The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Cindy

 

 

FCasus Belli

(Brief Summary of The Escape)

 

<<Casus Belli>> – an event or action that justifies or allegedly justifies a war or conflict.


CHAPTER 1-PROLOGUE

Teresa halted midway into the great room, the serving tray going heavy in her hands.  She was crying – Mrs. Cassidy was crying as she sat staring at the flames jiggling in the fireplace.

But there were no great sobs, no keening, just a thin stream of tears slipping down Sarah’s smooth cheeks.  She was otherwise immobile, spine curiously straight, jaw tight, eyes intent on the merry orange flames, willing them to die under her savage gaze.

 

Teresa scowled at her.  What did she have to cry about, anyway?  Had she finally dragged up some remorse for lying about her knowledge of the escape, for keeping such a secret from her husband?  A fine time to feel guilty, now that the truth was out and her husband was off trying to recoup his crumbling dignity.  No, Sarah Cassidy’s tears were probably contrived, just like the rest of her story had been.

“I made you some tea,” Teresa announced in a flat voice that belied the intended gesture.  Tea, not coffee; she suspected Mrs. Cassidy preferred a more subtle brew, but didn’t know why she had gone to all the trouble of making it for her.  The woman hadn’t seemed overly grateful for any attention paid to her.

Even now Mrs. Cassidy gave no response to the offer, much less acknowledge Teresa’s presence.  Teresa curbed her irritation and crossed in front of Sarah to break the other woman’s fireplace stare.  Still nothing.  Fairly biting her tongue, Teresa set the tray none too gently on the table beside the sofa; the silver rattled appreciably and made the other woman start.

“Thank you,” Sarah murmured with a glance her way.  Carefully she patted at her face, now glossy with the wetness of tears and rosy with the glow of flames, with the back of one hand.

Why couldn’t she have blotchy skin, Teresa thought crossly.  Why couldn’t she wail?  Why couldn’t her nose run uncontrollably?  But Teresa set her lips together; she would not be swayed by the other woman’s upset.  Sarah Cassidy was a selfish woman – she could have long ago prevented all this trouble and danger her husband had brought to Lancer.

“You’ve been so very kind,” Sarah said between light sniffles.  She fumbled in her skirt with the other hand, fingers working into a pocket, tucking something into the shallow space.

Courtesy had more been her motive, Teresa told herself.  Scott had brought the Cassidys to Lancer; custom dictated that she treat them as guests in need, no matter how much she loathed them.  And Murdoch would be aghast if she allowed a guest to weep on a linen napkin.  Grudgingly she reached into her jeans pocket and withdrew her own handkerchief.

“Here,” she offered, waving it a little.  But it was not a symbol of truce or forgiveness, she told herself.

“No, I…”

“Take it.”  Teresa practically swatted her with the lace-tatted scrap of fabric.  Still Mrs. Cassidy did not move to take it.  “It’s all right,” Teresa said with barely restrained exasperation, “I have another.”  <<And I don’t plan on needing it, either – you’re making enough tears for the both of us.>>

So Mrs. Cassidy took it, and gently wiped at her eyes and patted her perfect nose, leaving Teresa free to pour the tea.

“I’m sorry.” Sarah abruptly rose.  She paced a little.

“No need to apologize,” Teresa replied with curtness that she was unable – or unwilling? – to mute.  She came forward with the cup and saucer, one of Lancer’s heirloom best, in the blue floral pattern.  The other woman did not take it so Teresa shoved it against her hands.  Sarah rested a glance on her then took the set; it shivered in her white grasp, and Teresa thought of snatching it back.  Broken china would be almost too much to bear at this point…

“I’m sure the Lancers will protect your husband,” Teresa told Sarah in a contrite tone.  Murdoch well knew this section of the ranch, and Johnny was a soundless tracker.  And Scott…

Scott was out there, too, even when he should be abed.

Scott, wounded and weakened by that bullet by Sarah’s husband, Dan Cassidy, had ordered.  Murdoch should have insisted that he stay behind; Teresa had seen the wound during a change of bandages, and it was messy.  But the Lancer stubborn was strong in Scott.  By the time she discovered he was out of bed Johnny was already saddling a horse for him.  She’d protested vehemently and expected Murdoch to join her, but Johnny had said something quietly to his father in Spanish, and Murdoch only silently held the stirrup to let Scott get a leg over the saddle.

“We’ll take care of him, querida,” Johnny had told her.  Then they had ridden off toward the south range, and she was left with a hole of worry in her stomach – and Sarah Cassidy for company.

“If – if Jed Lewis…” Sarah set down the teacup with a clink and turned again to the flames.  Fresh tears glistened on her face but still she did not sob.

“Please,” Teresa pleaded, trying for a sympathetic tone and eliciting an inpatient one instead. “Please don’t cry.”

“I’ve let Dan down – all these years…” Sarah returned slowly.  “I should have told him, but he was so ill – he needed something – it was the only thing that brought the fire to his eyes…” She paused and took a breath; a strange and sudden outward calm overtook her, as if that intake of air had wiped out her jitters.  Teresa frowned; while Mrs. Cassidy was saying all sorts of remorseful things, her responses did little to authenticate them.  It was as if something inside her was working to disconnect her thoughts from her actions.

“I never thought he’d find Scott,” Sarah was saying.  “I never thought he intended to go through with it…”

“Well, at least you kept him from making a terrible mistake,” Teresa told her.  Oh, for goodness sakes, why was she relenting?  This woman was the root cause of all this conflict.

“And look what happened,” Sarah responded with a shot of real bitterness.  “Dan is out there because of me, trying to reclaim what I took from him.”

“Because he loves you,” Teresa found herself saying, uncertain, however, if she believed it.

The other woman’s huff of breath reflected her own skepticism.  “I’m not so sure of that now,” she said.

How long had it been, anyway?  An hour?  More?  Fear nibbled at Teresa and she tried to swallow it down.  It was too warm, too close, in here.  Usually they left the windows open to the cool evening breezes, but tonight Murdoch had ordered everything closed and the light diminished for protection. Thus the heavy red curtains had been tightly drawn across the great window behind Murdoch’s desk as well as both sets of the double doors opposite in a barricade that prevented any stir of air. And while the bloom from candle flames held steady, the light did not reach into the far dark corners of the big room.  Portent lurked in the deep shadows, and Teresa felt fingers of it reach out to swipe at her when she strayed too close from the bold fireplace flames.

Outside, guards had been posted for extra protection against any attack Lewis and Hardy might mount against the ranch.  Every so often Teresa could hear Cipriano or Miguel or one of the others tramping by the doors; when they paused to call to her she answered in a confident voice lest they find a need to abandon their patrol and come inside to look after two frightened women.

Yes, the windows were locked, the doors bolted, and the guards on watch, but still the quiet darkness invaded the house, infecting the interior air with fear.  Even the muted chirp of crickets in the grasses outside could not distill the threat working through the room.  But searching took time…

Sarah suddenly laughed, drawing Teresa’s attention to her; the sound was unexpectedly harsh, pitched a little too high.  The other woman shook her blonde head and chuckled again.  Her hair was disheveled, Teresa now noticed, hastily styled with wisps escaping the clasp haphazardly affixed above the back of her neck.  Unconsciously Teresa patted at her own dark hair, which was similarly styled, but her fingers found no strands out of place.

“I’ve been jealous of Scott for all these years,” Sarah said to her, blinking as if the firelight was suddenly too bright.  “He’s held my husband’s attention more than I ever have, except on the day we were wed.”  She said something else, then, into the handkerchief as she passed it over one cheek.  Teresa thought it was an obscenity.  “It’s been such a mistake…” Again she turned to the flames and went quiet, looking deep into the coals for something.  Teresa wasn’t sure if the mistake to which she was referring was about her lies or her marriage – maybe it was one and the same.

Without her lies none of this would have occurred.  Their life at Lancer would have continued on interrupted; Scott would not have been hunted like some runaway slave, Murdoch would not be grim with worry, and Johnny not seething for a fight.  Now they were all out there trying to keep Sarah Cassidy’s husband alive; ironically, the very man who had come to kill Scott.

“Perhaps you should try and get some sleep,” Teresa suggested.  Anything to get her to move along.  She wasn’t much by way of company and Teresa wasn’t feeling overly compassionate, not while her family was out there in the darkness.  “It might be a long while before they come back.”

She glanced left through the gloom to the framed map of the ranch on the wall beyond them, eyes tracing the dim outlines, estimating the size of the south range and its distance from the hacienda.

“I should have told him,” Sarah said in a wooden tone that was cold against the flames.  “Now it’s too late…”

“I’m sure he’ll be fine,” Teresa told her, dragging her gaze away from the map even as her own worries spilled over with a well of tears.

No, she would not cry – she would not simper and wring her hands; she could not.  This part of the country refused to allow it.  She knew and accepted its demands, had grown up knowing no other thing.  She was proud of her emotional bravery and knew she had to stay steady, to be ready when they returned.  Already she had helped Maria put aside some food, for surely they would be hungry after their search and want food to help replenish their energy.  And water was boiling and bandages were ready, for men chasing each other in the dark with guns might be need tending…

Damn Mrs. Cassidy’s unrest – it had attached itself to her, worming around her heart like a silent and hungry snake.  Teresa paced, mentally peeling it off.

“He won’t believe me, not anymore,” Sarah was saying.  “He’ll think I’m using it to try and hold him – but I’m not...” One of her hands was fisting, savagely twisting Teresa’s handkerchief in its grip.  “Miss O’Brien,” she spoke to the fireplace.  She leaned in then, used her free hand to test the warmth, thrusting her fingers so far into the space Teresa thought she would be burned.  “I must tell you – I must tell someone…”

“What is it?” Teresa prompted with annoyance. What now?  What else could there be?  Hadn’t it all been said–over and over–already?  Why couldn’t the woman just stay quiet?

“I–there…” Sarah faltered.  Her gaze dropped to where her other set of fingers were still attempting to shred the lace-edged square.  She gulped, truly swallowed hard this time.  Teresa watched with satisfaction as a belated flush crept up the back of her neck.

“A child,” Sarah strangled out and looked up to the fireplace – this time her cheeks were burning unevenly, marring her prettiness.  She looked feverish.

Finally, Teresa silently noted, she finally looks like the rest of us when upset – oh, no…what had she just uttered?  No, not that…

“His child,” Sarah was saying as if her tongue was weighted.  Her hand curled tight around the handkerchief, strangling it.  She smiled at the flames, but it was devoid of any humor, just black-looking in the firelight.   A finger of dread swept along Teresa’s hairline.  “Dan’s child–our child–I’m carrying–after all these years…”

For an awful and absolute moment Teresa hated Sarah Cassidy, hated her and the child she had conceived.  It was unfair, oh, so unfair!  If her husband did die out there in that blackness then she’d have this babe as a living memory of him, to comfort her as she accepted widowhood, to be the light and warmth of her broken heart, to replenish all she had lost.  And if Scott or Johnny or Murdoch–any one, or two, or, Madre de Dios, all three–perished in this fight then Teresa’s loss would be irrevocable, infinite.  There was no viable way to resurrect a fallen Lancer, no living memory to look upon and adore–there would be nothing.  Emptiness.  Grief beyond understanding.

How could this woman before her weep for any loss she might experience?  How could she even consider mourning what she might lose?  She had everything before her, literally filling her lap – oh, how could Sarah Cassidy be so selfish?

<<No!>> Teresa silently commanded her rampant thoughts.  No, she would not be jealous of Sarah Cassidy.  She had something more powerful to draw on – she had her faith to ground and to sustain her, no matter the outcome.  She’d faced the soul-sucking horror of death before, knew how to get through its terrible dance and go on.  It would soon be over.  The Lancers would return, the Cassidys would take their leave and she would manage as she always had.  She was strong, she was brave…

The stream of practicality applied self-guilt to her feelings and got her moving.  She mentally chastised herself one last time, brought up some pragmatism, and crossed to Mrs. Cassidy.

“Here,” she said, taking the woman by the elbow and leading her to the sofa.  “You need to sit down and stop worrying so.  Would you feel more comfortable with your feet up?”  The words clacked out over her tongue because she was dashing them off so.  “Now, I’ll bring you your tea and you must drink it – you cannot upset yourself so – you have to think about your baby.  Everyone will be back soon, and then you can tell your husband the news – I’m sure he’ll be surprised and glad--”

Two gunshots churned through the outside silence, seething like an oncoming grumble of thunder.

Both women jumped.  Teresa ran to the double doors, wrested the curtains aside and scrambled to open the lock.  After some furious fumbling the bolt slipped back; she flung one door open and dashed through, her haste making the curtain chase behind her.  She ran outside to the darkness, ears afire with the strain of listening, her footsteps echoing loudly on the tile beneath her feet.

She rocked to a halt just under the arches, held her breath and listened.  Something bumped her from behind–Sarah.  Mrs. Cassidy was making soft moan-like sounds as she exhaled.

Nothing further.  Nothing.  Even the crickets were returning to their night chorus.  But their song only complicated the charge crackling in the air.  Teresa expected to indeed see a jagged streak of lightening rent the dark sky and hear the close discharge of a thunderclap.  But there was nothing more…just the unsettling silence of dread pulsing in the soft breeze around them.

Hurried boot steps came her way from across the yard.  Miguel crunched up the path, the outline of his rifle glinting in the wasted moonlight.

“Señorita Teresa,” he called out.  “Are you all right in the house?”

“Yes, yes,” she nodded – it felt so good to speak.  “We heard the shots – from the south range, do you think?”

“Yes,” he confirmed.  “But nothing more.  Perhaps it is done?  I will find Cipriano and he will ask the roof guards.  Please stay inside until you hear from me.”

<<Perhaps it is done,>> repeated over and over in her mind.  Two shots – only two…sounding like a shout and a reply.  And no more.  Around her the air stirred, eased the tension filling up the dark and slowly pushed it away.  They would be returning soon…

 

A rustling noise behind her made Teresa turn in time to Mrs. Cassidy slowly – and ever so elegantly – descending to the tile floor in a faint.

 

CHAPTER 2

“¡Dios!”

Johnny quickly side-passed Barranca to again catch his brother’s sagging form as it lurched sideways out of the saddle.  With swift fingers he guided Scott’s free hand to the saddlehorn and molded the now trembling fingers around it.  “That’s the second time in as many minutes you’ve slipped…Murdoch, hold up!”

Scott flinched at the jostling but worked himself upright.  “M’okay,” he murmured to Johnny through the darkness.  “It’s not far…”

“Stay there,” Johnny ordered, still holding on.  “Just stay there…”

It had only taken Scott one bullet to disarm Jed Lewis and rescue Cassidy’s neck; Lewis’ shot had been reflexive and harmless.  Murdoch had promptly ordered both Lewis and his partner Ric Hardy off the property.  With three guns facing them the pair had lit out without argument.

The adrenaline that had propelled Scott out of bed and into the saddle had fast subsided, allowing the throb of his shoulder wound and an enveloping weariness to take its place.  Just the aftereffects of a particularly unpleasant ordeal, he’d surmised to himself as he’d pulled himself back up into the saddle and they’d headed back toward the ranch.  He’d experienced such symptoms before – it would eventually pass.

And there certainly wasn’t any need to draw attention to it now.

Johnny’s grasp eased.  “Okay if I let go?” he asked.

“I’m all right,” Scott insisted around a clenched jaw, wishing he had another arm to scrub back the strands of fair hair making indentations in his forehead.  Not that his left would do any good – it had gone numb inside the sling before they even found Cassidy.  “I can see the house from here…”

“Just keep talking,” Johnny said to him as he let go and swung down off Barranca.  The scrubby undergrowth crackled under his boots, sounding like firecrackers.  It bit into Scott’s brain, pinching his faltering awareness and reviving him a little. “You okay – you all right for a second?”

“What’s the trouble?” Murdoch’s big hand came down to accept the reins Johnny silently handed over.  Behind him Dan Cassidy appeared, his mustached face set into a frown.

“Is Scott all right?” Cassidy called, edging closer.

Johnny ignored him, but the dark dance tantalizing his mind would not be fooled.  Cassidy had caused all this.

Dan Cassidy had ordered up vengeance against Scott over five years before, when the two shared time in a Confederate prison during the War.  Cassidy had organized an escape but fell ill, so Scott agreed to lead the group of sixteen men to potential freedom.  But news of the escape came to the prison guards, and the attempt was savagely averted, leaving Scott as the only survivor.  Cassidy, believing Scott had turned traitor, had vowed revenge on those lost lives.  In truth, Cassidy’s own delirium had caused the tragedy.

Just last night Jed Lewis, friend of Cassidy’s and brother of one of the men killed, had taken Scott at gunpoint from the Lancer great room.  Scott had managed to escape from Lewis and his partner Hardy, but not before taking a bullet.  Events had culminated in Cassidy’s hotel room where Cassidy’s wife Sarah had spilled the truth of her husband’s unwitting involvement in the prison break.  With the truth revealed, Cassidy had quick turned from hunter to hunted, for Lewis was hell-bent on his own revenge.  Scott had allowed the Cassidys refuge at Lancer, but Cassidy had other ideas for dealing with his guilt, and had alone confronted Lewis and Cassidy.

“Kick out of that stirrup,” Johnny now directed up to his brother, giving Scott’s horse a calming pat on the neck as he stepped in toward the animal.

“What’re you doing?” Scott grumbled but dropped his left foot so his brother could step into the empty stirrup.  For God’s sake, a little weakness on his part had them all aflutter with worry.  He was just tired – it had been one damn long day…

“I’m riding with you.” Johnny’s hand again clasped his brother’s as he caught the horn.  Without jostling Scott’s bound arm, he gracefully launched himself up behind the saddle.  “Easier this way,” he added.  His hands came around Scott’s waist, left sliding up under the sling to pluck the lax reins from cold fingers, the right snaking across ribs to catch a secure grip.  “Now you won’t fall off.”

Scott was about to retort that he wasn’t even close to falling off, and would-you-please-stop-squeezing-me-so-tight, but Murdoch had wedged his horse between Scott’s and the now riderless Barranca, bumping the former with his toe and causing the animal to sidestep.  The consequent shockwave of pain that rippled up through Scott’s body from the unexpected lurch made him swallow hard to get air back into lungs that had suddenly seized up.

“Scott…”

Murdoch’s voice seemed soft with concern, or was the buzzing in his ears affecting his hearing?  Scott tried to wave at him but could not get his fingers to let go of the horn.

“Pierde sangre,” Johnny noted in Spanish from behind him, reining the horse to a standstill. 

Irritation allowed Scott to find a breath. “I hate it when you do that,” he complained to his brother.  Johnny often retreated to the language when working beside the Lancer vaqueros or encountering other Lancer staff or acquaintances in town; his upbringing allowed him space in both Mexican and white worlds.  But this time he was using it to withhold information from others, namely his brother.  And in this instance, only Murdoch was likely to understand him.  But did he realize the barrier it set between them, Scott wondered, a barrier that he did not want to deal with right now.  All he wanted to do was crawl back into his rumpled bed and shut out the world for a few hours, not curse his rushed attempts to learn the language.  What was the word – blood…?

 

Johnny’s laugh was soft and close to his right ear.  “That’s why I do it, hermano mio,” he said in that teasing tone he’d readily adopted within the first days of meeting each other some months ago.

Whatever Johnny had uttered was effective; Murdoch was leaning in close to see.  “Is it bad?” he asked.

Bad enough.  Even in the slim moonlight Johnny could make out the spreading blood staining his brother’s left shoulder blade where the bullet had entered some twenty-four hours before.  Scott was quivering as he fought to remain upright, and his cheek where it now brushed Johnny’s earlobe was warm and sweaty.

Too close, Johnny thought silently.  That bullet had been the product of a huge lie spouted by Sarah Cassidy, and it had almost done its job.  And even though Lewis and Hardy might now be beating a trail off Lancer, Johnny suspected that it wasn’t yet over for Scott. Johnny’s brother, normally reserved, cool and logical, looked ready to break.

Johnny, by past profession as a gunfighter, was a skilled observer. Though he had only known Scott for a few months, he could see that Cassidy’s return had beaten at his brother’s equanimity.  Scott’s tautness was not the sole result of his wound, or his frustration over his own weakness.  There was something still working inside him, something that needed attending.  Something to do with that escape.  The long festering ordeal, begun more than five years ago, still had some poison to it, a toxicity of old guilt that Scott needed to purge.  Johnny suspected it would spill over, and soon.  But racing home to a house of worried people was not what his brother needed right now.

Murdoch had apparently not noticed – the old man was likely concerned with the damage the bullet wound was causing, especially since Scott had taken more than his share of slugs in the past few months.  Just when he recovered from one, he seemed to stop another.

“How bad?” Murdoch now testily repeated.  “Johnny…”

“La herida echa sangre,” Johnny reported to his impatient father.  Just as Scott’s head dipped and swung around to ask, he translated, “That wound must’ve broken open – you’re bleeding.”

“Oh, is that all?” Scott sardonically retorted. Well, that confirmed that crawly feeling that had been working down his back and his guess at the word.  “You made it sound serious…” He shuddered as a chill skipped down his spine.

“Cold?” Johnny asked him.

“Not at all,” Scott promptly lied.  “You’re coddling me as if…”

“Shut up then,” Johnny told him congenially.

The secure arm around his waist disappeared and materialized as Johnny’s hand upon his perspiring forehead.  Finally, something to remove those daggers piercing his skin, even if the hand was pressing too hard and the bracelet circling Johnny’s wrist was tapping him on the nose.  Then Scott had to trade that consideration for another because he was strangely tilting to one side, his body drooping from the lack of support around his middle.  With growing disinterest he wondered how long it would take to kiss the ground, and whether the drop through the darkness would hurt…

Fresh pain jolted him as Johnny snagged his collapsing form; he jerked hard and again his lungs squeezed down.  Now his whole head felt like a swarm of indignant bees rattled from a hive.

Awkwardly Johnny drew him back, murmuring what sounded like an apology and asking him to let-out-a-breath-and-relax-Brother.  Scott tried, exhaling slowly through lips pursed by clenching jaws.  By the time he gained more air he found he was fully supported on his brother’s frame, Johnny’s chest supplying the breastworks needed to keep him from keeling over.  Warmth emanating from Johnny swiftly penetrated him, easing the next shiver that was emerging from within him and settling the drone in his brain.

“Might want to right ahead,” Johnny advised Murdoch, easing Scott’s weight to the support of his left hand long enough to stuff his hat backward so it could hang down behind him.  He was afraid that Scott’s unsteady head would get tangled in the strings and choke them both if he left it on.  His own dark hair clung to his forehead but he didn’t bother to wipe it free; his brother was already dropping from the lack of support.  “Tell Teresa we’ll need bandages.”  He paused, eyeing Cassidy.  To his credit the other man met the stare full on.  “Take him with you,” he continued.

Murdoch gave Cassidy the briefest of glances and hesitated.  “Are you sure you can make it?  We can get a wagon…”

“Stop, will you?” Scott mustered.  He dug out of Johnny’s grip and swiped away a trickle of sweat working its way into his eye.  “It’s not that far--”

“Ol’ Boston ‘n me, we’ll be right along,” Johnny cheerfully overrode him, dredging up the detested nickname and rolling it out into the air with a verbal swagger.

Scott planted an elbow in Johnny’s ribs for that, and received a gratifying “oof” of breath back over his shoulder.  “I thought you weren’t going to call me that anymore.”

“I didn’t make any promises, Brother,” Johnny declared with just a hint of breathlessness.

“Next time I’ll get it in blood,” Scott vowed facetiously, “and I’ll squeeze it from you myself.”  At least the banter made him feel that he still had some sort of control over the awkwardness of being held by his brother like an unwieldy sack of potatoes.  It also held off the chattering now vibrating inside him, a nervous stringiness that was arguing with the damned tiredness pouring down from his heavy head.

“Okay,” Johnny agreed in a tone that said he’d do anything but.

Scott felt the upward curve of Johnny’s cheek against his own as his brother smiled, and relinquished some of his irascibleness – or was it pride?  He was tired, he was bleeding and in pain, and the house, despite his claim to the otherwise, was a long ways off.  Might as well let his brother take over since he was already up and behind – for all his teasing, Johnny would not let him fall – that much he knew about his brother.

“If you’re all done arguing…” Murdoch suggested in a sarcastic tone, and received in return a juxtaposed stare of blue eyes just visible in the grey-veiled darkness.  Murdoch gaped back. Dios, in this dimness they looked so alike.  The lack of light had washed away their physical characteristics of skin and hair color and replaced them with a deeper resemblance of personality reflected in their quiet forms, their intelligent gazes and their shared trust in each other.  What was it Johnny had said to him earlier, about not likely forgetting who had put the hole in his brother’s shoulder?  Johnny had now wrapped Scott, literally, in that protective claim.  And Scott was relying on his brother’s physical and emotional strength to see him home.  Jealously twinged in Murdoch, and for a moment he wished he was another brother instead of a father with a father’s twenty-year well of guilt…

“Well, stop staring and go on,” Johnny urged with an edge of frustration, which elicited a tiny smile from Scott.

“Go,” Scott added, resting heavily against his brother.  A shot of pain rose up in his eyes, forcing them to squint and then close, but he got them back open quickly and moved it to the tight set of his jaw instead.   He swallowed hard but kept the next shiver in check.

“Scott.” Dan had worked his way to the family group.  His eyes were besieged with guilt and worry.  “Can I help here?”

Scott felt Johnny stiffen and warned him with another poke in the ribs.

“No, Dan,” he said, getting his heavy head level.  “Go on back with Murdoch.  Your wife is waiting – worried, no doubt.  She needs to know you’re all right.”

Johnny muttered into his aching neck, “If not for him you wouldn’t be out here at all…”

“Better here than dead somewhere else…” Scott murmured in return, then brought his voice back up.  “Watch out for Lewis,” he warned Dan.  “He might try and double back…here.”  His clumsy fingers stumbled down to his Colt, fumbled over the thong, and then slid it from the holster.

“Let me,” Johnny insisted; at least Scott was still thinking clear.  He again shifted Scott to the left, then took the gun and flipped it to Cassidy.

The other man caught it and nodded.  “He’d be a dead fool to try,” he said.  “But I’ll be careful – thanks.”

“Don’t take too long,” Murdoch told Johnny, knowing it was unnecessary but unable to shove down the parental defensiveness that had been throbbing in him all day.  A visualization of the blood seeping between his sons was already filling up in his brain and sending runners of panic down into his heart.  Now there was only one gun between them, and with Johnny’s arms full of his brother there wouldn’t be much time to get a gun clear of leather should Lewis return...

Johnny was giving him that silent look of impatience, the one indicating that talk was over, but this time Murdoch detected something else emanating from the barely discernible blue glitter of his eyes…

A request –

For trust, and time.

Trust in what?  Johnny was more than capable of seeing his brother home, and the house could be easily gained.  There was no need to question trust over that.  So what had his younger son sensed?   This thing with Cassidy had occurred in Scott’s life, long before he knew he had a brother, so what could Johnny bring to it now?

But Johnny had asked, however silently, and there had been so few times since he’d arrived at Lancer that he’d called for a such a favor that Murdoch found he could neither question it further nor outright refuse it.

“Let’s go,” Murdoch growled to Cassidy.

He turned his horse about, taking Barranca with him. His heart trailed a few lengths behind, heavy with longing.  Murdoch snared it, swore at it and told it to get back where it belonged.  Like a sullen child, it retreated back inside his chest, thick and leaden.

++++++++++++

Johnny did not chirrup to Scott’s horse until the sound of other hoof beats had left the air, and then restrained the animal until he got the pace he had asked for.  The horse quickly settled in and they moved ever so slowly, it seemed, toward the hacienda. 

Scott closed his eyes and let the swaying gait soften his bones so he could sink deeper into the saddle.  There was no chance he’d fall now, not with Johnny pressed so close and steering the horse toward home.  The support offered by his brother also helped to absorb the pain that throbbed with each step of the horse, but could not quell the pounding in his bouncing head.  But it wasn’t far – his bed was already unmade, waiting for him.  Damn this bullet wound, anyway.  The bandages were tight about his chest but soggy at the shoulder, and he couldn’t feel his forearm.  The knot of the sling was ill-placed, but he’d been in a hurry to catch up to Johnny and Murdoch and hadn’t given much time to it other than to get it over his head and stuff his arm inside the cocoon of fabric.  Now the knotted material pressed uncomfortably into the muscle just to the right of his neckbone, adding a new ache to an otherwise uninjured part of his body.  But it was over, and soon he’d be back in bed, re-bandaged and cool.  Sleep would get rid of the banging behind his eyes – it always did.  He was just overtired…

The quiet darkness picked up quiet sounds – the careful placement of the horse’s hooves on the grassy scrub, the few crickets brave enough to continue singing as they plodded past, the easy creak of saddle leather. Behind Scott Johnny said nothing, only breathed softly on his good shoulder.  Scott wondered just how comfortable his brother was riding back there on bones.  But Johnny was still; he hadn’t shifted since drawing them together, just moved with the stride of the horse.

The quiet was quickly ratcheting up the restlessness quivering inside him.  Talk – he had to talk…about something, anything…why Johnny had badgered Murdoch into riding ahead, for one thing.  Unusual for his brother to send the old man back to the hacienda and dawdle behind.  Riding double seemed like a stall for something.

“Why are you doing this?” Scott asked Johnny, squinting enough to see shadows.  It seemed like they had barely moved.  “Murdoch was right – it would’ve been just as easy to fetch a wagon.”

“I figured I owed you one,” Johnny replied.

“How so?”

Climbing up behind his brother hadn’t taken any careful consideration on Johnny’s part – his brother was hurting and needed help staying in the saddle.  Riding astride a plodding horse would be no worse than reclining in a jouncing wagon. And the wound, though bleeding, would likely withstand a few extra minutes of quiet.  Scott was strong, and Johnny had seen him weather similar injuries.  No, Scott could absorb a little extra pain.  This wound of his was deeper, closer to the soul, and the demons surrounding it were calling to be let out.

“Well?” Scott demanded lightly, yanking him out of his brood.

“For that day when Pardee tried to take over,” Johnny responded with a grin.

“Not the same,” Scott shook his head, and wished he hadn’t – a terrific bout of dizziness made the darkness whirl in front of him.  “I let you walk – until you dropped, anyway.”

“Well, see, I figured the same sort of thing might happen to you, so I just took care of that first.  Saves you some mortification in front of the old man.”

“Well, if you hadn’t insisted on walking by yourself--” Scott managed to tease.

“You calling me stubborn?” Johnny shot back but there was no real indignation in his voice.

“Just like the old man,” Scott retorted smartly.

Johnny mumbled something about it running in the family and went silent again.

Scott was suddenly glad that Johnny had sent Murdoch and Cassidy ahead of them to the hacienda, for it gave him time to let some space seep into his speeding brain and slow the adrenaline flowing there.  Now he could regroup his frayed thoughts, encapsulate the old familiar blackness threatening his heart and thrust the whole mess back into the tiny space he allowed for his combat memories – and those other nasty souvenirs gained from war prison.

His younger brother’s calm was welcome.  Johnny would not ask untoward questions, would not bedevil him into trying to explain.

And for that, Scott was grateful.

 

CHAPTER 3

“Better now?” Teresa asked Sarah, but it came out as an expectation rather than an inquiry.  She adjusted the pillow behind the other woman’s neck, trying not to punch it or Sarah’s ear.  This woman was such an annoying bundle of trouble…

Sarah said nothing.  Her blue eyes were caught on the fire.  Teresa glanced at the low burning flames.  The logs were blackened, and a layer of smoky frosting hovered over the wood.  Cool blue tongues sprouted up behind.  There was no warmth there, only brooding and disapproval, a portentous breath further sucking up the air.     

Teresa involuntarily shivered and stepped to the fireplace.  With a poker she busily prodded the logs and graying ash underneath.  A spurt of light popped upward and she fed its hunger with a handful of kindling.  The fresh yellow tongue lapped it up and spread into a saffron smile, then beamed with orange power.  The glow cast itself outward, challenging the gloom before it.  Teresa allowed a moment for the heat to reach her, then wiped her hands together and turned back to Sarah.

The other woman had not moved.  The emerging firelight painted her face with new color, but the bloom did not penetrate.  Rather, it picked up strange new shadows under her eyes and along her jaw.  Her hair was streaked dark where awry strands fell across her forehead.  The rest of her looked haunted in the flickering light.  There were wrinkles in her blouse, and her fisted hand, the one that still clutched Teresa’s handkerchief, had curled into a claw.

Teresa touched her sleeve.  “Mrs. Cassidy…are you all right?”

“Thank you,” Sarah perfunctorily replied.

Apprehension poked Teresa in the spine. Had she hit her head when she’d fainted?  Better to keep an eye on her until…

“¡Vuelven!”
“¡Han llegado!”

“¡Dos hombres…!”
“¡Señorita Teresa – están aquí!  El patrón…”

¡Dios!  They were back…thank God, oh, thank God…

“They’re here!” Teresa declared.  “Would you like some help…?”

“Go,” Sarah told her.  Her eyes lifted briefly.  “Go to them.”

“But don’t you want--?”

Sarah dipped her head.  “No,” she said despondently.  “No – it doesn’t matter…” Her fingers clenched and unclenched.  Teresa thought she was holding something inside the now crumpled handkerchief – maybe her own smelling salts, or some other medicine?

“Señorita Teresa!”

Cipriano, telling her it was safe to come outside.

Teresa hesitated and turned back to Mrs. Cassidy, frowning with confusion.  “But your husband…”

Sarah abruptly sat up.  “I hope Scott is all right,” she began, her voice thawing a little.  “He didn’t deserve to be hurt so…”

Teresa’s feet were begging to move.  “If you think you’ll be all right then,” she suggested.  If the woman couldn’t bear to face her husband then let her stay here.

No answer.

Teresa turned and fled out to the yard.          

++++++++++++

“You’d better go inside,” Murdoch told Cassidy as he swung a stiffened leg over the saddle.  “Your wife will want to know you’re all right.”  Pain jolted him as he got both feet to the ground – his back was complaining, and mightily.

“¿Debo desensillar este caballo, Señor?” asked the stable hand Julio, catching the reins for his patrón.

“Ya no – not yet,” Murdoch told him, getting both hands on the rail and slowly stretching.  No, he didn’t want the horse unsaddled.  Not yet…

Not yet, because they were still out there and they might need help…

“I can wait with you,” Cassidy offered.

Murdoch shook his head no.  He was already full of his own worry, and Cassidy’s presence further invaded his emotional space.  “They’ll be right along.  Please – see to your wife.  She…well, you know how she feels.”

“Yes,” Cassidy nodded.  “I do know – now, I do.  Sir…”

“Murdoch!”

Teresa ran to him before he could straighten up but he caught up her slim form into a welcome hug anyway, his long held emotion finding release in their embrace.

“Are you hurt?” she asked in a rush, and put a hand to steady him as he shifted to cover his wince.  “We heard the shots--” she broke off and looked around, eyes coming to settle on the path.  Murdoch’s gaze followed – still nothing.  “Where’s Johnny…and Scott?  Why aren’t they here?  Are they…?”

“They’re on their way – we rode ahead,” Murdoch told her, easing himself upright but unable to quite yet let go of her hand.  “Cipriano said it’s all quiet here…?”

Quiet, but Murdoch Lancer was long past being a fool, and had told Cip as he rode by to keep the guards posted until dawn.

“What happened?” Teresa insisted.  “Who’s hurt?  I’ve got water and bandages ready – is it Scott?  Did that man…?”

Murdoch covered the hand clutching his sleeve and patted it, trying to find a confident smile because she was still so young and needed comfort against the fear threatening her.

“We ran them off,” he told her, and eyed the still-lingering Cassidy over her dark head.  “No one was harmed, but Scott will need a change of bandages.”  Bandages, water, his bed…the fever would probably arrive by morning…

But he couldn’t add to Teresa’s panic, not like he had failed to disguise his worry from Scott.  “I’m just going to wait here for them,” he said in a light voice.

She opened her mouth to ask something more, and he thought he had also failed her, but she had noticed that he was still staring at Cassidy.  She half-turned back to the man.  “Mrs. Cassidy is inside,” she said to him.  “She could use you – she’s – she’s not feeling too well…”

Cassidy moved, but instead of retreating to the house he came forward.  Murdoch’s spine spasmed in response, and Teresa’s hands clutched him close.

“Please return this to Scott,” Dan said, handing over the Colt.  “And tell him thank you from me – he – I…” He shook his head.

Murdoch let the gun weight his hand, trying not to imagine that it was the last thing his son had held, that it was Johnny and not he that had last seen him alive…

“See to your wife,” Murdoch prompted him, and almost took a step to get him going.  But Cassidy wheeled and left, taking his brooding presence with him and relieving the air of a gathering heftiness.

“Does she need a doctor?” Murdoch asked Teresa, referring to Sarah.  Maybe a doctor would not be a bad idea, considering he’d just left his son bleeding God knew how badly out there in the darkness behind him.  But they had Arturo in the bunkhouse to help with any hurts – the man had some experience with bullet wounds…

Teresa shook her head.  No, she thought silently, she was just suffering under the weight of her own guilt.  “I think she’ll be all right – she was worried about her husband…”

“With good reason,” he scowled and felt his heart lurch – Scott… “The fool was completely unarmed.”  He slipped an arm about Teresa’s shoulders.  She gratefully pressed into the warmth of his embrace and his heart steadied again.

Murdoch’s gaze returned to the path leading from the yard.  Where were they?  Had they been forced to stop?  Maybe he should go back with the wagon; even in the low light he had seen how Scott was hurting.  If he was bleeding heavily…

Johnny would know what to do, his inner voice of reason admonished.  He could make a bandage if one was needed.  He’d find a way to send for help – probably send that palomino of his home with some sort of sign…

He gave Julio a sympathetic look, but the stable hand only waited quietly for his next direction.  Just a little longer, then, Murdoch decided.  They were riding double, and Johnny was likely keeping the horse to a walk.  It would take some time to come in.

And he’d asked for trust with his blue eyes, and time with his brother.  Instinct prevailed over imagination, for the time being, so Murdoch stood as calmly as he could with Teresa – and waited.

 

++++++++++++

 

“Sarah…”

She was standing directly before the fireplace, one hand turned toward its warmth.  Sweat slicked the back of Dan’s neck – he was warm from the ride and the room was stuffy.  How could she be cold?

Dan crossed the distance to her but stopped when she wearily lifted her head to face him.

He frowned at her.  Her face wore a bruised look.  Dark circles under her eyes stained the skin there a lurid purple, and gray shadows had attached themselves below her cheeks.  Her skin was sallow in the firelight, and a spot along her jaw was red, as if she had repeatedly rubbed it.  Her blonde hair was dull and dry, snaking about her ears with an uncommon untidiness.

He thought she looked ugly.

Feeling resurfaced in him – repugnancy for her lies, her mistrust of him, and her willingness to give up on him.

Sarah’s gaze traveled back to the fireplace.  “Are you all right, Dan?” she asked with tepid concern.

His jaw jutted forward in defiance.  “Yes, I’m fine.”

“There were shots…”

“The Lancers ran off Lewis and Hardy – for the time being, anyway.”

“And – and Scott?”

He smiled grimly, malevolence threatening him, along with jealousy tucked in there for good measure.  “Worried about him, were you?”  <<But not about me…>>

“I was worried for the both of you,” she corrected.

He opened his mouth to retort, but his resentment slid down a few ribs from a jolt of shame.  Blame would not change anything – why keep flogging it?  What mattered was now – and the future.

“I’m sorry,” he told her contritely.  “I’m tired – my head…Scott’s brother is bringing him in.”

Sarah looked up, forehead puckering.  “It’s over, then?”

“Yes,” he confirmed, “that part, anyway.”  He took off his hat; the band was like a vise about his forehead – he needed to rest.  Even after five years he still suffered physical effects gained from that prison.  There was the bottle of laudanum tucked away upstairs.  Maybe just a spoonful would work…

But first Sarah – and the aftermath of this mess…

He took a breath.  “I suppose I should thank you,” he began, the words sticking far back in his mouth.  But it was over now, and the air needed to be cleared between them.  “For not letting me go through with it, I mean…for telling me the truth.  That – that was brave of you, Sarah.”

She smiled sadly at him.  “No,” she said.  “Not brave…just desperate.  Anyway, you’ve made it clear what you think of me, Dan.”

Cassidy flushed over the harsh reminder of his loose tongue – he had a temper that made him say things… “Sarah, that was…”

She held up a hand to cut him off.  “I know, Dan – I understand what I’ve done – to you – and to the Lancers.”  She swallowed, and some of the harshness left her.  “I told you earlier that I was leaving.  Maybe I should keep to that plan – for both our sakes.  For so long – years – our marriage has rested on lies…”

She turned from him and groped for the support of the mantle.  She shuddered heavily, as if she were going to expel something foul out onto the floor between them.

He took another step closer to her, but the chilly wall of emotion surrounding her made him hesitate.  Still, she was his wife, and perhaps…

“There’s a lot between us,” Dan allowed.  “I – I don’t even know how it will be for us – but it’s gone, Sarah.  That revenge is gone…”

Sarah pushed back a stray wisp of hair that had fallen over her forehead with the back of her hand; she had something clutched in her fingers, something wrapped in a handkerchief.  She stepped even closer to the fire, and he thought she was going to throw the object into the burning woodpile.

“And what replaces that vengeance, Dan?” Sarah asked with frostiness.  “Will it be your guilt – or mine?  Will we keep punishing ourselves for the actions of the past?  The ending is the same, isn’t it?”  She sucked in a breath for energy and smiled at him.  Blackness outlined her lips and flirted with the blue of her eyes, giving her the look of one possessed.  “I should have let you murder Scott,” she said with a coldness she’d never revealed to him – never in the ten years of their marriage.  “Perhaps you would have gotten away with it, and we could have pretended that it was all right between us--”

“You can’t believe that!” Dan declared, astonished.  “You’ve tried for years to turn me away from it…”

Her eyes narrowed, forcing the circles underneath to crowd close.  “It doesn’t matter what I believe.  The truth hasn’t saved us at all.”

“It saved the one who mattered most,” he told her.  “It saved Scott.”

“Yes, it did that,” she conceded.  Then she moved and walked past him.

His hand snagged her arm.  “This is it?”

She recoiled.  “Don’t, Dan,” she said, stuffing the item in her hand into the small pocket in her skirt.

“Maybe we should reason it out,” he suggested.  “Take some time.”

“No, I don’t think so.” Sarah shook her head.

She stepped away, then turned back.  “I did it because I loved you,” she told him.  “However right or wrong that was.  It was for you.”

“I know that…” he started to say, but she was already gone from the room.

 

CHAPTER 4

Johnny had reined the horse even further, and now the animal plodded with a tired walk, head down and out of sight.  Scott’s spine slipped a little further with the rhythmic cadence and his head went with it, dropping back to rest on the top of Johnny’s shoulder.  He’d tried to raise it but couldn’t – it was just too heavy on his neck.  The pain was pounding between his eyes, and was now worming lower to invoke nausea.  It wasn’t far, he reminded himself.  Soon he’d be back in his bed…

He and his brother were melded together now, Johnny’s frame a cushion for his floppy bones, the seeping blood like sticky pine tar gluing them back to front at their left shoulders.  Scott could feel the steady thump of Johnny’s heartbeat through his own skin.  But its secure pulse cavorted with his pressing exhaustion.  He’d only had ragged patches of rest since the beginning of the ordeal – was that only last night at this time?  A few tortured hours had been claimed by the pond, and a hand span of time had been spent passed out on Doc Hildenbrand’s backroom bed.  He’d managed a few hours on his own mattress, but there his sleep had been erratic, interrupted by voices and sounds, and a stream of incompleteness that had kept him from true rest.  He’d had to finish this thing with Cassidy – it was something Johnny and Murdoch could not do for him.

Behind him Johnny took a light breath; his silence had taken on a new edge.  Though he didn’t say it, and probably wouldn’t, Scott sensed that Johnny had something on his mind.  His brother, for all his fast temper and constant action, was also a careful observer.  Scott had often seen him wear an introspective look as he sifted through his thoughts before he finally framed a question.  Johnny hadn’t asked him about Cassidy – their brief conversation in Scott’s bedroom had been interrupted by Murdoch looking for the man and calling Johnny to follow.  Mudoch had probably told Johnny what he knew about Cassidy’s mistaken vengeance, but his brother would have other questions.

Scott closed his eyes.  He really didn’t want to have to explain, but Johnny had a right to know some things.  He had a right to know why he was practically carrying his big brother home in such a sorry condition.  He deserved to know how Cassidy had come to his vengeance, and why Scott had argued with Murdoch for clemency for his former comrade.

“About Cassidy,” Scott began for him.  His voice came out dry, and he realized that he was working up a good thirst.

“What about him?” Johnny asked in a tone that feigned insouciance.

“He was mistaken – about what happened.  He didn’t know…”

“Yeah, so you said.”

“He needed protection--”

“I know, I know.”

“Then what’s bothering you?”

Johnny sighed and took some time to adjust his grip on his brother.  Scott was warm and growing heavier against him, his limbs long and lax between shivers.  The blood soaking through his shirt and onto Johnny’s clasped them together in sticky wetness.  At Johnny’s shift the clinging fabric separated, and a stream of air slipped in to chill the space between them.  Immediately Scott shuddered.  Johnny pressed close again and reconsidered his tongue.  It probably wasn’t the time for talk, but his brother seemed intent on it; in fact, he’d barely stopped speaking since they’d started for home.  Just when Johnny thought Scott had dozed off, his brother would rouse up and say something else. This new inquietude of his brother’s made Johnny uneasy.  He wished Scott would just relax instead of fighting with himself.   All this talking seemed to work Scott up, rather than ease his mind.

“I asked you a question,” Scott softly prompted, rolling his head in toward Johnny’s collarbone to catch the few words he knew would be softly spoken.

“It seems to me,” Johnny started with reluctance, “that this whole thing could have been avoided if Cassidy’s pretty wife had just told him what had happened when she found out from the Army.  Instead she let him run blind for five years, building up his hate for you, until he did this…”

“She was afraid it would ruin him,” Scott said.  He closed his eyes and managed a small shrug with his good shoulder.  “He was still sick when the War ended – she was afraid of him dying.”

“After five years?” Johnny declared, his voice vibrating against Scott’s ravaged forehead.  “That’s a lot of time to be hell-bent on revenge.”

It hurt to work his mouth; pain was grabbing him and asking him to shut up.  Scott resisted.  That stringiness inside him was thrumming and talking kept it starving.

“Have you ever carried that much hate in your heart?” Scott asked Johnny, his voice slipping into roughness.  He tried to clear his throat but it came out as a weak cough that scraped over his tongue.

Hate – he’d lived with hate for a long time.  It had been the motivation for his decision to pick up a gun and gain a reputation by it. “Yes,” Johnny softly admitted to his brother and the darkness, knowing that both would keep this truth safe.  He eased his face back to nod and not take his brother’s head with him. “But not the sort of revenge Cassidy was growing inside him.  How about you?”

Revenge – it was so insubstantial…he’d long ago swallowed any ideas of vengeance – the War had beaten it out of him.  “No, not like that,” Scott answered quietly.

“I think Sarah Cassidy fed him that lie one too many times,” Johnny said to him.  “She never panicked until he got too close to you.  I think she was willing to let him kill you just to have him get on with his life – their life.”

And she’d nearly told him the same just that afternoon in the hotel room, Scott recalled.

“But she didn’t let that happen,” he pointed out.

“Not until he had you dead to rights,” Johnny reminded him.  “Why are you defending her, anyway? And him?”

“I don’t know,” Scott said.  “Just trying to see all sides, I guess.”  He sighed.  “Dan and I were close once – we relied on each other…” He shifted and grimaced.  “I hate to forget that,” he added softly.
<<Casus belli>>, Scott mused to himself; the Latin term flitted through his brain like a ravenous chickadee he’d often seen back home on the Common.  The occasion of war…the thing that justified all this conflict.  Until this afternoon he’d thought Cassidy’s long-ago accusations of the botched escape had been the root cause of this renewed ordeal.  But when Sarah Cassidy had blurted the truth Scott realized that her secret had kept Cassidy on the road of vengeance for all this time.  If not for her secret…if not for Dan’s delirium the night before the escape…hell, if not for their capture in the first place.  Might as well blame the entire War, then.  Dan might have believed that his appointed second-in-command – Scott Lancer – was the reason for his revenge, but the truth had evaporated that assumption along with his vengeance.  Should Sarah be blamed, then?

Did it matter now?  Yes, there had been blame and vengeance and mistaken belief; a broken marriage, even his own bullet wound.  So much time had been lost trying to close the door on that one fateful night.

But it was over now – or should be.

Scott pried his eyes open and squinted through an interesting pattern of fuzziness to a scattering of lights – they had just turned from the grass onto the main path, the horse quickening its step with the scent of home in its nostrils.

Johnny applied pressure to the reins. “Lentamente,” he said.  “Slowly, mi amigo.  We’ve got time.”  Then he said, close to Scott’s ear, “It scared me…him so close to killing you…knowing that he hurt you, all because of her lies.”

There, it was out.

And the quiet admission warmed Scott, eased his shudders for a moment. For in those few terse minutes when Cassidy had found him in that hotel room, Scott had also feared that he’d never see his newfound father or brother again, that his past would overtake his future with them.  And he’d further risked his chances by bringing the Cassidys to the ranch, trying to bring some good to the evil mess that had unraveled so far from its origin.  He didn’t figure it would be hard to convince Murdoch to see the logic behind his decision, but he hadn’t been sure where he stood with his brother, and Johnny’s opinion – supportive or oppositional – mattered to him.

“Thanks, Brother,” Scott now got out over a thickening throat of unfamiliar emotion that quelled the aloofness he generally wore to protect his heart.  “I had some of the same feelings myself…” He let the honesty settle on them for a bit, and felt some comfort when Johnny’s grip secured itself tighter around him.  “Then I decided that half the ranch would be too much for you to handle…” he joked weakly, working up a grin that he had to cough out.

“Brother, one old man and one ex-gunfighter couldn’t hang onto this estancia no matter how hard they tried,” Johnny chuckled at his brother’s levity.  “I figure with you around I might be able to repent for most of my sins and please the old man.  But without you then my highway leads straight to hell.”

“Then I’ll take that as a compliment to my good judgment and experience,” Scott told him.  “Seeing as how I’m older…” He broke off as the pain suddenly tried to snatch at a lung and suck it out from under his armpit.

Instantly Johnny halted the horse.  “Calmas,” he murmured to his brother, loosening his grip just a little.  “Take a few breaths…all right?  We’re almost there…”

Scott hitched a breath as the pain snapped again but then it receded, rumbling low in his chest and he could get more air.  The thrumming in him was worsening, however, and ancient but familiar nightmares were starting to feed at the dark spaces in his brain. Usually it was an elemental trigger that got them going, the slow roll of oncoming thunder, a wave of oppressive heat…an odiferous smell, clinging to the nostrils…

The bile in his gut was souring of its own accord, pestered by that jigging within him.  Seeing Cassidy this afternoon, actually facing the man, had churned something up inside him – old memories – bad memories, the worst of them. Now they were writhing in panic, clawing for release.  Scott swallowed against it but they dug harder, demanding freedom.  He’d been able to hold them down before now.  A couple glasses of brandy – or Scotch –  generally aided in reducing their threat.  The house wasn’t that far… he could hold on.

“For a long time I wondered,” Scott started pensively.  Talking – he needed to talk; he’d been quiet for too long.  It fed on his silences…and this darkness.  “Why didn’t I perish with them?  What God let me live while they all died?”

“That kind of self-torture doesn’t do any good,” Johnny told him, sensing the fresh strain that his brother was trying to resist and knowing that it was too strong to hold back any longer. Scott had given Cassidy his peace; now it was time for Scott to find the same for himself.

“I know,” Scott was saying.  “But it made me wonder for the longest time…They trusted me, they relied on me…”

“It was War,” Johnny reminded him.  “Can’t make any guarantees in those situations.  In a way you helped set them free – put them in a better place.”

“They didn’t deserve to die like that – not after all they’d endured…”

“No, they didn’t deserve to die,” Johnny repeated.

“I saw Dan when it ended – I tried to tell him…”

“Yeah, Mrs. Cassidy told us.”

“I thought he was just sick and confused, that once he got better he’d realize that he’d been wrong to think that I – I… he was so angry – so convinced…” He was talking faster, in time to the twitching he could no longer control. The thing was swelling in him; he had to let it out, horrible as it was.

Johnny knew the weight of guilt brought by killing, the agony of the soul torn by the responsibility of removing a life – more than one life.  He supposed Scott had done his share of killing in the war, and figured that his brother had spent some early moments violently sick over it, much as he had done back when he’d first taken his stand against others.  It hid deep in the gut, lurking, pacing, waiting for the right time to feed on a man’s emotions.  But Scott had not put a bullet into any one of those sixteen men lost in that attempted escape, and it was time he let go of the guilt for it, time to transfer it back to Cassidy where it rightfully belonged. 

Johnny took a breath and pleaded with his guardian angel for forgiveness for what he was about to ask, to force his brother to face the fouling demon of his memories…

“It was bad, that place…?” he started, hoping the prompt would be enough. <<Let it out, Brother…let it go…>>

Scott’s breathing turned raspy; Johnny felt a deep shudder work through him. “There were thousands of us inside that stockade,” Scott replied; sweaty warmth was radiating off of his cheek into Johnny’s neck.  “It – it defies description.”

There was no way to explain the place.  The pestilence, the purulence, the stench of waste and decay.  The sadness, terror and fear brought on by deprivations of the cruelest kind, the empty, shattered souls that remained… He’d spent an entire year struggling to survive in that place, and the next five trying to recover from its horrors; working to convince himself that he was a man and not just an empty, depraved collection of peeling flesh, that he had dignity and social ability, courage and confidence…compassion.  And Cassidy’s accusations had long lingered in the gray edges of his mind, whispered to him in his dreams for nights on end, for months and months – a year, maybe even two – before he could make it through a night without them terrorizing his sleep.

<<You’re to blame, you bastard…you betrayer – you murderer.  You’ll pay.  By God, you’ll pay for every one of those sixteen lives…>>

With ascending dread Scott realized that Cassidy’s vilification had only pretended to depart from his brain, fooling him into believing that he had made peace with it.  Because there’d always lurked just a trace of doubt, just the faintest trace inspired by Cassidy’s threats, that perhaps he’d done something or said something to cause the escape to fail.  Even now, when the truth was out and they all knew, Cassidy, Lewis and Hardy, his conscience was asking him if he was certain – absolutely sure – that he wanted to relinquish the last of the guilt he’d kept for so long.  For it was not going to go so easily, he was warned as a raw burn scrambled up his throat, and it would be so much simpler to take it all back…

<<You’ll pay.  I swear to God, Scott Lancer, I will make you pay for each good man that died that night…>>

The clogged memories barreled down his throat and met the bile coming up; they collided and exploded.  He choked, instantly drowning…

Instinctively Scott drew himself upright to find air.  His limbs rattled defenselessly at his side, so hot and brittle he thought they’d snap off as they jerked spasmodically.  His lungs squeezed hard, caving his chest inward, lowering it to meet his navel.  Needles pierced his forehead; his ears were shrieking.  Blood flowed hot down his back, searing a line of pain in his skin.  And then his stomach was heaving, making him cough more…

Johnny was easing him forward to help him through the paroxysm, talking to him, telling him to <<breathe, breathe…calmas…it’s all right – it’ll be okay –  swallow-dammit, >> probably afraid he’d lose that earlier concoction from Teresa all over the saddle.  And he did retch – hard – but his heaves were achingly dry.  So he choked and coughed and spat and Johnny hung onto him, one warm hand affixed to his spasming cold one, fingers of the other pressing at a corded nerve that had sprung up along the back of his neck.  The touch gave him some purchase to expel the years of guilt and shame he’d carried deep, so deep he thought it was already gone...

When he had quieted to running shivers of cold and pain, every inch of his skin from scalp to feet clammy and crawly with sweat, Johnny gently drew him back again.  Scott sunk against the strong, quiet framework, too worn and miserable to muster an apology for his embarrassing weakness.  He was so grateful for Johnny’s adjusting hand guiding his lolling head to the security of a shoulder. The warm fingers then skimmed the sweat away from his forehead, and brushed back the dagger-like fringe of hair piercing his brow.  But God, it hurt, it hurt so…

And so they hung there together for an indeterminate time, waiting for the return of calm. Behind Scott Johnny breathed deep, and his thudding heart slowed to a steadier beat, demanding that Scott’s own blood beat follow accordingly.

Finally Johnny shifted and the horse started forward in that same slow walk as before.  A light breeze washed over them.  But the air moving across Scott’s skin felt like the stinging, cold sleet of a Boston ice storm, and he turned away from it for relief, seeking the breadth of warmth behind him.  It continued to hurt, it all hurt, and Scott wanted to stop moving and just lie down in the dirt and never get back up...

Johnny started talking to him, in Spanish this time, his voice purring against the hot cheek Scott had settled against his throat.  “Duermete, mi nino,” came the quiet words.  “Duermete, mi sol/duermete pedazo/de mi corazon.  Duermete…” **

“Wh – what?” Scott rasped, desperate to understand.  Why was Johnny using this singsong voice on him, talking to him in Spanish when he knew his brother wouldn’t understand?

Why had it erupted this way?  Why…? Why he was here, years after that escape, sick down to his bones – gray with…

Nothing.  It was gone. 

The blackness borne of Cassidy’s words was now just a low muttering at the back of his brain.  The relentless thrumming inside him had finally relented, the stringiness had quelled, exorcised by that conscious nightmare he’d just had.  How…?

“You know,” he croaked to Johnny.

His brother knew the personal pain of killing another human being…knew its corrupt blackness, fetid silence, its feculent hands – he knew how it had to be battled.

And understood how to live with it…

Johnny extended his spine, taking Scott with him, back muscles protesting appreciably at the stretch.  “Yeah, I know,” he repeated softly.

“When…where?”

“Mexico,” Johnny told him.  “Long time ago.”  The dust in his own soul stirred, sighed and settled again.  “Better now?” he asked his brother, avoiding any more explanation.

“Yes,” Scott sighed.  “I – I thought…”

“Shh,” Johnny whispered.  “No talk now – we’re almost home.  Duermete…it’s all over.   Duermete…”

Scott’s eyelids burned as he closed them, but dropping them down was easier than propping them open.  He was so tired now – so tired.  He wanted to stop moving, to sleep, to just throw himself down and temporarily leave this existence.  But something in him held onto the soothing voice washing over him, and he absorbed its comfort.  Johnny knew – he understood…

 

++++++++++++

. “Don’t…” Scott shivered to the glimmering darkness when they finally lifted him from the saddle and snarling pain started to leak into the places where he had been warmed by his brother’s embrace. They were trying to help, he weakly realized, but they were too loud, their grips frightfully painful.  He needed the quiet calm of the presence that had been supporting him, needed the reassurance it had provided because he was still afraid that those dark memories might come back to attack …

“Johnny…don’t go…” He fought them – even the cold ground would better than their forceful grasps…if he could only get one knee down, let his head drop…

He saw Johnny through a gauzy veil of awareness.  His brother was shouting at someone, ready to strike.

“Johnny…” The name stumbled over his tongue.  He couldn’t reach – someone was holding him back and it hurt.  Johnny’s anger rolled over him – Johnny, rage spilling out of him – shouting at Cassidy, at everyone…

“Leave it be,” he pleaded softly.

It was over.  He wanted to rest, to ease out of this world for a few thankful hours…

The steadying voice finally came back to him over the exclamations of others around him.  “I’m right here, hermano mio.”  A pair of secure arms encircled him.  “I’ve got you – I won’t let go…”

And he rested his trust upon that voice and let it take him into peace…

 

CHAPTER 5

Johnny braced his palms against the kitchen doorframe and sagged, looking and feeling crucified.  The slipstream of cool air easing in through the open door did little to quell his twitching muscles, his aching back and neck.  But the dark quiet was welcome to his ragged personal space, and he mentally made room for it, hoping it would stay for a while.

He further let the stretch of arms and shoulders work into his brain and replace the mix of feelings running through him, a sour combination of frustration, worry and weariness that clamored for attention with the lowing taking place behind his navel.  Maybe he’d rummage through that plate of sandwiches Teresa left covered on the table, see what was left for the taking.  Or maybe he’d just apply some of Murdoch’s good brandy to the mess coursing inside him, a little liquid balm to unknot the old familiar tension that had often accompanied Johnny Madrid during those times of self-preservation.

Scott had come so close, so close…

The blood stiffening on his shirt was a keen reminder of that.  He supposed he should change and wash up a little, try and get some sleep in what was left of the night.  Try to sleep off the mood enveloping him.  But every time he closed his eyes, snippets of the past hour keep playing before his drawn lids…

Scott out of his head with exhaustion, calling for him even as he slid from the saddle and floundered, feeling suddenly lopsided without the weight of his brother on his chest.

Teresa, almost comical in her admonishment over two pairs of dusty boots on the clean sheets of Scott’s bed.

Murdoch, frozen into silence at the sight of all the blood.

And Cassidy, constantly hovering, watching with an unnerving silence, waiting for an invitation to help…

At one point Johnny had accosted him, shoving him aside and then watching with a cruel smile as he stumbled over his feet.  “Take a good look, Cassidy,” he’d jeered, letting go of Scott long enough to push him again.  “Proud of what you’ve done to my brother?”  Murdoch had gotten a hand on him but he’d yanked it off.  “Well, take a look at what you’ve done, you--”

“Johnny,” Scott’s voice wavered.  “Leave it be…”

Murdoch had grabbed a good handful of his shirt.  “Not now,” he’d hissed in his ear.  “Your brother needs you.”

So he’d turned way from Cassidy, got his own set of boots off Scott’s bed and groped for some space to put between himself and the other man.  But then Murdoch noticed the blood on his shirt and pandemonium broke out all over again.  Shouts and curses…water poured, bandages produced…

Johnny had finally stumbled from his brother’s bedroom, his head swimming with the sight of it all.  He’d made his way to the darkened kitchen, wishing Maria were there so he could loosen his tongue and tell her about it.  But it was late, and Maria had gone home, and there was no one but his own foul humor for company.  And while the quiet had helped ease his churning brain, it had also fed on the other hungry part of him…

For the first time in months Johnny wanted to hurt somebody, by fist or by bullet – it didn’t matter the method.  Dark ire was lurking in him, seeking to be rewarded.  And Cassidy was the cause of the blackened fog swirling inside of him.  So he’d paced in and out of the courtyard behind the kitchen and let his nerves lengthen in the darkness, trying to wear out the need to bring back Johnny Madrid to deal with Dan Cassidy.

An unexpected voice soiled his quiet.

“How is Scott?”

Johnny whirled, reflexes re-alerted, palm dropping to the butt of his gun before he could curb his fingers from drawing it from the holster.  Dimly he was aware of the fact that he was wearing his gun inside the house – against Murdoch’s general rule – but he’d been so intent on helping his brother that he’d forgotten to remove it.  The secure weight against his thigh had long been a part of him, however, and he wasn’t yet ready to give it over for the night – not yet, not while in this mood …

“Is he all right?” Cassidy asked, stepping just into the fringes of light cast by the wall sconces.  His eyes went to the rusty, dried bloodstain coating Johnny’s left shoulder, then came back to the glare Johnny was trying to murder him with.  “Please, I’d like to know…”

“He will be,” Johnny cut him off; the blackness inside him collected itself into a simmering heat that spread through his veins, providing him with familiar Madrid calm.  <<One misstep, just one wrong move, anything for an excuse…>>

Cassidy nodded.  “That’s good – I’m truly glad,” he said, his sincerity leaking through his wariness.  “I am very sorry--”         

“Save your apology,” Johnny interrupted.  “We don’t need it.”  He shifted, tracking sideways, watching to see if Cassidy would follow.  The other man did, but maintained the distance between them

“If I can help…” Cassidy began but his voice withered in Johnny’s silence.

Johnny’s blood was starting to sing to him, urging him to do something.  <<You’ve shot men for less,>> it whispered.  <<He deserves it – the bastard deserves a little well-placed pain, after all he’s done.  He hurt Scott…>> Johnny swallowed back some of its impatience, but the rest lingered and smoldered, grinned at him with dark, smoky lips, seeking to feed at the black lust coming up out of his heart…

“What are you looking for, Cassidy?” Johnny asked with belligerence, and felt the lips latch on and suck greedily at his anger.  “You want some kind of family forgiveness for what you’ve done, some sort of blessing that lets you ride away from here with a smile on your face?  I’ve been in prisons, Cassidy – I know what they can do to a man.”  It had dropped out over his tongue, this personal admission, but if he stopped then he knew he’d reach for his Colt instead.  “I know what it’s like to be hurt and hungry, how much it means to have just one other man to trust you, to support you when you’ve come back from a beating…Men in those situations don’t sell each other out…”

Cassidy was nodding, his head bobbling.  “I know – I know that now – it was that place – it – it…”

“It was you, Cassidy,” Johnny glowered.  “While you were there sick in your bed, my brother was watching sixteen other men die and wondering why he wasn’t one of them.  Who’s carried the real guilt all these years, Cassidy?  Who’s carried your guilt?”

“If I had known…the Army… my wife – if I had only known--”

Johnny’s fist connected with Cassidy’s apology in a good solid crack that instantly downed the other man.  Cassidy’s stocky body hit the tile floor with a heavy slap of flesh. <<More, more,>> his blood cheered.  <<Now, do it now…>>

And Johnny obeyed the voice that accompanied the blood-song, because it had spoken to him for so long, had been the voice that had given him reason to face an adversary and succeed.  He got his hands around Cassidy’s clothing, clawing for the skin at his throat, Johnny Madrid coursing through him and telling him that nothing else mattered.  Nothing else, because revenge could only cool the fire burning inside him and truly end the anguish his brother had battled all these years, the anguish that had wracked Scott with heaves from the weighted memories only an hour before.

And he hauled the other man up, let go with one hand to curl a fist and swing again…

And stopped.

Stopped, because Cassidy was standing before him with one cheek offered up for a strike, dark eyes accepting the wrath coming his way, hands limp at his side in supplication.

Stopped, because he’d told Scott that he didn’t harbor vengeance, only hate…

It was more loathing than pity but Johnny slowly lowered his fist and then released his hold on the man.  Cassidy had wasted five whole years of his life believing something conjured up by his own delirium.  And his wife had spent the same time promoting the falsehood in some pathetic attempt to save him.  What more could Cassidy have done tonight?  It was his own decision to face Lewis and Hardy on his own – and unarmed.  He was at least willing to try and undo what he had created, what his wife had fed him.  Why hadn’t she seen that his dogged persistence, his tenacity to serve justice was the same determination that had kept him alive in prison?  He’d tried tonight to hang onto the only shred of self-worth left in him.   Johnny despised the man, but could not begrudge Cassidy of at least that much.

But that did not mean that he couldn’t seek his own satisfaction – something to make up for the lump on his own skull from his first encounter with the brash bastard. But not this way – not in his own house.

Johnny took a breath and straightened, then drew a hand through his disheveled hair.  “Pack up, Cassidy,” he ordered.  “Take your wife and get the hell out of this house.  Because if you hang around any longer then I am going to call you out.   And I’ll put a bullet in you like a man, face to face.  My gun against yours…”

“No,” Cassidy shook his head.  “We’ll go.”

“Tomorrow.”

“Yes, yes.”

“And don’t you ever come back here, you got that?  I don’t care if my brother invites you – you politely refuse, every time.”  And in a breath the Colt was in his hand, cocked and pointed at Cassidy’s heart.  “Every time,” Johnny repeated with deadly Madrid calm.

Cassidy dropped his head.  “Yes…I understand.”

“Mean them, Cassidy,” Johnny threatened.  “You’d better mean those words or I’ll…”

The tapping of footsteps sounded from around the corner and then Teresa appeared, her face pale and her dark hair slightly disheveled.

She was stopped by the tension impregnating the air.  “Johnny…?” she asked.

Johnny uncocked the gun and slipped it back into the holster; the movement stirred away the emotion whirling about them.  “How’s Scott?” he asked.

She flicked one more glance at Cassidy but answered, “Sleeping, finally.”  Her hands were full with a bowl of limp and stained bandages.  She thrust it onto the counter with a clatter, started to wipe at one eye, but saw the condition of her hand and stopped – her skin was tinged red.  Scott’s blood…

Johnny saw her shake, and left his glare pouring into Cassidy to go to her.

Silently he picked up the cake of soap sitting in a dish by the edge of the sink and thrust it into her hands, then worked the pump.

“Okay, querida?” he murmured to her.

She nodded tightly and let the water pour over her soapy fingers.  “He’ll be all right,” she said with thin confidence.  “Murdoch says the wound still looks clean…”

“Then why the tears?” Johnny lightly teased.

She managed a smile as she scrubbed.  “It’s not polite to ask,” she scolded.  Then she glanced sidelong at the other man still standing there.  “How is your wife, Mr. Cassidy?” she asked with politeness.  “I know she wasn’t feeling well…”

Cassidy’s face slid into a careful mask but his words came out bitten off.  “Sarah’s a strong woman,” he said in reply.  “She’ll be fine with time--” he broke off.

Johnny looked to see what had grabbed his attention, and caught sight of a sleeve just passing by the inside doorway from which Teresa had just emerged.

Instantly he straightened, skin twitching afresh with warning.  Beside him Teresa had already reached for a towel and was fast wiping her hands.

Cassidy moved to the doorway. “Sarah?” he called, frowning.

“I thought she was asleep,” Teresa said to Johnny with open exasperation.  “Honestly, the two of them, just hanging about the house…”

Johnny’s hand on her arm interrupted her.  “Stay here,” he ordered and moved forward, fingers already closing over the butt of his Colt.  Alarm was ripping up through him, sending adrenaline pulsing into his limbs.

“Cassidy,” he called as the other man slipped out of sight.  “Where’d you leave your gun?”

The shout came before he reached the doorway.

“Dear God, Sarah, no!”

 

CHAPTER 6

She didn’t have any gun; Johnny saw that as soon as he skidded into the room behind Cassidy.

But she was standing way too close to the fire.  And she was holding a small brown bottle in her right fist, the slim neck barely visible above her clenched, white fingers.

“Sarah, no,” Cassidy voiced with rough horror.  His hand groped toward her, as if his fingers could magically stretch across the distance to touch her.

“What is it – what’s she got?” Johnny demanded in a low tone, his gaze fixed on the quivering woman.

“It’s mine,” Cassidy tightly returned; his stare, too, was hung on his wife.  “For pain…”

“Medicine?”

Cassidy’s head nodded twice.  “Laudanum.  She knows how it works – how strong – I – I…sometimes I still need it – but not like before, when…”

When he was probably half out of his head from using it, right after the War.  It was powerful, Johnny knew; he’d experienced its strength after one gunfight that had gone all wrong.  It went down hard and stayed there.

“Sarah, no…” Cassidy was urging.

The distraught woman turned her face to them.  The shadows previously worn there had turned into hollows carved under her eyes, her cheeks, and her throat.  Her skin was a sickly gray, and her hair had fallen from the clasp used to pin it back.

“There’s nothing left for us, Dan,” Sarah said to him in a voice of complete resignation.  “Nothing.  I’ll save you the humiliation of a divorce…”

“Sarah, I don’t want a divorce,” Cassidy hastily declared.  “It’s all over.  The past is gone – we can start fresh.”

Her lips lost all color as she smiled. “You don’t believe that.”

“I do,” he insisted.

She took a step back, almost stepping into the fireplace; instinctively Johnny and Cassidy moved forward in kind.

“Keep her talking, dammit,” Johnny muttered, eyes riveted to her.  What could he do, he thought furiously.  There was opportunity to shoot the bottle out of her hand, but not without taking some of her fingers since she had it fisted so tight.  And if she should decide to move just when he let off the shot…Johnny cursed to himself.  He should have rushed her instead of pulling up short behind Cassidy, because now the other man was blocking his path.

Who knew how much of the stuff she had already taken?  If she got any more past her lips, or if she even nudged closer to that fire…          

“Sarah…” Cassidy coaxed.  “We’ve been through so much…look how hard you’ve worked to keep me from making such a mistake.  I was afraid, Sarah, afraid that you didn’t believe in me.”  The words kept coming, heartfelt in their delivery.  “I was so blind to my vengeance that I didn’t see how much you loved me.  But I do love you, Sarah – I do.”              

Johnny eased out from behind Cassidy, just one sliding step because she was still too close to that fire and he didn’t want to startle her.  “Sounds like he’s making a big apology, ma’am,” he said to Sarah.              

“Shut up,” she hissed at him.  “You don’t know…”

“I know when a man’s admitting to a mistake,” he told her in a calm voice.  “When he’s asking for a second chance.”              

Movement from the corner caught his eye.              

Teresa – she had eased in from the far doorway, the one that led into the dining area.  Now she was silently working away from the great table and up behind Mrs. Cassidy.              

Her eyes grabbed Johnny’s, a note of comprehension blinking there, a suggested idea following…              

Cassidy had seen her, too, and was showing it with his stare.  Quickly Johnny stuffed him aside, let him stumble.  “Ma’am,” Johnny got out.  “This won’t be any good…not here, not this way.”  Then he let his tongue turn Madrid-hard.  “If you want to kill yourself, go ahead, but do it someplace other than in my house.”              

Sarah flinched in reaction.  Confusion clouded her face, pumped some thin color into her cheeks.  Her mouth quirked, but she did not speak.              

Johnny took another step closer to her.  Out of his side vision he saw Cassidy straighten, and held out a hand to keep the man quiet.              

Teresa took up the cue, bless her smart brain.  “Mrs. Cassidy,” she intoned in her clear voice.  

Sarah jerked her head to find her.  

“He’s right,” Teresa continued as they locked gazes.  “Johnny’s right.  You can’t do it here.”

“Get out,” Johnny joined in and Sarah whirled again to face him; this time her feet moved and she edged away from the fireplace.  “Get out of this house,” Johnny ordered, “and take your mess with you.”  He pointed to the silent Cassidy.  “Take him with you.  Go on!” he shouted and she scurried in place like a cat bristling for a pounce.

“You’ve things to consider,” Teresa added in a softer tone.  Over Sarah’s disheveled head and dismayed stare her eyes met Johnny’s with the barest flicker, asking for a few more seconds.  Johnny tensed, waiting.

“Things…” Sarah repeated numbly.

Teresa nodded at her.  “Yes… remember what you told me earlier?  Is taking that…” She pointed to the barely visible bottle clutched in Sarah’s fingers.  “…really what you want to do?  You’ve got hope, Mrs. Cassidy – it’s a sign of something better…”

Sarah drew herself up and her blue eyes focused.  “Or a bitter reminder,” she spat out.

“No, no,” Teresa soothed in protest.  “It can’t be.”

Johnny seethed with impatience.  <<When, querida,>> he silently demanded.

“The rest is over,” Teresa told Sarah.  “You can’t let it come between you any longer. Not when--”

Her eyes blinked.

Johnny sprang forward and dove for Mrs. Cassidy.

He crashed into the woman, one arm curling about her waist and lifting her off her feet, the other hand tearing the bottle from her grasp.  His momentum threw them off balance.  He pivoted to break her fall with his body and banged into the hearth table as he went down.  Still they skidded forward; he had a bizarre notion that he should thank Maria for polishing the floor...

The sofa came up quickly.  Johnny pulled his head in, face buried into Sarah’s hair and hoped he wouldn’t connect too hard, then his shoulder was hitting one corner and they were rocking to a stop…

Johnny rolled to get his arm clear. His left hand let fly with the bottle; it shattered within the burning logs with a distinct crinkling sound.  The fire snatched at it, and a yellow satisfied roar blew upward as it consumed the volatile liquid contents.

 

Mrs. Cassidy was sobbing on top of him.  It was otherwise thickly quiet.  No one moved.  Teresa was somewhere behind him, absolutely silent.  Across from him Cassidy was rigid, barely breathing.  Even the fireplace had reverted to meekness.  Johnny took a few more breaths to settle his jumping muscles, then carefully levered himself to a sitting position.  Sarah started to slide off his lap.

Cassidy was there to catch her.

“Don’t cry, Sarah,” he crooned, gathering her up like an injured child.  “It’s over now – it’s truly and well over.  We’ll start fresh, like you wanted.  We can do it, Sarah…”

Slowly Johnny extricated himself from the rest of her and clambered to his feet.  Teresa heard him mutter something as he stepped away from them and shrugged his clothes back into place, adjusting his sleeves and working his shirttail back into his waistband.  Then he scrubbed an arm across his sweaty forehead to sweep the clinging strands of dark hair from his eyes.

“Are you all right?” Teresa murmured to him, catching his arm.

He slanted a look at her and rubbed at his shoulder.  “Nothing bleeding,” he reported wryly, glancing at the bottle of brandy beckoning on a tray not far from them.  Then he gave a half-hearted grin and gestured toward Murdoch’s ship, the fully masted model docked in its berth on the table behind the sofa.  “Glad that didn’t get bumped when I went down – there’s been enough hell to pay for one day.”

She smiled back.  “I think Murdoch would understand.”

“It’d take a lot of explaining.”

“Are you going to tell him what happened?”

Johnny looked back over his sore shoulder at the couple still crouching on the floor.  “They’ll be gone tomorrow,” he said instead.

Teresa followed his gaze and sighed.  “She’s carrying his child,” she told Johnny in quiet tones so her voice wouldn’t carry.  “That medicine might have…”

“¡Madre de Dios!” he exclaimed.  “Why didn’t you tell me…”?

“There wasn’t time,” she hushed him.

Johnny shut up.  Once more the quiet enveloped him, but it had long since spoiled with too much emotion.

“C’mon.” Johnny slid an arm about Teresa’s waist and crossed with her to the table where the brandy sat waiting.  The alcohol, deep and silent behind polished glass, wavered with anticipated soothing as he plucked it from the tray.

Time to wash away the rest of this night, he said silently to himself as they left the great room together.

 
CHAPTER 7

The quiet evening air stirring by Murdoch’s head massaged the pain in his temples down to a muted throb, and the change brought him partially out of his brood.  Someone had opened the windows to allow entrance of the fresh night, Teresa maybe, and the coolness was seeping into the atmosphere, bringing an extra measure of calm to the quiet.  Across the room Scott slumbered, his soft, even breaths a reassuring sound – safe – his son was safe. 

Murdoch supposed the house had finally settled down – he hadn’t been downstairs since easing Scott into bed, and now ruefully realized that he had left Johnny to deal with the Cassidys.  His youngest had probably sent the couple out into what was left of the night with a hope that Lewis and Hardy were waiting for them on the far reaches of the property.  Or worse, Johnny had personally escorted them by gunpoint to wherever Lewis and Hardy had landed, and left the couple to plead for mercy…

No, those were Murdoch Lancer’s wishes, the wishes of a panicked father over his wounded son…

Ruefully he recalled how Scott had wearily admonished him for hovering after the bandaging was complete, but the boy had dropped into sleep so quickly that he would never know if his father sat right on the bed beside him.  Murdoch respected his request for space, however, and had eased himself into the chair across the room as a compromise.  He didn’t want to leave, anyway, not so soon, not while his worry clung to him.  So he sat in the darkness and watched Scott sleep, and waited for the quiet to invade his being and let him unwind.  And he consummated his thoughts about his life and his son and how the two intersected; touched and tasted them, tried to sort them into some semblance of order.

His gaze traveled again about Scott’s room.  It was neat and orderly, like the person his son was, developed by strict upbringing and reinforced by military service.  The room looked the same whenever Murdoch had occasion to enter it – the bed made, clothes put away, gunbelt stowed out of sight.  But it also reflected Scott’s habitation in the rearrangement of furniture – the bed by the door instead of perpendicular to it, the grouping of table and chairs where Murdoch now sat.  Even the articles lined up on the bureau – silver-edged brush and comb, a carved wooden box, matches and lamp, a book from the great room downstairs – were placed there of Scott’s own choosing.  Powerful in its relative austerity but not inflexible – just efficient.  Strong and confident, yes that was Scott the man; and too, Murdoch supposed, his son.

He’d firmly believed his declaration to Teresa earlier that day that Scott could take care of himself.  Scott had seen war and had survived.  He’d get away to a safe place, make contact with his family, and know that they would be looking for him.  Logical and educated, Scott would choose a course of action and amend it where necessary in true military strategy.  That much Murdoch knew of his son.

But that belief had slithered into a heap by his feet when Scott, missing from the night before, had finally appeared at the ranch, accompanied by the man who had vowed to kill him.  The first sight of his son’s exhausted face above the bloodied shirt had kicked Murdoch with panic.  Although Scott had been hurt before his wounds had not been this serious.  It was the fact that he had been hunted, forced on the run, hurt by men still out there gunning for him that had torn a raw hole in Murdoch’s pragmatism.

His son had to be protected from further injury – had to, even when Scott had demanded to know what was going on.  Murdoch knew Scott hadn’t been fooled by his breezy responses, but Lancer the father was still calling the tune, and Lancer the son was going to abide by it.  He thought he’d collected Johnny with plenty of time to get off the grounds before Scott could act on the plan.  He didn’t want Scott to ride with them to find Cassidy.  His son was wounded and had carried enough of this tortured part of his past; now it was time for the family to help.  But Scott’s obstinacy could not be bent.  He had a rightful claim to the situation, and was working a foot into the stirrup before Murdoch had even reached for his own saddle.

“Necesita terminarlo,” Johnny had quietly told him just as Teresa appeared, out of breath and demanding that Scott be taken back to bed. “He needs to finish this.”

“No puede soportar otra herida,” Murdoch had fretted back, sounding every inch the worried father over a lost child – Scott couldn’t afford another bullet; he was already wounded so.         

Johnny had only given him that grin of delight and switched to English.  “You’re worrying like an old abuelo.”

That dance in Johnny’s blue eyes irked Murdoch.  “Don’t tell me how to feel after twenty-odd years…” he growled back.           

“He’s a big boy, didn’t you say that?  Besides, we’ll be watching his back the whole time.  Don’t take this from him, Murdoch, not like Mrs. Cassidy took it from her husband.  This is part of his past that we can’t reconcile for him.”              

And that last sentence had been so insightfully spoken from one so young that it had nearly strangled Murdoch with its revelation.  Johnny knew, then; he knew what was driving Scott into the saddle when he should be back in his bed.  And Murdoch reluctantly recognized the Lancer stubborn as one prominent trait he had handed down to his sons.  So he’d held that stirrup for his son, over Teresa’s protests, and they’d headed out to find Cassidy…

And he had returned home empty-handed, leaving his sons back on the south range because Johnny had silently asked for some time…

Dios, the blood!  The sight of the red wet stain coating Scott’s shirt had jolted Murdoch, set his hands to shaking and his stomach to quivering.  Scott and bullets were becoming an all too familiar sight lately, and every time a bullet got into a man and blood leaked out…

The blood – Scott’s blood, life-precious and slipping out of his son’s body.  Instinctively he’d reached out to try and block its flow, but Scott’s tortured suck of breath and the fiery blue, glittering eyes made him jump back.

And then there was the blood on Johnny’s shirt, and in frenzied fear Murdoch thought his other son had been somehow hurt.  He must have called out, because Johnny had gripped him by the arms and shaken him, telling him it was all right, that the blood was all Scott’s.  He didn’t believe it at first; his mind was still jumbling everything together, spewing bits of unconnected information through his hammering brain, but finally he grabbed it all into place and reached for bandages.  Blood – too much of it…

And tonight, with the lamps turned up full and the bandages being changed, he had first seen the thin but demanding scars crossing Scott’s back, scars that spoke of physical violence and torture, evidence of his Confederate imprisonment.  Teresa, poor girl, had seen them too, and had paled in horror.  Up to now Scott had insisted on attending to his injuries himself.  Murdoch now understood why – scars such as those would require an explanation. Before this day Scott had only mentioned the barest details of his military record, and never had he acknowledged being a prisoner of war.

And some things, as Murdoch knew all too well, were better left in the past.

But those scars could never be erased.  Covered up, but not eliminated.

Those scars, the plain work of incomprehensible human cruelty.

Deliberate pain inflicted upon one man by another…

He’d never known – he’d never known that his own son had been subjected to such savagery…

<<Santa Maria, Madre de Dios…>>

The neglected words now climbed up over the lump in his throat and trickled out over his lips – Holy Mary, Mother of God…The rest of the prayer rose up in Murdoch in litany learned long ago during endless days and nights searching for not this son but the other...

<<Ruegas por nosotros, pedcadores, ahora y en la hora de nuestra muerte…>> Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death…

The hour of our death – <<only not too soon, not too soon,>> he silently pleaded with the faded deity straining to reach him.  <<Give me time with them, both of them, please…I need – I so want to know them, but it takes time…>>

The door latch gave a soft <<snap>> as it was released from its casing.

The sound evaporated Murdoch’s thoughts and he swung his gaze up to meet the room’s entrant.

The door slowly opened.  A slash of hallway lamplight sliced into the darkened space and allowed a form to slip through – Johnny.  The few seconds of light revealed that his hips were bare of gun and holster, and that he carried something in his left hand.  Then the door pushed the light back outside and the gloom returned to the room.            

After a few quiet moments to acclimate himself to the dimness Johnny moved closer to the bed where his brother slept.  Murdoch saw him reach out and brush at the strands of hair that had edged over Scott’s forehead.  His hand lingered, palm down.  The touch fluttered a ribbon of envy through Murdoch’s chest; he hadn’t been able to bring himself to offer the same sort of closeness, even though he’d so badly wanted to.  But he’d been afraid that if he did get a comforting hand upon Scott he’d end up trying to drag the boy all the way into his arms and hang on too tightly with overwhelming feelings that he could only describe as fatherly love, ungainly as that sounded.  But he had been a father once, with a father’s joys and worries, if only for a short time oh so long ago…              

“Is there fever?” Murdoch couldn’t resist asking in a hushed voice of worry as he sat frozen to his seat, watching his youngest son unknowingly perform the action he longed to do himself.              

Johnny’s fingers held a little longer, then he shook his head.  “He’s cool,” he whispered back and slowly drew his hand away.              

Murdoch released the tightness filling his chest.  “Good – that’s good,” he let out.  “It must have been the pain that had him so hot…He’s barely stirred – exhausted probably.  From what I can tell the bleeding’s stopped.  He really shouldn’t have gone out there, not wounded so…” Dios, he was babbling.  He pressed his lips together to keep his thoughts from further bleeding out over his tongue, swallowed and searched for a tamer topic, if there was one to be had for discussion between them.  “Everything all right downstairs?” he ventured.              

Johnny strolled to a matching stuffed chair beside him and handed over the things he was carrying – a plate with two solid sandwiches and a warm mug – yes, coffee…              

“Quiet outside,” he said, sprawling onto the cushion and draping a hand on either arm of the chair.  His gaze, however, went back to Scott.  “Teresa’s asleep.”  A scent of soap drifted over to Murdoch, who now noticed that his son had changed into a clean shirt, one Murdoch hadn’t seen before, a light color patterned with perhaps flowers – it was hard to tell in this gloom.              

“And the Cassidys?” Murdoch asked, sipping from the mug and smiling when he tasted the generous addition of brandy to the coffee.              

The mention of the name brought Johnny’s gaze back to Murdoch’s face.  “Hereabouts,” he shrugged and his eyes lowered to watch his own finger rub a serpentine pattern on the arm of the chair.  “Guess they’ll leave sometime tomorrow.”              

Murdoch took another swallow of coffee and savored the rewarding pulse of warmth inside him.  He looked over the rim to his fidgety son.  “Was that their idea – or yours?”              

Johnny’s lazy smile glimmered up at his father in the darkness.  “Well, me and Cassidy had a little talk about that,” he drawled.  “I got me a good persuader…” and he curled his right hand into a loose fist.              

His fist probably wasn’t the only thing his ex-gunfighter son had used, Murdoch guessed, but did not ask.  Another snatch of envy rippled through him but he tried to cover it with a disapproving frown.  “That probably wasn’t necessary,” he said in reproach that wasn’t quite solid.                    

“I figure he had it coming,” Johnny told him and looked over again at Scott’s sleeping form.  “Yeah, I say he got off easy.”              

“And Mrs. Cassidy?” Murdoch prompted.  “Is she all right – Teresa said she was ill…”              

Johnny looked down then, and Murdoch knew he was considering his answer              

“She’s all right,” he shrugged.

She probably wasn’t, but Johnny’s evasiveness indicated that he wasn’t going to elaborate.  Murdoch let it go, too weary to prod for answers.

A silence erupted between them and escaped into the space above their heads.  There was more on his son’s mind, Murdoch figured.  Perhaps Johnny was still stewing over Murdoch’s agreement to allow the Cassidys refuge in the hacienda.  Or maybe, just maybe, he was going to mention something about what had happened on the way back from the south range.  But still he held off prompting Johnny.   It was enough to have his youngest beside him and turn their collective concern for Scott in a conjoined effort, rather than argue about any inane subject that might come up after this hellacious day.

“That Pinkerton report,” Johnny finally said, just when Murdoch had torn off a large bite of the meaty sandwich and was chewing good.  “Did it say anything about that escape?”

The food stuck partway down and he had to gulp at the brandy-coffee to shove it the rest of the way.  Murdoch supposed he’d have to share those reports detailing his sons’ backgrounds before too long, since they seemed to appear in more and more conversations.  Murdoch had only read each one once – right after they’d been delivered.

Only once, but it had been enough to memorize several dates and events.

He shook his head at Johnny.  “Just listed his dates of service with the Army,” he said, “along with his rank and unit number.  I suppose the government wasn’t overly forthcoming with information.  Why do you ask?”

“Wasn’t sure if you knew, is all,” Johnny commented.  He had gone back to tracing patterns on the arms of the chair, this time with a finger from each hand.

“No, it was news to me.” And after a fashion he commented, almost to himself,  “His imprisonment was never reported, either.”

The silence lengthened again, but Murdoch waited.

“I was surprised,” Johnny finally admitted and shrugged.  His fingers were dancing along the sides of the chair.  “Ol’ Boston,” he said and looked up with that vexing smile of his, “he sure doesn’t seem like the type to get caught up in something like that, does he?”

Murdoch shook his head.  “No, not at all,” he replied quietly as guilt repeatedly stabbed him under his heart – he’d never known…

And his words from the first meeting between father and sons rose up to mock him. <<The past is over – dead and gone – good or bad, right or wrong…>>

“It hurt Scott – Cassidy believing he was guilty,” Johnny continued, head down and his gaze intent on his lap.  The pain for his brother rippled through his voice.  “It hurt him bad…all this time he’s carried that.  It wasn’t right.”

All this time…

“No, it wasn’t right,” Murdoch allowed, wondering what awful thing this son might be carrying around inside him.  All those years on his own, his mother, <<my wife,>> dead, no one to care for him…no one because his father couldn’t find him…

Both his sons carrying such hurt and pain, and he’d never known…

Scott made a sound then, and their heads swung in unison to see if there was trouble coming from the bed, Johnny’s rear already off the cushion as he stared.  But Scott had only shifted, turning his other cheek to the pillow, and the movement must have registered discomfort.  Murdoch wondered at the time – he’d slipped a spoonful of laudanum, kept for emergencies on a rancho of this size, down his son’s throat before even attempting a bandage and maybe it was now wearing off.  Or maybe their voices were disturbing him.

“Scott is strong,” Murdoch commented in a low voice, his gaze coming back to Johnny and applying the same thought to his youngest.  “He’s endured war, and then prison, had to come to terms with that escape…not to mention…” The words stuck on his tongue. “All the years before that – in Boston…”

<<And all those years in Texas and Mexico, a hundred nameless collections of filth and poverty called towns where a dark-haired, blue-eyed boy grew up too fast…>>

“All that time without…” he stumbled on. <<Without me,>> his guilt hissed at him.

“Without a father,” Johnny finished in a whisper, and the words counted for both he and Scott, whether he intended it or not.

Murdoch looked away, his chest constricting from the noose of shame encircling his heart.  The past, his damnable past, twisted hard inside him.  <<I know, I know,>> he silently acknowledged.  <<But they’re here now – we’re all together.  Doesn’t that count for something?>>

The noose eased and allowed him to gain a breath, but he still felt its rough, restricting fibers.

“Despite all that,” he said when he was sure his voice would not quaver, “he’s a man of generous spirit, trying to make something good out of all this...”

“He let go of some memories tonight,” Johnny allowed and ducked his head.  “He’ll be a lot better off for it, I figure.”  Then, as if he had admitted too much, he moved and stood.

Another date, another location and time from the second and troubling Pinkerton report floated up to Murdoch in a glimmer of understanding.

“Tijuana?” he voiced just as Johnny got to the door.

The burn of the blue-eyed stare through the gloom was immediate.

“I guess you got all kinds of information in those papers,” Johnny’s low voice returned with emerging accusation.

“No,” Murdoch shook his head and sighed.  “Just some dates, some names…a few lines of explanation.  Sometimes I can make them fit…was I right this time?”

His heart thudded against his chest at least twenty times before Johnny stirred.

“Tijuana, Enseñada, Sonora,” his son whispered.  “Long time ago…”

“But not forgotten…”

Johnny reached out again and laid a hand against Scott’s cheek. “No,” he answered, stepping away.  “Not forgotten. ‘Night.”  And he slipped back out to the hallway.            

The door closed behind him with a soft <<snick>.              

<<He let go of some memories tonight.>> 

Something had been shared between them then, out there in that darkness.  The thing that Johnny had foreseen, the reason why he’d stayed behind to ride his brother home.  Something from their pasts that connected a fifteen-year-old boy who had slipped into adulthood and a reputation with a fast gun to a young man that had lived when so many others had perished.

Something that that had connected the brothers – his sons – to each other.

Something that Murdoch fervently wished he, too, could share…

He drained his cooling coffee but pushed aside the sandwich plate, suddenly full in the gut with unspent emotion.  He got up quickly to confront it, despite the quivering in his knees.  Grabbing the cup and plate he made his way across the room, cutting the gloom with his stride, forcing the cloying closeness aside.              

He stopped by the bed and reached out a tentative hand to his son.  It wavered above Scott, close but not touching.  Maybe he shouldn’t, he thought.  The boy was asleep and badly needed the rest.  Any movement would only disturb him, and Murdoch hadn’t spent the better part of an hour in vigil just to be undone by his own literal hand.              

But then his fingers were creeping down seemingly of their own accord, dropping and dropping until they rested on Scott…

He brushed aside short silky strands of fair hair, smoothing them back from Scott’s forehead.  Then he rested his palm fully on his son’s smooth brow.  Warm with life, but not hot, just as Johnny had said…

The touch jolted his emotions, bringing up a well of things he’d so often wanted to say to Scott.             

<<I didn’t abandon you, son – I just couldn’t get you back…I didn’t have the means, but I wanted you – I did…>>               

<<Your mother – did your grandfather ever tell you about her…about her passion for life, her belief in her convictions…her deep way of loving…>>              

<<I’m so proud of you, Scott, of the man you are, of the confidence you carry.>>              

<<Dammit, he shouldn’t have taken you back East, he shouldn’t have taken you from me – my son, my own son – I  hate him, hate him for it…>>              

<<I love you, son, if you can believe that this old man has the capacity to love his own flesh and blood.>>              

Even in the confidence of the dark he couldn’t speak because his heart was too full and his throat too thick to let off more than a raspy croak.  And his knees were quaking again, so hard that it would be so easy to drop to the floor and then take up the slumbering form and wish that Scott were a little boy needing comfort, when in fact it was an old man that needed the same.  An old man who craved a compassionate touch to assuage the guilt that could never be healed for all the years that he’d failed to be a father to not one son, but two…              

<<And I can’t possibly be one now,>> Murdoch suddenly derided himself, drawing his hand away and stuffing it ashamedly into his front pocket.  It was just too simplistic to think that he could impart some sort of the comfort a real father might offer to a wounded son.  It had been too long. …              

<<I love you, son>> spilled out of the honesty of heart before he could pull it back in.              

Murdoch glanced at the door Johnny had just exited, imagining his son in his room and flopping carelessly onto the bed, closing those blue eyes that saw all too much and trying to give this day over to sleep and time.              

<<Both of you…God forgive me if I don’t know how to show it.  But I do love you both…>>              

The cords around his heart loosened again. 

And this time when his hand touched Scott, there was no fear and no shame, but a feeling he remembered from oh so long ago...

 

CHAPTER 8

The problem with having a bedroom with two doors, Scott reminded himself with a sigh as Teresa let herself through one of them, was remembering to lock them both when privacy was warranted, for this was a family that didn’t always view a closed door with respect.              

Teresa got two steps into the room and stopped.  And stared – first at him, mostly dressed but not tucked in, and then at his bed, the counterpane slightly askew from his one-handed attempt at making it.  “I thought you were going to rest,” she said and he recognized worry in her voice.              

“I did.” He turned aside to finish working on the buttons of his shirt, a light colored one that he thought would keep him cool against the heat that had been steadily working up in him since emerging from his bed only an hour before.              

Her glance went to the tray she’d left for him earlier.  “You didn’t finish your lunch,” she observed with the beginnings of a protest.              

“I wasn’t that hungry,” Scott told her.  He abandoned the last button and worked with his right hand to stuff his hanging shirttail into the waistband of his pants.  When she opened her pretty mouth to respond he grinned and continued, “I didn’t have much room after all that breakfast you forced upon me.”              

It didn’t work.  Teresa fairly hopped over to him, young cheeks pink, dark hair bouncing on one shoulder, frustrated limbs jerking inside the blouse and trousers she wore.  In a dress her anxiety would have been halved, hidden by yards of material, but this little outfit gave her a mile of energy and a meadow of disgruntlement to run in.

“That was a light breakfast and you know it, Scott Lancer, and you only ate half of that, too.  Right now you should be back in that bed--”

“Teresa,” he smiled again, hoping his lips were loose enough to hide the throb drumming in his shoulder.  Working his arm into his sleeve had taken considerable more effort than last night, and he wasn’t entirely sure he hadn’t ripped open that wound yet again.

He’d been glad to awaken to his sunlit bedroom some hours earlier and find that the darkness that had clung to his last vestiges of consciousness had evaporated by the simple passage of time.  It felt good to recognize the familiar comfort and scent of his bed; the plump pillows nicely cushioned his head and the covers had settled gently into the hollows made by the contours of his body.  He’d reveled for a bit in the enveloping warmth of his own flesh against the smooth bedding, feeling the welcome and quiet pulse of his blood through limbs finally loose and soft.  He felt soft inside, too, calm and relaxed; how long had it been since his last full sleep?  It seemed like weeks, months…

It was Teresa who had greeted him with a relieved smile and a mention of breakfast.  He hadn’t been all that hungry but she’d bustled out with such a pretty smile that he did not dare refuse her.  But before she could return with the first tray Murdoch had appeared, fussy and rumpled from lack of sleep.  His father immediately insisted on playing the physician, thrusting aside the cocoon of blankets before Scott could protest.  His large fingers, their grip careful but still painful, probed the bandages front and back as he muttered uncharacteristically to himself about blood and padding and then the worry of fever.

Scott had firmly thrust aside the inquiring palm coming toward his cheek and asked instead for help with sitting up, a tendril of irritation over all this attention to his health threading through him and quelling the heretofore calm feeling he’d been enjoying.  The old man predictably protested, but shut up when Scott shoved himself upright on his good arm and demanded pillows.   Scott didn’t like this fussy Murdoch, and wondered if the old man had treated Johnny in the same manner during those days after Pardee had plugged his brother with a bullet.  If so, then no wonder Johnny had dragged himself out of bed as soon as he was able to stand.

Trying to allay his emerging aggravation with his father and the attention on himself, Scott inquired over the happenings of the hours before.  But Murdoch only shrugged and mumbled something neutral, turning the bottle that Scott recognized as laudanum over in his hands.                

“It was quiet,” Murdoch offered.  “You slept a long time, son…”              

“I thought I told you not to hover,” Scott rebuked, waving off the proffered medicine with a glare.              

Murdoch had glared back and thrust the bottle onto the bedside table where it chattered against an empty glass.  “No son of mine is going to bleed like that and have me just ignoring it!” he practically bellowed in response, surprising Scott into momentary silence over the old man’s frantic admission of worry.              

“Where’s Johnny?” Scott tried instead, suddenly wishing for his brother’s companionship.  Johnny wouldn’t ask so many questions and would tell him what, if anything, had happened in those last hours of the night.              

“About,” Murdoch shrugged, accepting the subject shift with a sag of his tall form.  He sighed heavily. “Do you want me to find him for you?” he asked almost cordially.

And he’d looked terribly disappointed so Scott only waved it off and let him work up his fuss again.  He lay quiet as Murdoch readily tugged at the blankets and placed the tray that Teresa had brought across his lap.  His father had glanced again at the laudanum, but Scott’s hand on his arm made him refrain from re-offering it.

Then Murdoch mentioned with a nonchalance that only thinly disguised his relief that the Cassidys were planning on leaving on that afternoon to take the stage east.  But his look to Scott indicated that he did not expect his son to see them off.

With the bandages adjusted and quickly growing uncomfortable Scott nibbled at his breakfast and promised to go back to sleep.  And he supposed he dozed a little, but the refreshing slumber he had awakened from refused to return.  By noon his backside was aching, his limbs were stiff and the blankets too warm and too heavy. And restlessness had invaded his brain, turning aside the lunch Teresa had brought him.  Although the quivering that had kept him company all yesterday – and last night – was gone, it had been replaced by internal pacing over a last lingering question that he knew must be answered in order to finally finish this whole thing.  So much of it was already over, thanks in large part to his family, especially his brother, but the response to this last question would finally asphyxiate it.            

He needed to know why.              

Why Dan had chosen now to seek his revenge.

The rug was cool on his bare feet, the roughened fibers brushing against his soles with appreciative support, though the air moving against his bare arms made him shiver.  But he pressed himself upright and walked across the floor, catching a glimpse of himself in the mirror – hunched and stiff, his bad shoulder hanging low without the sling, his hair awry and decidedly darkened with dirt and dried sweat, sloppy stubble dotting his chin.  With a bit of a start he saw that his eyes echoed the color of the dark smudges underneath, but as he stared at himself a bit of color washed his pale cheeks and made him less menacing.  He gave up his lousy reflection in favor of proper clothing and moved toward the cupboard to find something clean, grateful that the blood inside him had remembered to keep moving and loosen the tightness suddenly locked into his joints.              

He’d washed, albeit shakily, but by the time he’d reached for his razor he was standing straighter and his hand had lost a lot of the tremor that had him first reconsidering what he might look like with one cheek sliced open.  He’d just drawn the shirtsleeve up over his limp arm when Teresa marched in again; this time it was clear that she was ready to do battle against him.              

“Don’t pester so,” Scott now remonstrated gently.  “I’m all right.”              

Her small hand defiantly brushed at the space above his right eye, fingers slipping in under the strands of damp hair already at work annoying his forehead.  “You feel a little warm…”              

Scott straightened to avert a flinch at the unexpected cool touch.  “Teresa,” he warned.

“Oh, all right, be stubborn,” she sighed and dropped her hand.  

Still, her gaze went over him critically, assessing his condition with studied scrutiny.  She had helped last night – he dimly remembered her beside him before giving up the effort of remaining conscious.  She was a steady presence, holding his heavy head so he could choke down the bitter laudanum Murdoch had insisted upon, offering padding and gauze and words of encouragement that he found comforting.  For one so young she had honed fine nursing skills here at the ranch, perhaps too well.  And her eagerness to assist could not be denied, not when she wrapped it so sweetly in loving concern.

To his relief Teresa did not try another further ministrations, only reached for the button he had left unthreaded.  Deftly she drew the fabric together and slid the button through the hole.           

“Going somewhere?” she tried in a light tone instead.              

He nodded.  “Murdoch said the Cassidys are leaving on the afternoon stage – I’d like to see them off.”              

Her hands splayed into stillness across his chest, their pressure pleading with him.  “I’m sure they’ll understand if you…”              

“No,” he returned, but couldn’t give her any anger with it, not when she wore her worry so heavily on her shoulders.              

“Why, Scott?” she demanded then, and he was surprised at her emerging stream of ire.  “Why do you care so?”              

He frowned at her.  “Dan is a friend.”              

Frustration deepened her cheeks to scarlet.  “Is he, Scott? After what he did--”              

“He acted on what he believed was the truth.”              

“Does that justify what he did to you?” she cried.              

He sighed shortly, pressed his lips together, and dropped his head to gather his response.  “Vengeance provides little justification for anything, Teresa…”              

She unexpectedly hurled herself against him, arms coming up around his neck to cling hard.  Scott staggered a little as the pain sang to him, pounding out a beat that reverberated up his arm with waves of staccato notes to center with a resounding cacophony at that spot in his shoulder, nearly sucking up all the breath he’d stored in his lungs.  His head buzzed angrily, reminding him that he was upright but only barely.  He gave his weakness a mental kick and some air slid back into him, allowing him to get an arm about Teresa’s slim waist, as much to comfort her as to balance himself.              

“What’s all this about?” he asked with gentle surprise, shifting her slightly to his right to ease her weight off of his singing arm.  “Here, sit down…”              

He pivoted and unsteadily got her the three steps to the end of his bed. Together they sat upon it, his rear plopping heavily and nearly bouncing her out of his grasp.

Teresa pulled back a little to wipe at threatening tears clinging to her lashes.  Scott took her other hand and held it; her fingers were trembling.              

“I hate her,” Teresa admitted to her lap.  “She knew all this time.  She knew… she even came here and she lied to us.  That’s so selfish – I just can’t…”              

The truth, wrapped in so many lies.  Sarah Cassidy’s secret had reached far into Lancer.              

Scott squeezed her quivering hand, and then lifted it to affix a soft kiss to her angry, white knuckles.              

“Teresa, I don’t think you could truly hate anyone,” he declared softly, an endearing smile embracing his lips.  “It’s not in you to hate.”              

Her head came up, the crystalline tears still dotting her eyelashes. “You were hurt because of her, Scott,” she ground out with unexpected harshness.  “She let this happen to you.  How can you just forgive her?”              

He slowed his sigh, lest she take it for impatience, and the exhalation gave him time to compose a reply. It was not easy to explain.

His forgiveness was layered.  He’d applied the first layer yesterday when he’d offered Sarah and Dan refuge at the ranch, because to let them suffer a needless fate as a result of her mistake would have only compounded the horror for them all.  He’d decided, as soon as Hardy had slipped out to find Lewis and tell him of the change of prey, that there would be no more errors of this kind.

“I can pity her – she’s paid a terrible price for a terrible mistake,” Scott told Teresa.  “She hid the truth from Dan because she loved him.”  <<There, a second layer explained.>>      

Teresa drew her hand away and got off the bed.  “Love,” she scoffed, wiping at one burning cheek.  “How does lying translate into love?”              

Love…she was so young, she didn’t know… Scott shut his eyes at the freshened memories.  

She didn’t know how Dan loved his Sarah so much, how he could not speak of her without leaking tears, how during their worst nights of pain he would pray aloud to have the strength to see her again.   How he coveted any scrap of paper and an edge of charcoal to write to her, pouring his often fevered soul into words and stuffing the missives inside his shirt just to place them close to his heart…

“It was war time,” Scott reminded her in a voice that he was careful to control.  He knew the story, as Dan knew his story – they had shared so much… “They were together barely a year before Dan was called to serve.  She spent months – years – waiting for word from him.  And then there wasn’t much hope that he would survive when it was over.  Can you blame her for some of her selfishness?” <<A third layer…>>              

Teresa’s dark head dipped.  “You don’t know her, Scott,” she responded in a voice laced with vitriol, sparing him a glare over her shoulder.  “You don’t know what she did…”              

Something in her tone made him straighten.  “Is she all right?” he asked quickly.  “Did something happen…?”  For God’s sake, if either one of them…after all this…

She took a couple steps toward the open door but didn’t notice the movement there.  Scott glanced that way, though, and saw Murdoch’s form filling the space.  But it was the look on his face, one of concern for what Teresa had said, that gave Scott pause.  Whatever had happened was also news to the old man, and he did not look pleased at finding that something had happened and no one had told him.              

Serves him right, Scott thought with a grumble of irritation to himself.  <<Wasting time fretting over me when he should have been attending to other issues.>>

“She’s fine,” Teresa answered resolutely, her back going rigid.

“Teresa…” Scott prompted

 “Johnny can tell you,” Teresa cut him off.  “Anyway, it’s over now.”  Then she turned back to him, and her features were crumpled with something new.  “I – I saw the scars, Scott,” she stammered, stepping toward him.  “What that place did to you…”

“Teresa!”

Murdoch’s warning cut through the air, and she jumped.  Her head dipped and her shoulders came up with a guilty twitch.  She went silent and stood there holding back a sob of emotion.

Scott turned from them, his jaw tightening even as Murdoch’s gaze hardened upon him.

Too much had been revealed, too much… 

He supposed he should be glad he had kept it from them at least this long.  Not that he considered those white stripes any mark of weakness on his part.  There was no opportunity to offer any reasonable defense when tied spread-eagle with nothing between bare flesh and flailing leather but the air to with which promulgate each connection of hide to hide, as it were.  But it was a part of his personal history that he did not relish recounting to anyone, except perhaps a person that might truly understand…

But he could not change what she had seen.  And in spite of Teresa’s exclamation and Murdoch’s likely witness as well, they would respect his right to refuse them if they did ask about the rest of it.  He knew that much of them.

It took a minute more to ease the frustration out of his features; the room was thickly quiet in the interim.  Finally Scott tipped his head back to Teresa.  “I’m sorry you had to see that,” he told her, feeling his father’s gaze washing over him still.  She was close enough to reach, so he took her hand again and gave it a comforting squeeze. “But don’t confuse that with what happened yesterday.” 

Because those stripes had been applied months before the escape attempt; the beating after that horrible night had merely broken bones…

“All right?”  He tried a smile but it was brittle.  

Teresa nodded with a hasty flush, her apology in her eyes.  When he gave her a gentle tug she gave him another hug; he felt the wetness of some tears on his temple and the stream of anger pulsing in him slipped away.  Teresa, her heart so tender…

“As for Mrs. Cassidy, she did tell the truth,” Scott reminded her as she straightened again and passed a hand over her cheek. “For which I am very grateful,” he added. <<And another layer added.>>

“I think we’re all very grateful,” Murdoch stated in a quiet voice.               

Teresa’s smile was shy for her guardian and Scott.  “I am,” she said, leaning forward to touch the dark sling encasing Scott’s arm. Then she frowned, her face close to his.  “Scott, are you sure you’re all right?”              

“I am fine,” he insisted and his smile was softer now.  She looked to protest so he held up his hand in supplication.  “I promise I will try for a nap right after the Cassidys leave.  But no pestering or I’ll lock the doors – both of them.”              

 

She knew better than to press so she merely gave him a quick kiss on the cheek and stepped away.  Still, Scott figured that was her way of testing for fever, and wondered if she’d managed to confirm her concern.  He supposed his lethargy could be attributed to blood loss and the need for more sleep, but her cold hand on his skin those few minutes ago had burned him with icy familiarity.  He’d be lucky to be lucid by nightfall.              

Murdoch hadn’t yet moved from the doorway so Scott rose to try and prompt him to action, and perhaps avoid any more irritating discussion of his current state of health or of the damnable past.               

“All right, son?” Murdoch asked as he shoved himself off the bed to stand.  Oddly, the old man was now wearing a tie – making a formal send-off to the Cassidys, perhaps? 

Scott wished his brother would suddenly appear and admonish Murdoch for worrying too much, then offer up some idea that was totally improbable, something like going for a nice cold beer in Morro Coyo, or a long ride in the sunshine….              

A long ride…Snippets of last night flitted through Scott mind, images of the darkness and his brother so close behind him, propping up his pathetic form without complaint, talking with him in his easy voice, even singing to him…understanding it all.              

Scott missed that strength that had been behind him last night, could use its support just now.  He wouldn’t have to talk to Johnny at all, he could just relax in his brother’s fathomable silence even as he sought the answer to that nagging question that had been perturbing him all morning…

Well, if he knew his brother, Johnny was probably already at work watching Cassidy with that absorbing blue gaze of his, torturing Dan with those unrelenting eyes and challenging him to cross the imaginary line drawn between them.  Scott grinned to himself at the conjured image.  Facing a ragged Reb soldier – even a hundred of them – was not the same as confronting that Johnny Madrid stare.  Dan would not get close to Scott unless Johnny relieved him of that look.  But it was time for Scott to thank little brother for his vigilance, for he had that last single question to ask Dan Cassidy.

Murdoch had picked up the sling where it had been folded on the bedside table and was watching him expectantly, waiting, it seemed, for Scott to fold up on the bed so he could hold forth a litany of I-told-you-so’s.              

“I’ll be all right,” Scott belatedly answered with a bite to his tone that he hadn’t intended.

Murdoch only nodded but left a look of disquiet on his face.  He was chewing on something; it was filling his gaze.  Scott had seen that perspicacious stare at least twice yesterday – the first time when he’d arrived with the Cassidys in tow, and then again when he’d decided to follow after Dan.  Well, he’d taken a few bullets in the short time he’d been here and now with those scars revealed…maybe Murdoch thought his son was some sort of frail target.

No, the look in his father’s eyes was not about bullets or blood or scars.  It was something more sentient, something that made tender Murdoch’s countenance, warmed his eyes, painted a thin flush on his cheeks, wove his brow and made his lips purse slightly as if wanting to explain...              

“Is there something you wanted to tell me?” Scott inquired without the forced politeness he’d been trying for before.  He held out his hand for the sling.              

Murdoch came forward with the sling and slipped the knotted end over Scott’s head.  The look was growing on his face.  “Mrs. Cassidy would like to see you,” he told him, holding the material secure as Scott gritted his teeth and worked his arm into the steady cocoon of fabric.  “Alone…if you’re up to it.” 

He frowned, and Scott felt that sentiment collect itself further.  Then the elements of it dawned.  Fussy Murdoch – was that something from his heart that had rolled out onto his features?

The realization plucked at something inside Scott, released some of the weariness and irritation weighing in him and replaced it with a comforting warmth, much as Johnny’s admission of fear last night had embraced him with an imaginary hand of affection.              

“I’ll go see her,” Scott nodded.              

And smiled knowingly when Murdoch laid a brief but solid palm on his shoulder as he passed.       

 

CHAPTER 9

“Dios...lo siento – I’m sorry…”

Johnny eased his sagging brother back against the stairway balusters. They’d collided at the end of the staircase, and only Johnny’s quick grab had kept Scott from completely sprawling onto the foyer floor.   Or maybe had Scott tripped over that last stair – he wasn’t looking any too steady…

“It’s okay,” Scott gasped around rising tears of pain, his good hand coming up to further protect his bound arm from any more jostling.  As his brother’s blue eyes roved over him, he insisted, “I’m all right, Johnny.”

Johnny’s lips twisted into a wry grin.  “Heard that last night, hermano mio.  It didn’t get you anywhere then, and it ain’t gonna get you anywhere now.”

 His brother looked little better for the sleep he might have obtained.  Though clean-shaven, Scott’s face was haggard and pale.  Lines framed the grim slant of his lips, and pain hemmed in his blue gaze.  The ends of his hair where it edged over his forehead were tipped dark with sweat.

“I said I’m fine,” Scott let off curtly, silently cursing his shaky legs that threatened to collapse under his weight.

For a moment Scott envied his brother’s healthy appearance.  Johnny’s gaze was clear and his hands steady.  His dark hair looked almost blue-black in this light, and neatly balanced his form clad in his customary work clothes.  Though washed and shaved, Scott felt grimy in comparison; sweat was prickling the back of his neck and his shirt, though fresh, was already wrinkled and bunched under the sling.  He wished he looked as cool and comfortable as his brother.

Johnny eased his grasp but did not let go.  His bracelet tapped the small of Scott’s back where his right hand had settled; the light touch was a gentle nod of recognition to last night.  At the reminder Scott reined in his temper, swallowed back most of the persistent pain and sighed.  Dammit, he just wanted to finish this thing, and that meant getting his question answered before bidding the Cassidys good-bye.  And then he’d willingly crawl back into his bed and let them all minister to him, Johnny included if he wanted.  But there was no need to accost Johnny over any of it; his brother well knew what had him rattled.

“I’m better, thanks,” he amended as his jittery limbs eased their dance.  He shifted his weight to his heels and slowly straightened.

“Murdoch and Teresa…” Johnny’s grin knowingly widened into a smile as he pulled his fingers away from his heated brother.  “They sure do fuss, don’t they?”

Scott returned the smile; aware that his brother had consciously avoided getting into all that bedroom rabblement because he’d been subjected to it himself more than once.  “Yes, they do,” he agreed, easing away from the support of the balusters.  His smile quieted.  “Now, if you don’t mind…”

“Where you headed?”

Scott gestured limply toward the big room.  “Mrs. Cassidy in there?”

Johnny half-turned back, shifting left to block Scott’s view, a movement that needled Scott’s irritation back into force.  “Yeah, she’s there,” Johnny acknowledged with a nod but did not move.  In fact, Johnny was running on all too much calm this morning, no shuffling feet, no busy hands, no sweeping gaze.  Just that edgy calm.

That Madrid sort of calm…

Scott shifted to the right to step around him. “Then that’s where I’m going.”

Johnny immediately crowded him.

“What gives?” Johnny asked in a light tone, his blue eyes deepening a shade as their boot tips greeted each other and their knees bumped in challenge.

Scott scowled but refused to step back.  “I want to talk to her.”

Johnny turned his head back again; from this angle he could only glimpse the dark-skirted figure standing close to the cold fireplace.  Sarah had been quiet all morning, but Johnny wasn’t sure she had completely accepted her own plight.  Should she still be in a world of rage and shadows, if she had something else tucked into her pocket – a little gun or a knife – then Scott might need an extra hand…

“What happened last night?”

Johnny brought his head back around at the question.

“Teresa mentioned that something happened,” Scott continued.  He grimaced as a curl of pain escaped from his shoulder and knotted.  The feeling spread across his back, snapping along nerves, foraging into muscle and then nesting. An errant thought drifted up to him, that of Johnny’s fingers massaging this very aching spot, easing the spasm with counter-pressure – last night, at the height of his exorcism…

“With Sarah…?” Scott prompted, fingers awkwardly reaching to knead the place, wishing he could have his brother’s patient touch behind him again.

Johnny glanced off down the hallway, then sighed and crossed his arms, careful not to bump the sling since they were still standing with just inches between them.

“Well, she tried killing herself last night,” he drawled softly, his gaze coming back just as Scott’s brows rose in surprise and a look of dismay crossed his face.

Scott dropped his burrowing hand and eased back a step to look around his brother.  “Does Dan know?” he asked.

“Yeah, he was there.”

And the drop of Johnny’s gaze to where one boot was now scuffing the patterned carpet told Scott that his brother had also been witness to the scene.  Teresa, too, apparently.  Scott sighed heavily.  This whole thing had taken so much out of so many…

“Is she all right?” he asked.

Johnny shrugged.  “Seems to be.”  He hadn’t seen any marks on her from his fast grab of her.  There was a rising bruise on his own shoulder from where he’d connected with the edge of the sofa, though.  “But I figure she might still have enough frustration to turn it over onto you,” he finished with warning, uncrossing his arms and letting his hands slide to his hips.

He was wearing his gun, Scott then noticed, and it was fastened securely to his thigh.  So much for that Johnny Madrid stare pinning Dan Cassidy; it was Sarah that was captured in those icy blue orbs.

“She asked to see me,” Scott told him, digging at the routing pain again.

“Here…” Johnny’s hands came in to assist, left snaking about Scott’s neck to fix the placement of the knot even as his right gently supported the adjustment of the bound arm.  “Better?” he asked as the pain loosened appreciably.

Scott sighed with gratitude and nodded – and felt the warm custody of his brother’s touch as it held in comfort and protection a moment longer.

Johnny gave him a reluctant look and tried not to frown. “I suppose you’ll be talking to Dan, too?  The buckboard’s already hitched…” And his grasp tightened a fraction to reinforce his concern.

Scott nodded. “It won’t take long – but I do have something important to ask him.”

“Okay,” Johnny returned, and slowly let go; his right hand brushed the butt of his Colt, while the left curled inward.

The imprint of his clasp, the reassuring pressure, did not fade from where he had touched Scott but instead lingered, warm and secure.  Scott drew some welcome energy from it and straightened.

Johnny obligingly moved aside to let his brother pass.

Although Scott did not see Johnny edge to the left of the entranceway and lean against the wall to listen, he knew that his brother was still there.

And like the night before, Scott was glad of his nearby presence.

 

++++++++++++

 

“Mrs. Cassidy…”

Scott let his boot heel scuff off the step to announce his arrival.

Sarah looked up quickly and almost froze into place as he approached.  Rapidly, before the sweep of emerging weakness could catch up to him, Scott covered the distance around the furniture to where she stood by the darkened fireplace.

“You wanted to see me?” he inquired as he came to a stop before her.

She shrunk a little under his intent stare, unlike the defiant woman he’d encountered the day before in the hotel room.  She hadn’t been afraid of him then, even though he’d probably looked more threatening – ebullient with pain and the past, and a gun at the ready in his trembling hand.  She hadn’t feared him then, not like now. What were her last words to him, before she’d ordered him from the hotel room?  <<If you’d never existed…I’d have a life today…>>

Yesterday she’d denounced Scott as her personal enemy – until the truth had poured from her lips.  That truth had transformed her today, reduced her to a fragile meekness he found disheartening.  Now she only looked weary even in relief.  Scott’s gaze traveled over her, but he could detect no physical indication of her suicide attempt.  Thank God she had been spared – the truth and its accompanying burden of guilt, though devastating, was not worth dying over.

But he was her casus belli, he supposed, much as she had been Dan’s, and Dan his.  Perhaps the damage of the past was now permanently affixed to her marriage and her life.  And for that Scott was sorry, but knew he could do nothing to fix it.

“I wanted to talk to you, Mr. Lancer,” Sarah began formally.  “Before we left…” Her eyes assessed him, concentrating on his face and that spot now pounding over his right eye.  “Are you all right, Mr. Lancer?  They didn’t…?”

Scott managed a terse smile; did all women so easily detect fever, he wondered to himself.  “I am fine, Mrs. Cassidy – no worse for the wear, as they say.”

She nodded then pressed her lips together. “Mr. Lancer…”

She took a few steps, turned and planted her back to him.

He waited, his pain dozing.

The room went quiet; even the grandfather clock seemed to have gone mute.              

Finally she glanced back over her shoulder, as if checking to see if he had somehow dropped through the floor into the wine cellar below.              

“Mrs. Cassidy, what is it you wanted to say?” he prompted.                

“Mr. Lancer,” she murmured again, her gaze sliding away.  “I said things…” She heaved a breath and turned to face him.  “I – I hated you…” she stuttered to the floor.  Her hands fisted, bunching the fabric of her skirt.              

“So you claimed yesterday,” he commented with laconism.  He paused a moment, blue eyes assessing her distressed face, cheeks red with burn, brows crumpled, lower lip sucked under.  “But hate – for me?” he prodded gently. “Was I really the reason for your grief?”              

Sarah gave a sobbing cough and wiped the heel of one hand across a glowing cheek.  “No…” she admitted in a whisper.  She shook her head and twitched her shoulders helplessly.  “I hated,” she started and sighed, lifiting her face to the ceiling – and perhaps beyond.  Her eyes closed, and her lips moved with silent words.  Then she said in a small voice, “I hated myself.”              

He did not respond, but let the truth descend upon her.              

“Dan is such a proud man,” she told him, looking up.              

Scott gave her a short nod.  “Yes, I know.”              

“He was so terribly ill…he had so little strength to fight.  The Army sent me a letter, explaining their findings.  I burned it – I couldn’t show him.”  She delicately shook her blonde head.  “But I should have…I should have.”              

She put both hands to her face.               

The silence quickly thickened in the space between them, pressed against them.              

“Mrs. Cassidy,” Scott finally spoke.  He hadn’t intended to, but there was no point in letting her continue to wallow – her guilt had already condemned her.  “I can understand worry – and love – for another person,” Scott told her.  “A husband, a wife, even a very good friend…” <<even a new brother, and a long-lost father…>>  “But part of that worry and loves involves our own faith and trust in that other person.  I’m sorry you felt you had to keep the truth from Dan.  You might want to find a little more trust for him now that this is over.”              

Sarah let her hands drop – she looked at him, eyes moist.  “Your father told me much the same thing,” she responded, swallowing what he suspected were her tears.  “You are very much alike.”               

<<Perhaps in some respects,>> Scott silently considered.  But so much of that territory was still unexplored…              

“I’m glad you have another chance,” Scott offered.  “He loves you, you know.”               

Sarah managed a smile at that and then nodded slowly.  “Yes, I know.  It’s not completely perfect, Mr. Lancer.  But I think we’ll manage. And there is something important that I do need to tell him.” Her smile softened with affection at her unspoken thought.  “And I hope he’ll be pleased…”

“Sarah!”

The voice called from outside – Dan.

He clattered through the closest set of double doors and pulled up fast.

Scott saw a spurt of jealousy shoot through Cassidy’s dark eyes, and then suspicion was added to his features.  Dan was replaying in his mind the moment from yesterday when he’d caught them in the hotel room, when he’d accused Sarah of betraying her own husband and helping his long-held enemy.  And his oncoming anger was becoming clear…

“Something wrong, Dan?” Scott challenged in an even voice.

He thought he detected a series of soft sounds coming from around the far corner of the room, on the other side of the wall by the front door – a faint footfall, the brush of clothing against a wall, the swipe of metal against leather… <<Easy, Brother…>>

 

Cassidy hastily snapped his lips together at the quick but silent reprimand, but his brows had lowered and his chin had defiantly risen.  “Scott, I wasn’t--”

“You were and don’t deny it,” Scott declared, letting some irritation leak into his voice.  Such a quick-tempered ass of a man at times, he recalled, ruled by such raw emotion.  It took a louder voice, deep with command to turn his mind… “I swear, Dan, that impulsive streak of yours has created way too much havoc for all of us,” he derided.  “It’s time you took charge of that temper of yours and put it to better use.”  He took Sarah’s elbow and steered the astonished woman toward her husband.  “You’ve some things to make up to your wife.”

Cassidy stared at him for a moment longer then a smile slipped out onto his lips at the remembrance of the young but forceful Lieutenant Lancer, so often his voice of reason…

Dan curled an arm about a taut Sarah.  “He’s right,” he admitted to her, his bluster quickly deflated.  “There are a lot of things to make right between us.”

“A firm hand, Mrs. Cassidy,” Scott allowed a grin, minutely relieved that the tension had so easily evaporated.  “That’s all it takes.”

“I’ll remember that, Mr. Lancer,” Sarah murmured with gratitude.  

“If you’d give us a minute…” Scott continued, letting his smile fade.  His eyes locked with Dan’s.  “I’d like to talk to your husband.”

Sarah hesitated and glanced between the two.  Dan had visibly tensed again, but Scott’s demeanor remained impassive.   She nodded briefly, slipped out of her husband’s grasp and came to Scott, her hand held out for him to shake.

He clasped it, his own palm warm and sweaty, hers clammy cold.

“Thank you, Mr. Lancer,” Sarah said with a dip of her eyes, “for all your understanding, and for your aversion to vengeance.  If it wasn’t for you then I wouldn’t have Dan back – our lives back…”

And then she placed a light kiss on his cheek, her lips chaste against his febrile skin seemingly stretched tight over the bone.

“You’d do well to hang onto her,” Scott advised Dan as she quietly exited the door her husband had used.  He pressed a hand to his burning forehead, rubbed at the throb working across to the other eye.

Dan nodded.  “Yes, I intend to.”  He moved, took a few steps.  “I’ve been speaking with your father,” he announced, turning the subject.  “He’s told me a lot about this part of the country.  I can see why you took the opportunity to leave the city.  You must have been surprised to discover that you had such a family.  Nothing like we discussed, all those years ago…”

“Dan,” Scott interrupted wearily, cutting off the flow of memories.

Now was the time – he wanted to know why.

Why, after all these years, had the past had come bursting through the front door two nights ago? Dan could at least explain that much, and if he were any sort of gentleman after all this time, he would not balk at responding.

“You knew I was returning to Boston after the war ended,” Scott said to him, free hand groping for the support of the mantle.  “Why didn’t you contact me?  We could have discussed that night…perhaps found our way to the truth.”

Dan turned from him and squashed his hat in his hands.  His shoulders went up as his head ducked.  He shifted, jigged from foot to foot, and then took a long turn about the room.  Scott watched his choppy stride as it wound behind the long sofa, up alongside Murdoch’s desk and back before the fireplace, then repeated the same path.  Impatience bit at Scott, but he forced it aside.  He had waited five years for this answer, and he could wait a few minutes longer.  But an answer he would get.

“I hated you so, Scott,” Dan announced in a thick voice when he had passed before Scott a second time.  He kept walking with that slightly swaying gait of his, reminding Scott of the horrendous leg wound he’d carried for months, a festering mess of skin and muscle made worse by the unforgiving leg irons the guards kept shackled around his ankle. “I felt so betrayed,” Dan continued, eyes fastened onto his fists.   “At first I couldn’t stand to face you, to hear what I believed were your lies…”

“What changed your mind then?” Scott pressed.

Cassidy abruptly stopped, his profile sharply outlined in the light teeming from the grand window soaring behind Murdoch’s desk; Scott saw the shiver ripple up his spine.

Dan reached into an inner breast pocket of his jacket and withdrew something, then turned around.  He thrust it out to arm’s length, as if it were hot to handle, and pushed himself toward Scott.

“An acquaintance of mine was in Boston on business and sent this to me,” he explained, closing the distance he had left between them.  He handed it over.

Scott silently unfolded a newspaper clipping, the paper now tattered and yellowing, the type uneven and faded at the edges. “This?” he asked, seeing an advertisement for some machinery.

Dan nodded.  “I’d been looking for that particular equipment for quite some time.”  At Scott’s frown of confusion, Cassidy softly urged, “Turn it over.”

Scott glanced at him but did so.

On the opposite side he found a portion of the newspaper society page describing an upcoming spring ball, three society luncheons, the visit of cousins to five well-known, Boston blueblood families…

And the intentions of one Mr. Scott Lancer, grandson of the prominent Mr. Harlan Garrett, to travel to California on important family business.

Scott stared at the announcement, the simple words so breezily strung together, making his travel plans sound like a short but pleasant vaction.  Just the way his grandfather wanted it, no doubt.  A dictated paragraph that would not incite embarassment or undue explanation to other prominent families or esteemed business associates…

“I happened to turn that paper over one day not long after I’d received it,” Dan announced to him.  “And there was your name…”

Scott gave a deprecating smile to the paper.  Nothing but damned fate, he thought as his gray-blue eyes looked up to Dan.  Mere coincidence…

Dan’s face was ruddy with emotion.  “I was ill for a long time – took a year for my leg to heal and let me walk again…And I – I drank away a lot of the pain.  During that time it was enough to know where you were – I could continue to blame you without ever speaking to you, hoping that some danger would befall you…crazy, I know.  But…” he looked down to his entwined hands gripping his hat, breathing heavily, then looked back up at Scott. He thrust out his jaw, his words coming out fast over his lips.  “Your leaving for California – three thousand miles away – spoiled that.  It was as if you were running away…I couldn’t stand that – couldn’t stand aside and let you go free – not after all this time.  It pulled me out of my misery, filled me with new vengeance, so fierce… I took it as a sign – I had to act – had to make you finally pay…

“So I had Jed Lewis find out exactly where…he’s been out here for a couple of months.  He wired me to confirm where you were and I – I concocted a story to Sarah about moving.”  His head dipped and he sighed.  “You know the rest,” he got out, shoulders slumping.

That ill-timed announcement…

Scott tried to chased the details into the logical part of his brain to prevent a collision with his renewed pain and his frayed temper, but the combination of physical and emotional depletion joined together into a new force that surged past his objectivity.

He took a breath, then another before pushing away from the mantle to re-establish the distance between he and Dan, for if he got too close he knew that he would not be able to stop himself from a reaction that would very closely resemble rage.  It was already swinging over his heart, waiting for an opening to infect him with its black, wormy fingers of destruction, blight him with its consuming hatred and succeed in its quest for vengeance.

He fought it.  He fought it so hard, knowing it was physical and emotional loss that was seeking release.  He would not give in, refused to let it consume him.  One minute played into two, and then the grandfather clock found its heatbeat and was ticking all too loudly in the terse quiet invading the room.

“We were such friends, Dan,” Scott finally said with careful control, looking up to fully face the man.  He stopped to take a breath, gulp back the blackness that was still groping for purchase in his gut.  But he concentrated on what he was going to say, trusting in the truth coming from his heart.  “We relied on each other, trusted each other with our lives… How could you believe that I had the capacity to betray those men?  Men that we looked on a friends, as brothers?”

Dan closed his eyes and pressed his lips together.  “I don’t know, Scott,” he choked out and shook his head.  “I just don’t know…it was so weak of me.” His eyes opened, tortured and glittering.  “Any excuse I have is a pathetic one.  I was wrong, Scott, plainly wrong.  In the absence of truth…If I could take it all back I would, a hundred times for each man.  Oh, how I wish I had died with them than to let the devil pierce my soul the way he did.  I’ll say it, Scott, but I know it can’t mean much now – I’m sorry.  I’m so sorry.”

It suddenly stirred in Scott, that thing from last night, and for a panicked moment he thought it would come flooding back and choke him all over again.  But he did not let it find the air it needed to breathe and so it settled again, slipping out of sight with a thin sob of resignation.

There were no more answers.  Nothing could be changed.

And neither could he and Dan resurrect what they once shared.

And maybe that was meant to be, Scott mused silently as sweaty heat broke out over him, slicking his skin, sucking his clothing onto his body.  He swiped a shaking hand over his temple and exhaled to set the feeling free.

Their friendship had been forged under the worst conditions of mankind, out of the fight to survive.  It had held them buoyant for twelve long months, but perhaps it was only meant to be temporary.

They couldn’t be to each other what they once were – trust had been shattered and the pieces scattered like so much crushed stone, restoration all but impossible.

But this new honesty had a new beginning, too, a small circlet of hope for the both of them.

Scott came forward  “I’m sorry, too,” he said to Dan, and the last delicate layer of forgiveness descended lightly onto the others, sighed and was absorbed into the others.    

Dan silently nodded at the reserved acceptance he found in Scott’s blue-gray eyes.  “Thank you,” he whispered tightly.              

“Scott?”              

Murdoch swung off the last stair and turned for the great room, but paused at the sight of the figure lounging not far from the doorway – Johnny, his back against the wall, head down, one leg crossed over the other, arms folded in front of his chest.               

Their eyes met and held for the barest of seconds, Johnny’s blue stare flaring with a Madrid don’t-ask warning.               

But Murdoch realized the meaning – brother protecting brother. He nodded to his son. Johnny gave him a single nod in return, pushed away from the wall and headed for the back of the house. When he had disappeared around the corner Murdoch continued into the room.              

“All set to go…? Oh, Mr. Cassidy,” he greeted but his look traveled over to Scott.  

Scott willingly met his gaze, but Murdoch glimpsed a naked measure of pain and fatigue in his son’s eyes, as though he had just emerged from a long and exhausting fight. 

Murdoch turned back to Cassidy.  “If you’re planning on taking that stage you’d better be going,” he advised.  “It’s getting late.”  And he’d be damned if the man and his wife were going to stay one more night; his family could not handle the strain, especially Scott.  Murdoch’s sympathy rose as he took in his son again, standing straight but looking way too pale, with the deepened blue of his eyes leeching into the circles under them.  But there was a slant of satisfaction to his mouth, something that told Murdoch that he had finished up the last components of this ravaging ordeal.                   

Cassidy straightened and put on a weak smile.  “Yes, sir, I expect we’re ready,” he responded.  “Thank you for your generosity, sir… my wife and I surely appreciate all you’ve done for us…”

Scott left him chattering with his father and headed outside.

The air out here was soft but fresh, and it felt good against his damp, heated skin and clothes.  Scott paused to let it slide over him, dry some of the sweat that still clung to him, appreciating the clear daylight and muted scrape of his boots on dirt, the whicker of trotting horses in the corral across the yard, the distant lowing of the herd grazing in the grasses opposite the road, the raw voices of the wranglers and the patter of the Maria’s household staff as they conversed in rolling Spanish.

Sounds of the ranch.

Sounds of home.

Sounds of what had become so welcome in his life.

The buckboard was already pointed in the direction of the Morro Coyo road and Sarah was up in the seat. Teresa and Johnny had gathered silently just beyond.  Dan and Murdoch were coming along behind, still conversing.  Scott paused beside the team, his hand absently adjusting the traces.

It was, he decided, the best possible ending that circumstances could provide.

Vengeance had been battled and won.

The truth had finally been told.

Guilt discarded and promptly re-assigned.

Apologies made and accepted.

Forgiveness issued.

And no one had died.

 

CHAPTER 10

“Finally,” Teresa muttered as Dan Cassidy climbed into the buckboard beside his silent wife.

Johnny turned slightly toward her to avoid Murdoch’s listening range but kept his eyes on the departing couple. “Do you think she told him?” he asked her as Cassidy exchanged a handshake and some chatter with Scott about a picture and then a vague mention about visiting.  Good, he observed, the man did have enough sense in his head to heed a well-appointed warning.

Johnny hadn’t offered any words to the man this morning, but had not hesitated to back up last night’s vow with the additional presence of his gun today. And he made sure Cassidy saw it just now. They’d eyed each other as Cassidy had emerged from the great room with Murdoch. Johnny’s hands strayed first to his hips, then his fingers drifted over to his Colt and stilled.  Cassidy caught the action even as he continued talking to Murdoch; his eyes flickered with comprehension, and then he smiled and smoothly responded to Murdoch’s comment about available land in the area. Johnny had to admire him for not faltering because the old man was pretty astute and would have questioned any hesitation. And after Johnny’s admission last night, Murdoch would no doubt turn a suspicious eye onto his ex-gunfighter son and ready some sharp questions for answering.

But Murdoch had barely given his son notice, and had not questioned the wearing of his gun for something as simple as a good-bye. Hell, the old man had even worn a tie for the sending off. Maybe because he understood that this good-bye might not be so simple after all…

Teresa was scrutinizing Sarah again, the quiet set of the slender seated frame, the tentative smile, the hesitant hand upon her husband’s arm.

“No, she hasn’t told him,” she answered Johnny. “Not yet.”

He wondered what made her know, but did not question her about it; Teresa seemed pretty sure of herself, and of Mrs. Cassidy. “What is she waiting for, d’you suppose?” he continued.

Teresa gave a small shrug. “I don’t know – the right time, maybe.”

“The right time for what?” Murdoch inquired, stopping beside them. But his gaze went back over the now moving buckboard to Scott, and held firm upon his son.

Johnny sighed satisfactorily as the vehicle began to roll away. “Hope she don’t take too long,” he said to Teresa. “She won’t be able to hide it for as long, anyway...” Then he shifted his stare to his silent brother, and his head filled quickly with the last twenty-four hours – Scott’s disappearance, Sarah Cassidy’s visit to the ranch and her revelations, his encounter with Cassidy in town, Scott’s arrival home…that slow ride in from the south range…

Johnny shook his head and the recent memories eased. “They left a lot behind,” he commented to his father.

Murdoch nodded slowly, his eyes still taking in Scott watching the Cassidys’ departure.  “A lot,” he repeated, turning his head to catch Johnny’s eye; Johnny saw the same thoughts turning in the old man’s eyes, except Murdoch’s were further enveloped in warm emotions of love and worry.

“Do you think they’ll be all right?” Teresa asked.              

Murdoch raised a brow and glanced down at her – she had told him about the suicide attempt when he’d come into the kitchen for his first cup of coffee, long before the Cassidys had made an appearance in the dining room. “I guess that’s up to them, and what they think they can salvage,” he told her. Then he moved and shut his mental door on the Cassidys – the couple was finally gone and he didn’t want to think about them anymore, to have their presence linger either in his mind or in his house like a bad aftertaste.                

But shame pinched him for his cavalier attitude. Though he might be able to dismiss the Cassidys, surely Scott would not be able to easily put down the burn of their recent appearance.  He suspected his son had opened a whole heart of compassion to the man and his wife, offering them forgiveness for their acts, and admired Scott for such inner strength. But the actions that had led up to that mercy had scorched a path right up to their front door, not unlike a meadow blaze caused by a lightning strike. The grass would eventually grow back over that meadow and heal that blight, but Murdoch was not so sure if these new scars would heal as quickly in his son.              

More scars…              

“Scott should be in bed.”

Teresa’s fret pulled Murdoch out of his reverie and echoed his close secondary thoughts.  They were still all standing in the same positions, he noticed, still watching that buckboard as if their stares would ensure it safe leave from the property. Yes, his son definitely needed to rest before that bullet wound caused any worse harm.

“Are you gonna tell him?” Johnny grinned at her.

“I already did,” Teresa sighed.

Bedevilment danced in his Johnny’s blue eyes as he shifted, booted feet tapping a few steps, arms swinging as if he were about to perform a little jig. “And I can see it worked real well, Teresa,” he teased.

She turned on him. “Maybe he’ll listen to you…”            

He quickly put up his hands up in a helpless gesture. “Get me a rope, maybe, and I can hog-tie him. Talking won’t do any good – he’s been wearing stubborn since he first escaped from you.”  

But he caught Murdoch’s requesting eye just as Teresa’s hand swatted him for the jibe, and sauntered forward with a chuckle; the other two followed.

Scott saw them approaching, three abreast – a veritable defense formation–and put up his hand.  “I know, I know,” he told them with irritable resignation and took a step toward the front door.  “Back inside.”

“It’s for your own good,” Teresa scolded, passing by first.

“That’s what you all tell me,” Scott grumbled in response, but there wasn’t much ire in it.  He was tired, if truth were told, but he didn’t want to be led to bed like a child under his father’s orders. He’d get there on his own, thank you very much, and at the time of own choosing. And there was something else niggling his brain, something about last night. Something only Johnny could answer. And now that the Cassidys had departed that something was pestering him. He needed to know…

Johnny said nothing, just gave him a light grin and tapped him on his good arm as he slipped past, following the others.

Scott nodded to him but turned again to stare after the retreating buckboard.

He could let it go, Scott supposed, but then he’d get no real rest. Just as he had to have his question answered from Cassidy, Scott needed to hear from his brother, to reassure himself…

“Coming, son?” Murdoch quickly prompted, holding back the concern from his voice.

“I’ll be right along.”  Scott’s voice drifted back over his shoulder.

Murdoch hesitated. “Scott, son, really…”

“Johnny…”

Scott’s call interrupted him, injecting him with fresh exasperation.

“No.” Murdoch’s fingers caught Johnny’s retreating sleeve. No, this was not the time for more talk. Scott would have to wait for his conversation with his brother – whatever he needed to discuss would not fade under a few hours of sleep.

But Johnny only smiled at him; that slow and deceptively lazy Madrid smile, and backed up. His eyes, however, glittered cerulean blue in warning.

And this time he wasn’t asking for time, but demanding it.

Murdoch furiously dug for his pocket watch, hating to relent and knowing that he had to, if only to avoid an argument that would involve them all and solve nothing in the end. “Five minutes,” he snapped, popping open the lid.

“Don’t worry, I’ll get him in,” Johnny assured him.

He closed the door before he ambled back to his brother, effectively shutting out his father and Teresa.  He knew the tone and had expected it – Scott had something more on his mind than just the Cassidys, but their departure had been his first priority.  Now his brother wanted some other answers about last night.

Johnny settled his thoughts to receive his brother’s questions, but glanced at the leaving vehicle one more time. They’d head straight to town and the stage, he calculated, and Cip had a crew working alongside the property road, watching for any interruptions…

It would only take a minute to retrieve his hat and then he could saddle Barranca and check for himself…

But first Scott.

His brother was now leaning against one arch support, so Johnny deposited himself against the opposite one; close enough to catch him should he drop. Scott’s face was chalky and his military-straight stance had wilted. He was holding his bound arm with a tight grip, fingers pressed against the dark sling – they were white, too. There was a squint of pain in his eyes that he was trying to swallow back, but the blue in his eyes had descended to the coolness of approaching dusk that could only be warmed with rest.

As Johnny watched, Scott’s head tipped back, seeking the favor of the strong adobe behind him.  His eyes closed and he took a breath that made his chest visibly rise and fall.  

Scott flinched, then sighed. “Johnny…”

“You gave the Cassidys a mighty nice send off,” Johnny drawled, hitching one shoulder back against the support and giving his brother a little more time to compose himself. “I don’t think I could’ve been that generous.”

“It had to end.”  Scott’s voice had a new rasp to it.

“Yeah, I s’pose,” Johnny nodded. “Still and all…” His gaze strayed back out over the yard, and his hand came up to rub at the tender spot in his head received yesterday in that alleyway altercation. “Not so sure I trust either one of them. Cassidy almost took me out when I was in Morro Coyo looking for you – he’s a single-minded sort, ain’t he?”

Scott’s head came up and he pushed away from the colonnade. His brows drew together but he came short of a scowl. “And just what else happened while I was on the run or in bed?” he asked with perturbation.

Johnny reached down to pluck at the leaves of a nearby potted plant. “Oh, not much else…” He twirled the greenery between busy fingers. “Teresa told me Mrs. Cassidy is embarazada – with child.”

Scott’s lips parted in surprise and a little color trickled into his cheeks. “Dan didn’t mention anything.”

“Well, maybe he don’t know yet.” Johnny split the leaves along the central vein and then began folding the softened halves, over and over, smaller and smaller, until they snapped between his fingers.

Scott looked at the trail the buckboard had taken. “It might be a good way for them to start over,” he said, his voice again hoarse. “It might them something new to concentrate on.”

“I guess…” Johnny tossed aside the bits of leaf. “So, what’s on your mind, Brother?”

Well, at least it was Brother again, and not Boston, Scott noted. He tried to straighten but his knees refused to lock, so he settled back against the colonnade again. Johnny continued to eye him with easy patience, and Scott appreciated the extra moment to gather himself.

“Last night…” Scott frowned, rubbing the spot over his eye that Teresa had touched earlier, and the same one that Mrs. Cassidy had also concentrated on. He swayed a little.

Johnny hopped over and got steadying hands on him. Instinctively Scott leaned into the support, trying to get his feet back under him. It wasn’t always easy to corral Johnny, and he didn’t want to waste his brother’s attention now that he had it by passing out. 

“You said something last night,” Scott pursued, this time succeeding when he drew himself up, though the quivering in his legs almost made him twitch in reaction. “About Mexico.” He nodded his thanks for the arms of support, then his long fingers pulled Johnny’s right hand away from his waist. Johnny’s left-hand bracelet tapped him in the back again and gave him some energy.

Murdoch had fretted about the fever before they’d joined the Cassidys for breakfast, Johnny recalled.  The heat bleeding through Scott’s shirt was now undeniable. But Scott was asking, and Johnny found himself wanting to explain at least part of it. For so long he had refused to confide in anyone, because feelings were a weakness he could not afford to wear. And years of self-preservation did not fade so easily.  Scott had handed over such a large measure of trust to him last night, had so willingly accepted his brother’s protection. And that sharing, back there in the darkness of the south range, had felt almost as natural as breathing. Today, Johnny wanted to give something back to Scott for that belief his brother had in him, something of himself…

Mexico – memories stirred in Johnny, some recent and some not, all of them surrounding the rise of one Johnny Madrid. “Yeah, I guess I did say something about that,” Johnny returned to his brother, ruefulness edging his voice. “Sang you an ol’ arrullo, too,” he went on, his blue eyes smiling onto Scott. “A lullaby, just to keep you quiet.”

Scott managed a chuckle, glad to remember that much. “Well, thanks, Brother – it’s been a long time since anyone’s done that.” Perhaps never, he suddenly realized to himself, but shook it off. “About Mexico…”

“Just didn’t want you wearing too much guilt about that escape,” Johnny interrupted, his now dropping to the dirt between his boots while his fingers came up to toy with the buttons on his shirt. “Feelings like that,” he shrugged. “Well, they eat at a man – feed on his soul…”

“Yes,” Scott nodded. Those feelings had gnawed at him for years, chewing and chewing at him even when he’d thought they’d had their fill. He’d worked so hard to resist them, so hard – there’d been too many nightmares, too much guilt at being the only man left out of sixteen. And no one to understand how he felt. Now one until now.

He felt it again, that stirring within him, but this time he didn’t panic. There was so little left of it to rise, thanks to his brother, and the rest now crumbled when he mentally poked at it.

 “Only for you it wasn’t as a result of war, was it?” he softly prompted his brother.

Johnny’s dark head came up, that mysterious smile of his caressing his lips. “Oh, I don’t know,” he said, matching his brother’s stare.  “Maybe not a war like you saw, but…a war of a sort – personal-like.”

Scott now did his own hesitant dance, taking a step one way and back again. “I’m sorry about…that you had to see…” He sighed, and a faint flush swept his cheeks. “I’m afraid I wasn’t exactly--”

Johnny waved him off.  “All men take it different.”

“And how did you take it?”

“With a bottle of red-eye in a Nogales back alley,” Johnny grinned at him.

Maybe not quite the truth, but Scott understood anyway – his brother had been alone when he’d embraced the guilt brought on by killing another man.

But Scott realized that it didn’t matter whether he knew the details or not. All that mattered was the support his brother had so willingly provided last night, even when he’d been at his physical worst, and for that Scott figured he’d never really be able to express his gratitude. Johnny knew – he understood. And that was quite enough.

Scott scrutinized his brother standing beside him. Johnny, as dark as he was fair, that intent, blue-eyed gaze now familiar to him. He trusted this man more every day, enjoyed his complexities, his independence, his broad capacity to care, his honesty – and his loyalty.

“I didn’t thank you,” Scott said then.

“For what?”

“For not letting me fall last night,” Scott grinned.

“Guess we’re even, then,” Johnny tipped a smile at him.

“For now.”

“Yeah, for now.  Especially since you won’t be working for while.” He pointed to the sling.

“Pay back,” Scott shrugged with a weak grin.

“How’s that?”

“Took you a few weeks to get out from under Pardee’s bullet, as I recall,” Scott noted.

Johnny nodded. “Yeah, I guess you’re right about that.” He paused, took a breath then said in his soft voice, “I won’t ever let you fall, Scott.” Their eyes met and held, Johnny’s gaze gathering his brother into its protective intensity. His tone warmed with conviction. “I’ll always be there for you – to watch your back, you know?  You can always count on me – no matter what.” 

And he took a breath and held it, waiting…

Scott took up the line of trust just extended to him with a silent vow of his own faith, and nodded. “Thanks, Brother,” he returned, tucking the moment just shared deep into his own chest for protection. “And let me say that I’m honored to do the same for you.”

Johnny’s lips eased into a grin, and tried not to exhale too noisily in relief.  Just like last night, when the sharing had felt like breathing.  It felt the same today, and it felt good.  “Okay then – sounds like we got a deal.” And instead of a handshake, he put a solid hand on Scott’s good shoulder and lightly squeezed.

Scott’s free hand stole up to return the gesture to his brother, and his grin was just as genuine.

The clearing of a throat made them look over. Murdoch had reappeared from the double doors leading to the great room and was now strolling under the arches toward them. Five minutes already? Johnny wondered. The old man had probably ticked of each second, cursing all the while. Five minutes – Johnny’s gaze swept back out over the tracks made by the buckboard.  Not long…

Johnny lowered his hand and gestured toward their approaching father. “Don’t be too hard on the old man,” he counseled his brother, using the heel of his hand to wipe away a trickle of sweat riding on Scott’s cheek. “He cares, you know.”

Scott nodded his thanks. “I know,” he allowed and tipped his head. “Are you telling me to be a good patient?” he asked with a half-smile of irony. His brother was the absolute worst invalid he had ever met!

“For a few days, anyway,” Johnny returned sheepishness.

Johnny squinted up at the sky and imperceptibly flicked another gaze at those tracks made by the buckboard. “Plenty of daylight left,” he told his brother. “Guess I’d better get to work or Cipriano will have me mucking stalls for a week. I’ll see you at dinner.”

“Okay,” Scott nodded with a look that said he wished he were joining in. He slowly pulled his hand away from Johnny’s shoulder, but the heated imprint of his palm lingered, connecting them beyond physical touch.

“Where are you going?” Murdoch called as Johnny scooted forward and trotted towards the barn.

“Tengo algo que hacer,” Johnny returned, turning to walk backward. Yes, he had something to do. At Scott’s dark look he continued in English, “Take care of him, Murdoch.  Tiene fiebre.”

Scott bristled further. “You know I hate it when you do that,” he growled to his brother.

Johnny’s smile was wide and devilish. “That’s why I do it, hermano mio,” he said, angling again for the barn. Might as well saddle Barranca now and let the old man get upstairs with his brother. Then he could grab his hat and follow those tracks...  “But I promise to teach you.  Manana – tomorrow.”

“That one I already know,” Scott scowled.

“Good.” With a wave Johnny disappeared into the barn.

Scott glanced at his father as Murdoch’s large hand closed over his good shoulder, the only safe place to touch him without inflicting much pain, he figured. But Murdoch’s fingers seemed unusually heavy, and their weight made the nerves he pressed ripple with tiny explosions. Come to think of it, everything was starting to hurt.

“If you can get him to sit still long enough, he’ll be a good teacher,” Murdoch commented wryly, his palm testing the reflection of heat rising off his son. He was dismayed by the temperature change – yes, the fever Johnny had just covertly mentioned in Spanish was there.  But he left his hand in place, enjoying the comfort it gave him.

“I don’t think it will involve any conventional sort of learning,” Scott responded. “Books and paper and such.”

“No, I don’t suppose it will.” Murdoch chuckled. “Might be faster his way, though.”

“It’ll be fast,” Scott agreed. “I’ve no doubt about that.”  Then he looked off past the guardhouse. “Casus belli,” he said softly to the afternoon air stirring the leafy trees in the distance. The breeze slipped over him and hurt his skin; even the ends of his hair were tingling with pain.

“Hm – what was that?”  Murdoch asked him.

“Sorry – Latin,” Scott explained shortly. “The thing that started it all…” He shook his head slightly, wavered again, but settled under his father’s repositioned grip.

“Does it need any further thought?” Murdoch asked him.

Scott gave him a sidelong glance and assented. “No, I suppose not. The truth was revealed and that’s the important thing.  It saved us, Murdoch, all of us…”

“That it did, son…”

Murdoch broke off as Scott’s knees unexpectedly buckled. He grabbed for his son, awkwardly slipping an arm about Scott’s waist to take the weight onto his larger frame, afraid to jostle the sling, unsure what to do with the good arm dangling down.

“Easy,” he murmured, securing his grip as the tremor rolled through his on. Sweat was leaching through Scott’s shirt and skin – the fabric was already damp with it and his face had a fresh sheen.

“I think I’ll take that nap now,” Scott quipped as he struggled back up, his eyes blinking in pain.

“Here, let me help…” Murdoch softly encouraged, gently turning him toward the door.

They struggled inside, their pairing uncomfortable and slow as they groped to find the right places to hang onto, one afraid of his guilt and lack of knowledgeable touch, the other still resistant to those uncertain hands. But at the first stair it changed.

Murdoch stiffened in surprise as he felt it, but then a stream of heat was pouring in behind his eyes, filling his head and throat with a clogged, burning sensation that he could not swallow back, and he gave into the warm feeling spreading to his limbs. 

Scott’s arm, muscles quivering, was making its way about his waist. Murdoch felt the press of trembling fingers into his side as his son sighed and gave over his wracked body to the security of his father.

Murdoch gathered Scott close, his heart throttling him with shedding joy. He’d been given his chance.

The chance to offer the comfort of a father to a wounded son.

“Thanks,” Scott amazingly murmured to him, his head finding support in the hollow of a ready shoulder.

“Anytime, son,” Murdoch replied over a choke of – what was that burning his throat, working out of the corner of his eye?  Tears?

Yes, and let them fall, dammit; there was no shame, not now.

“Anytime,” Murdoch repeated to his drooping son.  “C’mon, straight to bed with you now…”

 

EPILOGUE

“You’re late,” Murdoch greeted Johnny as his son let the door clatter shut behind him. “I expected you to come in with Cipriano’s crew. Maria held some dinner for you.”

Well, Maria had left some dinner, but it was dry and cold now. The meal had been served some two hours ago. Almost enough time to be worried about Johnny – almost. The boy worked on his own time clock, and Murdoch still wasted a lot of temper trying to understand it.

“How’s Scott?” Johnny asked him, stepping down into wavering gloom that had filled the room. With a rueful start Murdoch realized that he’d neglected the fire; the flames were small and panting, gasping in sure death. The candles were also sputtering for life, drowning in their own wax. Only two pools of light were secure – the tight circle cast by his desk lamp, and the softer glow of the green-shaded table lantern across from him. The rest of the big room was veiled with darkness. 

Scott.  Murdoch sighed and threw down the pencil he’d been gnawing on.  Already the accounting books were behind.  Scott had made the last entries; his neat rows of numbers marched across the page with orderly formation. When was that – only two nights ago?  Scott…

“Fighting the fever,” he told his son with discouragement.  Johnny’s walk dragged in response, seemingly weighted by the blackness. The shadows clutched at him as he approached, reluctant to let his form materialize. “Teresa’s keeping an eye on him.”

He watched as Johnny slowly removed his hat and cast it into a blue chair. There was a stiffness to the set of his shoulders. As he came into the light spread up and out by the green lamp Murdoch saw that he’d been riding long and hard. His dark hair was sweaty, his face smudged, his clothes dusty. And there was a mix of emotion warring on his face – frustration, resignation, anger – that tightened his jaw even as it softened the blue glitter of his eyes.  Something…

“Where’ve you been?” Murdoch quietly inquired. Not out working–not all afternoon…               

“Green River,” Johnny told the floor.  His left hand stole to his right to finger the bracelet around the wrist.              

Murdoch waited for the rest.              

Johnny set his heels and looked sideways to the fireplace. The stretch of wasting firelight washed his face with bronze. He wiped a hand through his hair, releasing the inky, sweaty strands, and then settled the fingers on his hip. He took a breath, then let it out.              

“Lewis and Hardy,” he began in a voice that was not quite secure, then stopped.              

Warning swiped at the back of Murdoch’s neck. He shoved the ledger out of the way, the numbers already draining from his mind, and rose.              

Johnny’s fingers skimmed the butt of his Colt then curled into his palm.              

“They attacked the stage,” he got out before meeting his father’s stare.              

Murdoch’s tongue seemed to swell, absorbing all the saliva he had in his mouth.  “And the Cassidys?” he scraped out, legs trying – and failing – to work his feet.              

Johnny expelled a breath, and waited an eternity before answering.               

The gloom deepened as the fire gave up its last light and expired. A chill swept though the air, running an icy finger of accompanying dread across the back of Murdoch’s neck.  He shivered.              

“Johnny…” he started as a spasm hit his lower back.

 “Están muertos,” came the soft voice into the pressure-heavy silence. “They’re dead.”

Over Murdoch’s accompanying epithets his next words tumbled out, fast and breathless.

“Lewis killed them both before I could…”

Johnny looked away again and shifted his weight, wanting to move but willing himself still. “Stage driver got Lewis…Hardy tried to run. I ran him down, asked him to stop – he turned on me.” He let out a long sigh and shook his head.

Murdoch approached him, the events piecing themselves together inside his mind. “You figured they might try something like this,” he ventured softly, “so you followed…”

Johnny’s head dipped and he nodded. “I’ve seen vengeance in men like Lewis,” he said to his hands, fingers again fiddling with his bracelet. “Turns them black inside – doesn’t matter who’s at fault, just that somebody pay…I figured he wouldn’t stop till he got what he wanted.”  He shrugged, trying for nonchalance and failing; emotion had him wrapped tight. “Anyway, it’s all with the sheriff in Green River.”

Murdoch touched his son’s sleeve, let his fingers drape over the fabric. “You did what you could, son,” he said, hoping the words weren’t empty and guessing that they were.

“Aw, dammit,” Johnny uttered in a voice soft with anguish. He issued a gusty sigh and sagged with dejection, wiping a palm across his face.  “Scott worked so hard to keep it from happening this way…”

He turned to Murdoch, glad the old man’s hand was still on his arm because all he could think of was the baby Teresa said Sarah had been carrying – Cassidy’s child – and the hope Scott said that it might have held for the couple. And how Teresa figured Sarah hadn’t yet told her husband…

And how Scott had bled such emotions last night, all because of the Cassidys’ misaligned abuse, and how he now suffered under the inevitable fever of a bullet wound that he never should have received…

“I wish I had been there in time,” he whispered to Murdoch, eyes turbulent blue in the lamplight. “For Scott’s sake.”

“You were there when it counted,” Murdoch told him, pressing his forearm, offering comfort in his touch. “You’ll be there for him now…this…well.” He let go of Johnny and waved a helpless hand. “It’s all collapsed on itself.”  He tsked and sighed. “Too late,” he murmured, thinking of Scott’s earlier comment about the saving power of the truth. “The truth was just too damned late to help them.  It was just too late – it had already corrupted them all…”

Johnny moved, releasing the energy he’d stored so quickly by standing still. He grabbed his hat. “I’ll check on Scott – sit with him for a while – give Teresa a break.” He moved with surprising quickness, leaping across the darkness to the doorway with all the surety and grace of a cat, his footsteps light but secure.

“Johnny…”

Murdoch watched as his son turned to face him, his form outlined in the backlight of the foyer lamps. After all that sudden movement Johnny’s stance was oddly calm – but anticipatory.

Madrid ready, he thought. But there was nothing that Johnny Madrid could do about any of this, even though he’d tried–he’d tried….

“Don’t tell your brother just yet,” Murdoch advised. “Maybe once the fever breaks…”

Johnny nodded in mute understanding. His fingers went around the brim of his hat a few times and Murdoch guessed he had more to say. But then his demeanor softened.  Madrid faded and Johnny Lancer re-appeared, the Johnny who was so caring and protective of his brother.  He offered a murmured, “Buenas noches,” and slipped around the corner to the front stairway.       

All sorts of adages about fate and justice flitted through Murdoch’s mind, teasing him into accepting any one of them as an explanation for this needless murder. But a greater force had interceded here, one that could not be controlled or stopped, and it had given over a fatal kiss to the brows of those it condemned.

The verses came then to Murdoch, simple and directive yet unequivocably truthful, and he recited the words to the silent, weeping darkness.

<<"Vengeance is mine/I will repay, saith the Lord…”>>

<<“Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.”>>

That’s all Scott had been trying to do, overcome the evil of the past with good.

And Johnny after him, trying to prevent what no one else had foreseen

It was all any good man could ever hope to do.

 

~ end ~

 

** Johnny’s lullaby:
Duérmete, mi niño,               Go to sleep, my boy,
duérmete solito,                    sleep by yourself,
que cuando despiertes        for when you awaken
te daré atolito.                       I will give you cream corn soup.   
                                                                      

Duérmete, mi niña,               Go to sleep, my girl,
duérmete, mi sol,                  go to sleep my sun,
duérmete pedazo                  go to sleep,
de mi corazon.                       piece of my heart.

Texas State Library and Archives Commission website: http://www.tsl.state.tx.us/ld/projects/ninos/songsrhymes.html   

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