrong.  Of course, at the time, he hadn’t known who he was working for.  Intimidating innocent shopkeepers hadn’t been to his taste and he had quickly moved on.  How was he to know that Armstrong would have kept track of him?

With unaccustomed bitterness, he acknowledged the foresight that had chosen him for his present job.  He and Johnny were two of a kind, and it hadn’t been hard to pique Johnny’s curiosity and engage the compassionate side of his nature.  His instructions had been to watch, listen and ingratiate himself with the Lancers.  Events had made that surprisingly easy.  Of course, he might have refused had he been told who Johnny really was.  But, the financial rewards had been too good to pass up and the offer had come at a time when money had been a priority for him.  He shook his head in admiration.  Johnny Madrid!  The true beauty of Armstrong’s scheme was the astute guess that he wouldn’t be able to resist the lure of taking down the famous young gunfighter.  He had genuinely believed that Madrid had been executed by the rurales.  Only, he’d been wrong and Johnny had invited him into his home and offered friendship.  For a man who had been alone for so long that had stirred an unexpected emotion.

Now he had heard the Lancers’ side of the story surrounding the death of Billy Ralston and Johnny’s unjust conviction for murder.  For that, and other reasons, he no longer felt inclined to do Armstrong’s bidding. Which brought him to the heart of his dilemma.  He hadn’t yet communicated his change of heart to his employer.  He could just ride out and forget that he’d ever met Johnny or any of his family.  But, his damn conscience was working overtime again.  He had information on Armstrong’s location that would be invaluable to the Lancers.  The law couldn’t help them, not south of the border, but somehow, he couldn’t see the family being too concerned about legality following the attack on Scott.  The only thing stopping him from confessing to the Lancers was sheer self-preservation.

Johnny’s concern for his brother had touched him, finally stripping away the small lingering temptation to try his luck against Madrid’s gun.  Sure, he had taken a childish pleasure in drawing on Johnny in the barn at Lancer.  Then, when he’d had time to think about it, he’d realized that his potential opponent had chosen not to draw his own gun.  He wondered why, and if Johnny’s decision would remain the same once he confessed the truth. Would he find himself being forced into the situation that he was now desperate to avoid, where he would either have to kill or be killed himself?  Now he knew why gunfighters fought to stay shy of forging any deep friendships.  In several quick swallows, he emptied his glass, his decision made.  He tried to deny the flicker of fear in his belly.  He was either doing the right thing or making the biggest mistake of his life.  He’d find out which soon enough.

*****

Supper was over.  The simple food had been filling and very welcome.  Knowing that his brother was recovering gave Johnny an appetite and his enthusiasm had earned him an indulgent smile from their hostess. Murdoch was now settled comfortably in the parlor with Dr. Gilmour, talking companionably over brandy and cigars.  They owed the doctor a debt they could never repay.  Johnny knew enough about knife wounds to tell how close Scott had come to dying. Although he hated Modesto with a passion that would never diminish, Johnny had to accept that the town harbored some nice people, such as the sheriff, J. D. and their present benefactors.

His brother was awake, or at least he had been when Johnny had left his room half an hour earlier.  Johnny didn’t begrudge Mika her place at Scott’s side.  Married or single, Scott would always be his brother and his best friend, and that was more than enough.  Scott was ready for marriage and the responsibilities that came with it. Seeing the slightly built girl bullying his tall, determined brother into behaving himself had brought an appreciative smile to his lips.  Mika had an inner strength and a warm, loving nature. It wasn’t hard to see why Scott had fallen for her so completely.  He hoped that some day a woman would look at him the same way Mika looked at his sibling. Not that he was in any hurry…!

He wasn’t in the mood for polite conversation and had received Murdoch’s unspoken understanding of his need to be alone.  There were too many things to think about.  Although he had no intention of rushing off to try and avenge this latest attack, he wasn’t planning to let it drop either.  All his instincts, finely honed over many years, told him that Armstrong was once again moving against them.  It wasn’t his nature to sit tamely by while his family and friends were under threat.  In his experience, it was best to take the offensive – to do it to them before they did it to you, as he had told Scott soon after their first memorable meeting.

He stood on the porch, one arm resting against the white rail.  The house was far enough away from the town center for the normal evening sounds to be muted so he had peace enough to think.  His right hand strayed to his gun, an instinctive gesture of reassurance.  Murdoch had insisted that he remove his gunbelt before supper.  He’d done so grudgingly, but had retrieved it as soon as he left the table.  Other protective measures were still in place.  Sheriff Driver had men patrolling the area and the town was generally in a state of uneasy watchfulness.  Johnny couldn’t wait to leave.

The doctor was insisting that it would be at least ten days before Scott was fit to travel.  Johnny silently wished the man luck in keeping his brother confined to the house for that length of time.  He wondered if he could persuade Murdoch to return home early.  He felt uneasy leaving Teresa without the protection of one of the Lancer men.  Jelly, Cip and the other ranch hands would all do their best, but something elusive was nagging at Johnny. At least they had been able to send her a wire reassuring her that Scott was expected to make a full recovery.

There was still no trace of Hannu and that left Johnny feeling on edge.  The young man had disappeared into thin air.  If he was still in Modesto then he was a threat to Scott and Mika. Had he really misjudged Hannu so badly?  He wasn’t convinced, just as he didn’t believe Hannu had acted alone.  Somehow, he knew that Armstrong was behind the attack on his brother which meant that the trail to Armstrong in Mexico started in Modesto – he was sure of that. He began to think that a stroll through Chinatown might be in order. He looked over his shoulder.  If Murdoch guessed what he was contemplating he’d have a fight on his hands.  There was no movement from inside the house as he stepped casually down from the porch.  Once out of sight of the building, he quickened his pace.  He was passing the mouth of an alley when he heard a gun being cocked behind him.  Turning slowly he saw Alex stepping out of the shadows, gun pointed steadily at his heart.

The shock passed quickly.  Johnny had been a professional for too long to let the sight of a gun disconcert him.  He didn’t look at the weapon itself.  That would tell him nothing.  Instead, he watched Alex’s eyes, seeing a momentary flash of amusement.

“Drop your gunbelt.” Alex matched Johnny’s stare.

Johnny’s arms rested loosely at his sides.  “You ain’t gonna shoot me.”

“Wrong.” The gun moved so that it was pointed at Johnny’s right knee.  “I’m not planning to kill you.  Make one wrong move, though, and I’ll cripple you.”  There was no longer any amusement on Alex’s face.  “For someone like you, that’d be worse.”

“What do you want?” Johnny’s relaxed stance didn’t alter.  He’d reveal nothing to show Alex that his threat had struck a nerve.

“To talk.”

“At gunpoint?” Johnny smiled lazily.  “Seems kinda unnecessary to me, seein’ as I thought we were friends.”

“The gunbelt.”

Alex’s gaze remained level and Johnny knew that he had reached the point where he either complied or went for his own gun.  Given the circumstances, it would be suicide to try and draw. With steady hands he unbuckled the belt, letting it slide to the ground. “Now what?”

Alex’s gun jerked briefly toward the alley.  “In there.”

Inwardly cursing his impulse to befriend the young gunfighter and bring him to Modesto, Johnny did as instructed.  They moved just far enough from the street to shield them from the eyes of casual passersby.  When Alex ordered him to stop Johnny turned round.  “Seems like I shoulda listened to my old man.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“Oh, I don’t know.  Thought I saw something good in you.  Guess I was wrong.”

There was a pause before the answer came.  “If you had been, you would’ve been dead by now.”

Johnny took a step forward.  “Alex…”

The gun didn’t waver. “Don’t push me, Johnny.  I need you to shut up and listen.”

“You’re callin’ the tune – for now.”

“I was sent by Martin Armstrong.”

Disappointment followed by an ungovernable fury, were Johnny’s first emotions. “You son of a bitch!”  It didn’t help that he’d had an unacknowledged inkling of this revelation.  It certainly didn’t help knowing that he’d been a gullible fool who might very well have compromised his family’s safety.  Ignoring the threat of the gun, he gambled on Alex having some shred of decency in him. “I’m calling you out. Have you got the guts to meet me in a fair fight - *Boy*?”

Although he hadn’t moved, Johnny could see that his anger, and the taunt, had hit home.  Alex tensed before surprising him by giving a short, bitter, laugh.

“I’ve got the guts and when we’re done, if you still feel the same way, I’ll dance. It’d be interesting to know which of us is faster.”

“We’re done now.  I ain’t interested in listening to your pathetic excuses.”

“Wasn’t planning on making excuses.  I had my reasons and they’re none of your damn business.”

“Then why are we having this conversation?”  Johnny’s brow creased in a puzzled frown.

“What would you do if you knew where Armstrong was holed up?”

Johnny’s eyes narrowed.  So far as he was concerned, Alex had forfeited the right to an honest answer.  “Tell Sheriff Driver.”

Alex’s laugh this time was tinged with genuine amusement.  “You’re full of shit, Johnny.”

“Where is he?” Johnny asked harshly.

“In Mexico.  But, I reckon you’d already worked that out.”

“Mexico’s a big place.  A man could get lost there if he had a mind.”

“I’ll make you a deal.  I’ll help you get to him, but I want something in return.”

“I don’t make deals with a man who’s holding a gun on me.”

Alex shrugged.  “Your loss.  Just remember, when the next attack comes, that you had the chance to bring him down once and for all, only your pride got in the way.”

“Don’t play games with me.”  The air was heavy with antagonism.  Johnny’s self-control had slipped too badly for it to be easily retrieved.  The men who had worked for Armstrong in the past had killed a girl who’d made the mistake of spending a few nights in his bed.  They’d attacked Mika and Scott, and had done everything they could to prevent his rescue from the hangman.  They were like rabid dogs and deserved nothing except a bullet.

“You think this is a game?” Alex asked, raising one eyebrow in polite surprise. “I could have ridden out of here without telling you anything.”

“Don’t expect me to believe you developed a conscience,” Johnny snarled furiously.  “Armstrong surrounds himself with killers who’re only interested in the money he throws their way.  D’you know what they did to Mika?  They put their filthy hands on her and threatened her with rape.  Then they told me they’d make Scott watch while they cut her face to ribbons.  They killed…” Johnny’s voice was ragged as all the memories that he had tried so hard to bury came crashing down on him.

“I’m not like them.”

The sincerity in Alex’s voice, the unspoken plea for understanding, gave Johnny pause.  But, the hurt and the anger went too deep.  “If you take his blood money then you ain’t no different.”

“I’m offering to help.”

There was a hysterical edge to Johnny’s laughter.  “Sure looks like it.”  The cold wave of hatred that swept through him turned his blue stare to ice.  If he’d had his gun in his hand at that moment he would have sent Alex to hell without a second thought.

“I don’t know all that happened here.  I know what you told me and I can guess some of the things you left out.  I worked for Armstrong a couple of years back when I was young, and wanted to make a name for myself.  Only thing was, I found that it wasn’t the kind of reputation I wanted, so I left.”

“Real decent of you.”  Johnny edged forward, imperceptibly moving closer to his prey.

“You think you’re the only gunfighter who ever cared about people?  Oh, I’ve heard all the stories.  The legendary Johnny Madrid who chose to help those less fortunate, rather than taking on the jobs with the big payouts.  You made quite a name for yourself, didn’t you?  I guess you wouldn’t believe me if I told you I admired you.  You were quite an inspiration.  I may not be in your league when it comes to sainthood, but I tried.”

“I’m no saint and never pretended I was.  I killed for money, just like you.  But, I never sold out to someone like Armstrong.” While Alex was engrossed in the argument, Johnny was watching intently for his opening.

“You’re right.  I did sell out.  Now I’m offering to make it right.  I’m not gonna tell you where Armstrong is, but I’ll take you there and I’ll help you.  And don’t try to tell me that you won’t need help.  He’s got a small army around him.”

“You think I’d trust you to watch my back?” Johnny asked incredulously.  “How much is he paying you to sucker me into walking right into an ambush?”

“This isn’t a trap.”

“I suppose I’ve got your word on that?” Johnny sneered.  “You’ll have to excuse me if I don’t find that real comforting.”

“How about I ask Scott what he’d do? Or your father?  Perhaps you’d like to explain to Mika that her brother’s on Armstrong’s payroll, as well. That’s a hell of a way to start a marriage. Besides, I’d guess Hannu’s price for trying to kill Scott is to get his sister back. You planning on guarding her and Teresa every minute of every day? Cause that’s what it’ll take to keep them safe.  Or, you can take the chance that I’m telling the truth.”

“Bastard.” Johnny launched himself at his adversary, hearing a shot as he did so.  He was too blinded with rage to register where the bullet had gone.  His fist buried itself in Alex’s gut.  Having winded his opponent, Johnny concentrated all his efforts on gaining possession of the gun.  He clamped both hands around Alex’s right wrist and brutally slammed the young man’s gun hand against the wall.  Alex hung on grimly, rapidly recovering both his breath and his composure.  Johnny smashed his elbow into Alex’s face then, bending his knees, he used his shoulder to pin Alex in place.

He released his hold abruptly as a knee was driven upwards into his groin.  Tears formed in his eyes as he staggered backwards.  Instead of the shot that he was expecting, he felt Alex’s fist connecting with his left cheek.  A flurry of blows followed.  He tasted blood and could feel more blood dripping down from his nose. His foot became entangled in something on the ground and he fell heavily.  When he looked up, he found himself staring down the barrel of a gun. In the distance he could hear raised voices.  The shot had attracted attention, but there was still time for Alex to finish the job and walk away.

“You can thank me later.” Alex holstered his gun and held out his hand to help Johnny to his feet.

“What?” Johnny ignored the gesture as he tried to make sense of the words.

“He was about to shoot you in the back.” Alex looked briefly at the object Johnny had tripped over.

As Johnny followed his gaze, he realized that he was looking at the body of man.  He scrambled closer.  The man was most definitely dead with a neat hole between his eyes.  Johnny didn’t recognize him, but the low slung gun showed clearly what his profession had been.  He licked his dry lips.  “That was good shooting.”

“Thanks.” Alex walked back into the street, returning moments later with Johnny’s gunbelt.

The voices, accompanied by running footsteps, were coming closer.  Johnny pushed himself to his feet.  “This doesn’t change anything.” His stare was level and unfriendly as he automatically returned his gunbelt to its accustomed position.

“Yes it does.  You owe me.”

“What the hell is going on?” Sheriff Driver strode into the alley, gun drawn and brows lowered in a forbidding stare.

Johnny scowled.  If he told the sheriff of Alex’s admission he had no doubt that the young man would be hauled off to jail.  That would achieve nothing.  Like it or not, he needed what Alex could tell him. He thought sourly that he hated being out-maneuvered. When Alex made no effort to explain he knew that he was being left to make the decision.  He lashed out with his foot, rolling the dead body toward the sheriff.  “He was going to back-shoot me. Seems to be a habit in this goddamn town.”

Sheriff Driver turned his attention to Alex.  “This your work, boy?”

“Yes.”

The sheriff sighed.  “I’m getting kinda tired of my town being used as a battlefield.  I want to see both of you in my office tomorrow morning to fill out the paperwork.  Until I’m satisfied, neither of you is to leave town.”  He studied their faces.  “You two been having a disagreement?”

“It’s personal,” Johnny snapped.

“Just remember you’ve seen the inside of my jail.  I don’t think you want to repeat the experience.”

Johnny’s bruised lips compressed into a hard line.  The cells in the jail were small and dark, without any natural light.  The last time it had taken Scott’s presence to pull him out of the bad memories that those conditions evoked, out of the dark place where hurt and fear resided.  “We ain’t broken any laws.”

“See you keep it like that.” Having delivered his warning, the sheriff moved away, calling for someone to fetch the undertaker.

Johnny barred Alex’s way.  “We aren’t finished.”

Hazel eyes appraised him without a hint of fear.  “I’ve made my offer.  I suggest you think about it.  I’ve taken a room at the hotel.  Figured you wouldn’t want me around your family.”

“You got that right.  If I see you anywhere near any of them, I’ll kill you.”

“You’d better get back.  Wouldn’t want your daddy to start worrying about you.”

Despite the sarcasm in Alex’s voice, there was something else entirely on his face.  And only Johnny, who had used that same self-defense mechanism himself when meeting his father for the first time, knew what it was.

 

Chapter 9

It was late and Johnny wasn’t entirely sober by the time he arrived back at the doctor’s house.  The cuts and bruises on his face guaranteed him a confrontation with his father, and he hadn’t been ready for that.  His black scowl had ensured that he was left alone, while he fed his anger in the saloon with a little too much tequila.  It didn’t help that most of the anger was directed at himself.

As he approached the house, a man stepped out of the shadows.  Johnny reached for his gun before realizing that it was one of the deputies assigned to guard Scott and Mika.  He called out a quiet greeting and the man raised a hand in response before fading back out of sight.

The downstairs was in darkness.  If he was lucky, everyone would be asleep and he wouldn’t have to explain just yet how he’d acquired his rather battered appearance.  He sat down in the kitchen to remove his spurs then climbed the stairs, slipping quietly into Scott’s room.  The lamp had been turned down low, casting just enough light for him to see that his brother was sound asleep.  As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he saw a narrow cot set against the wall.  Mika was curled up on her side, her long dark hair spilling over the blanket.  She looked very peaceful and very young.  For many reasons Johnny wished that she had never become involved in Armstrong’s schemes.  He couldn’t help wondering what the future held for her and Scott.  Was it realistic to expect that they would be able to overcome all the obstacles that littered their path?

With a soft sigh, he left them alone and made his way to the room he was sharing with his father.  Murdoch was in bed, his back turned to the door.  Johnny unbuckled his gunbelt and hung it over the bedpost.  The edge of the bed dipped down as he sat to struggle with his boots.  Soon they and his socks were lying on the floor.  As he stood to unbutton his shirt he heard his father’s bed creak.

“Johnny?  Is that you?”  Murdoch’s voice was heavy with exhaustion.

“Yeah.”

“I was worried.”

Johnny kept his back to his father, bending his head to concentrate on the task of removing his shirt.  “Sorry. I didn’t realize it was so late.”  The shirt dropped to the floor to lie beside his other discarded clothing.

“Did you look in on Scott?”

Johnny smiled to himself.  “He’s sleeping like a baby.”  He stepped out of his silk lined trousers and fell gratefully into bed.  “Good night, Murdoch.”

“Night, Son.”

Lying on his back, Johnny stared into the darkness.  He wasn’t looking forward to facing his father in the morning.

*****

The reflection in the mirror wasn’t encouraging.  A dark bruise framed his right eye, there were superficial abrasions on his cheek, and his top lip was swollen and tender.  He moved the fingers of his right hand experimentally, staring at the scrapes and bruises that marred his knuckles.  It wouldn’t be a good time for his reflexes to be impaired. His ribs ached from the pounding he’d taken, and he cringed every time he thought about Alex’s knee connecting with his groin.  He hoped the little bastard was suffering just as badly, although that thought brought him surprisingly little comfort.

The unpalatable truth was that there was no disguising the fact that he had been in a fight.  He’d only delayed the inevitable by feigning sleep and waiting for Murdoch to leave the room before crawling out from under the covers.  Even though he wanted to check on Scott he had decided against it.  His brother had enough to contend with and didn’t need to know yet about Alex’s duplicity. Hiding the truth from Murdoch, however, wasn’t an option.  Making his way to the kitchen, he found his father sitting at the table, reading a paper and drinking coffee.  The welcoming smile directed toward him faded quickly to be replaced by a frown.

“What happened to your face?”

“Got in a fight.” Johnny poured himself some coffee, grimacing as the hot liquid stung his tender lip.

“I can see that! Would you like to tell me what it was about?”

“I was careless.  It won’t happen again.”

“You owe me a better explanation than that, young man.”

Johnny set his cup on the table, raising his eyes to meet his father’s concerned stare.  “Alex pulled a gun on me.  Turns out you were right.  He’s working for Armstrong.”

“Where is he?”

“He’s over at the hotel.  He says he knows where Armstrong’s holed up.  He’s offered to take me there.”

Murdoch’s fist slammed down on the table as his voice rose in anger.  “The furthest he’s going is a jail cell. I warned you to be careful of him.”

“I can take care of myself.”

“Oh, I can see that.”

The sarcastic tone wasn’t lost on Johnny and his temper rose to meet the challenge.  “Look, old man, I made a mistake.  D’you think I’m proud of that?  I encouraged Alex to stick around and then brought him here.  He’s my problem and I’ll deal with him in my own way.”

“You’ll do as you’re told.”

“Don’t order me around, Murdoch.”

Without any warning his father was towering over him, hands gripping his shoulders so hard that it hurt.  “How many times do you expect me to stand by, wondering if I’m going to lose you?  Armstrong nearly succeeded in taking you away from me last time you crossed his path.  I almost lost Scott, and I’m damn sure Armstrong had a hand in that as well.”

Stunned by Murdoch’s passionate outburst Johnny found his hands were shaking.  “I don’t know if Alex is telling the truth, or if he just wants to lead me into a trap.  I do know that Armstrong has to be stopped and this is our best shot. You’ve gotta trust me, Murdoch. If I don’t go with Alex, we’ll all be looking over our shoulders for the rest of our lives and I sure don’t want to live like that.”

“What about Scott?”

Johnny looked down at his hands, clasping them tightly together.  “I’ll wait until he’s stronger.  It would be best if he didn’t find out until I’ve gone.  You can take him and Mika back to Lancer like we planned.  I reckon the sheriff would lend you a couple of his men to keep you all safe on the journey.  This is something I have to do. I hoped you’d understand that.”

“I do understand, but I wish there was something I could say to make you change your mind.”  Murdoch sank back into his chair, looking suddenly old and tired.

“I’ve faced worse odds than this before.” Johnny’s attempted reassurance sounded hollow even to him.  “And, I’m on my guard now.”

“Promise me one thing, Son.” Murdoch captured Johnny’s gaze and held it.  “Promise me that you’ll come home.”

*****

Johnny found Alex in the hotel dining room, finishing his breakfast.  He pulled out a chair without being invited and poured himself some coffee. The thought of eating made him feel ill. “You’re not looking so ‘pretty’ this morning,” he observed maliciously.

Alex’s answering smile was amused, without the slightest trace of embarrassment or apprehension.  “You don’t look so good yourself.”

Sitting back in his chair, Johnny was working hard to give the impression that he was relaxed. “Thought I’d come by to remind you that the sheriff wants to see us.”

“That the only reason you’re here?  I thought, perhaps, you had an answer to my offer.”

“I’m still thinking about it,” Johnny lied.

“Don’t take too long,” Alex advised.  “I don’t aim to wait around here forever.”

“And, I ain’t going anywhere until I know that Scott’s gonna be alright.”

There was a flicker of a reaction to that.  “Fair enough.  I don’t want you distracted when we do go up against Armstrong.  That might just get us both killed.”

If his jaw hadn’t been hurting, Johnny would have ground his teeth in annoyance at that remark and the assumption it implied.  Alex knew he was boxed into a corner, and that he wouldn’t be able to resist swallowing the bait.  “Don’t worry about me.  I can look after myself.”

“Like you did last night?”

Johnny pushed away from the table in annoyance.  “For all I know, you set that whole thing up.  We need to get one thing straight right now.  I don’t trust you.  There is nothing you can do, or say, that will make me trust you.  If I go along with this, it’ll be from choice and not because I feel in any way beholden to you.”

“Glad we got that cleared up.”

The insolence in Alex’s voice made Johnny want to punch him again.  “We’ve got an appointment with the sheriff.  Are you coming?”

“That depends.”

Johnny clenched his hands, wondering how the hell he was going to work with a man who could rile him up so easily.  “On what?”

“Before I walk into that jail, I want to be certain I’m gonna be walking out of it again.  If you mention my involvement with Armstrong there’s a chance that sheriff will find some excuse to lock me up.  That would be very bad for both of us.”

“Don’t think I’m not tempted.  But, you and I have unfinished business, and having you arrested isn’t part of the plan.”

After looking thoughtful for a minute, Alex nodded.  “Alright.”  He threw a handful of coins down on to the table and collected his hat.  “After you.”

Refusing to show any apprehension, Johnny turned his back on the gunfighter and led the way out of the hotel.

*****

After watching Johnny leave the house, Murdoch went to check on his older son.  It was no surprise to find Mika sitting patiently by the bedside, trying to persuade Scott that it would do him good to eat some thoroughly unappetizing oatmeal.  He stood in the doorway, unnoticed by either of the young people and watched them unashamedly.  Despite everything that had happened, they looked happy and at ease with one another.  Scott, still very weak and pale, had a smile resting on his lips and in his eyes.  Mika, softly cajoling, was spooning the mush into his son’s protesting mouth, and laughing.

A floorboard creaked under his weight and they both turned, startled out of their moment of intimacy.  “I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to intrude.”

“No intrusion, Sir.  In fact you’re just in time to rescue me.”

The fond smile directed toward Mika as Scott told this transparent lie, made Murdoch chuckle appreciatively.  “I doubt if your delightful young lady feels the same way.”

Although Mika looked flustered by his words, she managed to meet his eye before inclining her head briefly.  “You must make him understand how important it is for him to follow the doctor’s orders.” She gave Scott a mischievous look, touching him gently on the shoulder.  “I am going to speak to Mrs. Gilmour about a recipe for some herbal tea.  You may remember it from the first time we met.”

Murdoch saw Scott grimace.  He recalled vividly the tale of his son being beaten almost to death by Armstrong’s men before being dumped, unconscious, in Chinatown.  That day, Scott had owed his life to Hannu and Mika.  Today, he was embarking on the long journey to recover from Hannu’s treachery.

Mika gathered up the dishes and excused herself.  As soon as she had left the room, some of the life left Scott’s face and he sank listlessly back against the pillows.  “She doesn’t deserve this.”

Concerned by the tremor in his son’s voice, Murdoch moved closer, sitting in the chair recently vacated by the young woman.  “You need to save your strength, Son.  Mika will be fine. We’ll all make sure of that.”

“She blames herself for what happened to me.  She thinks it was because she defied Hannu.”

As Scott shifted position sluggishly, Murdoch leaned over to help settle him more comfortably.  “What do you think?”

“I don’t know.  I hope for her sake that she’s wrong.  I…I just don’t know.”

“Why don’t you go back to sleep?  There will be time enough to think about things when you’re stronger.”

“I wanted to see Johnny.”  Although it was obvious that Scott was trying to keep his eyes open, it was equally clear that he was fighting a losing battle.

“Johnny’s gone to speak to the sheriff.” Murdoch saw no need to tell Scott the reason for the visit.  His son would find out soon enough, and he wasn’t sure how he would handle the repercussions when that happened.  He was still struggling to come to terms with Johnny’s news himself.  “He’ll come to see you when he gets back.” And, he’d better have come up with a damned convincing lie to explain the bruises on his face, he added silently.  “Do you need anything?”

A slight shake of the head was all the answer Murdoch received, before Scott slipped back into much needed sleep.

*****

Two days passed.  Alex occupied himself playing poker in one of the saloons and Johnny prowled around the doctor’s house like a caged lion.  He was unfailingly polite to the doctor and his wife, gently teased Mika whenever he saw her, and did his best to avoid any opportunity to be alone with his father.  By the time Johnny had arrived back from his visit to Sheriff Driver, Scott had developed a slight fever.  That, combined with the lingering weakness caused by loss of blood, meant that he was rarely fully awake.  They all took turns sitting with him.  Occasionally, Johnny caught his brother looking at his bruised face and trying to puzzle out what had happened, but Scott never managed to summon up the energy to frame the question.

By the third day the fever had retreated, leaving Scott severely weakened.  Johnny sent word to Alex that he would not be ready to leave town for several more days.  He didn’t receive an answer, and didn’t greatly care.  All that mattered to him was Scott’s recovery.  It was late afternoon and he’d been dosing in a chair when his senses told him that he was being watched.

Scott’s eyes were clear for the first time in days.  The intense stare was fixed on Johnny’s face and the evidence of his fight with Alex.  Scott’s voice was little more than a whisper as he finally asked the question Johnny had been dreading.

“Who stepped on your face, Brother?”

*****

Yolanda placed the crystal vase carefully on the mahogany sideboard.  Tilting her head to one side, she studied the arrangement of flowers.  Having been brought up in poverty she enjoyed surrounding herself with beautiful things.  She had shamelessly used her own looks to improve her lot in life.  Many would say she was cold-hearted and manipulative.  She would say that she was pragmatic and took the chances that came her way.  The servants feared her, despite the fact that she had never mistreated them.  They believed that she had killed the former owner of the grand estancia, and in that, they were not entirely mistaken.

Bernardo had been almost sixty when they met.  She had been eighteen and already world weary.  He had asked nothing from her, apart from companionship.  It had been her decision to seek his bed and she liked to think that she had brought him a measure of happiness.  That had been three years ago.  The illness he had contracted had been brutal, robbing him of his energy, his appetite and, finally, his ability to leave his bed.  The pains had increased beyond the power of the doctor to alleviate.  One night, he had asked her to end his suffering.  She brushed away a tear as she remembered.  It had been an act of mercy, one which was slowly and insidiously tearing her apart.

Soon after Bernardo’s death, Martin Armstrong had arrived and had offered her a chance to stay.  Although on a physical level he repulsed her, he still had an aura of power that could not be denied.  She had been curious about the well-spoken gringo with the cruel face.  For a long time, he had said nothing to her about his plans.  Then, one day, he had asked if she had ever heard of Johnny Madrid.  From that time on, a partnership had been formed, founded in deceit and duplicity.

“Pardon, Señorita.”

The voice belonged to one of the younger maids.  The girl was pretty, in an insipid way, and Yolanda had seen Armstrong looking at her lasciviously on more than one occasion.  Whenever that had happened she had made sure he suffered the full force of her displeasure. Her position was tenuous and she dared not show any weakness. There were too many people who would enjoy seeing her supplanted or humiliated.

“What do you want?”

“A telegram has arrived for the Patron,” the girl explained, holding out the envelope.

“Señor Armstrong will not be home until tomorrow.  I will see that he receives it. Put it on the table.”

After the girl had gone, Yolanda carried the envelope over to a chair overlooking the gardens.  She didn’t hesitate before opening it.  There was no aspect of Armstrong’s plan that she did not know.  She had been instrumental in making several suggestions, one of which would result in the demise of the Chinaman, who had made the mistake of ordering Scott Lancer’s premature death.

The telegram had originated in Modesto, although it had been routed through a number of different addresses before finally arriving here. The news was unexpected.  Events in Modesto were not unfolding as Armstrong intended.  She closed her eyes and thought about Alex.  It had taken a long time to tempt him and she still didn’t know what had made him change his mind.  He had rebuffed several attempts to recruit him.  Finally, Armstrong had arranged to have him brought to the estancia.  She had expected to meet an angry young gunfighter.  There had been anger, although, surprisingly, it hadn’t been directed at Armstrong or his insistent demands of obedience.  She had not heard the conversation between the two men, but at the end of it, Alex had left with his instructions and a considerable amount of money.

There had been no time for her to get to know Alex.  Still, she had felt that he might be a kindred spirit – someone running away from his past and hoping for a better future.  His eyes had been sad, she remembered.  At first, Armstrong had been pleased that Alex had managed to befriend Johnny.  Then, the doubts had set in.  It had never been part of the plan for Alex to go to Modesto and Armstrong worried about betrayal.  He had sent new orders.  Alex was expendable.  He was a potential threat and had to be eliminated.  She had argued against it – passionately and, unsuccessfully.  The telegram told her that the attempt on Alex’s life had failed.  She tore the paper into tiny pieces, dropped them into a bowl and struck a match.  As the paper was reduced to grey ash she smiled, her thoughts filled with the memory of soulful hazel eyes.

 

Chapter 10

“Jelly! Cipriano!” Pedro pulled his lathered horse to an abrupt halt in front of the barn.

“What’s all the yelling for?” Jelly groused irritably. It just seemed to be one thing after another these days and everyone always looked to him to sort out the problems.

“Fire,” Pedro burst out.  “The meadow at the southwestern corner of the ranch.  We must hurry.”

Everyone within earshot stopped what they were doing, horrified by the news.  Fire was one of the most feared disasters.  The blessing that the field was so far from the hacienda was also a curse.  By the time the fire bell rang out it would already too late to save it.  Every man, woman and child ran to their appointed tasks.  Ever since the fight with Pardee, there had been stringent plans laid down for dealing with this kind of situation. Soon a steady stream of horses and wagons were leaving the yard.

“Do you think we’ll be in time?” Teresa asked anxiously.

Jelly kept his eyes on the road ahead, years of experience allowing him to push the team to maximum speed.  “Reckon the best we can do is stop it spreading.  There ain’t no easy source of water around there.”

By the time they arrived, Cipriano was organizing the men.  The fire was blazing fiercely, sending plumes of dark smoke into the sky to blot out the sun.

“Dig a fire break?” Jelly asked, looking with dismay at the scale of the destruction.

“Si. The wind blows from the east.  We must stop the fire there.” Cipriano pointed to the boundary between the field and one of the prime grazing meadows.

Shovels were distributed and every able-bodied person began to dig the trench that might just stop the fire raging out of control.  As Jelly worked, he heard breathless prayers being said that the wind wouldn’t shift direction.  His back ached and the muscles in his arms shook as he plunged the spade again and again into the dry earth.  The younger children ran back and forth, offering cups of much needed water to the workers.

Sparks leapt into the air and across the slowly widening gap where women pounced on them with water-soaked blankets.  A cry went up as one spark took hold.  Jelly turned to look as Teresa, heedless of her own safety, rushed to beat it out.  Her smile, white teeth in a smoke blackened face, gave him renewed hope.

Time lost all meaning as they battled the fire.  Men reached the limits of their endurance, yet, still they fought to contain it. Stopping to take a drink, Jelly looked over at the field. Was it his imagination, he wondered, or was it burning less fiercely?  It was hard to see anything clearly through the shimmering heat, smoke and drifting ash.  He coughed harshly, chest tight with the effort of breathing the tainted air.  Yes! There was definitely a lessening in the ferocity.

Exhausted men paused, leaning on the handles of their shovels.  Lacking a fresh source of fuel, the flames were dying back.

“We did it.” Teresa’s voice was hoarse.

“We were lucky.”

They took turns to rest.  Teresa and some of the other women walked around dispensing chunks of bread, cheese and thick slices of ham.  Children trailed behind dragging buckets full of water.  Jelly filled his mouth with the liquid, swirling it around to try and remove the acrid taste of smoke.  He spat then drank deeply.  His eyes followed Teresa as she stopped to speak softly to each of the men.  As she moved on, he could see a hint of pride in each face.  Whatever she had said to them had lifted their spirits. She was a credit to Lancer and his heart swelled with pride.

Fire, in Jelly’s considered opinion, was the work of the devil.  He looked around until he spotted Brad, lounging against a tree.  Their eyes met briefly before Brad turned away.  Sometimes, Jelly thought to himself, the devil had help.  This was the third unexplained incident since Murdoch and Johnny had left.  Not wanting to worry anyone, they had decided against sending word to Modesto.  This latest event, however, was too serious to be ignored.

It had been five days since the attack on Scott, and the sparse news from Modesto had not been encouraging.  They knew that Scott had survived the attempt on his life, only to have his recovery set back by the development of a fever.  Assuming that he pulled through, it would likely be another week, at least, before he was fit to travel, and the journey back would be slow.  Even if all went according to plan, it would be ten days before Murdoch and his sons returned.  It was Jelly’s reluctant conclusion that they couldn’t wait that long.  Someone was targeting the ranch and it didn’t take a genius to figure out who was likely to be behind it.  So far, no one had been hurt, but Jelly was starting to feel that it would only be a matter of time before that situation changed.  It was time for Murdoch to be told what was happening.

*****

“Who stepped on your face, Brother?”

Johnny had spent many hours wondering how he was going to answer a question like that.  He could still avoid it, as Scott remained desperately weak.  It hurt him to see how frail his brother looked.  No, it wouldn’t be hard to turn the discussion.  But, the need to unburden himself was eating away at him so instead he told the truth as dispassionately as he could.  Scott heard him out in silence, more likely from necessity than choice.

“Does Murdoch know?”

It wasn’t the reaction Johnny had been anticipating.  He smoothed out a crease in the blanket, eyes lowered.  “Yeah.”

“What did he say?”

“He asked me to promise I’d come back.” Johnny looked up expectantly.

“And did you?”

“You know that ain’t how it works,” he started to protest.

“I know that you’re probably walking into a trap.”

The conversation was already taking its toll on Scott.  The pauses, the tremor in his voice, the drooping eyelids – only served to reinforce Johnny’s decision.

“If I don’t go, Armstrong’ll just keep hitting us.  Theodore’s dead, you almost died and someone tried to take me down.  Without Alex, we have no idea where he’s hiding. D’you want to wait until he turns his attention to Murdoch, Teresa or…Mika?”

“I’m not a fool, Johnny.  I know what’s at stake.”

“Then you know why I have to go.”

“You were wrong about Alex once.” There was no censure, simply a statement of fact.

“Maybe.” This was something else that had occupied Johnny’s thoughts.  “Thing is, if he’d wanted to kill me, he had plenty of opportunity.”

“Now who’s being a fool?”

Johnny leaned forward, barely hearing Scott’s weak voice. A quick touch on the shoulder was the best he could do by way of silent reassurance.  “You should rest now.  I don’t want Mika getting mad at me because I tired you out too much.”

“Wait.”  Scott caught Johnny’s sleeve.  “We’ll go together…”

“Not this time, Brother.  Besides, you have different responsibilities now.  I’m plannin’ on coming back, you know?  Wouldn’t want to miss seeing you getting married, even if I do have to get all fancied up.”

“I’ll hold you to that.”  Scott’s hand slipped back to lie on the eiderdown.

Johnny’s throat tightened as he stood up.  At the door, he stopped and turned, finding his brother’s stare resting on him with a calm acceptance.  Once before, as a result of Armstrong’s schemes, they had said what both had believed to be their final goodbyes.  The sentiments expressed that day were locked in Johnny’s memory, ready to be pulled out whenever he needed to feel his family’s supportive and loving presence.  They’d said all that was necessary then and no additional words would make this parting any easier. His smile was acknowledged and weakly returned, before he opened the door and walked away.

*****

There was no reason to delay any longer.  In fact, he should have left days ago, as soon as he found out about Alex.  It was likely that Armstrong had other eyes and ears in town, and would know almost as soon as they left.  If this was all a trap, they could look forward to an undisturbed journey.  And, even if Alex wasn’t planning to betray him, it was likely Armstrong would be more than happy to have Johnny arrive on his doorstep.  Whichever way he looked at it – it was a dumb idea.  Unfortunately, it was the only idea he had and he wasn’t going to pass up the slim chance that he’d actually get to exact revenge for everything his family, and friends, had been put through.

He knew that his father was watching him as they ate supper. He kept his head down and concentrated on the food.  He didn’t know how long they would be on the trail so he intended to savor every mouthful.

“Scott’s looking better.”

Johnny gulped down a mouthful of milk, wiping his mouth carefully on his napkin.  “He seems to be over the worst of it.”

“The doctor thinks we can start for home in about a week.”

“Well, you be careful with him.  Don’t let him do too much before he’s ready.”

“I was hoping…” Murdoch’s voice caught and he cleared his throat.

Johnny looked up.  “Don’t say it, old man.”

“I have to say it.  You’re my son and I care what happens to you.  Won’t you at least take some other men with you?  Speak to Sheriff Driver, see what he suggests.”

Johnny’s appetite deserted him.  “It won’t work, Murdoch.  For what it’s worth, I don’t think Alex is lying.”

“And what if he is?”

“Then I guess I’ll find out soon enough.” He lifted a forkful of food, looked at it queasily, then set it down, un-tasted.

“Did you speak to Scott?”

“I told him the truth, if that’s what you’re asking. He wasn’t real happy.”

“I didn’t expect he would be.  Give it a few more days, Johnny. Talk to your brother some more.”

“It won’t change what I have to do.” He looked imploringly at his father. It would be too easy to allow Murdoch to talk him out of his decision and he couldn’t allow that to happen. “If you don’t mind, I think I’ll turn in now.”

Johnny pushed himself unsteadily to his feet without waiting for a response.  He wasn’t fooling anyone.  Even if he didn’t say good-bye they knew that he wouldn’t be here in the morning.

“Take care of yourself, Son.”

Johnny gripped the door frame, unable to turn and confront the fear, and worry, he knew he would see on Murdoch’s face.  For a long time, he simply stood there, feeling his father’s presence, and taking comfort from the fact that he did have a family who loved him.  He managed a slight nod of acknowledgment before heading wearily for the stairs.

*****

Johnny had lain awake for most of the night.  It was still dark when he forced himself from his bed and pulled on his clothes.  He peered through the gloom, trying to catch a glimpse of his father.  He was sure Murdoch hadn’t slept either, yet, there was no sound from the older man.  Johnny reached for his gunbelt, fastening it comfortably around his hips.  Picking up his boots, he made his way silently from the room.

After his son had left, Murdoch turned onto his back, eyes staring sightlessly at the ceiling.  He quietly recited the words of a prayer – the same prayer he had said every night for the twenty years that Johnny had been gone from his life.  It was a plea to God to keep his boy safe, and to help him find his way back home.

*****

The feeling of cold metal caressing his cheek woke Alex.  He stayed very still and waited.

“Nice gun.” The voice was quietly conversational.  “It’s well balanced.  Not that it matters a damn in this situation.  I’m not likely to miss.”

Alex risked a quick glance to his right.  His gunbelt still hung from the bedpost, the holster empty.  “You’re not gonna kill me.” He deliberately chose to throw Johnny’s own words back at him.

He was answered with a cold smile.  Johnny moved away from the bed, the gun still a potent threat.  “No, although you’d better believe I was tempted.”  Pulling over a chair, Johnny straddled it and laid his arms along the back of the seat.

Alex slowly pushed himself up, until his back was resting against the headboard. The early morning air chilled his bare skin. “How did you get in here?”

Reaching into the pocket of his short black jacket Johnny produced a key, which he threw on to the bed.  “Seems the owner of this here hotel has a soft spot for my brother.  When I told her you might have been involved in what happened to him, she couldn’t do enough for me.”

“Am I supposed to be impressed?”

“Just making a point, is all.  Thought you and I should get a few things straight before we leave.” The direct gaze bored into Alex.  “You might know where Armstrong is, but I’m the one running this show.  If you keep your mouth shut, and do as you’re told, we might both get through this in one piece.”

Ignoring his precarious situation, Alex felt his temper flaring. “You’re an arrogant bastard, and I’ve never taken to being ordered around.”

“You took Armstrong’s orders.”

“He thought so.” Alex’s smile was as frosty as Johnny’s.  “Truth is, I just took his money.”

“So you were just in this for the money?” Johnny didn’t make any noticeable effort to conceal his disgust.

For a moment, Alex was tempted to tell the truth.  Although it was a hard thing to admit, he craved Johnny’s approval and missed their burgeoning friendship.  Pride and guilt kept him silent.

“I asked you a question.”

“Why else do you think I did it?” he shot back bitterly. “And, in case you didn’t notice, I never did any harm to you or your family.”

“That’s the only reason you’re still alive.  We need to get going.  I want to be out of town before sun-up so you’d better get dressed.”

“What if I don’t feel like sneaking off in the middle of the night?” Although Alex knew he was pushing his luck, he didn’t feel like letting Johnny have everything his own way.

“From where I’m sitting, you don’t have much of a choice. Fact is, Armstrong will have men in town watching both of us, so we need to disappear for a while.  Course, it won’t matter a damn what we do, if you’re planning to betray me once we get wherever it is we’re going.”

“No, it won’t,” Alex replied spitefully.  He didn’t like being on the wrong end of any gun – especially his own. He saw Johnny’s eyes narrowing as he swung his legs out of bed.  His spine tingled with fear and excitement.  Danger had always been like a drug for him.  Even as a child, he’d pushed himself to the limit to prove to himself that he was alive, and not simply some empty useless shell, like the bastard who’d sired him.  As he’d grown up, he’d often wondered how Samuel Gray had worked up the energy, or stayed sober enough, to father a child.  The truth had shattered his fragile illusion of family life, driving him away to seek solace, not in a bottle, but with his gun.

The thoughts skimmed the surface of his mind as he dressed and packed his few belongings.  All the time, he was aware of Johnny watching him closely, his expression hard and unreadable.  Alex’s final act was to buckle on his empty gunbelt.  He waited expectantly, unsure if it was Johnny’s plan to take him at gunpoint.  With a flick of his wrist, Johnny spun Alex’s weapon, presenting him with the handle.

Accepting the offer, Alex rotated the cylinder to check that it was fully loaded and slid the gun back into its holster. “Where are we going?”

“That depends.  How far into Mexico do we have to travel?”

“A couple of day’s ride.”

Johnny nodded thoughtfully.  “There’s a Mission just outside Tijuana.  We’ll lie low there for a couple of days to make sure Armstrong’s men have lost the scent. Then, you’ll show me where he’s hiding out.”

“Then what?  I told you before, he’s got a lot of men working for him.”

“We take a look around and find the easiest way to kill him.  Once he’s dead, we won’t have to worry about any of his hired hands.  They won’t have any loyalty toward him.”

“Maybe not, but he has a woman.  When I was there, I heard some talk about her.  She could be as dangerous as he is.”

There was barely a hesitation, and there was no hint of compassion in Johnny’s voice as he replied.  “I’ll kill anyone who gets in my way. ¿Entiende?”

Alex was unprepared for the sudden strong burst of emotion that surged through him.  He had barely spared a thought for the coldly attractive woman who had welcomed him as an unwilling guest at the hacienda.  At the time, he’d been curious about her and how she had ended up working with Armstrong. He’d listened to the whispers of the servants, before losing interest.  Her story was typical of so many young women in an unforgiving world, until it came to the insinuation that she had been involved with the murder of her previous lover. From that point on, Alex had felt only a vague contempt.  Why, then, would the thought of her falling victim to Johnny’s gun bother him?  The rational reason was that he had never approved of violence toward women – and God knows, he’d seen enough of it.  The unsettling thought that followed would have to wait, until he had the time to explore it more thoroughly.

The personal threat implicit in Johnny’s words caused him no concern.  If they survived, without him finding a way to convince Johnny of his sincerity, a showdown between them was inevitable.  He didn’t want to shoot a man who, under other circumstances, could have been a friend.  Neither would he sacrifice his own life.  If it came to it – and he was very much afraid it would – he would try his best to win.  He would do all in his power to kill Johnny Madrid Lancer.

 

Chapter 11

Yolanda stood outside the door leading to the study as servants went about their chores, their fear evident in their hurried steps and averted eyes.  Armstrong’s raised voice could be heard clearly, even through the heavy wood paneling.  She sidestepped hastily as the door was wrenched open.  Ernesto backed out, offering a brusque apology for having nearly knocked her over.  She regarded him coldly, knowing that the expression of regret was for Armstrong’s benefit rather than hers.  Ernesto was one of the men that Armstrong had brought with him and he made no pretense about his jealousy.  Even in Armstrong’s presence, he treated her with the barest civility and she had no doubt that he would cheerfully cut her throat if ordered to do so.

When she entered the room, she found Armstrong glaring at the red knight which he was holding between his thumb and forefinger.

“He’s supposed to be dead.  Now, I find that he’s still alive, and that he and Johnny Lancer have disappeared.” A white knight joined the red and Armstrong folded both in a crushing grip.  “That arrogant little bastard has betrayed me.”

“Double standards, my dear,” Yolanda replied placidly, hiding the fear that Armstrong’s naked aggression had awoken in her.  “You seem to be forgetting that you ordered his death.”

“I had cause,” he snarled.  “What reason did he have to turn on me?  He accepted my money.  I bought his loyalty.”

“As I recall, you didn’t give him much choice.” Yolanda picked up the red queen, studied it for a moment and then returned it to its place on the chess board.

Armstrong stood up, pacing to the window.  “They will be coming here.”

“I thought that was what you wanted.” Having lied about knowing Johnny, she wondered how she would feel when she saw him again.  Would he even remember her?  It had been a long time ago, a transient relationship when both had been young and lonely.  Although Johnny had made no promises, she had still missed him when he moved on, seeking his reputation with a gun and ice in his heart.

Her life had followed a different path, one that carried both regrets and moments of happiness.  She hadn’t been able to turn Johnny from his course.  Was that part of the reason for her attraction to Alex?  Was she really arrogant enough to believe that she could persuade him to leave a life that could only lead to his self-destruction?

“Not like this,” Armstrong ranted.  “I intended for Lancer to come here after he’d lost everything – his family, his home.  I wanted him to know what it feels like.”

“I think you underestimate him,” she said unwisely.  “He has lost home and family before.  It turned him into a killer, a man capable of surviving the worst that life could throw at him. Taking everything away from him doesn’t destroy him, it makes him stronger.”

Armstrong crossed the space between them, his face suffused with fury.  She gasped as his hand shot out to grab a handful of her dark hair.  “You seem to know a lot about him.  Are you planning to betray me as well?”

Her mouth was dry with fear, and fear was the one thing she could never let him see. “Why would I do that?” She winced as her head was pulled back.  “Without you, I have nothing and I don’t intend to be thrown out onto the street to starve.”

“Oh, I doubt if you would starve.  There are plenty of men willing to pay for what you have to offer.”  He released her and pushed her away.  “Get out. I have to think.”

Shaken, she did as she was told.  In all the months she had known him, Armstrong had never turned on her like that before. It made her feel vulnerable and that wasn’t a feeling she liked.  She was going to have to tread very carefully if she was going to survive.

*****

“Well, what’re you gonna do about it?”

“I already told you, Jelly.  If we ain’t got no proof, there’s nothing I can do.  I can’t lock the boy up just because you don’t like him.”  Val’s irritation owed a lot to his frustration with that situation.  If it had been up to him, Brad would be behind bars, but no judge would sanction his detention without hard evidence of wrongdoing. “Did you hear back from Murdoch?”

“Wire came this morning.” Jelly dug the telegram out of his pocket and thrust it across the desk.

Val picked it up, holding it so that he could focus comfortably on the words.  “Looks like Scott’s doin’ better.  Can’t say as I blame Murdoch for decidin’ to stay with him. They’ve had nothing except trouble in that town.” He read the next line and swore.  “I swear, I sometimes think Johnny ain’t got the sense he was born with!  What the hell does he think he’s doing takin’ off like that?”

Jelly jutted his chin out belligerently. “I tried to warn Johnny not to trust that smooth talking gunfighter.  But, what do I know?  I’m only a stupid old man.  He’s gonna end up with another bullet in the back and this time there won’t be anyone around to pick up the pieces.”

Val looked sympathetically at Jelly.  The bluster was clearly motivated by fear for his friend.  “Johnny spent a lot of years lookin’ after himself,” he said by way of reassurance.  “He’s on his guard now and we’re just gonna have to trust that he knows what he’s doing.”

“Ain’t a single thing we can do about it anyways.” Jelly didn’t look any happier than he had before. “Meantime, what do we do about Brad?”

Val returned his attention to the telegram.  “Reckon Murdoch’s right that it’s best to keep him around and watch him closely.  And, if he makes one wrong move, I’ll haul his ass in here with pleasure.  You’d better tell the other men what’s going on, and make sure Teresa isn’t left unprotected.”

“Iffn he tries anything with Teresa, you won’t have to worry about arresting him,” Jelly responded aggressively.

“I don’t want no witch hunt, Jelly,” Val warned.  “If he steps outta line I’ll deal with him.  I’ll send word to the sheriff over at Spanish Wells.  Gabe needs to be on his guard, as well.  I don’t trust Matthew Hopkins any more’n I trust his no-good son. I’ll call by the house as often as I can, until Murdoch and Scott get back.”

“I suppose that’s the best I can expect, Sheriff.” Jelly jammed his cap back on his scraggly hair.  “But, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

*****

By the time they arrived within sight of the Mission at Tijuana, Johnny was tired and grumpy.  He hadn’t slept well for the two nights that he and Alex had spent on the trail.  His temper wasn’t improved by the fact that Alex had slept deeply, apparently without a care in the world.  Conversation had been kept to a minimum, yet, they had settled into a routine without the need for words.  It bothered Johnny that a man he despised could read him almost as well as his own brother did.  On the few occasions when he allowed himself to stop brooding, he felt a hint of what had drawn him to seek Alex’s friendship in the first place.

The young monk who hurried out to greet them was familiar from Johnny’s last visit.  “Brother Paulo,” Johnny greeted him.  “¿Cómo es usted?”

“I am well, Senor Lancer.  Welcome back.”

“Gracias.  Is Father Benedict here?”

“He is in the chapel.  I will fetch him for you.”

“No, I’ll find him.  Do you have someplace we could stay for a few days?”

“There is always room for weary travelers.  Besides,” admiration shone in the young man’s eyes, “it is thanks to you that we no longer have to worry about Don Castaneda and his men.”

“Life is easier, huh?” Johnny grinned as he swung out of the saddle, throwing his reins to Alex.  “See to the horses.”

One dark eyebrow shot up at the imperious tone.  “Where will you be while I’m doing all the work?”

“Visiting an old friend.”

Out of habit, Johnny crossed himself as he entered the chapel.  Although he’d been here twice before, the necessity to hide out had prevented him from having time to appreciate the simple beauty of the small building.  Father Benedict had his back turned, occupied in replacing the candles that surrounded the altar.

Johnny walked down the central aisle, spurs jingling. The elderly priest turned, and his smile of recognition and welcome coaxed an answering smile from his unexpected visitor.

“Johnny, it is good to see you.  Let me look at you.” Father Benedict gripped his arms.  “Your knee is healed?  And, more importantly, you made your peace with your father?”

“Yes, I did.”

“I am glad.  He and your brother are well?”

Johnny lowered his head.  “No, Scott’s been real sick.  He’ll be alright, though.” Restless fingers found the beads around his wrist. “I’m sorry, Father.  I’m afraid I’ve brought trouble to your door again.”

“Oh, Johnny.” Father Benedict smiled benignly. “Trouble and you walk hand in hand, I think. After all that you and your family have done for us, I would not be so uncharitable as to send you away.  Come and sit down, and tell me why you are here.”

*****

Father Benedict watched Johnny riding away, his heart heavy with worry.  For the last three days, the young man had been unusually solitary.  It had been hard to coax more than the bare facts out of him.  He had been angry, wary and hiding a deep hurt.  After pushing as hard as he dared, the priest had finally learnt what Alex had done.  His well-meaning advice had fallen on deaf ears.  Shortly after, Johnny had announced that the walls of the Mission were suffocating him.  He had saddled his horse and left, pausing only to say that he and Alex would be moving on in the morning.

There had been little opportunity up to now to talk with the other young gunfighter.  Alex had been adept at avoiding any subtle probes into his past or present motivation.  Questions about home, and family, had been answered with a blank stare and the curt answer that he had neither.

How these two men were going to manage to work together was a mystery and Father Benedict felt that he should make one last effort to help them find some common ground. They were going into a situation of great danger, and only by trusting each other might they both survive.

He walked slowly toward the Chapel.  He would pray for guidance and the strength to find the key to that would unlock Alex’s secrets.

*****

Alex sat in a patch of shade covering the small vegetable garden.  His gun, cleaned and oiled, rested beside him on the bench.  He turned his attention to his gunbelt, pouring a little oil onto the soft cloth and working it into the supple leather.  A fly buzzed beside his ear and he raised a hand to brush it away.  Two of the monks worked industriously, hoeing, weeding and watering the dry earth.  Despite the harsh conditions they had managed to raise an impressive crop of bell peppers, lettuce, cabbage, spinach and herbs. Alex envied them their quiet acceptance of this simple and peaceful life.

“May I join you?”

Alex recognized the voice as belonging to Father Benedict.  “Sure.” He continued to clean the trail dust from his gunbelt, unwilling to meet the sharply intelligent eyes of the elderly monk.

“Johnny tells me you will be leaving tomorrow.”

This was news to Alex.  Johnny had been avoiding him since their arrival and they had exchanged no more than a dozen words.  His nonchalant shrug masked his annoyance.  “I guess he forgot to mention it to me.”

“I am sorry. I assumed you knew.  I did not mean to speak out of turn.”

“It isn’t your fault, Father.  I guess Johnny told you that he doesn’t trust me.”

“Anyone can see that there is tension between you.”

Alex noted that the Priest had evaded the implied question and his expression was unfriendly as he finally looked up.  “Yeah, and the reasons are no-one else’s business.”

Father Benedict’s serene expression didn’t alter.  “The first time I met Johnny, he was wounded and on the run from the rurales.  I gave him sanctuary so that he could heal.  He was angry and defensive, much as you are now, and it took time to see below the surface.  By the time he left, I like to think that he and I were friends.  Unfortunately, the rurales had not given up the hunt. He was captured before he could cross the border and they put him in front of a firing squad.  You will have heard the story.”

Alex nodded, wondering where this conversation was leading.

After a moment, Father Benedict continued. “The circumstances of our next meeting are not for me to tell, but on that occasion, I also met his father and brother.  They have more than repaid any debt Johnny might have felt he owed toward this Mission.  So, you see, Johnny and his family mean a lot to me. Having told you this, I have only one question.  Do you intend to do him harm?”

“I never was much for confession, Father. Seems to me that it don’t matter what I say to you or to him.  Nothing’s gonna change the fact that he isn’t gonna trust me, and I don’t blame him.”

“I’m not asking for your confession.  I would, however, like an honest answer.”

“Honesty?” Alex laughed harshly.  “There ain’t much of that around. Never has been in my experience.”

“Perhaps you should start by being truthful with yourself.”

Alex lurched angrily to his feet.  “You don’t know a damn thing about me, so don’t preach to me about truth.”

The two monks tending to the garden stopped and stared in disapproval at the outburst.  Father Benedict waved them away.  “I am not trying to preach to you, my son…”

“No!  Don’t call me that.” Alex slung the gunbelt around his hips, fingers shaking as he fumbled with the buckle. He scooped up his gun, ramming it furiously back into its holster. He stood, breathing heavily, fighting the urge to let all the poisonous details of his past come tumbling out.  His stomach lurched and he tasted bile in the back of his throat.  But, this was a battle that he’d fought too often in the past, and he had always emerged the victor.  There was no reason to think today would be any different.

Father Benedict remained where he was, neither condemning the outburst nor pressing for an explanation.  Alex licked his lips, caught between the urge to escape and a grudging feeling of respect.  The words tumbled out, clipped and emotionless. “Johnny offered me friendship and I accepted.  He didn’t know what I was or what I’d done.  When he found out the truth, our friendship died.  I regret that and I don’t intend to betray him again.  You can believe that or not, it makes no difference to me.”

“Sit down,” Father Benedict said, and the Priest’s compassionate tone drew Alex unwillingly back to the bench.  “You pretend that you do not need anyone’s approval, so I have to wonder. Who is it that hurt you so badly? Your father?”

“Why don’t you tell me?”  Alex felt his resolve draining away.  He’d carried his secrets for so long that the burden was weighing him down.

“What did he do, my son?”

Alex winced.  ‘My son.’ What wouldn’t he have given to hear his own father say those words with the same kindness in his voice?  “My father was a poor excuse for a man.  I don’t think he was capable of loving anything, except what he found in a bottle.”

“What about your mother?”

“She was a good, hard working woman, but it wore her down.  When he was drunk, he would hit her, and when I tried to protect her, he’d hit me as well.  As I grew older, he stopped taking his belt to me.  I think he knew if he pushed me too far I’d kill him.  Does that shock you, Father?”

“It saddens me. Violence has a habit of provoking more violence.  It is a circle that can be hard to break.  Is that why you took up a gun?”

Lacing his fingers together, Alex bowed his head, deep in thought.  “No, that came later.  On my eighteenth birthday he was so drunk he couldn’t walk straight. He asked why we were bothering to celebrate, seein’ as how I’d been the result of rape.  My mother was sixteen when he took her and he bragged to me about how sweet she’d been, all fresh and untouched.”  Long suppressed disgust and anger roughened his voice.  “She didn’t tell anyone, until she couldn’t hide the pregnancy any longer. Even then she didn’t tell the truth. She told her family that she’d consented, so her pa made sure there was a marriage. For all those years, my father resented being corralled.  He blamed her, and me, for tying him to a marriage that he’d never wanted.”

“What happened after he told you this?”

“I was angry – with him and with my mother.  I drew my gun, and I would’ve shot him there and then, except she pleaded for him.  After all he’d done, she got down on her knees and begged me not to kill him. That’s what’s so damn sad.  The stupid bitch loved him.” He closed his eyes, still unable to understand why the mother he adored had protected the man who had abused her.

“You walked away?  It takes a lot of strength and courage to do that.”

“Yeah, Father, I walked away.  And, I spent the next couple of years killing men who were stupid enough to call me out.  I killed them instead of killing him.  Eventually, I got sick of all that blood and death.”

“Why did you agree to work for Martin Armstrong?”

“I didn’t want to.  I’d had dealings with him before and never took to his methods.  He tried to persuade me, offered me a lot of money.  I always refused, but then I got word that my mother had been taken ill.  It was a wasting sickness that the local doctor said he couldn’t treat.  Her only chance was to go to one of the big city doctors, only they cost a lot of money.”

“So you took Armstrong’s money to pay for her treatment?”

Alex nodded. “I made a deal that earned me enough to get my mother the help she needed.  I wired the money to her, finding out too late that my father had taken it and run out on her.” He swallowed hard to clear his throat as the emotions threatened to choke him.  “She died, Father.  She was all alone and she died.”

He took a shuddering breath as the priest’s arm fell gently across his shoulder and drew him closer.  “Trouble is, I didn’t want to see any more good people die, so I decided to tell Johnny the truth.  I wanted to repay him for taking me on trust. But when this is over, I’m going home to lay flowers on my mother’s grave and then kill the bastard who made her life miserable.”

“You need to tell Johnny. He’ll understand. You two have more in common than you know.”

Alex drew away.  “I don’t want his understanding or his pity.”

“I believe, for your sake and his, that you are mistaken.”

“Don’t matter.  I’ve made my decision.  You’re the only person I’ve ever told and that’s how it’s gonna stay. Understand?”  At the priest’s reluctant nod, Alex stood wearily, drained by the effort of allowing his memories to see the light of day.  “Thank you,” he said, surprised by his own sincerity.  “If we’re leaving tomorrow, there are things I need to take care of.”

With a respectful nod to the priest, he left the garden, shuttering his emotions away and retreating once again behind his façade of bored cynicism.

 

Chapter 12

Scott thought ruefully that this wasn’t exactly how he’d envisaged his return home with his future bride.  Riding in the back of a wagon, propped up with blankets and pillows didn’t do much for his dignity.  Still, that journey had ended yesterday and now Mika was curled up against him on the sofa, deeply asleep with her head resting on his shoulder.  His arm was around her, holding her close and he reached across with his other hand to stroke her silky dark hair.  A slight pulling at the site of his injury reminded him that he still had to be careful.

Sunlight streamed through the open doors of the great room, bringing with it the comforting sounds of a working ranch.  They’d been home for just over twenty-four hours and he’d spent most of that time in bed.  Neither his father nor Sam had believed his rather optimistic claim that he was fine. As soon as his tired body had made contact with the soft mattress, deep pillows and fresh bed linen, he had given in gracefully. This afternoon, however, he had finally insisted that he was strong enough to dress and venture downstairs.  Mika, as ever, had remained with him, seeing that he was comfortable before being lulled to sleep by the warm heavy air and peaceful atmosphere.

He rested his chin on the top of her head, breathing in the fresh clean scent of her hair.  He only had to look at her to feel a warm protective love, and a deep gratitude that she had been willing to give up everything she had ever known to be with him. He wished it could be easier for her. During the trip from Modesto, he had tried to talk to her about Hannu.  Each time, she had smiled sadly, tears forming in her eyes, and each time, he had honored her wish to leave the subject alone.

He’d never felt this way with Julie.  Oh, she’d been adept at playing the innocent and, for a time, he’d been fooled.  His love for her had been genuine and he’d been heart-broken when their relationship ended.  But, Julie had been hard, ruthless and self-seeking in her own way.  He was sure she’d loved him, while being under no illusions that she’d also loved the idea of becoming Mrs. Scott Lancer with all the social and monetary advantages that implied.

A shaft of light caught his mother’s ring, so different from the expensive diamond that had adorned Julie’s finger.  The opal, beautiful in its simplicity, would have been disdainfully rejected.  Yet, it suited Mika perfectly.  The smooth surface of the stone concealed an infinite array of colors and moods – all different and endlessly fascinating, just like the lovely young girl who wore it.

His father’s voice floated into the room, commanding and self-assured.  Murdoch was burying himself in work, trying to push his worry about Johnny to the back of his mind.  Nothing was said, yet he had seen Murdoch’s deep anxiety written clearly in the deepening lines of his face. Scott still felt some irritation that his brother had run out on them.  What was his brother thinking? Going up against Armstrong while accompanied only by a man who could not be trusted was pure madness.

At least, they knew that the two men had made it safely to Mexico.  A message had arrived that morning from Father Benedict telling them of Johnny’s brief stay at the Mission.  Now, Johnny had disappeared again, leaving family and friends to wait and worry.

Meantime, he and Murdoch had other responsibilities.  The Lancer ranch wasn’t just grass, cattle, streams and buildings.  It was the people who relied on it for their living.  They were good, hardworking people who were caught in the middle of a battle that was none of their choosing. It was for him, and his father, to keep them safe.

Mika stirred, opening sleepy eyes.  He smiled down at her.  She’d exhausted herself looking after him without ever uttering a single word of complaint.  “Feeling better?” he asked.

“I feel very lazy, sitting here, sleeping, while there is work to do.”

“No one minds.  You’ve earned the right to relax for a while.” Previously, he would have told her that she was a guest and not expected to earn her keep.  She’d never listened to him, insisting upon helping Teresa and Maria.  Now, he wanted her to feel that this was her home.  As his wife, she would have her own responsibilities, and it delighted him that she was accepting that challenge with an open heart.  “Besides,” he reminded her, “there’s a wedding to be planned.”

She snuggled closer. “There is no hurry,” she teased.

“Yes, there is.  I’ve waited long enough.”

“You are an impatient man, Scott Lancer.” She tilted her head up and their lips met briefly, full of promise for the years ahead. “There is much to do, but we cannot set the date until…”

“Until Johnny gets back,” Scott finished for her kindly.

“Yes.” Mika lowered her eyes, and Scott gave her time to compose herself.  Finally, she looked up at him again with a smile. “Teresa is taking me to town tomorrow to find material for my wedding dress.”

“I’ll drive you.”

“You will not.  You must rest and grow strong.”

“Bossing me around already?” he asked, eyes crinkling in amusement.  The amusement faded as he heard footsteps on the flagstones outside and saw Brad in the doorway, watching them.  He felt Mika stiffen in his arms.  She and Teresa had both been warned to be wary of the young man.

“Sorry, Mr. Lancer.” Brad pulled his hat off.  “Didn’t mean to disturb you.”

“What do you want?”

“I’d like to take a couple of hours off.  My pa sent a message, and I need to go into Spanish Wells to see him.  I’ll be back by morning.”

“You could have asked Cipriano or my father.” Scott had mixed feelings about Murdoch’s decision to keep the boy around. He didn’t like this potential source of trouble so close to the women.

“They’re both busy.” Brad’s eyes strayed to Mika.

Scott rose awkwardly to his feet, standing deliberately between Mika and the young ranch hand.  “If you’ve finished all your chores then you can go.  Just make sure you’re not late tomorrow.”

“Yes, sir. I’ll see you in the morning.”

Scott sat down with an irritated sigh.  Brad’s ill-timed arrival had broken the mood, reminding him of the challenges they were all facing. He decided he’d had quite enough of lying around, feeling helpless.  Tomorrow, whether his father and Sam approved or not, he was determined to start getting his life back to normal.

*****

Hannu looked down at the large white house.  It was dark, and the cheerful glow of lamplight spilled out the windows, making it look warm and inviting.  Once, he had been a welcome visitor within those walls.  Now, if anyone saw him, he would be shot down without mercy.  He had remained hidden in Modesto for several days after his failed attempt to kill Scott.  Jiang’s men had made sure that he was shielded from the sheriff’s investigation.

He had waited, hoping that Scott would die and that Mika would come to her senses.  Instead of that, Scott had clung stubbornly to life, with Mika never venturing further than the front porch of the doctor’s house.  When both Johnny and Murdoch Lancer arrived, Hannu knew that it was time to leave.  He couldn’t hope to reach Mika while she was surrounded by Scott’s family, and protected by the sheriff and his men. On the morning of his departure he received word that Jiang had been found dead in his opium den.  No-one had mourned him, or shown any inclination to question the death.

He remained convinced that, for Mika’s sake, he had to prevent the marriage. If he could only get close enough to talk to her, he could make her see reason.  No-one would expect him to be here, so he should be safe from detection.  It was likely that they would believe he had fled to San Francisco or even have taken a boat back to China.  He would use the element of surprise to catch Mika alone.

The journey had been long and hard.  He hadn’t dared steal a horse and most of the travelers he encountered showed no inclination to help a bedraggled young Chinaman.  His feet were covered in blisters and he had barely managed to find enough food to sustain him.  He was used to living in a town, not surviving in the wilderness.  The nights had been spent tossing and turning uneasily, waking at each unfamiliar noise.  The truth was that he was frightened, and that fear only made him more determined to take Mika away from this rough and dangerous land.

He had seen the wagon arriving the previous day.  From his vantage point it hadn’t been hard to spot his sister.  Scott and Murdoch had been easy enough to recognize as well.  There had been a couple of men with them that he hadn’t been able to identify and he was puzzled by Johnny’s absence.  Feeling desperately lonely, he crawled into the shelter of some bushes, preparing himself for another miserable night.  Maybe tomorrow he would have his chance and, if Scott interfered again, he’d finish what he’d started in Modesto.

*****

“What’s this about, Pa?” Brad crossed his arms, leaned against the counter of the store and scowled at his father.  “They’re already watching me and I swear Jelly’ll go cross-eyed if he keeps starin’ at me all the time.”

“Son…”

Matthew Hopkins looked so shaken that Brad relaxed his aggressive stance, frowning in concern.  “Is something wrong?”

“We’re in over our heads, and I can’t see any way out of it.” Matthew’s hands were shaking as he locked the front door and pulled down the blinds.  “Are the Lancers back from Modesto yet?”

Brad nodded.  “They got back yesterday.  Funny thing, though.  Johnny wasn’t with ‘em and no-one’s saying anything about where he is.”

“Probably best that he isn’t here. Armstrong’s man came to see me again this morning.  He had new orders.  He told me that Scott Lancer’s gone and become engaged to that little Chinese girl.  It’s a damn disgrace if you ask me.  Bad enough Murdoch Lancer brought home that half-breed of a son.  Now, he’s allowing his older boy to marry some no-account foreigner.  What the hell kind of an example does he think they’re setting?”

“Pa,” Brad interrupted.  Once his father got fixated on a subject he could rant about it for hours. “Get to the point.  It’s a long dark ride back to the ranch.”

“Yes…yes, Son, you’re right.” Matthew Hopkins sucked in a deep breath.  “Armstrong wants her dead.”

“Dead?” Brad felt the blood draining out of his face.  “Now, hold on.  It was one thing to cut them fences and start that fire.  Killin’ someone – that’s different.  I didn’t agree to no killin’s.”

“It’s us or them, Son.  You’re best placed to get to her.  Make it look like an accident.”

“If they catch me I’ll hang.  I don’t aim to end my life at the end of a rope.”

“If you don’t do this, he’ll destroy us.  Everything I’ve ever worked for will be gone.”

“Then, you do it, ‘cause I ain’t gettin’ her blood on my hands.”

“A ranch is a dangerous place.  Anything could happen to her without anyone being suspicious.”

Brad strode angrily over to his father, pressing a finger belligerently against the older man’s chest. “This is your fault.  You should’ve turned him down when he first approached you.”

“That wasn’t what you said when you heard how much money was on offer.  You were quick enough to agree to help.”

“No-one said anything about murder,” Brad protested hotly.  “Why can’t you just pay the money back and tell him we’re having nothing more to do with him?”

Matthew Hopkins turned away, shoulders slumped dejectedly.  “The money’s gone, Son.  And, if we don’t do as Armstrong says, his men’ll burn us out – or worse.  Do you want to see your mother and sister forced to live on the charity of others?  Armstrong will make sure there’s evidence to link us to those incidents at Lancer, which means we’ll likely go to jail.  Everything will be lost and for what?  So that some scheming Chinese girl can get her hands on the Lancer fortune?  Where’s the justice in that?”

Brad shook his head.  “I can’t do it, Pa.”

Matthew turned back, his face grey. “An accident – that’s all it’ll take.  Please, Son, we’re all depending on you.  Once it’s done, we’ll sell everything and move away from here.  By the time Armstrong’s finished, the Lancer empire will be in ruins anyway.” He gripped his son’s arms.  “At least think about it.  You don’t owe them anything.”

“Alright, I’ll think on it, but I ain’t makin’ any promises.”

Hope returned to Matthew’s face.  “Thank you. Just don’t take too long to make up your mind. You’d better head back now.”

Brad nodded, his emotions in turmoil.  He didn’t know if he had the guts to do what his father was asking, yet, how could he live with himself if something happened to his family? When it came right down to it, he had little choice in the matter.  And, his father was right.  Mika didn’t matter, and Scott Lancer was a fool for ever getting mixed up with her.

*****

The night was warm and the fire lit to cook their supper was dying back. Leaning against his saddle, Johnny studied Alex.  Something about him was different and Johnny was still trying to figure it out.

“We’ll be there tomorrow.” Alex’s face was in shadow, his voice low.  “Don’t you think we should discuss what we’re gonna do?”

Johnny picked a blade of grass and chewed on it thoughtfully. “Why did you take Armstrong’s money?”

A slight movement brought Alex closer to the fire.  “What difference does it make?”

“Maybe none, but you ain’t going any further unless you tell me.”

“The only way you’ll keep me out of this is by shooting me.” There was amusement in Alex’s voice, rather than the challenge Johnny had been expecting. “I betrayed him and he ain’t gonna forget that.  I’ve got as much of a stake as you in making sure he’s finished for good.”

“That’s kinda the point, isn’t it?  This could all be an act, or you could really have turned on him.  In that case, your life ain’t worth spit unless you give him something he wants.”

“So, you’re ready to damn me either way.”

Alex didn’t sound surprised and Johnny still couldn’t get a good look at his face to read his expression.  “Then, give me a reason to trust you.”

“I needed the money.”

“Not good enough.” Johnny was prepared to push for answers now.  They were too close to Armstrong for him to take chances.  Either Alex gave him something to prove his sincerity, or he’d do whatever was necessary to take Alex out of the game. Johnny tensed as Alex moved back, concealing his face once again in the darkness.

“My mother was sick and there was no-one else to pay the doctor’s bills.”

Johnny knew that admission had come hard.  Alex guarded his privacy and he didn’t need to see the gunfighter’s expression to know that he was being told the truth.  “Reckon I might have done the same thing,” he offered quietly. Something had broken through Alex’s defenses, and Johnny wasn’t arrogant enough to assume that it was his doing.  It was starting to look as if Father Benedict had set another lost soul on the road to redemption.  “Seems to me that we need to declare a truce.”

The creak of saddle leather accompanied Alex’s move back into the dim light of the fire.  There was no relief or gratitude on his face.  This wasn’t the start of a renewed friendship, simply a cessation of hostilities.  Johnny felt a flicker of regret.  He sensed that Alex still had a hard journey ahead of him, and wondered if the chance of redemption had come too late.

“The house is well-guarded.” Alex reached for the pot of coffee resting in the embers.  He poured himself a cup and offered the pot to Johnny.  “Can’t see Armstrong venturing very far, especially, as he’s bound to figure out that we’re on our way.”

“Then, we have to find a way to draw him out.  I’m betting we’ve both seen enough range wars to know how that’s done.”

“That could take weeks,” Alex protested.

“I’m open to suggestions.  Personally, I’d rather take it slow and careful, and finally nail that bastard.  If we try to rush it, we’re just as likely to wind up dead.”

“Let me think about it.”  Alex stood and stretched.  “I’ll be back in a minute.”

Johnny watched Alex disappearing into the shelter of the brush, his thoughts dark and heavy.  However they decided to play this, there was a good chance they wouldn’t make it out alive.  Despite having come so far, common sense dictated that they turn back and make a stand at Lancer.  He was worrying that thought round in his mind when he heard Alex returning.  The sound of a gun being cocked brought his attention abruptly back to the present.

“Stand up and keep your hand well away from your gun.”

Johnny’s breath quickened, his fingers itching to reach for his Colt.  Unfortunately, he’d be lucky to clear his holster before Alex fired.  “You done thinking?” he asked, snidely, rising to his feet.

“You could say that.  Use your left hand and toss your gun over here.”

“Seems to me we’ve been here before.”

“Not quite.  Armstrong wants you alive.  If I’d tried to take you from Modesto, I don’t reckon we’d have reached the town limits before someone would’ve turned up to rescue you.”

“So instead you invited me into a trap and I obligingly walked into it.”

“That about covers it.”

His body bristling with tension, Johnny stared furiously at Alex’s calm face.  As he debated taking a chance, a bullet whistled by his ear, causing him to flinch and swear.  Moving his left hand slowly, he un-holstered his gun and threw it to the ground.  Alex kicked it away into the undergrowth.

“Turn round and put your hands against that tree.”

Turning his back on a man with a loaded gun pointed at him wasn’t Johnny’s first choice.  However, if it got Alex closer to him, he might be able to pull something off.  He sure as hell wasn’t going to stand quietly while Alex tried to restrain him.  As he turned, he made sure his weight was evenly balanced before resting his hands on the rough bark so that they were in line with his shoulders.  Alex’s footsteps came closer and he readied himself to push back.  The blow to the back of the head caught him by surprise and he crumpled soundlessly to the ground.

 

Chapter 13

Alex finished saddling the horses while keeping a wary eye on his prisoner.  Johnny had said very little since regaining consciousness, his silence only emphasizing the depth of his anger.  The predatory blue gaze followed Alex’s every move, chilling him with its intensity.  For the first time, he truly understood what lay behind the legend of Johnny Madrid, and it intimidated him more than he was willing to admit.

Once he was ready, he sat down on a fallen tree branch, being very careful to keep out of range of Johnny’s feet. “We need to talk.”

The response was abrupt and not unforeseen. “I’ve got nothing to say to you.”

“Then I guess you’ll just have to listen.”

Johnny shot him a venomous look, tipped his head back to rest against the tree he was tied to, and closed his eyes.

Alex’s lips curved in a smile, amused by Johnny’s obduracy even in the face of defeat. “The way I see it, the best way to get to Armstrong is from the inside. And, the only way we’ve got any hope of achieving that is to give him something he wants.” He waited until he had Johnny’s undivided attention.  “He won’t trust me any more than you do, but he isn’t going to pass up the chance to get his hands on you.”

Johnny’s answer was hard and unyielding, giving no hint as to his views on the oblique offer of help. “He’ll have us both shot on sight.”

“Giving you a quick, easy death has never been part of his plan.  He blames you for everything he lost in Modesto and San Francisco, and he intends to make you suffer before you he kills you.”

“You seem to know a hell of a lot about what he wants.”

“He isn’t hard to figure out.  He told me some of it last time I was here, and there were rumors flyin’ all over Modesto.  You just had to know who to ask.”

Johnny cocked his head to one side, finally acknowledging what was being proposed and looking as if he thought Alex had lost his mind. “You’re telling me that hitting me over the head and tying me up is all part of some half-assed plan?”

Alex wasn’t unprepared for the incredulity in Johnny’s tone.  The former gunfighter wasn’t the kind of man to take interference with his plans quietly. When he’d finally made his mind up how to proceed, he’d known this was going to be a difficult conversation.  He could have put his plan up for discussion, but somehow, he couldn’t imagine Johnny agreeing to hand over his gun and play the role of an unwilling hostage. “That’s right.”

“It sure shouldn’t surprise you to hear I don’t believe you.”

“That’s your choice.  You’re not in any position to do anything about it, though.  Whether you believe me or not, I’m handing you over to Armstrong to try and catch him off guard.  Now, you can keep on distrusting me, or we can talk about how we use this to our advantage.”

The cold blue eyes glittered with malice. “Untie me, give me back my gun and I might be willing to listen.”

Alex laughed.  “Not the most convincing offer I’ve ever had.”

Johnny looked irritated as he tried to squirm into a more comfortable position on the hard, rocky ground.  “It’s the best you’re gonna get.”

With a resigned sigh, Alex stood up.  “Then, I guess we’re just going to have to do this the hard way.”  He walked round behind the tree and began to work on the knots securing the rope around Johnny’s chest. He noticed that Johnny’s fingers were swollen and considered loosening the tight bonds. A moment’s reflection convinced him that would be unwise.

“Did you tell me the truth last night, about your mother?”

The question caught Alex off-guard and his hands faltered.  “Yeah.”

“What happened?”

“She died.”  The rope came free.  He coiled it up as he returned to the front of the tree. Johnny’s gaze had dropped, and Alex frowned, wondering if he’d inadvertently struck a nerve.  He banished the impulse to ask, instead drawing his gun. Even tied, Johnny was dangerous and unpredictable so he had to keep the initiative. “Time to go.”

Johnny struggled to his feet and walked toward his horse.  “You’ll have to help me up.”

Alex caught his arm, pressing his gun against Johnny’s side.  “Try anything, and I’ll knock you out again and sling you over the saddle.”

“You’ve a real persuasive way about you,” Johnny sniped.  “And, just so’s you know – if Armstrong doesn’t kill you, I will.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.” He boosted Johnny into the saddle, gathered up the reins and mounted his own horse.  “At least you shouldn’t have any trouble persuading him you hate me.  Keep this up, and my plan might just work.”

The look of frustrated rage on Johnny’s face only served to amuse him further and he set out with a sense of keen anticipation.

*****

“You keep a close watch on both of them,” Scott instructed Frank and Pedro.  The two vaqueros were to accompany Teresa and Mika on their trip to Green River.  His renewed offer to ride along had been firmly vetoed by everyone.  Although he had been firmly resolved to ignore his family’s concern, a brief bout of dizziness on rising that morning had changed his mind.  He’d kept that to himself. He didn’t intend to give his family any more of an excuse to fuss over him and order him back to bed.

“We will keep them safe,” Frank assured him.  “You can rely on us.”

“I know.” Scott could see that his overly protective stance was causing some friendly amusement among the men. “Call on Val and let him know that we’re back.  Invite him over for supper if he can spare the time.”

Mika and Teresa, followed closely by Murdoch, came out the front door, the two women chattering like old friends.  Mika smiled and blew Scott a kiss before allowing Murdoch to help her into the buggy.

After they had gone, Murdoch walked over to where Scott was leaning against the hitching rail.  “I hope you’re not planning anything too strenuous.  You look as if a strong gust of wind would blow you over.”

Scott had to acknowledge the truth of that statement.  He’d lost weight during his illness and his clothes were hanging loosely from his body.  He’d been shocked to find how tightly he’d had to pull in his belt when getting dressed that morning.  “I need something to keep my mind occupied,” he admitted.  “When I’m sitting around with nothing to do, I can’t help thinking about Johnny.”

“I know, Son.  I wish he hadn’t gone, but you know there’s no reasoning with your brother when he gets an idea into his head.”

Scott sighed, leaning a little more heavily against the rail and hoping that his father wouldn’t notice.  “Did Brad get back from Spanish Wells?”

“Yes, late last night. Cipriano said that something seemed to have upset him.”

“Where is he now?”

“On his way to Black Mesa, with a dozen other men.  I’ve told them to cut out a hundred head as breeding stock.  That should keep him occupied and away from the house for a while, and all the men know to keep an eye on him.”

Scott looked into the distance where the buggy was just entering a curve in the roadway before disappearing from view, his thoughts skittering along a different path. “Did I do the right thing?”

Murdoch laid his arm gently around Scott’s shoulder, steering him back toward the house.  “If there’s one thing I discovered, it’s that a man in love rarely thinks rationally. I had no right to fall in love with your mother, or to expect her to move from a comfortable life in Boston to be with me, in what was little more than a wilderness. But, that didn’t stop me from proposing marriage.  I’ll confess I was speechless when she accepted.” He smiled at Scott with a tenderness that the younger man found vaguely unsettling.

“When I lost her, and you, I thought I’d never be happy again.  Meeting Maria was my blessing, and my curse, but she gave me Johnny…” His voice faltered.  “The point is, Son, we take whatever happiness life sends our way and hold onto it for as long as we can.  When I see you and Mika together, it’s obvious that you make each other happy.  So, don’t doubt yourself, or your decision. And, remember, she chose to accept your offer.”

Scott leaned into his father’s strength, grateful for more than the physical support. He was content to bask in the intimacy of the moment – to let it soothe away his momentary uncertainty.  They reached the great room and he moved slowly away from Murdoch’s protection. “I’ll make a start on the books, Sir.”

“Good idea.  That way I won’t have to explain to Sam why you’re ignoring his orders.  You know how grouchy he gets.”

*****

Alex reined the horses to a standstill as they reached the top of a low hill.  Johnny stretched his aching muscles, looking down into the gently sweeping valley.  They’d been riding for a couple of hours and the day was getting hotter by the minute.  He’d spent most of the journey glaring in silent fury at Alex’s back and trying to stay in the saddle.  His legs were tired and his shoulders were bunched up and tense. Sweat dripped down into his eyes, just another irritation designed to make his life miserable.

Alex, in contrast, appeared perfectly relaxed, although Johnny knew that was an illusion.  All good gunfighters mastered that particular art very quickly. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, Johnny still had a niggling suspicion that Alex was no longer working for Armstrong.  That wasn’t to say that he wouldn’t give just about anything for the opportunity to pound the gunfighter into the ground.  It had never been part of his plan to enter Armstrong’s lair unarmed and helpless, and Alex could still be just looking out for himself.

The hacienda in the distance was smaller than Lancer, but no less beautiful, the whitewashed walls contrasting sharply with the green of the fields and gently undulating hills.  It angered him that this stunning estancia should have fallen into Armstrong’s avaricious hands.  It deserved an owner who would love and care for it as he, his father and brother, loved and cared for their land. Thoughts of Lancer and his family brought an unwelcome lump to his throat so he concentrated instead on his anger.

He strained against the rope binding his wrists.  His hands were numb and there wasn’t the slightest amount of slack to provide any relief.  “You take me down there and you’re as good as signing my death warrant.” He waited until he had Alex’s attention before adding, “And yours.”

Alex appeared unperturbed.  “Where’s the fun in living if you don’t take a few chances?”

“Chances?” Johnny shook his head in disbelief.  “You’re loco.”

“For both our sakes, you’d better hope you’re wrong about that.” Alex squinted into the sunlight.  “Looks like we’re gonna have company real soon.”

Johnny followed the direction of Alex’s gaze.  A cloud of dust was headed their way.  It soon resolved itself into half a dozen riders.  Hating the feeling of vulnerability, he pulled again at the rope.  “There’s still time.  Untie me and let me have my gun back.”

Alex crossed his arms over the pommel, ignoring the plea.  The approaching men, all armed with rifles, pulled up twenty yards away.  A large, mean looking, individual rode forward alone.  His eyes raked first Alex, then Johnny, and he looked confused when he realized that Johnny was bound. Lots of muscle and no brain, was Johnny’s initial assessment of the man.

He returned his attention to Alex who hadn’t moved.  “I did not expect to see you here again.  Señor Armstrong was most unhappy when you failed to follow orders.”

“I’m sure he was, but I did warn him that I didn’t take well to bein’ ordered around.” Alex jerked his head toward Johnny.  “I’ve brought him a peace offering, so maybe he’ll forgive me this time.”

Johnny’s jaw tightened and Barranca shifted uneasily beneath him.

“You will surrender your weapons.” It was an order rather than a request.  “Then, we will see if Señor Armstrong is in a forgiving mood.”

“I don’t think so, Ernesto.”

Ernesto’s eyebrows shot up in surprise.  “You are outnumbered, and outgunned, Señor.  It would be a simple matter to disarm you or,” a cold smile was directed at Alex, “shoot you out of your saddle.”

Alex’s right hand moved.  Even though Johnny had been half-expecting it, he was still impressed by the speed with which Alex’s gun ended up pointed at Ernesto.  There was a low murmur of sound from the other men.  With their fate balanced on a knife-edge, Johnny took the prudent course for once and kept his mouth shut.

“Don’t crowd me, Ernesto,” Alex warned, “’cause you’ll be the first to hit the dirt.”

Ernesto forced a nervous laugh.  “Alex, my friend, there is no need to be so hostile.”

“I don’t recall us bein’ friends and I always take it badly when I’m told to hand over my gun.  Call off your men and we can take a nice easy ride down to see Mr. Armstrong.”

Ernesto twisted in his saddle and waved the other men away.  There was no argument, which led Johnny to silently question the quality of the guns hired by Armstrong. Alex holstered his gun, gathering up the two sets of reins.

Ernesto looked at Johnny with interest. “So, this is the man who has caused Señor Armstrong so much trouble.”

“Yeah, well I take it kinda personal when someone tries to have me hanged for a killing that was none of my doing.”

“Did anyone say you could speak?” Ernesto growled, riding close and backhanding Johnny across the mouth.

Johnny swayed in the saddle, feeling a hand on his arm, steadying him.  Blood trickled down the side of his mouth and he swore under his breath.  Alex released his hold and leaned closer.  “Shut up.”

“I’m getting real tired of you telling me what to do.”

“Too bad.”

Johnny glared at Alex, his animosity unmistakable.  “You’re a son of a bitch,” he said with cold deliberation.

Alex’s hazel eyes darkened. “You’re treading on dangerous ground.”

“Am I?” Johnny challenged.  “Maybe you just can’t handle the truth.” Alex no longer looked relaxed and Johnny readied himself for the retaliation he knew was coming his way.  “I bet your mother would be real proud…”

Nothing could have prepared him for the force of the punch that sent him flying to the ground.  He landed hard on his back, the breath knocked out of him.  Before his head had stopped spinning, he was being dragged to his feet.  Alex’s face, pale with anger, was only inches away from his own.

“You can damn well walk the rest of the way.” Alex shoved him and he staggered unsteadily.  “Get moving.”

Johnny looked up at Ernesto who was watching with amusement.  There should be no doubt in Ernesto’s mind that the two men loathed each other.  Johnny still didn’t know whether or not Alex was to be trusted, but at this point he had little to lose by playing along.  And, if he did manage to get loose, he didn’t reckon he’d have to think too long and hard before putting a bullet in Alex, if it did turn out that the gunfighter was working for Armstrong.

With a longing look at Barranca, who was sidling sideways to show his displeasure, he set off in the direction of the hacienda.  It was a long walk in blistering heat.  He stumbled more than once on the uneven ground.  Each time, Alex silently waited for him to regain his feet while Ernesto, with false bravado, made comments about pathetic half-breeds who couldn’t even walk in a straight line.  Johnny mentally moved Ernesto up the list of people he would really like to shoot.

By the time they reached the house, Johnny’s head was down as he concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other.  His breathing was labored and his entire body was covered in sweat.  When he heard the front door opening he took a deep breath and straightened up. The last time he had seen Martin Armstrong was from the scaffold as he waited for the executioner to pull the lever that would have sent him into oblivion. Armstrong had been watching those proceedings with undisguised enjoyment. He had the same look on his face now.

Armstrong looked fitter than when Johnny had known him in Modesto. He clearly no longer spent his days sitting behind a desk.  He was immaculately and expensively dressed, leading Johnny to think, sourly, that he’d damn well done the man a favor by exposing his underhanded schemes.

As Armstrong gazed at Johnny with keen anticipation, Alex dismounted and walked to his side.  “Reckon we’re even,” Alex said, shoving Johnny toward the porch.

Johnny lost his balance, falling to his knees with a hastily suppressed cry of surprise and pain.  “Bastard.”  When Alex kicked him, hard, he began to wonder if he had gone too far.  With or without help, he was going to have to try and get free, as the alternative wasn’t one he was prepared to consider. That meant staying relatively healthy and avoiding unnecessary injury. As he stared at the ground, trying to regain his composure, he heard footsteps approaching him.

“Get him on his feet.”

The sound of Armstrong’s smug voice was almost too much.  Ernesto pulled him up, holding his arms to keep him still as Armstrong walked round him.  “It’s been a long time, Johnny.  How are your father, and brother? I imagine they’re very worried about you.  Do they even know where you are?  My man in Green River tells me they’re back at Lancer, along with that pretty little girl your brother so foolishly proposed to.”

Johnny looked straight at Armstrong, full of hatred and contempt, and refusing to allow himself the luxury of responding.

“There will be no last minute rescue this time.  Even if they do know the location of this estate, they could never get here in time to do you any good.  Besides, they will soon have another tragic death to deal with much closer to home.”

Armstrong turned away and Johnny strained to free himself of Ernesto’s hands.  “Who? Damn you, Armstrong, answer me! Enough people have died.  When does it end?”

“Lock him up.  Alex and I need to talk.”

“No!” Johnny yelled.  “No-one else has to die.”

“You’re wrong.” Armstrong walked back to look Johnny in the eye.  “You have to die, but not until you’ve watched me destroy your family.”

The pull on his arms was too strong to resist and he was propelled toward the door.  Twisting round, he saw Armstrong put an arm around Alex’s shoulder, a genial smile on his face.  He was forced down a flight of stairs and into a small room in the cellar. The door was closed and locked behind him, and he was left in the dark.

 

Chapter 14

Yolanda pressed back against the wall, eyes closed and heart pounding.  When one of the men had ridden hard up to the hacienda with news of Johnny and Alex’s imminent arrival, she hadn’t been able to make sense out of what she was hearing.  Armstrong had immediately started to bellow orders. Men with rifles had been placed in strategic locations, with orders to shoot Alex if he gave the slightest hint of duplicity.  Johnny wasn’t to be harmed – he was very clear about that.  He intended to enjoy his revenge fully, and at his leisure.

They’d waited until Armstrong became impatient, sending men to find out what was delaying the arrival of his unexpected prisoner.  The news that Johnny was being forced to walk had caused him great amusement.

She had watched from the shadow of the doorway, waiting for her first glimpse of Johnny.  When he eventually stumbled into the yard she could see that he was tired and dirty, yet, had still raised his head high to meet the threat. She had almost cried out when Alex had sent him to his knees, and had been horrified by the vicious kick that had followed.  All her fanciful dreams had been shattered.  Alex wasn’t a man with a good heart. He was hard and cruel, reveling in his power over his helpless victim.

Johnny hadn’t seen her as he’d been dragged away.  She knew that he was to be confined in the cellar until Armstrong was ready for him.  Somehow, she had to find a way to let him know that he wasn’t alone – that he had a friend here.

She could hear Armstrong’s voice coming closer.  She couldn’t allow him to see her like this, and neither could she hide herself away.  He’d be expecting her to share in the celebratory mood and, making him suspicious, would be a death sentence for her and Johnny.  She began to walk down the hallway, hips swaying provocatively, stopping as she came face to face with Alex.  The beginnings of a smile died on his lips as she looked at him coldly.

“Señor Grey, this is a surprise.” Her voice was as hard and unyielding as her stare.

“It’s good to see you again, Señorita.”

“It appears you have earned your money.” She saw his mouth tighten as she swept past him to kiss Armstrong briefly on the lips.  “Congratulations, my dear,” she said, willing a smile onto her face and her body to relax.

“There’s no need to be jealous of Alex,” Armstrong replied, misinterpreting her reaction.  “This will all be over soon, and then we can settle down and get on with our lives.”  He looked down at her with concern.  “You’re shaking.”

“I don’t trust him.” She turned so that she could look at Alex.  He’d befriended Johnny and then betrayed him, and she was determined to ensure that he paid for that.

“I think we can afford to give him the benefit of the doubt.”

“You thought he’d turned on you once before,” she reminded him.  “Perhaps he did, and what is to stop him from doing it again?  You should lock him up too…or better yet, have him shot.”  The hurt look on Alex’s face was swiftly wiped away.  Her heart fluttered in her chest.  Despite his actions, she was still unwillingly attracted to him.

“As I recall, you used to be quite an advocate for our young friend.” There was no suspicion in Armstrong’s voice, just indulgent amusement.

Alex’s calm manner and his continued silence were unsettling her.  “I simply urge caution.  You should not let down your guard.  All I have heard about Johnny Madrid suggests that only someone he believed to be a friend could have taken him like that.  Be careful who you accept as ~ your ~ friend.”

“She makes a strong point,” Armstrong challenged.

Alex continued to look unconcerned.  “I did what I had to do.  I ain’t proud of the lies I told him, but the way I saw things, it was either him or me.  You sendin’ that gun hawk after me in Modesto went a long way to me making up my mind.”

“You knew?” Armstrong frowned.

“I told Johnny the man had been sent to kill him, and he believed me.  Only, it wasn’t Johnny he was pointin’ his gun at.  I’ve delivered Johnny Madrid, but there’s a price.  I want more money so that I can disappear and start over.  You’re a wealthy man. You can afford to be generous.”

“I like you, Boy.  You’ve got guts.  Come into the study and we’ll talk.  I have a proposal for you.”

“Martin…”

“Don’t press me, Yolanda,” he warned.  “Get a room ready for our guest and tell Ernesto to report to me in an hour.”

“What about Madrid?”

“He can stay where he is, for now.  Let him worry about what’s happening at Lancer.”

Sensing that she was losing her grip on him, she rubbed up against him sensuously.  When she spoke her voice was low and husky.  “You promised me a reward for all my help and advice,” she reminded him.  “You promised me Johnny Madrid.”

“So I did, but not yet.  I need him alert and able to fully appreciate the destruction of his home and family.”

“Can I go and see him?” She trailed a finger down the front of his shirt, stopping just above his belt buckle.

Armstrong looked at her thoughtfully.  “Alright.  Don’t damage him.”

She thought she saw a brief look of distaste cross Alex’s face.  She lifted her chin and smiled at him.  When it came down to it, she would always win any fight where Armstrong was concerned, and Alex needed to realize that.  Standing aside, she watched them enter the study.  She allowed herself a small sigh of relief before heading outside to give Ernesto his orders.  She had a lot to do, and not much time.

*****

It had taken time for Johnny’s eyes to adjust to the darkness.  His prison was no more than eight feet square, with a heavy wooden door and no windows.  The floor was hard packed dirt, the temperature being pleasantly cool after the raging heat outside.  He’d examined every inch of the room, finding nothing that would help free his hands.  He grudgingly resigned himself to the fact that he would have to wait it out.

Armstrong’s threat of another death at Lancer weighed heavily on his mind.  He was a good four days ride from the ranch, with no idea where the nearest telegraph office was to be found.  Even if he regained his freedom soon, would he be able to get a warning to his family in time?

His impression was that the attack wouldn’t be directly against Murdoch or Scott.  Knowing Armstrong’s nature, it seemed likely that it was Mika who was at risk.  She’d been threatened before, and Johnny knew from previous experience that Armstrong wouldn’t balk at having a woman killed.  Scott would do anything in his power to protect his fiancée, which worried Johnny even more.  It was unlikely that his brother was fully recovered from his injury, and that made him vulnerable.

For one despairing moment, he wondered if it would have been better not to have defied Armstrong the first time.  But, even it he’d been inclined to submit quietly to that travesty of a trial, his family would still have fought for him. All he could do was trust Murdoch and Scott to control the situation at Lancer, while taking any opportunities that presented themselves here.  If Alex was telling the truth, they still had a chance.  If he was lying…

He stiffened as he heard the door creaking open.  Lamplight spilled into the room, causing him to turn his head away to shield his eyes.

“I’m not sure about this, Señorita.”

The voice was male and not one that Johnny recognized.  The answer came in a voice that was tantalizingly familiar.

“Señor Armstrong wishes the prisoner to be cleaned up. He does not want all that dirt trailed through the house when he questions him later.”

Questions? In Johnny’s experience, that was a polite way of describing torture.  Armstrong might not want dirt on his floor, but would probably be quite happy to have Johnny bleed there.

“I will stay.”

“There is no need.  Look at him.  He poses no threat while he is tied.  Wait outside the door and do not be concerned.  I will call if I need you.”

Johnny waited until the door had closed again before looking at his visitor.  A slow smile spread across his face.  “It’s been a lot of years.”

Yolanda set down the basin she was carrying and knelt by his side.  “Si, and those years have changed you the most, I think.”

Johnny’s smile faded.  “What’re you doing with Armstrong?  He’s a vicious bastard who’s tryin’ to destroy my family.”

“I know.” She reached into her pocket, producing a small knife.  “Lean forward and I will cut you loose.”

Johnny didn’t hesitate.  He scooted round so that she could work and, with his back to her, found it easier to ask the questions that were rushing through his mind.  “How’d you end up here? Last time I saw you…”

“It was a lifetime and a million miles away,” she finished for him.

“Yeah. I guess it was.” Johnny glanced at the door.  The small knife was too blunt to cut easily through the thick rope.  How long before the guard became impatient or suspicious?  He could almost taste the promise of freedom and the slow, deliberate strokes of the knife brushing against the skin of his hands was the worst kind of torment.

“I found a good man,” she continued, softly.  “He owned this estancia and he was kind to me.  When he died I had nowhere to go, except back on the streets, so I waited.  Martin Armstrong took over the estancia and invited me to his bed…” Her hand was shaking, causing the knife to slip. She exclaimed in concern as it nicked his skin.

“It’s nothing,” Johnny assured her.  “Just get these ropes off me.” He bit his bottom lip in frustration as sweat started to trickle down his back.  He knew the knots were too tight for her to undo them, leaving the knife as his only means of escape.  His mouth was dry as he looked again at the door.  How much time had passed? Dios! How much longer was this going to take?

He felt a fractional lessening in the severity of his bonds, an easing of the constricting pressure on his wrists.  He tugged convulsively, pulling the rope apart strand by strand.  With a final stroke of the blade, his arms were free. They fell heavily to his side, his hands swollen and numb.  The muscles in his shoulders screamed in protest at the abrupt movement.

Yolanda, her expression hidden by her long dark hair, shifted position so that she could take his cold right hand in both of hers.  Gently, she caressed his skin, rubbing warmth back, with the painful tingling of returning circulation.

When she looked up, her eyes were sad.  Old memories resurfaced, of a time when he’d been on the verge of manhood, young, cocky and with death strapped to his right hip.  Leaving her had been cruel, but he’d sought a different destiny and it was with shame that he admitted to himself that he’d given her very little thought in the years since. Acknowledging her need to retain some pride, he made no inappropriate move, although he would have welcomed the feel of her in his arms, even knowing that she had been with Armstrong.

“Gracias,” he said instead.  “You’ve taken a hell of a risk coming to me like this.”

“Do you think I could have stood by and watched him hurt you?”

“A lot of people would have.”

“Like Alex?” She almost spat the name.

Johnny frowned.  There was something lying underneath the words, something elusive that he didn’t have time to track down now.  “Accordin’ to Alex, this is all part of a plan to get us inside the house.  It worked alright.” He wanted to believe his words, yet doubt lingered.

“I saw how he treated you, and it was no act.”

“Maybe not, but I reckon I might have deserved some of it. Boy’s got a mean streak, though.” Johnny’s ribs were still paining him where Alex’s boot had landed.  “We’ll find out soon enough whose side he’s on.” Satisfied that his right hand was now mobile again, he got to his feet.  “We have to get that guard in here.” He helped Yolanda to her feet, whispering instructions into her ear.

The bowl of water hit the wall, Yolanda screamed, and the door flew open with impressive speed.  Precious seconds were purchased as the guard stared at her, open mouthed.  She looked terrified, which was hardly surprising as she would have been right in the line of fire had the man panicked and come in shooting.  Not that he was looking at her face.  His eyes were riveted to the smooth skin of her breast and the torn edges of her blouse.

With a wolfish smile, Johnny stepped out of the shadows.  His fist connected with the man’s jaw, sending him staggering backwards.  Desperation fueled Johnny’s blows.  A hard punch to the nose brought a satisfying cracking of bone and a rush of blood.  The man raised his hands to his face and Johnny turned his attention to the unprotected stomach.

However, Johnny had never expected to get it all his own way.  His opponent was hard, tough and clearly not afraid of a fight.  Once the initial shock had worn off, the man went on the offensive, driving Johnny back.  If the man had any smarts, he would try to maneuver himself into enough space to draw his gun. If that happened, the fight, and his bid for freedom, would be over.  A particularly vicious blow doubled Johnny over.

“Dirty ‘breed.”

Johnny heard the words, which were immediately overshadowed by the sound of a gun being cocked.  As he looked up, the guard fell to his knees before pitching forward onto his face.  Johnny stared at the knife protruding from the back of the man’s neck, then hastily turned his attention to Yolanda.  She looked as if she was about to collapse in shock.  Johnny crossed the short distance between them, sweeping her into his arms and holding her close as she trembled uncontrollably, sobbing his name over and over.

From necessity, Johnny let her cry it out.  He had a feeling there was more to it than a reaction to what amounted to a killing in self-defense. Eventually, the sobs died away and the tremors left her body.  She pulled away, dabbing at her red-rimmed eyes with a handkerchief.

Johnny sank to one knee, pulling out the knife and wiping it against the side of his trousers.  He slipped it through the back of his belt and collected the dead guard’s revolver.  The cylinder was full.  He rolled the man over and unbuckled the gunbelt, refastening it and looping it over his shoulder.  “We need to go.  Where’s Armstrong?”

“He was in his study talking with Alex.”

“You go ahead of me.  If anyone gets suspicious, you start yelling your head off, warning them that I’ve escaped.  I don’t know if Armstrong’ll buy into that, but it might just save your life.”

They left the cellar, climbing the stairs to the hallway.  There was no one in sight as Johnny followed her to a door.  He put a finger to his lips, indicating that she should be quiet.  Reaching out with his left hand, he grasped the handle.

*****

Alex stared out the window, his thoughts a long way from the beautifully tended garden. He could still feel Armstrong’s arm around his shoulders, making him feel dirty by association. He was angry with himself for his loss of control earlier.  It had never been part of his plan to inflict unnecessary pain on Johnny.  Neither had he been expecting Yolanda to turn on him. If Armstrong had listened to her, this tenuous plan would have failed and he would have had Johnny’s imminent death on his conscience.  Not that he could have expected a long life in which to experience regret.

Had it not been for the fact that he didn’t know the exact numbers and disposition of Armstrong’s men, Alex might have taken a chance on shooting the man as soon as they were alone.  Added to that was the uncertainty about Johnny’s whereabouts and condition. He would have to bide his time.

Mustering an air of self-possession that he wasn’t feeling, he turned back to face Armstrong.  “I ain’t plannin’ on staying around long, so you and me need to talk about money.”

“I admire avarice in a young man.” Armstrong picked up a white knight from the ornate chessboard and laid it back in the box.  “I could pay you off, reward you for services rendered so far.  But, I have another suggestion.”

Alex moved closer, studying the game in progress on the board.  A red pawn was in position to menace the white queen, but was vulnerable to being swept from the board. Frowning, he looked beyond the obvious next move.  If the queen took the pawn it would open a path for one of the red rooks to put the white king in check.  If the queen remained where she was, she was the one who would be removed from the game and the result would be the same.  He plotted a series of moves in his mind, seeing the inevitable outcome of the game and recognizing, with no room for doubt, that Armstrong would sacrifice any of his pieces to win.

“I’m listening.”

“Once the Lancer family has been destroyed, I intend to travel abroad.  I need someone to run this estate for me.”

“I don’t have any experience of runnin’ things.”

“I’m sure you don’t.  I’m not suggesting that you handle the business side.  I’m offering you the chance to be in charge of security.  I want you to protect my investment.”

“What about Ernesto?  I thought he was your right-hand man.”

“He has his uses, but he is no leader, and he only inspires fear, not respect.”

“And your little Mexican señorita?  I reckon she could geld a man if he looked at her the wrong way.” Speaking of Yolanda stirred a longing in him, despite her words earlier and her eager anticipation at the prospect of tormenting Johnny.

“Whores like her are a dime a dozen.  She’s had her uses, and I’ll let her have her reward.  I’m sure she’ll find a number of inventive ways to make Johnny suffer before I have him put out of his misery.  But, she doesn’t belong in my world and the places I intend to visit would not welcome her.  I’m sure she will be happy to be paid off or,” Armstrong looked at him thoughtfully, “maybe you’d like to tame her.”

Alex did his best to look unconcerned.  “I wouldn’t trust her not to stick a knife in my back.”

“You’re probably right. I hope you’ll give the rest of my proposal some thought.”

Alex shook his head.  “I’ve some personal business to attend to.”

“Ah, yes, your father.”

The breath left Alex’s lungs as Armstrong’s words struck him with full force.  “What do you know about my father?”

“Well, for one thing, I know where he’s hiding.”

“My business is none of your goddamn concern.”

“I can be a powerful friend, Alex.  Or, as the Lancer family discovered, a deadly enemy.  Which would you prefer?”

Alex heard the door open, and ignored it, expecting that it was Ernesto arriving in obedience to Armstrong’s commend.

“The first person to make any sudden moves ends up dead.”

The unexpected, and softly spoken words, jolted him into motion, turning and reaching for his gun.

“Uh huh.” Johnny shook his head, his gun moving slowly between the other two men in the room.  “It’s time for you to make up your mind, and I ain’t gonna lose any sleep over shootin’ you, so you’d best be real careful.”

“How the hell did you get loose?” Armstrong spluttered, face flushed and angry.

“I had some help.”

Alex looked aghast at Yolanda as she slipped into the room behind Johnny. He noted the torn blouse and the evidence of prolonged weeping.

“You devious bitch,” Armstrong raged.  “How long have you been planning to betray me?”

“That ain’t the question.” Johnny’s eyes hadn’t moved from Alex.  “You’ve got ten seconds, and you’re gonna have to be damn convincing.”

 

Chapter 15

Although they all remained on their guard, the journey into town was uneventful. As soon as they reached Green River, Frank excused himself and went over to the sheriff’s office. Pedro assisted the two girls down from the buggy and Mika looked around curiously. She had never visited the town before, having chosen to spend her previous brief visits at the ranch with Scott and her brother.

Thinking of Hannu made her sad.  She loved and missed him, yet it confused her that she didn’t hate him for trying to kill Scott.  Misguided though his actions had been, she was sure that he had been motivated by concern for her.  He had always felt it was his place to protect her, while encouraging her to think for herself.  Now, she couldn’t help but wonder if he was safe and whether or not she would ever see him again. Perhaps, she thought gloomily, she would never know what had happened to him.

Teresa tugged on her arm to attract her attention. “Let’s go to the café for an early lunch before we start.”

Mika nodded, bowing her head in embarrassment as she found herself being stared at by a number of passers-by.  The stares, on the whole, were simply curious.  Some, however, were unfriendly.

Teresa had clearly noticed as well as she linked arms with Mika.  “Don’t mind them.  Most of the folks around here are decent enough.  Some of the unmarried girls will be green with envy, though.  You wouldn’t believe how hard some of them have tried to ensnare Scott.  And, their mothers were no better.  He was seen as quite a catch.” She grinned mischievously.  “They’ll just have to turn their attention to Johnny, although he already has a long list of admirers and is very adept at avoiding any serious entanglements.”

“You’re not jealous?” Mika asked hesitantly.

“Oh no!  Scott and Johnny are like brothers to me.” Teresa leaned closer.  “Just between you and me, I’ve got my eye on someone very different.”

The reassurance rang true, leaving Mika grateful to have Teresa as a friend and confidant. All conversation stopped as they entered the café. The woman behind the counter looked aghast that Mika had dared to enter her establishment. A smartly dressed middle-aged lady stood up, giving them a friendly smile and wave.

“Please come and join me, Teresa,” she called.  “I don’t believe I have met your friend.”

“Good morning, Miss Forrester.” Teresa pulled Mika toward the table.  “This is Mika, Scott’s fiancée. Mika, I’d like to introduce Ruth Forrester.”

“I am honored to meet you, Miss Forrester.”

Ruth laughed.  “You don’t need to be so formal, my dear.  Murdoch has told me a lot about you, and I’ll confess rumors have been flying around town about Scott’s engagement.  I’m delighted to get the chance to finally meet you.  Scott is a fine young man.”

As Mika settled in her chair, she could hear the buzz of renewed conversation around her. The woman, who had been behind the counter, hurried over and pointedly turned her back on Mika in order to address Teresa.

“Hello, Teresa.  I heard that Murdoch and Scott were home.  How is Scott? I do hope they find and hang that coward who attacked him.”

Mika gasped softly and Ruth reached over to pat her hand before responding on her behalf. “Tact never was your strong point, was it, Nancy?”

Already unsettled by the unwelcome attention, all Mika wanted to do was escape.  “I am not very hungry, Teresa,” she said desperately.

“Nonsense,” Ruth intervened kindly.  “You will soon be a Lancer, my dear, and these ignorant fools will just have to get used to it.”

“Ignorant fools?” Nancy spluttered indignantly.

“Personally, I can’t abide prejudice,” Ruth continued placidly.  “Life is far too short.”

“Now, see here, Ruth…”

“I believe you were enquiring as to Scott’s health,” Ruth interrupted.  “I’d be interested in hearing the answer.” She looked at Mika.

“He is much better,” Mika answered, after receiving an encouraging look from Teresa.  “He is still weak and he tries to do too much, too soon.”

“Sounds like his father.  I helped care for Murdoch once, after he had been shot.  It was almost impossible to get him to heed good sound medical advice.”

“Yes,” Mika agreed shyly.  She liked this plain-spoken woman and was grateful to have a more mature advocate.

Nancy continued to fume silently as Ruth passed the menu to Teresa.  Mika’s anxiety increased again.  Her spoken English was good, but she was unable to read anything written in that language.

“Mrs. Patterson’s chicken stew is particularly good,” Teresa advised, her face alive with amusement at Ruth’s blunt reprimands.

Mika nodded in silent gratitude, her hands gripped together under cover of the tablecloth.

“Three plates of chicken stew,” Ruth ordered. “And, we’ll have some of your wonderful apple pie for dessert.”

Appearing somewhat mollified by the compliments directed at her cooking skills, Nancy left them alone.

“I’m sorry about that, Mika.  I’m afraid you are a novelty for people who have little to do all day, except gossip.  It will get easier, and I hope you will look on me as a friend.”

Mika picked up her napkin, horrified to find that her hands were shaking.  “Thank you.”

“Have you set a date for the wedding?”

Ruth nodded her thanks as Nancy set three glasses of lemonade on the table.  Mika’s glass hit the surface with significant force, causing some of the liquid to spill onto the white tablecloth.

Mika looked at the stain miserably. In Modesto, she had been used to being ignored by the majority of the non-Chinese population.  The open acceptance she had met at Lancer, coupled with her love for Scott, had lulled her into a false sense of security.  All her previous uncertainties came crashing down around her. Scott was a rich, important man.  How would he cope with having his friends and neighbors treating his wife with disdain?  And, more importantly, how would that attitude affect any children?  Tears threatened and she wished she had waited to make this trip.  It would have been easier with Scott by her side.  When she was with him, she felt safe.

“The wedding?” Ruth prompted.

“We have not decided on a date yet.  Johnny…” She glanced at Teresa, not sure how much to say.

“Johnny had some business to attend to in Mexico,” Teresa said smoothly.  “We aren’t sure when he’ll get back, so Scott and Mika decided to wait to announce the arrangements.”

“I assume Johnny will be Scott’s best man.  It’s remarkable how close those two are, given their different upbringings.  Murdoch couldn’t have asked for better sons.”

The food arrived and Mika picked at it listlessly.  Ruth and Teresa kept the conversation flowing, while she let her mind wander.  By the time the meal was over, she had just about convinced herself that she could overcome the difficulties with the help of Scott, his family and close friends. She could feel some of her confidence returning and began to look forward to choosing the material for her wedding outfit.  She had discussed this with Teresa at length, as she would not feel comfortable wearing a traditional American style gown.  She had sketched a design and Teresa had assured her that, between them, they would be able to make a dress to that pattern.  One initial source of contention had been the color, but Mika’s wishes had prevailed.  The dress would be red, to symbolize good luck, with gold embroidery.

The wedding itself would take place at Lancer, and Scott had offered to go through a second Chinese ceremony, either in Modesto or San Francisco, where she still had some family.  Although tempted, she had decided that she would rather adopt his ways, turning from the traditions of her old life.  His willingness to embrace her culture, and his deep concern for her feelings and wishes, strengthened her love for him.  He was a truly remarkable man, and she still sometimes wondered if she would wake one day to find this was all a dream.

Teresa and Ruth stopped to speak to some of their mutual friends so Mika walked outside alone. As she waited on the boardwalk she saw three scruffy young cowboys walking toward her.  Not liking the way they were looking at her, Mika took a hasty step to her right to bypass them, only to have one of the men move to block her way.

“Well lookee here, boys,” he said.  “It’s one of them Chinese whores we’ve heard about.  Never thought to see one so far away from San Francisco.” He grabbed her arm and pulled her against him.

Mika felt weak with shock.  One dreadful night in Modesto she had been accosted by two of Armstrong’s men.  They had threatened her with rape, leaving her severely traumatized. On that occasion, there had been no one around to save her.  This attack was in broad daylight and in a public place.  She began to panic as she realized that no one was going to intervene to protect her.

“Let go,” she begged, struggling against the firm grip.

“You know, Ricky, I think this might be that girl Scott Lancer proposed to.”

“Yeah, I heard that Lancer had a taste for foreigners,” the man holding her replied. “Just like his old man, and look where that got him.  You plannin’ to breed some more murdering half-breeds, Missy?”

Mika turned her head away as the man leaned down, his whiskey soaked breath making her stomach roil.

“Get your filthy hands off her.” Val’s face was as unfriendly as his voice, the revolver in his hand, and the fact that he was flanked by Frank and Pedro, giving weight to his authority.

The man holding her tightened his grip. “Just havin’ a little fun, Sheriff.”

“Insultin’ ladies and assaultin’ them ain’t my idea of ‘fun’.”

The man leered at Mika.  “She ain’t a lady, she’s just some…”

The sound of Val cocking his gun stopped the man cold.  “Fetch your horses and get out of town,” Val ordered.  “Say one more word and I’ll arrest you for disturbin’ the peace.”

“Aw, come on, Sheriff,” a voice called from the small crowd that had gathered to watch.  “They were just horsin’ around. No harm was done.”

Val spun round, his back rigid with fury.  “You people disgust me.  You’re quick enough to look to the Lancers for help when you need it, but not one of you was prepared to lift a finger to help a young girl in trouble.  Get about your business, before I find a reason to fine the lot of you.”

The crowd dispersed, amid angry mutterings and Mika backed away as the man released her. Teresa and Ruth hurried over to offer reassurances which flowed over her like a fast running stream. Her heart was pounding, while the ugliness of the man’s words and the reaction of the townsfolk were making her feel physically sick.

“Thank you, Val,” Teresa said gratefully.

“I want to go home.” Mika’s voice was so low that she didn’t know if anyone heard her. It shook her more than anything else that had happened that day, to realize that now she wasn’t sure which ‘home’ she was referring to.

“I think it would be a good idea if you were to go back to the ranch,” Val agreed.  “Give me a minute to saddle my horse and I’ll ride with you.”

Frank and Pedro closed protectively around the two young women, escorting them back to their buggy.  Mika kept her head down, not wanting to see the stares or hear the comments.  As they waited for the sheriff to join them, she took firm hold of Teresa’s arm.  “Do not say anything to Scott.  He has enough worries.”

“He has a right to know,” Teresa protested.

“He will.  I will tell him once we know that Johnny is safe.  Let me deal with this, Teresa.”

“You won’t be able to keep it quiet and Scott won’t thank you for keeping secrets.”

Knowing that Teresa was right didn’t bring her any comfort. “I will speak to him about it,” she agreed reluctantly.

“Please don’t judge everyone by what happened here today.”

“It is no different from Modesto.” But, it was.  In Modesto, there had been no expectation of being treated with respect.  Here, she would have to co-exist with people who despised her.  It would hurt Scott and his family, as much as it hurt her.  She couldn’t bring herself to imagine what it would be like to bring a child into this narrow-minded world. Life had been hard enough for Johnny, who had grown up barely tolerated by either side of his heritage, it would be far worse for a child of her blood. And, any hurt to his sons or daughters would devastate Scott. She knew then that she had been wrong to accept his proposal, too blinded by her feelings to acknowledge the truth.  Maybe one day, people like her would be accepted, but that day was a long way off.

The man sitting outside the hotel watched as the buggy and its escort left town. Drumming his fingers on the arm of the rocking chair, he reflected that the money he’d paid those cowboys to cause trouble had been well spent.  Armstrong’s orders had been to sow dissention and upheaval in the Lancer household, in order to keep them occupied and off-balance.  He still wasn’t convinced that Brad would have the guts to carry out his orders, but that didn’t matter.  The girl would die, Brad would be blamed and it would be impossible for the boy to plead his innocence.  A well-placed bullet by a concerned citizen would ensure that.

He stood up, whistling tunelessly.  He had a telegram to send then he’d follow Mika back to Lancer and wait for his chance.

*****

The armchair was comfortable and it was becoming increasingly difficult to keep his eyes open.  The heavy ledger rested in his lap, ignored for the past hour.  A pencil, held loosely, hadn’t been used for twice that amount of time.  Solitude and disturbed thoughts made an uncomfortable combination.  He regretted his failure to insist upon accompanying Mika and Teresa.  Mika was his responsibility.  He was the one who had embroiled her in Armstrong’s murderous schemes.  He should have stayed away from her, rather than seeking out her company.  But, if he had done that, he would never have received Hannu’s assistance – assistance that had been instrumental in saving Johnny’s life.  And, he wouldn’t have had the opportunity to fall deeply in love with a unique young woman.

“You look tired.”

The voice startled Scott.  “Murdoch! I didn’t hear you come in.”

He tightened his grip on the pencil, returning his attention, guiltily, to the book.  Rows of figures swam across the page.  Rubbing his eyes didn’t help, and neither did the knowledge that he had so completely lost his train of thought that he couldn’t make sense of the entries.

“That’s enough.” Murdoch reached down, lifting the book and closing it with a decisive snap.  “Go upstairs and lie down.”

“I’ve had enough of being treated like an invalid,” Scott complained.  “Something is wrong here – I can feel it. Everyone’s on edge and I have no intention of hiding away in my room.”

“No one is suggesting that you should, but if you push yourself too hard you might find yourself back in bed, whether you like it or not.”

Scott could feel his frustration building.  “I feel so damned useless.  I should be with Johnny.  What happens if Armstrong gets hold of him again? We can’t trust Alex to back him up, and we can’t trust Johnny to use any common sense where Armstrong is concerned.”

“I doubt if any of us could show a great deal of restraint.”

Scott’s fingers curled into hard fists.  “He’ll be counting on that.  Armstrong did everything he could during Johnny’s trial to try and get him to lose his temper. He tried the same tactics with me as well. He’s a master at the art of manipulation.”

“There’s nothing we can do to help Johnny.  The only thing we can do is keep an eye on the situation here.”

“I know, and I should be watching out for Mika. I can’t sit around here any longer.  I’m going to ride into town.”

He waited for an argument, only to see that Murdoch was smiling faintly. “It appears I have two very headstrong sons.  It’s not just your eyes that you inherited from your mother. I think you’ve got her stubborn streak as well. I’ll get someone to saddle your horse.  At least that way you might get to the end of the drive before you collapse.”

“Thanks for the encouragement,” Scott replied dryly.

“You’re welcome, Son.” Murdoch chuckled as he patted Scott on the shoulder on his way to the door.  “I’m sure Mika will have something to say about your foolishness.  I’ll leave it to her to blister your ears this time.”

Scott grimaced.  Mika rarely lost her temper.  When she did, the explosion was impressive.  His expression changed as he anticipated the enjoyment of making amends. He waited until he was alone before easing himself carefully to his feet.  Holding on to the back of the chair he waited for the unpleasant spinning sensation to stop.  By the time he had collected his hat, gunbelt and gloves, he was satisfied that he was feeling sufficiently recovered to make it into the saddle.

*****

Scott rode at an easy canter.  The movement jarred his injured side, but the discomfort was bearable.  The fresh air had helped to clear his head and he was starting to enjoy the freedom after so long confined within four walls.  He was approximately halfway to Green River when he spotted the buggy and three riders coming toward him.  He pulled over to wait, feeling the first stirrings of concern.  He hadn’t expected them to be returning so soon.

One of the riders spurred his horse ahead of the others. As he came closer, Scott could see that it was Val, and that the sheriff had a smile plastered all over his normally dour face.

“Good to see you, Scott.”

“Val,” Scott acknowledged, his eyes now on the approaching buggy.  “Is anything wrong?” Not receiving an immediate answer, Scott looked round and found Val gazing down at the reins and fidgeting.  “Well?” he demanded harshly.

“Reckon you need to ask Miss Mika that.”

“I’m asking you, Sheriff.”

Val glanced up, frowning at the formality.  “There was some trouble in town.”

The buggy pulled to a halt and Scott studied the two women.  Teresa’s expression was one of simmering anger.  Mika had her head bowed, uncharacteristically failing to meet his eyes.  He rode over and held out his hand.

“Come with me.”

He knew that something had changed when she looked at him.  Whatever had happened in town had hurt her.  His hand didn’t waver as he waited for her response.  Finally, she gave a brief nod, stood and placed her small hand in his.  He helped her swing into the saddle behind him.  Her arms slid around his waist and she rested her cheek on his back.

“Tell Murdoch not to worry.  We’ll be home soon,” he told Teresa, then turned his horse so that they could head away from the road and find someplace private to talk.

*****

Murdoch paced irritably around the yard.  It had been over an hour since Teresa and Val had arrived and explained what had happened.  What angered him the most was that this was exactly what he had been afraid of. He had met similar prejudices when he brought Maria home. The difference was that Mexicans were far more accepted, even if it had still been somewhat unusual to actually marry one.  Johnny had been too young to be affected by the few comments about his parentage, only to then face far greater prejudice south of the border after Maria spirited him away from his home.

He knew that Scott believed they could overcome such problems.  It was easier for him.  He was a strong, confident young man.  Mika was little more than a child, far out of her depth in unfamiliar surroundings.  Scott couldn’t watch over her, or any children, every minute of every day. He wanted to be supportive and had no doubt that the two young people loved each other.  Nonetheless, he wished that Scott had never decided to propose.

He pulled out his watch. They’d been gone a long time.  He knew that Scott wasn’t as strong as he was trying to appear.  If trouble found him and Mika, would he be capable of dealing with it?

“Señor Murdoch! Señor Murdoch!”

Murdoch spun round at the sound of Cipriano’s voice.  His Segundo raced into the yard, dismounting before his horse had come to a complete halt.  “Trouble, Señor.” Cipriano paused to catch his breath.

“Take your time,” Murdoch advised.

“We were rounding up the cattle when something made them stampede.”

“Was anybody hurt?”

Cipriano shook his head.  “We were lucky.  It took a long time to bring them back under control.  It was only then that we realized that Brad was missing.”

“He could have come off his horse,” Murdoch suggested.

“No, Señor. We searched everywhere.  There was no sign of him or his horse.  When I spoke to the men, none could remember seeing him while we were trying to stop the herd.”

As the implication sank in, Murdoch felt the blood drain from his face. “Scott and Mika are out there somewhere. What if he’s gone after them? We have to find them.”

Murdoch strode toward the house yelling for Val.  When the sheriff hurried out, he hastily explained what was happening.

“We’ll head back to the point where Scott and Mika left the road.” Val was already heading for his horse.  “I’ll be able to track them from there.”

“Fetch my horse,” Murdoch ordered one of the vaqueros.  “Cipriano, gather up the men, but be sure to leave some here to guard the house.  Follow us as quickly as you can.”

He settled in his saddle and looked grimly at Val.  “Let’s go, and pray we find them in time.”

 

Chapter 16

Johnny silently counted down the seconds as his finger tightened on the trigger.  He was aware of Yolanda standing beside him, and of Armstrong watching him, yet his eyes were fixed on Alex.  He couldn’t afford to get this wrong.  He almost hoped that Alex would go for his gun, as the alternative involved him doing something he’d never done before – shooting a man in cold blood.  There was a hint of uncertainty on Alex’s face, although he made no effort to speak.  Johnny wasn’t surprised at the silence.  They both knew that there was nothing he could say, and Alex wasn’t the kind of man to make excuses for his decisions or to beg for his life.

Just as Johnny had resigned himself to taking the shot, Alex moved.  The gunfighter’s hands were steady as he unbuckled his gunbelt before tossing it onto a nearby chair.  Johnny let out a slow breath, easing off the trigger.  He couldn’t shoot an unarmed man and he was sure that Alex knew that. Relief was intermingled with a lingering suspicion.  Parting with the gun was no guarantee of Alex’s honesty.

“Coward,” Armstrong spat at the young gunfighter.  “He wouldn’t have shot you.  He’s far too honorable for that.”  The sneering tone turned that observation into an insult as he swung his attention back to Johnny.  “Ernesto will be here soon and there are a dozen other men out there just waiting for my orders. Your freedom is just an illusion, only now you won’t be suffering alone.”

“You are wrong.” Yolanda stepped forward.  “I sent Ernesto and his men away.  I told them that you were worried that Johnny had brought others with him, and that you wanted the area around the hacienda to be thoroughly searched.  They will be gone for hours.  The only people here are the peons and they will not lift a finger to save you.”

“You bitch!  I should have tossed you out to starve. I took care of you and you repay me with treachery.  What do you expect to gain?” His lips curled in disgust. “He won’t take you back to Lancer.  You’re only a cheap little whore.”

“That’s not a very nice way to talk to a lady,” Johnny drawled softly.  “Guess she must’ve forgotten to mention that she and I are old friends.”

Armstrong’s shock was almost funny.  The identical look on Alex’s face was interesting.  It appeared that Yolanda had made quite an impression on the younger man.

“Sit.” Johnny gestured with his gun.  He waited impassively as his two prisoners did as instructed.  “Where’s my rig?”

“In his desk.”

Johnny acknowledged the first words that Alex had spoken, backing up and pulling the drawers open until he found his gunbelt.  The gun in his hand didn’t waver as he passed his Colt to Yolanda.  “Make sure it’s loaded.”

He perched on the edge of the desk, turning his attention to Armstrong.  For months after his reprieve from the gallows, he had dreamed of this moment without ever expecting it to become a reality.  He’d held on to his anger and hatred, hiding it deep inside where only he could feel it.  Having warned Scott of the dangers of letting the dark thoughts overwhelm him, he had almost succumbed to them himself. Over time, however, the need to seek revenge had diminished only to resurface as soon as Armstrong declared war on them again.  If he had thought, for one moment, that this would happen, he wouldn’t have rested until Armstrong had been hunted down and destroyed. “I’ve waited a long time for this.”

“What are you going to do?” Armstrong, to Johnny’s satisfaction, couldn’t quite mask his fear.

“You’re gonna answer some questions and then I’m gonna shoot you.”  The answer was dispassionate, offering no hope of reprieve.

“I don’t believe you,” Armstrong blustered.

Johnny covered the distance between them in two quick strides.  He hauled Armstrong to his feet and jammed the barrel of his gun under the older man’s chin.  “No?  You’re the one who started this,” he snarled.  “You bought yourself a judge and jury and you’d have watched me hang.  Decent people have died because of you, and you came damn close to killin’ my brother.  Did you really think I was going to play fair?” Furious at his loss of control he shoved Armstrong back into the chair.  He wanted to make this man suffer, as his family had suffered, but first he needed information.

Yolanda laid her hand on his arm and he saw Alex’s mouth tighten.  Beads of sweat were rolling down Armstrong’s face.  Johnny’s lips curled in a cold smile when he saw the former railroad director surreptitiously wiping his hands on his trousers.

He rubbed his left hand across the back of his neck, feeling the tension in his muscles. “Could you get me some water?” he asked Yolanda.  He’d had nothing to eat or drink for hours, his mouth was dry and the air in the study was oppressively hot.

Silence fell as Yolanda complied with his request.  The water, from a pitcher on the desk, was welcome even if it was tepid. His cold stare bored into Armstrong as he drank. “I want to know what’s happening at Lancer.”

There was a speculative gleam in Armstrong’s eyes.  “A tragic death.  I’m sure you want to know who, but I think I’ll leave you to guess. There’s nothing you can do to stop it, you know.  And, even if you kill me it won’t end.  The only way to guarantee that some of your family will survive is by letting me go.  Ride out of here and you have my word that I’ll call off my men.”

The glass hit the desk forcefully. “Get up.”

“Why?” Armstrong’s voice was shaking.

“I’m not interested in doing a deal with you and, if you’re not gonna tell me what I want to know, there’s no reason to keep you alive.”

“Even if I tell you, you’re still going to kill me.”

Johnny could tell from the hysterical undertone that the reality of the situation was finally getting through to Armstrong. “That’s right, but I’ll offer you the same deal your men offered me that first time.  Tell me what I want to know, and I’ll make it quick and easy.  Or, you can be on the wrong end of a lynching.”

The color drained from Armstrong’s face. Johnny heard Yolanda draw in a shocked breath.  Alex betrayed nothing except a mild amusement.

“Get up.” The command was repeated softly and with a cold intensity.

Armstrong was gripping the arms of the chair, his knuckles white.  “I didn’t order your brother’s death.”

“Don’t lie to me.”

“It is not a lie.” Yolanda’s face and voice betrayed the strain she was feeling.  “He was very angry when he heard.  He did not want any of you to be harmed until he was ready.”

“Why?”

“He intended to destroy your family piece by piece.  He wanted revenge against everyone who opposed him, and helped you.  He had your lawyer killed and is well on his way to ruining William Ralston.  He was drawing you into a net, damaging your ranch and getting closer to hurting those nearest to you.  You were all supposed to suffer, wondering who would be the next target.”

“What about him?” Johnny looked at Alex.

Yolanda shook her head. “I do not know what instructions he was given.”

“I can guess, and I’d say he did his job.” There wasn’t an ounce of warmth or understanding on Johnny’s face as he locked eyes with Alex.  “And, we still have to settle up for that.”

Alex broke eye contact first and Johnny didn’t miss the look that then passed between Alex and Yolanda.  The speculative look on Armstrong’s face indicated he’d seen it as well.  It gave Johnny pause.  There was a definite attraction and he squashed a quick flash of jealousy.  He’d forfeited his rights to interfere in Yolanda’s life when he walked out on her.  Assuming they all survived, it would be an interesting pairing.

“Who’s the traitor at Lancer?”

Yolanda spoke regretfully. “Lo siento, he never told me.”

“Fetch me some rope.”

“You wouldn’t…” Armstrong spluttered fearfully.

“Yes, I will, and I’ll enjoy every minute you suffer while you slowly choke to death. This is your last chance, ‘cause I won’t ask again.”

Armstrong licked his lips.  “Matthew Hopkins.  He arranged for your father to hire his son.”

“What are his orders?”  Johnny waited, grinding his teeth in frustration.  “You are sorely tryin’ my patience.”

“He’s to kill the girl – Mika.”

Johnny felt sick.  He was the one who had persuaded his father to take Brad back after he had been fired. “He won’t do it.  He might have been behind everything else that’s happened, but he isn’t up to taking part in murder.”

“It doesn’t matter.” Armstrong’s whole demeanor suggested that he had realized the futility of lying. “Even if he doesn’t do it, there’s someone else who will, and Hopkins will still get the blame.”

“Who?”

“The name wouldn’t mean anything to you.  He’s been around Green River and Spanish Wells for the last few weeks. He’s the one who recruited Matthew Hopkins and he’ll make sure my orders are carried out.”

“I want to know about the rest of your plan.”

When Armstrong hesitated, Johnny cocked his gun, pointing it at the older man’s shoulder. The threat was clear.

“I never intended for any of you to go to Modesto.  My man in Chinatown was supposed to tell me when the girl and her brother were next to visit Lancer.  She would have been killed, leaving Scott Lancer and her brother to grieve over her.  Jiang gave the order for Scott to be killed.  I swear I had nothing to do with it!”

“But, you did mean for him to die later.”

“Yes.” Armstrong admitted, looking down at the floor.  “Then Alex was to find a way to lure you to Mexico.”

“What about Murdoch?”

“With you and your brother dead, and Lancer ruined, he would have lost everything.  I was going to let him live the rest of his life knowing that.”

Johnny’s fury at this callous disregard for his family settled as a heavy lump in his chest.  When he had embarked on this journey, he hadn’t anticipated being in this position.  He’d envisaged taking on Armstrong and his men, killing him in a fair fight.  Despite his earlier threats, Johnny hadn’t believed himself capable of carrying out an execution.  Now, he realized that he had no choice and that he was going to have to find a way to come to terms with his conscience.

His first priority, however, was to get word to Lancer.  “Where’s the nearest telegraph office?”

“It is several hours ride from here,” Yolanda told him.

Hoping that he was making the right decision, Johnny turned to Alex.  “Get your gun and keep him covered while I write a message.”

Alex looked at him enquiringly, then nodded and retrieved his weapon.

Johnny sat behind the desk, searching for paper and a pencil. His gun lay within easy reach.  He heard the leather chair creak as Armstrong shifted position.

“I made you an offer.”

Johnny looked up to find that Armstrong was speaking to Alex.  Resting his hand on the handle of his gun, he waited to see what would happen.

“You get me out of this,” Armstrong continued, “and I’ll tell you where to find your father.”

The reference to his father had, Johnny noticed, struck a nerve with Alex.  Up to this point, the young man had acted almost as if he was a mildly interested spectator, watching events with which he was unconnected.  Now, Johnny could see an abrupt change.

Alex leaned forward, hazel eyes cold and hard.  “Let’s get one thing straight, Armstrong.  I accepted your money because I needed it.  I never had any intention of working for you, and I’d just as soon see you dead.  You had money and power, and you misused both.  You and my father are two of a kind. You prey on people who aren’t strong enough to fight back. I don’t need your help. I’ll find my father when I’m ready.”

Armstrong was clearly furious at being denied. “You’ll regret this, Boy.”

“I doubt it.” Alex sat back, and looked at Johnny.

They both had their demons, Johnny realized, and perhaps that was what had drawn him to disregard all the instincts that had kept him alive over the years.  He kept his thoughts to himself.  Alex wouldn’t welcome any comment on that exchange.  He returned his attention to the message, scrawling a few additional words before scanning it quickly.

“Can you arrange for someone to take this,” he asked Yolanda.

“Si, although the office will be closed for the day before anyone can get there.  It will be tomorrow before it can be sent.”

Johnny clenched his jaw in frustration, his restless gaze falling on the safe in the corner of the room.  “How much money does he keep in there?”

Armstrong’s protest died as Alex raised his gun, shaking his head in warning.

“There is mucho dinero. Why?”

“I reckon the telegraph operator’ll open up again if he’s offered enough money.  There’s always someone on duty at the office in Green River, so the message will get to Lancer tonight. Do you know the combination?”

Yolanda smiled as she moved toward the safe.  Her path took her past the chair where Armstrong was sitting.  Too late, Johnny saw the danger. Alex was watching Yolanda, his attention momentarily distracted from Armstrong.  Johnny’s fingers closed around the handle of his gun as Armstrong pushed forward, lunging for the young woman.  She gasped as Armstrong grabbed a handful of her long hair, pulling her against him as a shield. Johnny saw his other hand reaching into his jacket pocket.  He cursed silently as Armstrong pulled out a derringer, which he pressed to Yolanda’s neck.

Johnny and Alex both leapt to their feet, their guns seeking a target.

Armstrong’s harsh words cut through the tension in the air.  “As you both seem to have feelings for the whore, I want you to understand that I won’t hesitate to kill her. You will drop your weapons.”

A cold, dangerous, look settled on Alex’s face.  Although Johnny had seen Alex’s speed and accuracy with a gun, he’d never before seen the hard ruthlessness that marked a top class gun hawk.  Alex’s mask of casual indifference had been stripped away, leaving behind a man who would be a formidable and dangerous adversary.  It was in that moment that Johnny finally knew that he hadn’t been wrong to offer his trust.  This was a man who had what it would take to kill him, and who had walked away from that temptation.  Guns unwavering, they exchanged a quick glance.

“You’ll kill her anyway,” Johnny said softly. Seconds later two shots rang out.

 

Chapter 17

Armstrong’s hands dropped to his sides, the gun slipping from his fingers to lie harmlessly on the rug. His lips parted, allowing a final breath to escape.  Johnny lowered his gun as Armstrong toppled over.  He and Alex had fired simultaneously with both bullets finding their target.  Armstrong was dead before his body collided with the small table holding his chess set.  The pieces scattered in all directions.

Yolanda, speechless and terrified, stood rooted to the spot. Droplets of blood marred her face, blouse and bare arms.  She swayed unsteadily, her eyes glazing over and her knees buckling.  Alex was immediately by her side, catching her and sinking slowly to the ground, bearing her weight.  Once on his knees he guided her head to rest in his lap.  His hand brushed her hair as he soothed her.

Johnny left them alone.  The scene was too intimate, making him feel like an intruder.  Once in the hallway, he gave a heavy sigh.  Armstrong’s death had been premature.  Mixed with his satisfaction was the fear that there was still too much he didn’t know about what was happening at Lancer. He leaned back against the wall, closing his eyes as he waited for his heartbeat to return to normal.

The sound of someone nervously clearing their throat brought him instantly alert.  Straightening, he pointed his gun down the hallway, where an elderly servant cowered fearfully.

“Lo siento,” Johnny said.  “I didn’t mean to frighten you.”

“We heard shots, Señor.”

“Armstrong esta muerto.” Johnny was tired and there was still a lot to do, so he didn’t intend to go into any further details.  “I need someone to go to the nearest telegraph office and send a wire to my family.”

“That can be arranged.” The servant nervously twisted the edge of his loose white shirt.  “What about the Patron’s men?  Soon they will return and they will try to kill you.”

“Don’t worry about them.  I know how to deal with men like that.” He saw the doubt in the old man’s eyes, but knew there would be no argument. “Can you gather everyone together, so that I can talk to them?  I’ll be there soon.”

The man inclined his head respectfully before turning away.  Johnny watched him leave, gathered up his shattered composure and opened the door leading to the study. Yolanda and Alex were standing together looking down at Armstrong’s body.  Alex had his arm firmly wrapped around her waist, holding her close to his side.

“Are you alright?” Johnny asked her.

A secret smile passed between her and Alex before she replied.  “I think I will be.”

“We have to be ready when Ernesto and the others return.” Johnny suppressed a pang of jealousy.  Once, she had looked at him like that.  “I don’t think they’ll put up a fight once they find out that Armstrong’s dead, but we have to make sure they listen.  Let’s see how much money he’s got in the safe.”

“You planning to buy them off?” Alex asked, finally relinquishing his hold on Yolanda. She made her way over to the safe.

“They’re gun hawks.  The only reason they take a job is so they can earn money.  There’s no loyalty involved.”

“Except for Ernesto,” Yolanda warned as she manipulated the dial.  “He was with Armstrong in the beginning.  Don’t trust him.”

“Can’t say as I’d be sorry if he gave me an excuse to kill him.” Johnny gave a cold smile.  His eyes widened as Yolanda began pulling the money from the safe, stacking it in neat piles on the desk.  “Why would a man with that much money, risk everything to come after me and my family?”

“He didn’t like losing,” Yolanda said quietly.  “You and your family defeated him, and he was never going to forgive or forget.”

Johnny shook his head in disbelief.  “Then, he was a fool.” He picked up one of the stacks of notes and the message that he wanted to be sent to Lancer, handing them to Yolanda.  “Find someone to take this.”  He turned to Alex.  “We need to see how many rifles we can find and then arm some of the servants.  We need a show of strength, otherwise, the bullets’ll start flying.”

*****

The light, reflecting from the water, hurt Scott’s eyes.  He squeezed them shut, trying to find the strength to battle his feelings of futility.  Giving up had never been part of his nature. If it had been, he would never have survived to the end of the war. This, though, was a different type of fight and he could see no possible way to win it.

Opening his eyes, he looked around. He loved this place.  The lake was deep and still except where a small waterfall tumbled from the rocky outcropping.  Trees provided welcome patches of shade, while soft grass had been the bed upon which he and Mika had consummated their love. For the first time that memory hurt.

How could people be blind to Mika’s worth, judging her only by the fact that she was different from them? Murdoch had tried to warn him, except he hadn’t wanted to hear the bitter truths.  He’d put from his mind all the terrible things he’d learned about Johnny’s life – all the hardship and prejudice – believing that, this time, things would be different.  His selfishness had put Mika in an impossible position. The signs had been there, only he hadn’t wanted to see them.

She hadn’t said a word during their journey. He could still feel the heat of her body pressed against his back and the tears that had soaked through his shirt.  By the time they reached the lake, her eyes were dry, lacking their usual sparkle.  In halting phrases she had told him what had happened, drawing away when he would have offered her sanctuary in his arms.  They had reached an impasse. She wanted to end their engagement and return to Modesto – he didn’t want to lose her.

What more could he say?  He’d told her he loved her and that he would always protect her.  She had said that it was because she loved him that she wasn’t prepared to ruin his life.  She was adamant that she wasn’t the right wife for him. Faced with losing the person who meant the most to him in the world, he had forsaken his usual tact. His arguments and pleas had fallen on deaf ears.  Finally, he had realized just how selfish his words were and he had forced himself away from her before he could hurt her any further.

They should head back to the house.  It wasn’t safe for them to be out here, especially as they were both so distracted.  His head ached and he could feel his strength draining away.  He took a last look around, imprinting the memory on his mind.  He wasn’t sure he would want to return to this spot once Mika left.

“Keep your hand well away from your gun.”

The unexpected command came from behind him.  He started to turn; stopping the instant a bullet hit the ground a few feet to his right.  He raised his hands, not wanting to provoke another shot when he didn’t know where their attacker was in relation to Mika.

“Scott!”

Mika’s breathless scream cut through him.

“Toss your gun away and turn round.”

Scott complied, finally recognizing Brad’s voice.  The young man stood on the slope above Mika, his gun pointed at her.

“Get over by your girlfriend.”

Scott forced himself to move slowly and calmly, hoping that he wasn’t betraying how weak he felt.  He reached Mika, putting his arm around her waist.  She was shaking uncontrollably as she pressed herself against him.

“What do you want?” Scott asked.

Brad gave a mirthless laugh.  “I thought you were the smart one of the family.”

“What do you gain by killing us?”

“I’ve been given my orders. I don’t have a choice.”

“There’s always a choice.” Scott kept his voice level.  “It isn’t too late to back away.  You haven’t hurt anyone, and if you tell the sheriff what you know, the judge will go easy on you.”

“You think it’s that simple?” Brad’s voice rose so that Scott could hear the bitterness.  “You understand about family.  If I don’t do as he says, he’ll hurt my mother and sister.”

“We’ll protect them.”

“Protect them?” Brad shouted.  “You can’t even protect yourself.”

Scott kept his attention firmly fixed on Brad’s face.  Johnny had taught him the signs that signaled a man’s decision to fire. He knew the minute Brad made up his mind. He pushed Mika to the ground, landing heavily on top of her with a hiss of pain as the bullet grazed his arm.  Stunned by the fall, he shook his head to try and clear it.  Mika was whimpering softly as he pushed himself to one side.

“Keep close to the ground and find shelter,” he whispered into her ear.

Then, before either of them could move, there was a scream that quickly trailed off into silence. He cautiously maneuvered himself into a position so that he could see the spot where Brad had been standing.  He drew in a shocked breath at the scene before him.  Hannu, his clothes torn and dirty, was rhythmically pounding Brad’s inert body with a large rock.

Mika stirred beside him, her face a picture of conflicting emotions as she saw her brother.  “Hannu!”  She scrambled to her feet, taking a few hesitant steps toward him.

Scott stood up more slowly.  He cast a quick look back toward his gun, which was lying by the water’s edge.  He couldn’t be sure if Hannu presented a threat, or if he was their salvation, for without his intervention, they would be dead. But, if Hannu turned on him, he didn’t think he had the strength to successfully fight back.

Hannu looked up in response to Mika’s voice.  His face, which had been expressionless, came back to life.  It was impossible to miss the depth of love he felt for his little sister. Scott knew that his presence had been forgotten as the two siblings stood staring at one another.  He shuffled back a few steps, trying to remain unobtrusive.

“Why are you here?” Mika moved closer, reaching out to touch Hannu.

The stone slid from his hands as he moved to meet her.  Scott continued his slow move toward his gun, never taking his eyes from Hannu.  He saw the young man’s horrified reaction, upon realizing that his hands were covered in blood. Hannu wiped his palms down his trousers, leaving bright smears among the dirt and grass stains.

“I was worried about you.”

“You shouldn’t have come.  It isn’t safe for you. If they find you here they’ll hang you.” She glanced over her shoulder at Scott, who could easily understand her conflict.

“If you leave now, I won’t tell anyone you were here,” Scott offered, more for Mika’s sake than Hannu’s.

A frown creased Hannu’s brow.  “Why would you do that?”

“Because I love your sister and she’s been hurt enough.  It’ll be hard for her to let you go, but it would be worse for her to see you hang.”

“I did it for her. I was promised she would be safe if you died.”

“Whoever told you that was lying.”

“I heard what he said.” Hannu gestured toward Brad.  “I also saw how you tried to protect her.  I regret what I did, even if it is too late to expect forgiveness.”

Scott’s throat ached as he tried to find it within himself to offer that forgiveness.  Truthfully, he could never offer absolution to Hannu. He had come too close to dying for that to be a possibility and he bowed his head to hide the anger he still felt.

 

The sound of a rifle bullet being chambered was followed by an unfamiliar voice.  “How touching.”

Mika stepped closer to her brother, who wrapped his arm around her waist. Scott stared at the man who had spoken, completely at a loss. His eyes flicked to his gun, gauging his chances of reaching it.  The man’s cold laughter stopped him before he could make a move.

“Go ahead, if it makes you feel better,” the man sneered.  “Just means you’ll die that much sooner.” He moved closer, glancing at Brad’s body as he passed.  “Looks like one of you saved me the trouble.”

“Is Armstrong really paying you enough to make you murder three people?” Scott asked desperately.

“He doesn’t need to pay me.  I’m doing this for free.”

Shocked, Scott studied the man carefully.  There was nothing about him that was even remotely familiar.  “Why?”

“You all had a hand in killing my brother.  He,” the gun moved to point directly at Hannu, “tortured him.  You and the girl stood back and watched.  You forced a confession out of him that got him hung.”

“Hank.” Scott whispered the name.  The memory of that night was indelibly printed on his mind.  Hannu had come to him while he’d been almost at his lowest point.  Johnny had just been convicted and sentenced to death.  His brother had refused to have any visitors, leaving him alone and frantic at the thought of losing Johnny to the hangman.

Hannu’s motive, initially, had been revenge for Hank’s attack on Mika.  By the time Scott had arrived at the warehouse, Hank had already been subjected to prolonged and vicious torture.  He could still remember the intense look on Mika’s face as she savored the sight of Hank’s broken and bleeding body.

Hank, in return for being removed from Hannu’s custody, had provided the evidence that had bought Johnny a stay of execution.  His confession had later been retracted but, by then, there was sufficient independent evidence to convict him.  He’d deserved to die for his crimes.  However, the methods used to extract his confession had never sat well with Scott.  It had taken time for him to learn to live with his conscience.

“If you want revenge, kill me.” Hannu stepped forward, away from Mika.

Scott called to her, telling her to stay where she was. He knew what Hannu was doing.  With a sufficient distraction he stood a fair chance of being able to reach his gun. Mika hesitated, clearly torn and terrified.

“I am the one who broke his fingers and pounded my fists into his face,” Hannu continued, taking another step toward their assailant. “I destroyed the hands that had dared to touch my sister. He was a coward who liked to hurt people and he begged like a child for the pain to stop.”

With a roar, the man pulled the trigger.  The bullet hit Hannu in the stomach, causing him to stagger backwards.  Mika screamed, running to her brother as a second bullet ploughed into his body.  Scott made a dive for his gun, scooping it up, turning and firing in one swift movement.  His first shot went wide and, as the gunman turned toward him, he fired again.  This time his aim was true and the man sank to his knees before falling heavily to the ground.

By sheer force of will Scott covered the distance between them, kicking their attacker’s gun out of reach.  As he bent down, he felt a sharp pain in his side as his previously abused muscles protested against the abrupt movement. Satisfying himself that the man was dead, he straightened gingerly.

Mika was down on her knees, one hand pressed to her mouth.  Even so, her heart wrenching sobs echoed around the clearing.  He walked unsteadily over to her, sitting down to pull her gently into his arms.

“Why didn’t you stop him?  Why didn’t you save him?”

The accusatory litany played over and over in Scott’s mind long after Mika’s words had faded into incoherent sobs.  She leaned against his chest, crying as if her heart were breaking.  Her tears were still flowing unabated when Murdoch and Val arrived at the scene of devastation.

 

Chapter 18

It was late afternoon before Johnny received word that a large number of riders were approaching the hacienda.  Alex immediately went to check the disposition of the few peons who had been armed with rifles.  None had ever shot before and likely couldn’t hit the side of a barn at ten paces.  However, they could make noise and cause confusion, if necessary.

Having lost a heated debate with Yolanda, Johnny walked into the yard with her by his side. As soon as he was spotted, Ernesto reached for his gun.  Johnny’s Colt cleared leather as Alex strolled over to join him, his rifle pointed steadily at the group.

Ernesto’s eyes narrowed, his confusion plain to see and almost laughable.  “Where is Señor Armstrong?”

“In hell,” Johnny replied with an evil grin.  “Want to join him?”

He watched Ernesto calculate the odds, knowing the moment the gunfighter decided that they were favorable.  Alex shifted his rifle, firing one shot.  He was immediately, as planned, answered by half a dozen other rifles. As the peons were strategically placed, and hidden from sight, Armstrong’s men couldn’t see who was presenting this new threat.  Had they realized that the rifles were in the hands of men so terrified that they would run at the first provocation, they might not have been so cautious.

Ernesto moved his hand away from his gun, looking uncertain. His sneer, however, returned as he saw Yolanda.  “What’s that puta doing here?  Is she looking for another bed to sleep in?”

Yolanda flushed deeply as there was a nervous rumble of laughter from the men.  Alex’s expression darkened.

“Get down.” Alex handed his rifle to Johnny and slipped the safety off his own gun.  His challenge was as clear as if he had shouted the words.

Ernesto paled as the men around him began murmuring among themselves.

Johnny would have welcomed the opportunity to bring Ernesto down.  He owed the man for his earlier blows and taunts, but was prepared to cede to Alex the right to protect Yolanda’s honor.

Having been backed into a corner, Ernesto only had two choices.   He could refuse to fight, turn tail and run, or he could accept Alex’s challenge.  Although he was full of bluster, he didn’t strike Johnny as being a coward.  Such a man wouldn’t have survived long in Armstrong’s employ.

With an air of resignation, Ernesto slid from his horse.  The other men backed their horses away, making no move to interfere.  Alex positioned himself so that the sun was at his back.  He stood relaxed with his hands hanging loosely at his sides.  He projected an air of confidence without the often-fatal flaw of arrogance.

Johnny kept his gaze roving over the other men, looking for any potential threat.  Even when the shot was fired, he didn’t shift his attention. He waited for the dust to settle, and for Alex to reclaim his rifle, before speaking.

“I know how much Armstrong promised you.  I’m prepared to see you get what you’re owed, plus a bonus, on condition that you leave this afternoon.  If you’d rather fight it out, that’s fine with me too.”

The outcome was inevitable.  None of these men, knowing his reputation, and having seen Alex in action, would turn down the chance to ride away with money in their pockets. Johnny and Alex remained alert as, one by one, Armstrong’s former employees approached Yolanda for payment.

Once the last of them had left, Johnny arranged for Armstrong and Ernesto to be buried.  With a smile for Yolanda and Alex, who were standing very close to each other without actually touching, he walked away to seek some solitude.

*****

Johnny was standing by the corral watching the sun setting when he heard footsteps behind him.  Turning to glance over his shoulder, he saw Alex approaching.  His right foot rested on the lower rail as he crossed his arms across the top of the fence, returning to his contemplation of the ever-changing sky.

“You’re leaving tomorrow?” Alex reached the fence; joining Johnny in appreciating the view.

“There’s no reason to stay and I want to make sure that everyone at Lancer is all right.”

“What about all this?” Alex waved his hand in the general direction of the hacienda.

“Put it in the hands of a lawyer to sell.  I don’t know if Armstrong had any family, but it should be easy enough to find out.” Johnny smiled wickedly.  “If I were you, I’d hang on to what’s left of the money - I reckon he owes you and Yolanda that much.”

 

“Yolanda told me he had a wife.”

Johnny shrugged.  “It ain’t my concern.  All I want right now is to go home.”

A pained look crossed Alex’s face before he abruptly changed the subject. “What made you decide to trust me?”

“Instinct, I guess.  No,” Johnny corrected himself, “there were a coupla things you said, but more than that was what you didn’t say.  My gut tells me that we have a lot in common, yet you never traded on that.  If you’d been lying to me from the beginning, I think you’d have played it differently.”

“You took a hell of a risk.”

“Wouldn’t be the first time, and it probably won’t be the last.”

Alex laughed.  “I’d say we have that in common, at least.” Silence fell between them until Alex stretched tiredly. “Yolanda said to tell you that supper’s almost ready.”

“I’ll be in soon.”

“Want to tell me what’s between you two?”

Johnny ducked his head to hide a knowing smile.  “It was a long time ago.  We’ve both grown up since then.  You askin’ for any particular reason?” He turned in time to catch the flush on Alex’s cheeks.

“Just curious. I’ll see you inside.”

But, Johnny wasn’t finished with him yet.  He had something he needed to get out of his system before leaving. As Alex turned to leave, Johnny’s fist shot out, catching the gunfighter on the edge of his jaw.  The force of the blow was enough to send Alex staggering backwards.

“What the hell was that for?” Alex demanded, using one hand to steady himself against the fence and checking out his bruised jaw with the other.

“What do you think?” Johnny asked incredulously. “I don’t like being hit over the head and handed over to a man who was plannin’ on killing me.”

“I explained it to you, only you were too damn stubborn to see it my way.” Alex lunged for Johnny, catching him a glancing blow on the cheek as Johnny retreated.

“You explained it to me ~after~ you’d tied me up.  Don’t suppose it occurred to you to offer the idea up for discussion.”

“You’d have refused.”

“Damn right, I’d have refused.” Johnny took another swing at Alex, over reaching himself and grunting as Alex’s fist connected with his stomach.

“Then, it would have been pointless to discuss it.” Alex retreated, waiting for Johnny to straighten up.  “I had my plan and you had yours.  In case you’ve forgotten, mine worked.”

“It only worked because Yolanda cut me loose.”  Johnny rasped breathlessly. He was moving more warily now, circling his opponent and waiting for an opening.

“I’d have found a way to get you out of there.”

“I don’t like being manipulated.” He threw himself at Alex, catching him off balance.  They both crashed to the ground.  “From the time you came to Lancer that’s all you’ve done.”  He gave Alex a solid punch to the face.  “That isn’t what friends do.” He hit Alex again, before realizing that there were no retaliatory blows coming toward him. Taking a moment to catch his breath, he sat back.

Alex lay on the ground, bleeding from his mouth and nose.  “No, it isn’t.  Friends watch each others backs.”

“You want to tell me the truth now about why you agreed to work for Armstrong and then turned on him?” Johnny asked, backing off enough to let Alex raise himself into a sitting position.

“Nope.”

“Figured as much.”  Johnny rose to his feet, brushing the dust from his pants.  He held out his hand to Alex.

After a moment’s hesitation, Alex’s hazel eyes crinkled and a smile started at the corners of his mouth. He took Johnny’s hand in a firm grip, allowing himself to be helped to his feet.

Johnny looked at him, shaking his head.  “Yolanda ain’t gonna be pleased when she sees those bruises.  You plannin’ on staying with her?”

Alex’s smile disappeared.  “I don’t know.  There are things I need to do.”

“Like going after your father?”

“Yes.”

“Sometimes, the best way to get revenge is to go on with your life and find a way to be happy.”

“Sounds like you’re speaking from experience.”

“Not exactly. I spent a lot of years hating my old man.  I’d promised myself the pleasure of killing him.  That hatred kept me away from home for a long time.  It stopped me from ever truly being happy.  It turned out that Murdoch wasn’t the kind of man I thought he was, so we lost a lot of years when we could have been together. It ain’t my job to tell you how to live your life. Just don’t waste it. Yolanda’s a good woman, she could make you happy and I think both of you deserve that chance.”

“Have you two finished rolling in the dirt like a pair of schoolboys?”

Johnny looked up warily to find Yolanda standing, frowning at them, her hands on her hips.  “We, ah…”

“I’ve a good mind to dunk you both in the horse trough.” Her irritation turned to concern as she saw that Alex was bleeding.  Pulling out her handkerchief, she walked over and began to wipe away the blood.

Johnny noticed that Alex didn’t object, although he did look thoroughly embarrassed.  “You need to take him in hand,” he smirked.

Alex jerked backwards.  “You can keep your opinions to yourself. I told you that I have things I need to see to.”

Yolanda took Alex’s arm, brushing suggestively up against him.  “We can discuss that tomorrow morning,” she purred.

Johnny laughed at the expression on Alex’s face.  He had a feeling that another young gunfighter who was about to be tamed.

*****

Scott stood uncertainly outside the door leading to Mika’s room.  Any hope he might have had of persuading her to stay had died with Hannu.  Upon their return to Lancer the previous day, she had stated her intention of conveying her brother’s body back to Modesto. His offer to accompany her had gone unspoken as he saw the lingering traces of accusation on her face.  It would do no good to tell her that they would all be dead if he’d reacted differently.  She didn’t want to hear that, and he wasn’t prepared to cheapen Hannu’s sacrifice by pleading with her.

He knew that everyone had been waiting for him to offer his services.  When he’d looked away Murdoch had hastily delegated Jelly to go instead.  Mika had accepted the assistance, retiring to her room soon after.  Unwilling to discuss the events of the afternoon with his family, Scott had sat silently as Teresa cleaned and bound the deep graze on his arm. As soon as she had finished he’d made his own excuses, taking his shattered dreams with him into an uneasy sleep.

He knocked and stood back.  When Mika opened the door, it was obvious that she had slept no better than he had.  She stood aside to let him enter. Her bags were packed and were sitting on top of the neatly made bed.  He gritted his teeth as he looked at them.  She was about to walk out of his life forever, and he didn’t know what to say to her.

She gave him a weak smile before moving to the window to stare down into the yard.  He walked up behind her, wanting nothing more than to run his hands over her smooth skin and give her all the love and comfort she deserved.  He heard Jelly’s querulous voice, his muscles tensing when he saw the old handy man directing four of the vaqueros who were carrying Hannu’s coffin out to the wagon.

“I’m sorry about Hannu,” he said softly.

Her eyes were bright with unshed tears as she turned to face him.  “It is too late to be sorry.”

“If you need anything…”

She shook her head.  “I am taking Hannu home and then I will go to live with my aunt in San Francisco.  You do not need to worry about me.”

“How can I stop worrying about you?” Scott asked.  “I love you.”

Her expression softened.  “I know, and I will always love you.  But, I cannot stay.” She raised her left hand, slipping the engagement ring from her finger and offering it to him.

As the light caught the stone, Scott felt his heart shatter into a million pieces. Had it been anything other than his mother’s ring he would have told Mika to keep it.  But, he owed it to his father to keep it within the family. His fingers shook as he took it from her and tucked it into his pocket. “Maybe, in time…”

Mika raised a finger to his lips.  “No.”

He nodded miserably, moving away to gather up her luggage.  There was no future for them, so he had to let her go with as much dignity as he could muster.  As she bade farewell to Murdoch and a tearful Teresa, he occupied himself with securing the bags in the bed of the wagon.  The proximity to Hannu’s coffin unsettled him further, reminding him of trust, betrayal, and a loss so painful he wasn’t sure how he was going to cope.

Conscious of his father’s eyes fixed on him he watched the wagon leave.  As soon as it was out of sight, and heedless of his own fragile health, he swung up onto the nearest horse and angrily spurred away in the opposite direction.

*****

Murdoch pounded the iron with relentless fury.  It had been days since they’d received Johnny’s telegram.  The news of Armstrong’s death had been tempered by the warning of an imminent attack on Mika.  Johnny couldn’t have known that the warning had arrived too late, and there had been no way to reach him with the news.  Knowing that Johnny was safe had been one bright spot in an otherwise dark landscape.  Even Scott had briefly emerged from his preoccupation to express relief.

The aching in his neck and shoulders warned him that it was time to stop.  He’d found no comfort in the physical exertion, just as he’d failed to find a way to provide comfort to his older boy.  Scott had retreated behind a shield of politeness, discouraging any discussion of his feelings.

Scott and Mika had said their goodbyes in private.  Even so, Scott’s heart and soul were reflected in his eyes as the wagon had disappeared from view.  Unlike Johnny’s open emotions when Mattie had left him, Scott was closed off, hiding his pain inside.  He blamed himself for Hannu’s death, that much at least was clear.  It had been the final straw that had driven Mika away.

The Hopkins family had packed up and left Spanish Wells with surprising alacrity.  Murdoch had been expecting some recriminations from Matthew Hopkins. His silence on the subject of his son’s death suggested that he might also have been one of Armstrong’s pawns.

Murdoch wiped his bare forearm across his brow to clear the sweat.  As he reached for his canteen, he looked toward the roadway as he’d done a thousand times over the last few days.  This time it wasn’t empty.  A golden horse was hurtling toward the hacienda.  Feeling as if a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders, he strode to the front door to welcome his son home.

*****

“Where is he?” Johnny had listened to Murdoch’s account with steadily rising anger.  Even from the grave Armstrong had reached out, causing irreparable damage.

“He left early this morning.  He isn’t fit to work yet, but he still disappears before breakfast and doesn’t come home until long after supper is over. He’s barely eating enough to keep him alive, and he’s exhausted.  I’ve found him asleep in the kitchen the last couple of nights, his food just sitting there, untouched.” Murdoch’s fist slammed down on the arm of the chair.  “He won’t talk to anyone.”

“He will, when he’s ready,” Johnny confidently asserted. “Any idea where he’s been going?”

“My guess is he’s at the lake where Hannu died.”

Johnny stood up and collected his hat.  “I’m going to find him.  We’ll be back later so don’t worry about us.  Scott has his own way of dealing with things.  He needs to know that we’re here to support him, and then we have to give him time to heal.”

“It hurts to see him so unhappy.  All I want to do is help him.”

“He knows that.  We both do and, believe me, Murdoch it means a whole lot to both of us.”

Johnny left Barranca in Pedro’s care.  He’d pushed the palomino hard the last couple of days. He selected the chestnut stallion that he had broken just before Armstrong’s threat had resurfaced, letting it have its head, and allowing the pleasure of the ride to chase away his thoughts.

Murdoch’s prediction proved to be accurate.  Scott was sitting by the lakeside, arms around his knees and head bowed.  When his brother looked round, Johnny caught a glimpse of his anguish before Scott shuttered his feelings away behind a welcoming smile.

 

Johnny returned the smile as he dismounted, walking over to where his brother still sat.  He held out his hand to help Scott to his feet, noting the disturbing pallor and weight loss.

“Welcome home, Johnny.”

“Good to see you too, Brother.  Want to take a ride before we head back to the house.  I’ve missed this place, you know?”

Scott visibly relaxed. “I’d like that.”

Johnny draped his arm around Scott’s shoulders and, together, they walked away from the memories.

 

~end~
May 07

Historical note:
The diamond swindle described in chapter 4 is fact, although it happened slightly later than the time frame used for this story.  William Ralston was a fascinating man, who had a varied career both making and losing fortunes.  At this point in his life he was seriously over-stretched financially and this fraud was a great embarrassment for him.  Clarence King was the geologist who uncovered the fraud.  

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