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Diana and J M McClure

 

F
xxTrade-Off
Drawing by J M McCLure

May 2002-March 2003

Rating: PG-13 for violence and language (some scatological terms, some cuss words, some oaths that some readers may consider blasphemy). Heck, don’t read this if you’re not grown-up enough to stop reading if you find something you don’t like.

Credits: Many thanks to Geraldine, Cat and Amy for beta work above and beyond the call of duty. Other thanks and credits appear at the end of the piece.

Disclaimers: The usual.

A note from Diana:
    Jeanne (Lewie) began posting this story in May of 2002. She drew me into working with her first as a beta and then, by Part 4, as plot meister and  co-writer. Our collaboration continued through to Chapter 14, when health problems forced Lew to withdraw. With her blessing, I picked up the reins and drove our buckboard back to the barn.
    The true “trade off” of this piece, then, is ours. We were two women, strangers to one another, living in two  different countries, on opposite coasts of the continent, who came together to write and have a wonderful, madcap time. Because Trade-Off was a collaborative effort, and because it was written in installments as a WIP for the Yahoo Lancer groups, readers will find a number of bumps and clunks and inconsistencies .Oh yeah, and not a few confusing POV shifts. But rather than try to smooth out everything for this, our final copy, I’ve opted to mostly leave things as they were originally written.

 

 

~*********~

Part I

Chapter 1

 Carlos Suarte tried to get the story told, but he was nearly dancing in his excitement. "Señor Avante, I recognized one of them. Reconoci uno de ellos.  The one who shot the kid. El pistolero."

Jason Avante had just about had it with the nearly hysterical stage driver. He was tired of standing out in the sun trying to piece together a coherent story about the daring stagecoach robbery that had left one man dead and $30,000 in the hands of the two surviving outlaws.  The driver kept slipping back and forth between languages, almost apoplectic with remembered panic. Information was pouring out of his mouth, but nothing of value was being said. Trying to get what he needed out of the man was like hauling water up a mountain without a bucket. And Avante had a very good reason for being impatient at that moment, though he was not about to share that reason with the stage driver.

"So who was he?" Avante said for the third time, forcing his voice to stay calm and reasonable. Calm and reasonable were about to run out.

The man was windmilling his arms to punctuate his outpouring of words. "El pistolero! Yo lo vi en Nogales. The gunfighter. In Nogales... I saw him in Nogales. He killed three men right there in the street. Alone! Three men! Dead in a second’s time. Mi Dios. Three men..."

"His name!"

Suarte stared at him for a moment as if he was either insane or just plain stupid. "Johnny Madrid. I saw him, Senor. It was Johnny Madrid. He killed his own man in cold blood. I saw him. Mi Dios. Then he... and the other man... they just ride off. They leave him there, bleeding in the dust."

‘Finally!’ thought Avante.
 

* * *
 

"I am NOT eating one more bite of that... that gachas you call stew!"

Scott Lancer glanced up at his irate brother, trying to make out his features in the dimming light. He was tired of his own cooking, too, but that was no call to insult his efforts. "Do I even want to know what gachas means?" he asked dubiously.

Johnny stared back at him for a heartbeat, then white teeth flashed in a grin. When Johnny Lancer smiled at you, you smiled back. It was inevitable. And he had an entire repertoire of smiles: sweet, shy, feral, conspiratorial and disarming. This was his disarming special and Scott found himself grinning back.

Probably not, Scott," he admitted, then with a weary shrug of his shoulders said, "I think I spotted some rabbit warrens about a mile back. Maybe I should go get us some real food?"

Exasperated, Scott got to his feet, temporarily abandoning his culinary efforts in light of this new idea. "Come on, not even Johnny Madrid can shoot rabbits in the dark. Give it up. Unless you want to cook?" With an exaggerated look of dawning horror, he amended, "Forget I said that. I want to get back to the ranch alive."

"Hey!" His sensibilities offended, Johnny turned back to his horse and hauled the rifle from the saddle scabbard, absentmindedly checking the load. "I’m not that bad. I lived on my own cookin’ for a few years you know."

"Yeah, and you’re lucky you’re alive to tell the story."

Sliding the rifle back into place, Johnny checked the palomino’s cinch, the horse sidestepping him as if protesting at the thought of his rider getting back in the saddle after hours on the trail. "I don’t see why we couldn’t have spent a little of that steer money on somethin’ decent to eat," he complained as he dropped the stirrup back into place and leaned his shoulder against Barranca’s side. I mean, it ain’t like Murdoch wants us to starve on the trail back home.”

Shaking his head, Scott squatted beside the fire again, poking a finger at the pot to see if it was warm enough to drink yet. "Ouch!" Oh, yeah, it was hot enough.

Johnny laughed. "Stick it where it don’t belong, brother, and it’s bound to get burned."

Pouring out two cups, Scott agreed, "And you should know, little brother. You of all people should know."

Pushing off from his horse, Johnny strode over to the fire and took the offered cup. "What’s that supposed to mean?"

"Think about it." Scott took a long swallow of hot coffee. It tasted good; the air had taken on a nip of chilly dampness.

Johnny dropped to a squat across from him. "Gonna storm soon. We’re gonna get soaked." His voice had taken on that needling complaining tone that sometimes grated on Scott’s nerves. "Don’t see why we couldn’t’a taken a night or two off and stayed in Stockton, seen some of them sights you’re always on about in the big city. Murdoch wouldn’t have minded."

"Murdoch would have eaten us for breakfast if we dragged our feet getting this money back to the ranch and you know it."

Another self-satisfied smile lightened Johnny’s face. "We done good, didn’t we? The old man’s gonna be impressed."

Scott didn’t want to abort that smile by such mundane facts as the cost of ranching versus the small profit margin on the beef sale. They didn’t see nearly enough of that smile, that almost childish delight that took the hardness out of his younger brother’s face. "Yeah, Johnny, he’s going to be impressed."

"Then why couldn’t we have stayed in town for a while?"

"I just told you why."

"Yeah." Johnny tossed back the last of the coffee, and sat back on the ground. "I don’t think Murdoch has any concept whatsoever of what the hell fun is. You reckon he was always that responsible?"

It was Scott’s turn to laugh. "I suppose he was. Besides, brother, the rest of us HAVE to be responsible just to counterbalance you."

Scott’s comment did not have effect he had intended. Johnny suddenly tensed and jolted to his feet, pacing a few steps away in unexplained anger. "I think I been damn responsible this past year, Boston."

"Hey, relax, Johnny. I was just kidding."

Johnny turned back to look at his brother, the anger draining from his body.  He had the grace to look sheepish.  "No, sorry, I’m just on edge or something. Somethin’s not right. I can feel it. Ain’t just the comin’ storm, either."

Gunfighter’s nerves, Scott thought, but didn’t say it aloud. It seemed that no matter how hard they all tried to help him settle in, Johnny Lancer was just not going to let go of Johnny Madrid. Maybe shooting the hell out of some defenseless rabbits might be just the thing Johnny needed to calm him, a little murder and mayhem to take the edge off. The image of his brother stumbling around in the dark trying to draw down on four-pound prey was suddenly intriguing.

A little primal stalking and killing.

"Maybe some rabbit wouldn’t go amiss," he suggested. "I can always save my stew for tomorrow night."

"Oh, great," Johnny spun around with a genuine laugh, "Somethin’ to look forward to." Decision made, he hauled his straying hat back onto his head. "Yeah, I think I’ll go find us something a bit more palatable."

"You do that." Scott was on his second cup of coffee and willing to wait a while for supper. Who knows, he thought sagely, if anyone could hunt in the dark it was probably his brother.

When he looked back up, Johnny was already in the saddle, reining in his skittish horse. "Be back before you know it."

"I’ll hold you to that."


 
Chapter  2

A long, cold hour later, his stomach protesting its emptiness with a rumbling complaint, Johnny gave up his futile hunt and headed back to their makeshift camp. Storm clouds rolled ominously overhead and the wind picked up the pace to match Barranca’s ground-covering trot. It would serve Scott right to bed down with only his own stew for company and a cold rain to soak him during the night. If he’d listened to Johnny, they’d be belly up to a Stockton bar right about now, after a good meal and a long, hot bath, with a night in a real bed awaiting them.

Murdoch had been keeping a tight rein on them for weeks and Johnny was chafing at the restraint.  His months at Lancer had tempered him, but there was still that lure of footloose and fancy-free living tugging at him at the most inopportune times.

Lost in his own musings, a luxury he rarely allowed himself, he’d almost trotted right into camp before noticing that they that they were no longer alone. A second horse nosed at the grass next to Scott’s chestnut gelding, unsaddled, its sides still lathered from hard use.

The wind peaked and squealed, causing Barranca to shy beneath him, costing him whatever element of surprise he might have still had.  He barely had a moment to pick out Scott, sitting beside the fire, hands behind his back with a huge man standing behind him, leveling a gun at his blond head.

"Sorry, Johnny," Scott said, and Johnny read genuine apology in his upturned face.

"No problem, brother." The horse continued to jitter under him, and it took both hands on the reins to control him. The first sprinkle of pre-storm rain pattered on Johnny’s hat brim for a moment, then quit, hinting at the storm to come. "Just wasn’t expectin’ company."

The still unidentified man -- Johnny quickly assessed him as being as tall as Murdoch but more solidly built, younger, harder --  spoke up, "That horse is a might spooky, son. Why don’t you light and set a spell."

"Trust me, mister, you don’t want Scott’s stew bad enough to hold a gun on him. It ain’t that good."

"I said, on the ground. Now, before I get nervous."  The stranger’s voice carried the weight of authority.

With no other choice, Johnny dragged his leg over the saddle and slid to the ground, using his left hand on the reins to control his nervous horse. His hand instinctively dropped towards his gun the second his boots hit hard ground.

"Son, you don’t want to do that. Just ease your hand away from that gun before it gets you killed. I don’t want to kill you, but I will if you force my hand. I know who you are and it may be in my best interest to put a bullet in you right now, but I’d rather not have to do that. Usted entiende?" The large man stood with feet firmly planted, his gun held rock steady.

"Oh, I understand," Johnny drawled softly as he took his hand away from his gun and locked his fingers into his belt. In that position his hand was still dangerously close to his gun, and they both knew it.

"Take it out, left hand, slowly. Your friend here would probably like to see the sun rise.

Stalling, his eyes never leaving the big man with the big gun aimed at Scott, Johnny asked quietly, "You okay, brother?"

"Never better," Scott said. "You get those rabbits?"

A grin touched Johnny’s face. "Naw," he admitted, almost shyly, "too dark. Got any stew left?"

"I said, take it out slow. Left hand." The trigger of the gun held to Scott’s head was cocked with an unnaturally loud click.

"Okay, okay," Johnny said in his soft drawl. The fingers of his left hand found the butt of his pistol and eased it from the holster. There was nothing else he could do, cross-handed and off balance. He laid it gently on the ground at his feet.

"Uh-uh. Kick it over here."

Sighing, he complied. The gun skittered across the rocky ground to land precisely in front of the other man’s booted foot. The stranger’s own gun never wavered from Scott’s head nor his eyes from Johnny’s face as he stooped to retrieve the surrendered weapon, jamming it into his belt. "Stay put," he advised Scott, and crossed to Johnny.

"Turn around, hands behind your back, crossed at the wrist.”  He waited a second for the order to be followed.

Johnny complied. Expecting rope, he was startled by the metallic clink of handcuffs as they clamped around his wrists. What kind of thief carried along a set of handcuffs?

He turned back and looked up at their captor. "I didn’t get your name."

The man grinned at him. The change of expression made the craggy face almost pleasant. "I didn’t offer it. But it’s Avante, recognize it?"

Confused, Johnny shook his head negatively. If this man wasn’t a thief after the money from the beef sale, who was he?  He’d never seen him before.  "Should I?" he asked coolly.

"Yeah, you should."

Johnny considered him again. He was older than he’d thought at first glance. Maybe 40, 45, his face weathered and carrying some ghosts from his own past. That was one thing Johnny Madrid Lancer could recognize without any trouble  . . . ghosts. He shook his head again. "Nope. Sorry. Not a clue."

"That’s okay. It’ll come to you. Give it time."

 

Chapter 3

Johnny lay back against a convenient rock, hat low over his eyes, seemingly perfectly comfortable in the rising air and oncoming dampness.

Across the fire from him, Avante helped himself to a bowl of stew.  Lancer, the older one, said testily, “Help yourself.”

“Thanks,” Avante shot back, “I just did.”  He nodded at Johnny who was still ignoring them both.  “I’d offer you some, Madrid, but I don’t think I want you with your hands loose and I sure don’t intend to spoon feed you.”

Johnny peered up from beneath the hat brim.  “Thanks.  You can have my share. I’ve tasted Scott’s cookin’ before.”

Avante settled back and spooned some stew into his mouth.  He’d had worse.  He took the opportunity and the light provided by the waning fire to study his quarry.  Madrid didn’t have the cold dead eyes that Avante had become accustomed to seeing on the men he’d had to track down over the past twenty years.  But, then, he’d seen some pretty harmless looking killers in his career.  The third holdup man, Chris Avante, had only been a kid, barely twenty-one, when he’d died at his partner’s hand in that stagecoach robbery.

Avante found himself taken off-guard when he realized that the killer was only a year or two older than Chris had been.  Somehow Johnny Madrid’s reputation had grown to such proportions that it was a shock to find out that he was just a kid himself.  And a good-looking kid at that.  Avante could see now why the young gunfighter had cut such an impressive figure in the border towns where he had plied his trade until a year ago.  Well, that career -- and his newly found one of ranch owner -- were both over now.

The older brother kept a conversational tone as he asked, “You mind telling us what your intentions are? I mean, if you want to rob us, you didn’t need to go to all this trouble.”  He jangled his manacled hands behind him as illustration.  “We would have let you have the money.”

“Now, Mr. Lancer, it isn’t the money I’m after.  It’s the two of you.”

“Both of us?” Johnny cut in, surprised.  “You mean you want Boston here, too?  What for?”

“Oh, thanks, Johnny,” Scott retorted as a huge droplet of rain plunked him on the nose.  He shook it off.

“No offense, brother,” Johnny assured him solemnly.

“You remember a little border town, boys, down below The Pass?  A stagecoach?  Little matter of robbery and murder?”

“When?” from Scott.

“Two months ago.  You should remember it.  Your brother killed your partner, right there in front of five witnesses.  Chris Avante.  Remember him now, Johnny?”

Still obviously puzzled, Johnny shook his head.  “No. Relative?”

Avante nodded.  “Kid brother.”

“Oh.”  Johnny ducked his head.  “Sorry.”  It sounded genuine enough.  “I still don’t know him.  And two months ago we were in the middle of rounding up cattle to drive to a sale, not in some Mex border town.”

“You’ll forgive me if I don’t believe you.”  Avante leaned forward and poked at the dying fire with a piece of kindling.

 Johnny gave an elaborate shrug of one shoulder.  “Sure.  But you’ll have a little trouble provin’ that.  We got our own witnesses.  About thirty or forty of them.”

 “You old man’s vaqueros?  I don’t think that’ll carry much weight with the law, kid.”

 “And lemme guess. You’re the law.”

 “Texas Ranger.”

 “Long way from home.”

 “Long ride.”

 “Yeah, sorry to put you to all that trouble for nothin’.”

 Avante decided to try a little dig of his own, see if he could shake this kid’s composure some.  “Cómo sea se siente para ser el medio hijo de la casta de un ranchero grande?”

“I’m pretty sure Murdoch doesn’t think of Johnny as a half breed,” Scott interrupted before Johnny could respond.

 His answer brought a grin to his brother’s face.

 “I’m sorry,” the big man said with a half-laugh, “didn’t know you spoke Spanish, friend.”

 “I been teachin’ him,” Johnny said, the grin still comfortable on his face.

 “Been teaching him how to rob stages, too?”

 “Naw.  We hadn’t got to that lesson yet.  That’s next week.”

 “Uh huh.  Well, son, get all the fun out now while you still can.  You got a lot of bad years waiting for you back in Texas.”

 “Got a lot of bad years behind me, too, amigo.”

 Another plop of rain decorated Johnny’s hat.  It was going to be a long, cold, wet night.

 

Chapter 4

He hadn’t slept well. It had been cold and wet but he’d been cold and wet before. No, he’d been thinking about his kid brother. Not, for once, about how Chris had died but rather how he’d lived. For the past two months Avante had forced himself to focus only on his brother’s death and the need to bring to justice the man who killed him. That was, after all, Avante’s job, a job that had been his life for more years than he cared to count. And he was good at it.

But Avante had never been good at being a big brother to the youngster who was more than fifteen years his junior. Chris had been young enough to be his own son. And with their pa dying so soon after the kid’s birth, the older brother had to step into their father’s shoes and put food on the table. He’d done whatever he could, took whatever jobs came his way, until he’d ended up as a deputy sheriff and found the job suited him. He’d worked long hours and made enough money to insure the family got by. But he wasn’t around home much. After he’d joined the Rangers, he hadn’t been around at all. There was no one there to help an ailing, soft-hearted mother to discipline a rapidly growing boy who seemed to have a talent for finding trouble.

Avante scowled, stretching stiffly as he straightened up. What makes a kid go bad, he wondered, not for the first time. What makes a Chris Avante yearn to walk the wrong side of the law? What, he asked himself as he looked at the huddled figures lying across from him, makes a kid into a Johnny Madrid?

“Thinking of moving out, Ranger Man?” Johnny’s soft drawl startled Avante out of his reverie. He realized both the gunslinger and his brother were awake and that despite the battered hat covering his eyes, Johnny Madrid was watching him closely.

“We’re breaking camp,” the Ranger said, shaking out his bedroll. “Got a lot of country to cover today.”

“Now wait a minute,” Scott Lancer protested heatedly as he sat up. “This has gone far enough.”

“Scott,” warned Johnny from beneath his hat.

“No, Johnny. I don’t see why we have to put up with this any longer. Look, Avante,” Scott began. He struggled to his feet and faced the tall Ranger angrily. “In my saddlebags I’ve got a signed receipt proving we delivered five hundred head of cattle to the buyer in Stockton, and that he paid the agreed on price of $8 per head. I’ve also got the account book that shows from that $4,000 we paid off thirty-two drovers and took care of a few bills. All duly listed and properly noted.”

“Account books only prove what you want them to prove,” Avante observed.

“You’re wasting your breath, Boston.”

“Johnny. . .” Scott turned back to the expressionless Ranger. “What about the drovers? That’s thirty-two witnesses who can testify we were both with them rounding up cattle in the back country north of Morro Coyo when that stage was robbed and your brother was shot. I know, I know.” He raised his cuffed hands to still any comment. “You say our father could bribe them to provide us with an alibi. But that just doesn’t make sense. Thirty-two drovers is a helluva lot of bribe money and a helluva lot of risk. How could Murdoch be certain someone wouldn’t make a better deal and talk?”

Avante shrugged his shoulders. “Who keeps track of the days during cattle drives? Who knows where every cowpuncher is every minute of the day? No one can say for certain that you two didn’t slip out at some point.”

“You think we could ride all the way to Texas and back without being missed? All that time? All that distance?” Scott was incredulous.

“He don’t want to hear it,” Johnny said. Still prone, he reached up and tilted his hat back out of his eyes. Then, with an insolent smile, he yawned. “I got a question to ask of you, Ranger Man.”

“Get on with it, Madrid.”

“Well, you seem to have done a little homework on us,” Johnny mused, chewing on his lower lip as he held the Ranger’s eyes. “You knew Johnny Madrid is Johnny Lancer and that Johnny Lancer has a brother, Scott here.”

“I made some inquiries, yes.”

“Then you know that Boston and me, we’re partners in Lancer with the old man. Each of us owns a third interest in one of the biggest spreads in this part of the country. Tell me why we’d risk all that to rob some stage outside a two-bit border town?”

“Because. . .”

“Why?”

“Because it’s in your blood, Madrid,” Avante said tersely. “I don’t know about him,” he nodded in Scott’s direction. “But you, you do it out of hunger for the risk. For the thrill. Men like you, you’re like those old Chinese coolies suckin’ on their opium pipes in the dark bowels of ‘Frisco.” He stood over Johnny and stared down. “Death is your addiction.”

Johnny was silent as he tried to probe the cold depths of the Ranger’s eyes. What he saw there chilled him as much as the words Avante had spoken. It was a picture of himself he had seen before, a picture of what too many people had expected, had wanted him to be.

“There’s no thrill in killing a man, Ranger,” he said finally. “Not for me, anyway. Never has been. You’re talking about another man. I’ve met men like that, but I ain’t one of ‘em.”

“Tell it to the jury back in Texas,” Avante snapped. “Tell it to the families of the men you’ve killed. Tell it to the witnesses who swear they saw you gun down my brother. I’ve given you your say. I’ve heard enough – let’s get going.”

“You haven’t heard a thing,” Scott retorted. “ I thought the Texas Rangers had a tradition of being tough but fair and just. Keep that tradition, for God’s sake, and listen to reason.”

“I’ve…” began the Ranger before stopping as Johnny snorted with derision. “Something amuse you, boy?” he asked.

“ No, not really.” Johnny replied quietly. “I don’t find it funny that a Texas Ranger can be so deaf to the sound of the truth.” He sat up, his cuffed hands resting loosely in his lap. “That tells me a thing or two about that Ranger,” he said steadily, holding Avante’s eyes with his own.

“And just what might that be, Madrid?”

“Well,” Johnny’s voice hardened. “First of all, it tells me that Ranger’s so hell-bent on bringing in somebody, anybody, that he don’t want to have the truth interfere.”

“And the second thing?”

“The second thing it tells me is that Ranger wants real bad to punish somebody so he can stop punishin’ himself.”

Quick reflexes had saved Johnny more than once over the years. They’d saved him when Johnny Madrid was called out by young guns on the make or when he’d gotten roped into the chaos of border town brawls. The same sixth sense about danger had served Johnny Lancer well, too. So it was odd, really, that Avante’s sudden and savage kick found its mark, smashing into Johnny’s ribs with a brutality Avante himself hadn’t known he possessed.

“Johnny!” Scott dropped to where his brother lay in the mud clutching his side and drawing in great ragged draughts of air. “No, let me see,” he demanded as Johnny pulled away from his touch, bringing his knees up to his chest in self-protection.

“‘S all right, Scott,” Johnny gasped. “Leave it.” He looked up to where Avante stood as if frozen and then closed his eyes as a wave of pain and nausea swept over him. When the wave subsided he looked at Avante again. “That make you feel better, Ranger? Did that take away your guilt?”

The tall Ranger returned Johnny’s gaze without flinching. “We ride in fifteen minutes,” he rasped, then turned on his heel and strode off to where the horses were tied.

“Well, brother, was that all part of one of your brilliant plans?” Scott tried for flippancy as he gently lifted Johnny’s arm away from his injured ribs. “C’mon now, and let me take a look.” Cursing the handcuffs that were rubbing his wrists raw and making his movements awkward, Scott felt gently along the rib cage and frowned at what he discovered.

“Leave it, Scott,” Johnny said, clenching his teeth against the pain. “There’s nothing we can do about it. I’ll hang and rattle.”

“That’s exactly what I’m afraid of, boy.” Scott smiled and pushed an errant lock of his brother’s hair out of his eyes. “Though your demise would mean I’d be half owner of, what did you call it, the biggest spread . . . “

His brother’s foolery brought a smile to Johnny’s lips. “Don’t count your chickens, Boston.”

“Seriously, Johnny, what are you up to?” Scott asked. “Needling this man doesn’t seem a particularly good idea to me.”

“Yeah, well, reasoning with him was getting you where exactly? ” Johnny retorted. “Help me sit up, Scott.”

Carefully, Scott slid his arm beneath Johnny’s shoulders and, lifting him up from the now greasy mud, eased him into a sitting position.

“All right?” Scott questioned worriedly as Johnny’s breathing became more ragged and painful.

“Scott….”

“Don’t talk.”

“No, listen… gotta,” Johnny gasped. Shaking his head in impatience, he tried again. 

“Scott…”

“What, Johnny?”

“Avante knows he’s wrong – no, wait, listen,” Johnny said as Scott started to shake his head. “I realized last night, when he told us about his brother, when he told us it was his brother who was shot during that stagecoach robbery…. I got to thinking about it and wondering how a Texas Ranger feels about his kid brother making a living breaking the law. I guess I thought about Murdoch,” Johnny admitted, his voice growing thick. “I know he ain’t exactly proud of my past.”

“Johnny…”

“Hear me out, Scott.” Johnny looked down at his cuffed hands then back at his brother. “I know the old man feels guilty about my past, maybe as guilty as me – and maybe that’s why we keep knocking heads every once in a while.” Johnny flashed his brother a boyish grin before turning serious again. “I don’t know, but I think that Texas Ranger is blamin’ himself for letting his brother end up as a corpse lying in the dust on some stage route. I don’t know why, or what happened – I haven’t got it all figured out in my head.”

“That’s a wonder, and you the chess master of Lancer,” Scott scoffed.

“C’mon, Scott, this is serious.”

“So what are you going to do, brother, let him haul us all the way back to Texas and hang you just so he can assuage his guilt?”

“We play for time, Boston,” Johnny said. “We play for time.”

 

Chapter 5

Long hours on the trail after a night huddled in a freezing rain with no shelter and little sleep were taking a toll on the three riders. Avante had reluctantly stopped and allowed a cold breakfast of jerky. Having no hot coffee had displeased Johnny Lancer, who didn’t hesitate to remind his brother that they could have been warm and cozy in a hotel room if he’d been running things.

The lingering drizzle did nothing to settle frayed nerves as their trail led over uneven ground made treacherous by the rain and runoff. Avante had left both prisoners with their hands cuffed in front so they could ride safely, but more than once the slick going had caused a horse to scramble, throwing his cuffed rider perilously off balance.

Although he had regretted his actions the second his booted foot had smashed into the kid’s ribs, pride and deep-seated anger kept him from acknowledging it. He kept a close eye on Madrid, and could plainly see the boy was clearly favoring his injured side. Johnny continued to ignore his brother’s voiced concern with a stubbornness that rivaled Avante’s own tenacity.

Whenever the trail widened, Scott surreptitiously reined in his mount so that Avante would come abreast. He had tried a couple of times to reopen their early morning discussion, but Jason Avante was quite skilled at ignoring the protests of desperate prisoners.

Scott finally gave up attempting to persuade Avante to listen to reason and tried instead to draw the man out and talk about himself. But Avante was no more receptive to this line of conversation than any other.  Sitting stolidly in his saddle, he ignored Scott and kept his eyes firmly fixed on the trail ahead.

‘Might as well be talking to one of those bluffs,’ Scott thought to himself as he looked through the increasing downpour at the rock formations on the gray horizon.

‘Damn.’ thought Avante irritably as he successfully evaded Scott Lancer’s attempts to pull up beside him. ‘Whoever Murdoch Lancer is he’s sired sons who don’t give up.’ He could feel the brothers’ stubbornness fanning the fires of his own anger and obstinacy.

It didn’t make sense, he admitted to himself, for the Eastern-raised, Harvard-educated Lancer to have cut himself in on his renegade brother’s criminal escapades, but stranger things had crossed ther’s path. The Lancer ranch was a lot closer to their present location than Texas was, though. He was beginning to wonder at his own intractability. Pride in his own integrity and moral code had been his personal standard for too many years for him to rest easy with his current course of action. But two months of anger and anguish helped him to stifle any internal unrest.

As the trail wound down near to the river’s edge, he found himself occupied with keeping his horse anchored to the increasingly dangerous trail as the rain picked up its icy assault. They were going to have ford that river soon and he wasn’t looking forward to the crossing. Controlling his horses and his prisoners at the same time was becoming increasingly hazardous.

"‘Water, water, everywhere, And all the boards did shrink; Water, water, everywhere, Nor any drop to drink,’" Scott Lancer intoned solemnly as he drew up beside his weary, shivering brother.

Johnny cocked his head. "What?"

"You’ve got to read more, Johnny. You have no idea what you’re missing."

Johnny laughed shallowly. "If that’s all the sense all your readin’ makes, brother, then I’ll pass."

"You boys enjoyin’ yourselves?" Avante asked lightly.

Madrid cut him a sideways glance, blue eyes considering his captor from beneath his soaked hat brim. "Don’t reckon we’re havin’ anywhere near as much fun as you are, Ranger. What with your righteous indignation and all."

Avante refused to be baited. "You sure do push, don’t you, boy. I bet that mouth of yours has gotten you into all kinds of trouble."

"More than you know." The older Lancer shot his brother a cautioning look, which he was sure would go unnoticed.
.

Surprising him, Johnny sobered. “Scott, look, I’m sorry I got you into this.”

“Now how do you figure you got me into anything, much less this?” Scott protested, waving his cuffed hands vaguely.

“If I hadn’t been Johnny Madrid, you wouldn’t keep gettin’ dragged into this kinda thing.”

Scott shrugged the comment off. “You can’t change the past, Johnny. Don’t even try.”

Johnny tried for a smile, almost caught it, then frowned. “Don’t guess so. Always comes back to bite you in the ass just when you think things’re goin’ good.”

“Well,” Scott shot a glance over his shoulder, “if some people would listen to reason...”

The rest of his sentence was cut off as he flinched at a streak of lightning and the almost immediate crackling roll of thunder that followed. A bolt of fire flared out of ebony cloud and split a scrub pine less than thirty feet away. Johnny’s horse danced sideways into Scott’s gelding, then skidded and slammed backward into Avante’s mare. For one long moment it looked like they would all slide down the treacherous slope, but Johnny spurred Barranca back onto sure footing, narrowly missing taking a plunge into the rushing waters just below the trail.

Settling his own mount, Avante was surprised to realize that he had no desire to see the young gunfighter drown. He wanted to see him hang.  In twenty years on the job, he’d never allowed himself to invest his own emotions in anyone he’d brought in. It was a dangerous thing to feel and a luxury he never allowed himself. It rankled that the kid could get that much reaction out of him.

It also bothered him that Scott Lancer was starting to make sense. He didn’t like second-guessing himself.

His thoughts carried them to the end of the trail. It was either ford the river or try to climb sheer rock, not much of a choice. Avante reined his horse in and considered the alternatives. Trying to skirt around the rain-swollen water would cost them hours and he frankly wasn’t sure how far out of the way such a trek would take them. The water was fast moving and peppered with the stripped branches of trees that had grown too close to the banks, dangerous and forbidding.  The trail around was mud-washed rock, not a good choice either.

At least they had three good horses. The river was the obvious route to take. In order to ford it the safest way possible meant he had to uncuff his prisoners.   No problem; he had two of them and they had the tie of brotherhood to bind them to each other. One at a time would work.

He called a halt and dismounted, digging in his pocket for the handcuff key. He handed the key to Scott, then pulled his pistol and made a show of covering Johnny with it.

“I’m sure a smart fellow like you can figure this out, Lancer,” he offered Scott. “Unlock ‘em and give me the key back. You cross first, then put the cuffs back on. Your brother will be under my gun the entire time, so I’d advise you to behave yourself. Got it?”

“Got it,” Scott agreed, unlocking the cuffs, then handing the key back obediently.

“Scott...” Johnny’s voice was soft and tentative. “Be careful. That current’s fast.”

“Don’t worry, brother, I’ll be fine. You sit still and don’t fidget. I’d hate the Ranger to get itchy and decorate you with any new holes.”

Johnny shrugged and grinned. “I’m bein’ good.”

“Yeah, well see that you stay that way.” With one last glance at his brother, Scott gently kneed his horse into the water. The chestnut immediately slipped and lurched in the muddy bottom, the current slapping against his side and nearly bowling him over. He lunged, scrambled madly for purchase on the slick bottom, then plunged forward. With Scott urging him on the gelding had nearly made it to the other bank when a huge branch boiled out of the current and rammed into his hindquarters.

The horse gave another great lunge and Scott lost his seat in the saddle, snatched for the horn, missed and went headfirst into the swirling water. He thought he heard his brother scream his name before he sucked in a lungful of dirty water.
 

* * *
 

“Scott!” Johnny screamed frantically.

“Hold it!” Avante might as well have been shouting into the wind. Johnny Lancer raked a Mexican spur into his mount’s side and the horse reared, then plunged into the racing water.

It was pure reflex.

Avante got one shot off and Johnny toppled off his struggling horse into the river.

Almost as soon as he squeezed off the shot, Avante spurred his horse into the rushing water. As they reached midstream, horse and rider felt the full force of the river and, losing her footing, the panicked mare floundered and lunged. Avante felt himself losing his fight to stay in the saddle. As the horse’s last desperate lurch for her footing tossed him into the icy water, the Ranger reached wildly for his prisoner and, catching the collar of Johnny’s coat, began fighting the current to drag him toward shore.

The bank on the far side of the river was steep and rocky, but a hidden shelf ran out to midstream.  Finally Avante felt his knees scrape bottom. The strong current threatened his hold on his still-unconscious prisoner, but as the Ranger found his feet he was able to reach under Johnny’s arms and heft him up out of the water onto a narrow outcropping of rock. Steadying the injured man with one hand, Avante pulled himself up onto land and sat with his back against the ragged, muddy bank, breathing raggedly from exertion. The grassy bench above was just another four feet away, but his tension-tired muscles threatened to betray him as he hoisted and pushed at Johnny’s dead weight.

Not twenty yards from the river’s edge, the bench ran into a rock bluff. Avante saw a small overhang in the face, and hoping it would provide some shelter from the relentless rain, the Ranger staggered over to investigate. Satisfied the small bit of shelter was better than nothing, he returned to where Johnny lay face down in the wet grass. For the first time, Avante allowed himself to think about the damage his instinctive action might have done. There was a small round hole low on the young gunslinger’s back and his jacket was turning dark crimson. Quickly, Avante tugged up the jacket and the shirt underneath to study the seeping, already swollen wound just to the left of the spine.

“Damn,” the Ranger swore aloud. It was in a bad spot, and the bullet was still in there somewhere. Without thinking, he reached for his boot knife. Gone. His gun was still, blessedly, firmly wedged in its holster. He looked around for his mare: anything he might be able to use to remove that bullet would be in his saddlebags. But there was no sign of his horse or of Johnny’s palomino or the elder brother’s chestnut.

Scott Lancer, Avante thought bleakly, remembering how the deadfall swept the man under water and out of their sight. A death to lay at his door. Madrid had been going after his brother: The Ranger had known that, had even in some ways accepted that, but he still couldn’t stop his gun hand from responding to years of training.

A half-stifled moan disturbed Avante’s morose thoughts and he realized his captive was semi-conscious. Half standing, half kneeling, he grasped Johnny under the armpits and tried to lift him. When his own fatigued body refused to cooperate, Avante was forced to grab the younger man’s wrists and drag him through the grass and mud to the base of the bluff. For a moment he stared blankly at the handcuffs that encircled his prisoner’s wrists. Instinctively his hand went to his inside vest pocket and there, miracle of miracles, he found the key safe in its usual resting place. Grunting with exhaustion, he bent over Madrid and unlocked the cuffs. Then the Ranger sank down, his back against the cold rock wall, and closed his eyes.

 

Chapter 6

Avante awoke with a start. A crack of thunder -- had that been what he heard? No, he thought, something else. There. A soft nicker, the stamping of feet. A horse was close by. Avante stood and peered out through the sheets of rain. Darkness had fallen and he felt as if he were trying to see through thick black velvet curtains. Then a flash of lightning revealed the outline of a horse not forty feet away. Madrid’s palomino had found his master.

“Whoa, easy, boy,” the Ranger said softly as he slowly advanced on the nervous gelding. Although not an admirer of palominos, Avante knew fine horseflesh when he saw it. And this was one fine animal. He continued to talk softly to the animal, taking his time while the palomino shook his head nervously and stepped back. Keeping his tone low and even, Avante made his way to the gelding’s head and put a quieting hand on the horse’s velvety muzzle. “Easy there, pretty boy,” he murmured, stroking the horse’s neck before reaching for a trailing rein to lead him closer to the rock face.

Tying the rein to a nearby branch, Avante began to root in Johnny’s saddlebags. To his relief, he found Madrid, like any trail-wise man, carried his matches and bits of kindling protected in oilcloth. ‘What else you got packed in here, boy,’ Avante mused as he continued to search through the tooled leather pouch. ‘Some old paper would be mighty nice,’ the Ranger thought to himself. ‘Don’t suppose you got any of that, Johnny Madrid?’ Wire cutters and a hoof pick, clothes and a tin cup. Not much help there. Avante closed the flap on the first saddlebag and, running his hand soothingly along the palomino’s flanks, walked around the horse’s hindquarters to his offside.

‘Now what do we have here?’ Avante asked himself as he dug through the contents of the second saddlebag. His hands closed over what could only be a book of some sort. Like the matches, it was wrapped in protective oilcloth. A sudden loud explosion of thunder and a brilliant flash of lightning startled both horse and man. Book in hand, Avante jumped back as the gelding danced nervously. ‘Too close for me, too,’ the Ranger silently soothed as he gave the horse a final pat. He untied Johnny’s sodden bedroll, lifted the saddlebags over the animal’s back and walked over to where he’d left his prisoner. There he began the almost impossible chore of hunting for dry firewood.

* * *
 

There was thunder inside his head.

The thought sifted through Scott’s sluggish mind, though it made little sense: how could there be thunder inside his head? He considered opening his eyes, but they felt welded shut and he was sure somewhere back in the furthest recesses of his brain that if he opened them and let in any light at all his skull would explode.

And then there was the matter of his belly. Something was roiling around in there just waiting for an excuse to ambush him into vomiting all over himself. Water. He vaguely remembered water. Lots and lots of water. It was in his mouth and in his nose and running out of his ears. He was afraid to take a breath because he was sure he would inhale only water. There would be no air.

If he didn’t move, maybe the contents of his stomach would remain where they belonged. Maybe his head wouldn’t burst open into a kaleidoscope of bizarre colors and flashing lights. That was all he had to do. Remain perfectly still. Face down in mud and smashed grass.  Don’t breathe, don’t move.

Suffocation was a heartbeat away when he finally gave in and gasped in a huge gasp of air. His entire body protested, his belly cramped, he jackknifed and had nearly lurched to his knees when he vomited the meager contents of his stomach into the mud. It seemed to take forever, retching up water and mud and bile, until finally he flopped back down onto his side, panting and gasping.

It was too much of an effort to even think, much less wonder what he was doing lying in the rain emptying his stomach onto a riverbank; too much struggle just to breathe. He was sleepy, bone weary. Just a minute to rest . . .

When he opened his eyes again, it took a minute for him to realize that they were, indeed, open. It was as dark with his eyes open as it was when they’d been wedged shut. The rain was still a faithful companion, and it hadn’t abandoned him. Building an ark was becoming closer to reality. His mind kept wandering and he had to force himself to think. For some reason, it was important that he think. Vital that he remember.

But it was so much work to try to edge rational thought past the hammer in his right temple. He raised his hand and brushed trembling fingers over his forehead; they came away pink with diluted blood.

His hand wavered, wobbled away from his blurred vision, then wandered back into focus. He wondered a moment whose blood it was, and then his headache claimed ownership with a crescendo of pain. It was all too much effort and he sank gratefully into a bed of trampled, wet grass and let the darkness merge with his fading vision.
 

* * *

Fire. There was a fire close by. He could smell it, he could hear it. And, oh God, he could feel it. Some damned fool had set his back afire. Frantically, Johnny tried to roll from his stomach to his back to smother the white-hot pain. But the fire moved with him like his own shadow, spreading from his back, burning its way through his chest. He heard a strangled animal-like cry of agony and realized, in a moment of lucidity, the pain it protested was his own. Then another, quite different burning sensation seared his throat and he felt rough hands turn him quickly onto his side. His stomach heaved to rid itself of what seemed like a lifetime’s worth of hot bile.

“Puke it up, kid,” a vaguely familiar voice advised. “You probably got half the goddamn river in that belly of yours. Just puke it all up, Madrid.”

Through watering eyes, Johnny saw the seamed face of Jason Avante watching him impassively. The Ranger’s hand rested on Johnny’s forearm, steadying him.  Before he could brush it off, he began to retch violently again. He felt Avante’s grip tighten on his arm as he continued to gasp and heave. The force of his body’s rebellion, the agony in his back and protesting ribs, all took him to the brink of unconsciousness. But only just. When the violent spasms were finished, he lay drained, too exhausted even to deal with the trail of tears and mucus left in the aftermath of battle. The fire was still burning; the pain was still there. He closed his eyes and passed out.

* * *
 

Avante put a final knot in the makeshift bandage wrapped around Johnny’s midriff and carefully checked that the pad of cloth he’d placed over the still bleeding bullet wound was back in place. All the flailing and convulsive vomiting that marked the young man’s return to consciousness had interrupted the Ranger’s attempts to do some basic doctoring. Satisfied the dressing would hold, he ripped the remainder of Johnny’s extra shirt into long strips, rolled the strips into bandages and tucked them back into a saddlebag for later use.

This done, he turned and busied himself with the campfire flickering at the sheltering base of the rock bluff. As he threw on another piece of precious dry wood, a rogue gust of wind swept rain into his face. Miserably the Ranger turned up his collar and stared hollowly at the fire. Avante wasn’t pleased with himself – there were very few times in his life when he’d felt helpless and wrong-footed. This was one of them. The last time he’d felt this way was the last time he had seen Chris alive. They’d argued, fiercely, and the older brother had said a lot of things he wished he hadn’t.

He shook the painful memories from his head. No sense thinking about that, he thought angrily. Restless, he stood up. Despite the campfire he felt chilled and stiff. His clothes were no longer sopping wet but the damp garments were sucking away precious body heat.

“Avante.” The word was a hoarse, whispered gasp.

The tall Ranger turned and looked into the depths of Johnny Madrid’s unguarded blue eyes.

“You back with me, Madrid?”

“My brother, Avante. What happened to my brother?” Johnny’s voice was halting and barely audible. When there was no immediate answer, he rolled awkwardly to his side and raised himself on one elbow, breathing shallowly.

“I asked you a question, Ranger Man,” he said deliberately, his voice taking on the insinuating tone Avante found so insolent and so familiar. It raised his hackles like nothing else could.

“Settle back, boy,” Avante answered harshly. “There’s nothing you can do.”

“What do you mean?” Johnny’s eyes narrowed. “He was there – he was. . .”

“There was nothin’ you or me or anyone coulda done, Madrid.” Avante’s voice was flat.

“No,” Johnny shook his head, “that’s not true. You got it all wrong.” Clutching his ribs, he pushed himself awkwardly to his knees and paused there, catching his breath. “You don’t know Scott, Ranger Man.”

“It IS true, boy.”

Without looking at Avante, or even bothering to reply, Johnny staggered to his feet. “You just don’t know Scott,” he repeated desperately, talking more to himself than the Ranger. Slowly, one foot after another, he began to walk away from the shelter into the relentless rain. “Oh, people think ‘cause he grew up in the East and went to a fancy school that he’s soft. But he’s tough. He’s tough and he’s strong and he made it out of that river.”

“Madrid!” Avante called out sharply. “Where do you think you’re going?

“You didn’t even look, did you, you dumb sorry bastard,” Johnny accused, raw emotion making him hoarse. Unsteadily, he half turned and looked at his captor. Tears streamed unnoticed down his face. “You just couldn’t be bothered. You’re so full of hate and guilt you’d leave an honest man dying on a riverbank instead of admitting you mighta made a mistake.”

“Wait. . . “

“My brother’s down there and he needs me, Avante.”

“Your brother was hit by a deadfall in the middle of a flooding river, Madrid,” said the Ranger harshly. “He drowned before our eyes.”

Johnny Madrid Lancer froze, his bloodied back toward Avante. Then he sank to his knees in the mud and the rain, head bowed, his arms wrapped tightly around his own body. He barely noticed when, after a few minutes, Avante slid strong arms under his elbows and half guided, half carried him back to the sheltering wall.
 

 

Chapter 7

It had to be morning. Through closed eyelids he could sense it was brighter. Or maybe it was just less dark, he thought in confusion. There must be a sun up there somewhere but the rain didn’t seem disposed to quit anytime soon.

When he forced his reluctant eyes open this time, the pain was less. He was shivering uncontrollably, the aftereffects of a night spent asleep in pouring rain. Scott figured he’d be very lucky not to count pneumonia among his various ills if he ever got through this ill-fated trail drive.

Memory flooded back. Avante. Johnny. Avante alone with Johnny. And no Scott Lancer to act as a buffer between them. No reason for Johnny to even believe his brother was still alive. Waterlogged, but alive.

"Oh, damn," he muttered as he struggled to his feet. The headache rushed back, but he rode it out as he tried to get his bearings. No horse in sight, only the rain and the rushing water of the bloated river. His hat was gone. But he still had his jacket, for all the good the soggy material did; the cold was penetrating and constant. Nausea was going to be his companion as well. Cold, nausea and hunger: not pleasant traveling companions.

He had no idea where he was or how far he’d been swept downstream. He wondered where Johnny and Avante had spent the night. Had they gone on and crossed the river, or had they stayed put? Resolutely, he pushed these and other questions to the back of his mind and tried to take stock of his situation. Walking downstream, he decided, didn’t make much sense. The odds were good his horse had made it to shore before he did and was probably somewhere above him on the river. He put his head down under the onslaught of rain and cold and started plodding back upstream.

By his own estimate it was two hours later before the weak sun began to make some progress through the lumbering black clouds. Rain still slanted down on his unprotected head and the cold had long ago seeped into his bones, making his movements stiff and awkward. In places he slipped and slid across muddy, eroding banks, grabbing at scrubby bushes to prevent a fall. In others, his path took him along soggy grass benches where the overflowing river skirted his boots as he forced each laborious step. The wind had picked up and taken on an eerie quality, vacillating between sharp whistles and creaky moans. His head ached. Concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other, he was confused when he first heard a rustling of bushes off to his left.

A glimpse of brown caught his eye and he had a momentary surge of hope. He veered off the path and pushed his way through the tree line. Avante’s mare and his own chestnut were contentedly grazing on the thick river grass, side by side, oblivious to the rain and the man carefully approaching them. Then a windfall snapped under Scott’s foot and the horses raised their heads, ears pricked forward, nostrils quivering as they considered flight.

“Whoa, boy,” Scott called softly. At the sound of the familiar voice, his gelding tossed his head and nickered a greeting. Stepping quickly out of the bushes, Scott grabbed at a trailing rein. He patted the chestnut’s neck gratefully and stroked its flanks as he tried to understand the implications of finding Avante’s mare without her owner.

Something had happened after his own abortive fording attempt. Had Avante gone in the river? Had Johnny? Were Johnny and Avante sharing Barranca between them? There was no way to tell. Feeling thick-witted Scott stared at the mare as if she held the answers he sought.

Scott noticed Avante’s rifle was still in its scabbard. His own rifle was gone, confiscated by Avante when he’d taken the brothers prisoner. Speaking soothingly to the mare, Scott reached over and slowly pulled the Winchester free. He checked the load, slipped it into his own scabbard and felt strangely comforted.

The odds looked better now. Avante no longer held all the cards. The only question was, Scott thought ruefully, whether he could find the Ranger and Johnny and deal himself into the game. He dragged his weary body into the saddle, scooped up Avante’s horse’s reins and started riding upriver.

* * * 

The rumbling of his stomach reminded Avante he’d had little to eat since the stew he’d shared at the Lancer brothers’ camp – when, two nights before? He thought back ruefully on his refusal to take time for even a basic trail breakfast the day before. He was breaking a lot of his own rules on this trip, Avante admitted to himself grimly. But he realized there was no sense in taking inventory now. Madrid’s fever suggested infection setting in. The Ranger knew he had to take action soon if he wanted to stem its spread. Removing the bullet would be the best course of action. But for that he needed the knife he’d lost in the river.

Running his fingers tiredly through his hair, Avante considered his options. First things first, he told himself. He’d restart the fire and heat some river water in the cup stashed in Madrid’s saddlebag. He didn’t question why he cared whether Johnny Madrid died on the trail instead of at the end of a noose. If he’d been honest with himself, he wouldn’t have liked the answer.

Fifteen minutes later he’d gathered a small, hard-scratch pile of kindling, twigs and branches – some of it dry, most of it not. Even in daylight the pickings were slim; last night he’d picked up most of the dry wood to be found under the sheltering overhang. Loath to waste any of his precious store of matches, Avante wondered how far afield he’d have to trek to find more kindling. Then he remembered his other discovery from the night before, the book wrapped in oilcloth. He could use pages from that.

Suddenly curious to see what kind of book a man like Johnny Madrid would be toting around, Avante reclaimed the bundle from the small ledge on which he’d left it and squatted under shelter to unwrap it. Freed from several layers of protective cloth, the book proved to be a handsome black-leather volume similar to the kinds of books Avante had seen payroll clerks use. With a glance toward his still unconscious prisoner, the Ranger opened the front cover idly and saw, inscribed on the fronts-piece, a sentiment written in a girlish hand:

To Johnny Madrid Lancer,
With love from his new “sister,” Teresa O’Brien
Blank pages for a new beginning

 

The inscription was dated not eight months before. Avante thumbed the pages casually and then sucked in his breath. The book appeared to be a sort of journal or diary. ‘Cocky son probably wrote down all his triumphs,’ Avante told himself. But he knew that wasn’t so. This was not a book filled with the boastings of a vain man. Nor was it the proper sort of day-to-day recording of events he’d heard was becoming a popular pastime with fashionable young ladies and some gentlemen.

No, this book was something entirely different, the Ranger realized as his eyes were caught first by a pencil sketch of a horse’s head, then a hastily scrawled note reminding the reader “T. birthday – talk to S.” This book seemed a lot like Johnny Madrid himself: half wild, half tame, following its own laws and discipline. Unpredictable, contradictory and, often, unfathomable.

Avante forgot about time and the rain and the fire he was going to start. He read about the supplies needed for rebuilding a bridge, what the sky looked like on the morning a new colt was born, what someone named Shakespeare said about honor. There were pages where the writer talked about his hopes and fears, others where he put down his anger with such vehemence that his penciled words scratched deeply into the paper. There were places where it was evident pages had been ripped out, and not a few entries were marked by dark spots Avante sure were coffee stains.

The drawings were what moved Avante most, what made him feel he was plunging into the depths of Johnny Madrid’s soul. A horse running, a young woman with fluttering hair ribbons looking off into unnamed distances, a smiling Scott Lancer – these were not drawn with great detail but sketched with a few quick, sure lines that suggested more than they told. They were the most alive drawings Avante had ever seen.

Toward the back of the journal, hidden between still-unfilled pages, was a surprise. It was the portrait of an older man and had been much reworked, the paper in some areas rubbed almost through. The artist had put in more detail, attempted more likeness than in any of his other work. It was labeled simply “M.”

Avante sat staring into the distance, the book open in his lap. He thought back to the words about honor he’d found when he first started reading:

Mine honor is my life, both grow in one,
Take honor from me, and my life is done.*

 

The Johnny Madrid he was meeting between the black leather-bound covers of Theresa O’Brien’s gift was not the cold-hearted killer of dime store novels. Nor was he the border-town legend Avante’s own brother wanted not only to work with but become. It was with the legend of Johnny Madrid that Chris Avante had taunted his older brother during that bitter last encounter.

A muffled sound brought a halt to Avante’s musings. He looked over to where Johnny was stirring, trying to throw back the blanket that covered him. Avante wrapped the journal back up in the protective oilcloth and reached over to tuck it back into its original resting place in Johnny’s saddlebag. It was more than time he started that fire and made a decision about his fevered prisoner.

* * *  

By the time he had the fire going well, the wind was rising, chasing the storm westward. Avante was glad to see the rain lessen but the wind brought with it new problems. His fire, tenuous at its best, would die entirely unless he could find more dry wood. But as the day had progressed, so had Johnny’s fever. Several times Avante had been forced to pin down the young gunslinger by his shoulders and with the delirium giving him strength, Madrid had fought until unconsciousness claimed him.

Earlier Asante had managed to remove the now blood-soaked bandages, clean the wound with water boiled then cooled in Johnny’s battered tin cup and put on a new dressing. But he was worried. The wound was still oozing blood, and it had taken on an angry inflamed look.

Now as he squatted next to Johnny, he wondered about the decision he’d made earlier. Was he right to stay put and not try to move the injured man any farther? Avante was continuing the unfamiliar exercise of second-guessing himself when he heard a horse nicker in the distance and Madrid’s palomino answered in return. Quickly he was on his feet, and twenty years of instinct and training again forced his hand down to his gun.

* * * 

Later he would find it hard to estimate how long he rode. Slouched in his saddle, trying to ignore the constant drizzle, Scott found his horse’s rhythmic stride lulling. They were reaching a section of the river where a large rock formation rose like a fortress wall directly above the grassy bench.  He let the chestnut pick his own way along the ever-narrowing trail.

Suddenly the gelding neighed shrilly and broke into a nervous jog when there was an answering call. Shaken out of his stupor, Scott reined in sharply and took in the scene ahead. In the distance he could see the pale shape of Barranca and close to the rock wall someone squatting in the smoke of what could only be a struggling campfire.

‘Well,’ Scott thought sourly, ‘so much for the element of surprise.’ He should have expected it. His horse and Johnny’s had been stablemates for nearly a year now. The cold, exhaustion and the persistent headache had all conspired to dull his thoughts. One decision taken out of his hands, he tried to think through the fog numbing his brain. Go for the rifle still inconveniently stowed in his scabbard or raise his hands and make a show of turning himself back in to the Ranger’s custody?

Avante wasn’t going to give him long to puzzle it out. He was on his feet, gun in hand.

As he raised his hands reluctantly in surrender, Scott searched frantically for his brother. Only then did he see that Johnny was on the ground and putting up a struggle, just enough of a diversion to give him an edge if he did decide to try to pull out the rifle.

Avante was thrown off balance as Johnny reached out and grabbed his ankle, trying to wrestle the armed Ranger to the ground. Tripping forward, Avante fell to one knee and Johnny caught a loose grip on his arm. Avante easily swatted him aside, but it was enough of a distraction that Scott had time to knee his mount forward as he yanked Winchester free.

The situation instantly disintegrated into a standoff.

But the odds favored Avante. He still had Johnny, and Scott could see his brother wasn’t up to any more shows of resistance. Scott wondered again just what had happened in the aftermath of his own plunge into the river. Broken ribs alone wouldn’t be enough to take his stubborn, hot-headed brother out of a fight.

Avante didn’t give him long to figure it out. Focusing on Scott’s obvious weak point, the Ranger shifted direction with his gun muzzle, bringing it to bear on Johnny. "Looks like we got us a problem," he suggested amiably.

Without hesitation, Scott lowered his rifle and with elaborate slowness slid it back into its scabbard. "No problem," he countered. "I didn’t come back to fight you."

Ignoring Avante’s skeptical look and the gun barrel beading down on his brother, Scott slowly swung a leg up over his saddle horn. Hands raised in surrender, and holding Avante’s eyes with his own, he slid off his gelding and started walking toward his brother. Three steps took him under the relative shelter of the makeshift camp to where Johnny lay on his back drawing in deep but uneven breaths.

Dropping to his knees, Scott could see the bandage then and the dark stain of old blood that had seeped around to the front. It didn’t take much guesswork to realize Johnny had added another bullet hole to his already excessive inventory of old wounds. Scott reached down and slid his arms under his brother, gently bringing Johnny’s shoulders into his lap. With a quivering hand, he touched a muddy cheek and was relieved when the injured man opened his eyes.

There was a long silence as the two men held each other’s gaze. Scott felt his stomach lurch as he saw Johnny’s blue eyes fill. He brushed a hand over Johnny’s forehead. The skin was clammy and too warm.

"Scott... I thought you were..."

"It’s okay, little brother, I’m right here."

"Scott..." Johnny hitched in a breath, then his eyes closed. "I’m cold."

 

Chapter 8

"We’ve got to talk."

Avante turned from his saddlebag to find Scott Lancer standing behind him. The young man’s eyes were dark with anger and he had an obstinate set to his mouth the Ranger recognized as trouble. He looked at Scott with assessing eyes, gave a slight shrug and again began rooting in his saddlebag.

Scott grabbed his arm roughly. "I said . . ." 

"I heard what you said," Avante growled without turning. "But unless you settle down and stop thinking how much you hate me and want to do God knows what to me, we’re not doing much talking. Now take your damn hand off me."

The grip on his arm loosened and Avante withdrew a small oilcloth-wrapped package from his bag, closed the flap and turned back to Scott. In the elder Lancer’s face he could read fatigue and pain punctuated by worry.

"Look, boy." His tone was almost gentle. "You gotta put aside your hate . . ."

"The way you have?" Scott interjected bitterly. He turned away from Avante’s steady gaze and bit his lip. "Go on."

"There’s one thing we both agree on," the Ranger continued quietly. "That slug has to come out of your brother’s back – and soon. But I think you’ve been around, son," Avante paused, looking questioningly at Scott. "And I think you know as well as I do your brother’s not going to be able to take much. Frankly, I don’t know where he got the grit to go after me when you came up on us."

"Johnny isn’t very good at knowing when to give in." Scott smiled in spite of himself.

"Noticed that." Avante flashed a sardonic grin in return. Sobering, he continued. "I’ve seen bullets kill too many men, Lancer. Good man or bad man, a bullet’s poison isn’t choosy."

Scott nodded. It was the first thing he’d learned as an idealistic young cavalry officer riding with Sheridan: death doesn’t take sides. "What are you saying?"

"I’m saying I’d like to give your brother a chance," Avante answered simply. "Hear me out," he warned as he caught the beginning of a sneer playing at Scott’s lips.

"All right."

"We’ve got to remove that bullet but first we’ve got to make sure he’s strong enough to stand what we’ve got to put him through."

"We?" Scott questioned tersely.

"Yes, we." Avante’s reply was emphatic. "Stop fighting me, son. You’re wasting time. Look."  He held up the small oilcloth package he’d pulled from his saddlebags. "I’ve got a few things in here will help the pain and, just maybe, slow down the fever. We . . . wait a minute – let me finish." He stopped Scott’s half-uttered protest with a raised hand.

"Go on."

"You heard him tell you he was cold," Avante said. "You know what it means when a shot-up man says he’s cold? He’s on the edge. We gotta pull him back, get him warm. Get him wrapped up warm, let him rest." The Ranger took a deep breath and looked away, struggling with an emotion he couldn’t name.  "Lancer," he said finally, his voice sounding almost disembodied, "I saw -- hell, I felt-- what happened when you came waltzing in, sassy as all get out. There’s Johnny Madrid, half-dead and rolling in pain, but ready to take on the world again. All ‘cause his goddamn brother’s come back from the dead. Well, let’s give him time to let that brother thing do its job again."

The bitter edge to Avante’s voice took Scott aback. But without stopping to question it, he knew what the Ranger said was true. The bond he and Johnny had forged was stronger than any emotion he had ever experienced. Both had long since stopped wondering at its unlikelihood.

"All right, Ranger," he replied. "We wait."

* * *

Johnny struggled to open his eyes. Someone was talking at him again and although he didn’t much care to listen, someone was insisting he should. It was mighty nice where he’d been:  warm, safe. And no pain. Or not much. 

But he’d been to this place before and he knew he couldn’t stay there unless he planned on staying there forever. And he wasn’t ready to do that. Leastways not yet. Not when he had a brother who was, who was . . . a brother who going on about him opening his eyes and . . .

"Scott?"

"About time, brother."

Johnny closed his eyes again briefly and swallowed. Then he looked up at the familiar features now etched with strain and worry. "You never did believe in siestas, did ya, Boston?" he asked lightly.

"They go against the grain of my New England upbringing." Scott smiled, reaching out and taking one of his brother’s icy hands in his own.

"Gotta work on that, don’t we, brother?" came the hoarse, almost whispered reply.

"Johnny, you know what we need to do here." Scott aimed for casual, but only managed concern.

A weak, lopsided smile met his efforts. "Oh, I dunno, Scott," Johnny protested, "can’t we just... you know... ignore it... maybe it’ll go away.”

“Somehow I don’t see that happening.”  Scott glanced over at Avante who was heating the knife he’d retrieved from his bedroll in the meager campfire.  “Though I think maybe I’d better do the doctoring.”  He smiled down at his brother’s ashen face.  “Unless you want it to be the man who intends to see you hang.”

Avante looked up from his grim preparations. “Oh, I don’t know,” he intoned solemnly. “I figure I might just have a little more experience in trail doctorin’ than a Harvard educated fellow.”  He looked at Johnny.  “Confieme, chico?”

“Now why the hell should I trust you, amigo?”

“I don’t know,” the big man shook his head as if really considering the question, “maybe ‘cause you got no choice in the matter?”

Johnny tried for a grin, almost found it.  “That works for me.”

“How about you?” Avante turned his gaze to Scott. “That work for you?”

“Do I have a choice?”  Scott didn’t bother to keep the edge out of his voice.

“There’s always a choice,” Avante replied with an elaborate shrug of one shoulder. “Just thought I’d ask.”  He turned that same considering gaze back onto Johnny.  “I know it hurts, kid, but I don’t think you really want to go and die on me now, do you?  I think it just might piss off your brother here, and I don’t need two of you mad at me.”

“I ain’t mad,” Johnny responded, though it was obvious that the banter was costing him, “Just kind of put out.”

Avante went down on his knees, his joints protesting both the movement and the cold with a crackle as he sank to the hard ground.  He looked up at Scott.  “We have to turn him and with busted ribs, that’s going to hurt.”

With a sigh that signaled his obvious reluctance, Scott knelt at his brother’s head.  When he spoke, his voice was as strained as his body language.  “Ribs you broke.”

Matching the sigh with one of his own, Avante sat back on his heels and considered Scott.  “Look, Lancer,” he said, “you want me to do this or not?  Because if you want me to take a knife to your brother, it don’t pay to remind me of things I ain’t so proud of.”

“Regret?” Scott countered.  “Somehow that doesn’t suit you.”

Avante’s gaze never wavered.  “I’m not asking for your forgiveness.  Just saying take your spurs out of me.  Your brother’s got a smart mouth on him.  That’s what earned him them ribs.”

There was no time for a retort as Johnny reached up a shaky hand and tugged at his brother’s jacket.  “Scott . . .”  It was barely a whisper.

Scott leaned over close so he could hear and felt Johnny’s shallow gasps of breath against his cheek.  “What, Johnny?’

“Let ‘er buck.”

Johnny’s face was pallid and damp with sweat, hair plastered to his forehead, his eyes too large and over bright, the blue washed out and pale.  The fever already plaguing him was all too obvious, another worry for his brother to add to a too-long list.  In the war he’d seen too many men survive bullet wounds only to succumb later to fever and infection.  And he was forced to trust a man with a killing vengeance on his mind to remove the bullet.  The irony was hardly lost on him.

He laid a hand on his brother’s cheek, heat meeting the cold of his palm, and rubbed gently, taking comfort himself in the brief contact.

“Help me roll him over,” Avante interrupted him.

“Wait . . .” Johnny gasped.  “Give me a minute . . . get my breath . . .”

No point, Scott thought, and said, “Let’s get it done, brother.”  He didn’t wait for any response, just helped Avante turn Johnny and tried to ignore the raspy moan the movement forced out of his brother.

“You’re gonna have to hold him down,” Avante instructed unnecessarily as he straddled Johnny’s lower body.  “That bullet’s in a bad spot.  We don’t want him squirming around while I go digging in his back.”

“He needs . . .” Scott couldn’t stop the protest, wanting delay even as he knew it was useless.  “Something . . .something to . . .”

Avante dug into his vest pocket and pulled out a leather fob with his Ranger’s badge pinned to it.  He pulled the metal badge free and handed the leather to Scott.  “Let him bite down on this.”

Scott slipped the leather into Johnny’s mouth, then took a grip on his shoulders.  As he leaned forward, he felt a tug, glanced down to see his brother’s left hand fisted into the material of his jacket, the knuckles white.  He searched blindly for words of comfort, but nothing came.  His mouth was too dry to speak anyway.

 Avante took the knife from the flame, held it up a moment, red reflecting eerily in his eyes, then said, “Hang on.  Just keep hanging on.”

 The blade met inflamed skin with a searing hiss, then probed into the wound.  Johnny bucked against Scott’s hold.  Avante dug deeper, hoping for the feel of metal against metal as he sought the trail the bullet had furrowed into yielding flesh.  He felt the blade skid against bone and backed it off.  Sweat dripped into his left eye and he swiped at it.

“Get it out,” Scott snarled through gritted teeth.

“I can’t find it.”

“What do you mean you can’t find it!”  Scott jerked his eyes up to meet Avante’s look.  “He didn’t kill your brother, Avante.  Help him.”

“Just wait.  Gotta go slow,” the Ranger said.  He wiped his forehead again with the back of his wrist and looked at the wound.  Blood pooled around the hole he’d just enlarged, obscuring his vision.  He probed with the knife once more and Johnny lurched again.  “I’m trying to feel if the bullet traveled.  Have to cut him more then go in with my fingers.”

Johnny moaned, deep and throaty and his body convulsed beneath them.  “Let go, Johnny,” Scott pleaded, “just let go.  Pass out, damn it.”

“Hold him!” Avante barked.

“I’m trying to!”

“If I stick the knife in any further, it’s gonna do even more damage.”

Scott shot him a look that told of anger and fear.  “You said you could do it.”  It was both challenge and plea.

“And I am doing it.  Just hold him still.  One wrong move right now and we do more damage than good.”

Scott felt like he had stopped breathing.  Avante was in his line of sight as if he were centered in the crosshairs of a rifle scope.  “You cripple my brother, Avante, and there won’t be anywhere you can go.”

The Ranger met his gaze.  “You going to help me, Lancer, or are you going to sit there and make threats you can’t back up?”  He didn’t wait for an answer.  His fingers gouged into the wound and he could feel Johnny’s muscles tense and tremble. “Bite down,” he said.  “Bite down good and hard, Madrid.  You just keep thinking about how mad you are at me and how you’re gonna open that mouth of yours and tell me exactly what you think of me.”

Johnny was now struggling in earnest, as much as his weakened body would allow, and a strangled grunt brought Scott down close.

“Just a little longer, Johnny,” he urged.

“Enough.”  It was a strangled gasp around a mouthful of leather, but Scott could easily understand the single word, the helpless protest.

“Give him a minute,” he said.

Avante didn’t even look up.  “Give him a minute and he could bleed to death on us. You want that?”

“Why can’t he just pass out?”  Scott wasn’t aware of saying the words aloud.

Avante managed a grim smile.  “He’s too damned hard-headed.”

Scott ducked his head.  His eyes were stinging and he didn’t want to show any weakness to the man digging into his brother’s back.  “He can’t take much more.”

“He doesn’t have a choice.”  Avante actually managed a tense chuckle.  “He didn’t give up on you.  I had my hands full with him for a while there.”  He jerked as his fingernail scratched against something that didn’t belong lodged in the young gunfighter’s back.  “Hold on a minute.  I got it.”  He snatched up the knife again, inserted the glowing tip and flipped the bullet out.

Scott stared blankly at it.  Even after his years in the cavalry, it still amazed him that something so small could do so much damage, could actually steal away a man’s life. His brother’s life.  He was pulled out of his silence by a deep, heaving sigh of the body beneath his hands.

“It’s okay, Johnny,” he leaned in close and whispered, “it’s all over.  Sleep now.  I’m here.  I’m right here.”

 

Chapter 9

His eyes closed and for a fleeting second he wandered into sleep.  It only lasted a heartbeat before Scott shocked himself awake with a guilty start, tears still streaming unnoticed down his face.

His senses slowly returned, smell first.  Wet horses, steam still rising from their flanks.  The acrid stench of blood.  Mildew and moss and the fresh smell of rushing water.  His head throbbed with the pulse of a toothache, his shoulders ached with remembered strain, and the rain had finally stopped.

Color came last.  The sky had grayed out to evening, white light from the waning fire gradually took on yellow and red tones, and his hands . . . his hands were scarlet and brown with his brother’s drying blood.  So much blood.

He had no idea how or when he had changed position, but he had somehow shifted so that he was sitting flat on the wet ground.  Johnny still lay on his belly, his head cradled in Scott’s lap.  Avante, sweat streaking through his grim features, was packing something into the gory wound.  Whatever it was, it smelled horrible, and it must have hurt because Johnny suddenly twitched and his hand, still fisted into Scott’s coat tail, jerked and tightened.  Instinctively, Scott stroked a stained hand over Johnny’s cheek.  He murmured something, though he had no idea what he was saying or if his brother was even hearing him.

He wanted to ask Avante what he was packing the wound with, but it would have taken too much effort to string the words together.  Johnny startled again, and Scott hissed out a weary, “Shhhhhh . . .”

“Hurts . . .”

It was a bare whisper and Scott had to haul in the edges of his concentration to even understand the single word.  He pulled in some fading strength from somewhere.  “I know, Johnny,” he soothed, finding himself surprised to realize that he was actually angry that his brother was still fighting unconsciousness.  “It’s almost over.  Sleep, damn it, please . . . just sleep . . .”

Another gasp of air that told of effort and stubbornness . . . “Scott . . .”

“I’m here.”  It was getting bizarrely difficult to force words out past his lips.  Johnny’s body shivered uncontrollably in his lax hold.

“’s okay, Scott.”

“What?”  He leaned close, his cheek nearly touching Johnny’s flushed face.  He could feel the puff of air as Johnny forced out more words.

“Been shot . . .before . . .”

So now Johnny was trying to reassure him.  That was a bit ridiculous under the circumstances.  If he hadn’t been so exhausted, he would have laughed.

“. . . but . . . never had a . . . brother . . . to hold me . . . before . . . so, it’s . . . okay . . .”  Johnny finally sighed and went still, the shivering evening out, his breathing going soft and slowing.

Scott was glad that he was still cheek to cheek with his brother; that way Avante wouldn’t see the rush of tears that spilled over onto Johnny’s waxen face. 

* * * 

It was late afternoon, almost evening. The rain had stopped at some point but neither of them could have said when. They sat in silent exhaustion, two men stretched beyond the breaking point, too tired to do anything but lean back against the cold rock wall, close their eyes and let fatigue have its way.

Long minutes passed before Scott found the energy to speak. “Avante?”

“Yeah.”

“What next?”

“What do you mean?” The Ranger’s tone was almost flat. Scott opened his eyes and looked over at the man curiously, seeing for the first time how the seams of Avante’s weathered face had become deep creases and his cheeks wore a stubble of silver gray. Then he turned his gaze on Johnny, lying – so still – wrapped in blankets by the flickering fire.

“I mean my brother needs help, a lot more help than you or I can give him.” Scott inhaled deeply, tamping down the anxiety that ate at the edges of his thoughts. He closed his eyes again and unconsciously searched with his head for a more comfortable bit of rock.

“Meaning what?” came Avante’s wary reply.

“Meaning just what the hell is your game?” Scott said impatiently. Exhaustion, the dull pounding of constant headache, the agony of the past few hours. . . Suddenly he couldn’t control his anger and bitterness. “What kind of man are you? Did you dig that slug out of my brother’s back so you could watch him die on the trail?”

There was no reply. In the silence that followed, Scott took a tight rein on his emotions. He knew he had to be calm if he was to have any chance of persuading the Ranger of the plan he knew was Johnny’s only hope. Logic and reason has served him well commanding men on the battlefield; now he needed to call on those talents in another kind of war.

“Avante, you’ve got us traveling an impossible trail,” Scott began. He leaned forward, forearms resting on his drawn-up knees, and continued in a low voice. “If you insist on pushing on, you’ll kill Johnny. And I guarantee you I’ll make sure you spend the rest of your life living with the knowledge you killed an innocent man. You have to let me go for help.” He took a deep breath and continued. “You have to let me ride to Lancer for a wagon, men, more medical. . .”

“To Lancer?” Avante asked with surprise. Looking at Scott for the first time he raised a quizzical eyebrow.

“It’s the only solution,” confirmed Scott. “Stockton’s a two-day ride and a rain-swollen river away. You’ve been down there.” He jerked his chin in the direction of the river. “You know nobody’s going to be able to cross for days. The closest town on this side of the river is what, four days ride? Five?”

Avante nodded. “I figured four, pushing through. And Lancer?”

“Three or four, depending on the man and the horse.” Scott held up a hand to still what he assumed was a protest. “But that’s if you follow the trail. There’s a pass, up through the high country south of here. If a man could make it through there he could be at Lancer in two days, maybe less. He could send a wagon back here with help and medical supplies, even send word to the sheriff in Green River that you want his help.”

“And you’re thinking you’re gonna be that man?” the Ranger queried wryly. “You think I ought to let a man I’m holding in custody go gallivanting off without me?”

“Yes.”

“And you’re gonna leave your brother here in my care, leave him to be watched over by the lawman who’s sworn to see him hang.”

Scott hesitated slightly, then answered softly, “Yes.”

“All right,” Avante said, leaning back against the rock wall and tipping his hat over his eyes.

“Excuse me?” Disbelief turned Scott’s voice hoarse. The suddenness of the Ranger’s capitulation hit him like a blow to the stomach. He'd expected any answer except this and had carefully planned a campaign to win the lawman over to the reasonableness of his plan. The ease of victory made him suspect ambush.

“You heard me,” Avante retorted from beneath his hat. “Better wait until morning. Night’s comin’ on and maybe a night’s sleep will take care of that drum beatin’ in your head.”

Scott stared. He couldn’t think of anything to say; the lump growing in his throat would have made it tough to get words out anyway. He moved over to where Johnny lay wrapped in his cocoon of blankets, touched his hand to his brother’s cheek and then stretched out next to Johnny, giving in to the seduction of sleep.
 

* * *
 

When Scott awoke again it was dark and he could smell something cooking. The thought of food made his empty stomach cramp, and he sat up to find Avante squatting by the campfire, stirring a steaming pot.

“Cook gear was still tied to my saddle,” Avante answered Scott’s wondering look. “Looked for yours but couldn’t find anything.”

“I must have lost it in the river.” Scott nodded. “Johnny had the grub.”

“He didn’t,” the Ranger said. “Looked last night. Rabbit stew,” he added, watching bemusedly as Scott tried to sniff out the contents of his pot. “Or it would be in there was anything in there except rabbit and water. I got lucky while you were sleeping, before it got dark. The little guy just came calling.”

Scott smiled despite himself.

That smile gave Avante the opening he was looking for. He flashed his own crooked grin in return, catching Scott’s eyes and holding them until the young man looked away in confusion.

“Son,” Avante said softly, “I’m not interested in getting to the rights and the wrongs and the whys of all this right now. I agree with you the kid needs help. And you and I have to make some sorta separate peace, comprende?”

“Yes.”

“I just got one problem with your plan,” the Ranger answered, reaching behind him for a deep tin plate. Filling it with the watery broth and bits of grayish meat he passed the plate and a battered spoon over to Scott, who fell on it eagerly.

“I don’t think it’s smart to have me and your brother just sitting here waiting on you to send your father’s vaquerros back to help.” Avante made his voice as neutral as he could. Fishing a fork out of the cook gear at his feet, he reached into the stew and speared himself a chunk of meat.

“Johnny can’t travel,” Scott objected. “He can’t even sit up let alone stick to a saddle.”

“I know, I know,” Avante agreed. “But I can rig up a travois, like the Indians use. If I wait a day after you leave, and go slow, we can meet your hands on the trail and maybe save some time.”

“But . . .”

“Think on it, son,” the Ranger advised. “What if something were to happen to you in the high country or in that pass? How long would we be sitting here waiting for someone to show up? You’re right about the river. No one’s gonna be crossing it for days so it’s not likely your brother and me are going to have any company stopping by.”

There was silence as Scott considered what Avante suggested and knew the lawman was right. It made sense, although he hated to think of how hard the traveling would be on Johnny.

“Think we can wake up the kid and get some of this broth into him?” Avante’s question broke into Scott’s thoughts. “I don’t want to give him more than that. He’s not gonna be able to stomach much in the way of solid food, least of all some of my gachas.” The Ranger gave Scott another of his rare grins.
 

 

Chapter 10

He was swimming under water in a deep mountain lake and his lungs were bursting. He wanted to go back to the surface for air but he couldn’t tell which way was up and which down. It scared him; his heart was beating like hail on a cantina’s tin roof. Teresa swam by and told him to take off his boots or he’d drown. She looked so pretty, her long hair swirling in the water and framing her face. . .

Scott was calling his name but he couldn’t see him. Confusing. Someone touched his shoulder. But when he tried to turn to see who it was, his back exploded with pain. He heard a groan, knew it came from him.

“Scott?” His voice didn’t sound like his own.

“I’m here, brother.”

Johnny looked up into his brother’s worried eyes. In the meager light cast by the campfire Scott’s lean face appeared almost fleshless. There were deep hollows beneath the high cheekbones and his eyes were large in their sockets.

“Told ya.”

“Told me what?” Scott’s brow wrinkled.

“Told ya . . . we shoulda . . . stayed in a hotel.” Johnny attempted a grin, and almost made it. He saw some of the strain in his brother’s face ease as Scott shook his head in amusement.

“You never give up, do you?”

“Try. . .” In truth, Johnny was finding it was surprisingly difficult to talk. Sleep, or something like it, was what he craved. His eyelids seemed to have weights on them but Scott was talking to him, so he thought maybe he ought to listen. When Scott talked, he was worth listening to. Scott. His brother.  He felt himself fading.

“Johnny, you’ve got to stay awake.”

He could feel Scott cupping his chin, thumb and fingers on either side of his face giving his head a little shake . . .Goddamn it, that just gets me so riled . . .

With effort, Johnny opened his eyes again and heard his brother’s sigh of relief.

“You’ve got to try to stay awake,” Scott repeated.

“Can you raise him up a tad?” Johnny heard Avante’s voice and tried to focus on the tall form standing in the dark behind his brother. But now Scott was bending over him, gently lifting his head and shoulders into his own lap. Johnny got a glimpse of blue shirt and a mouthful of coat before the fresh wave of pain in his back and chest made his eyes water and blur. Enough, he thought exhaustedly. More than enough. Why couldn’t they just leave him alone?

“I know, Madrid,” the Ranger said, as if reading his thoughts. Avante was now squatting by his side. “Look, kid, we’re gonna give you something to fill that hole in your belly. Make you a little stronger.”

“Not hungry,” Johnny murmured. Turning aside, he didn’t catch the glance that passed between the two men.

“Johnny.” Scott’s tone was firm. “You’ve lost a lot of blood. You know what that means as well as I do.” Pausing, he took a deep breath, looked at Avante and then back at his brother. “Tomorrow morning I’m going for help – riding to Lancer. Don’t make me make that long ride for nothing.”

There was a silence while Johnny looked into Scott’s eyes, reading in their bottomless depths everything too difficult to say.

“Ranger Man,” Johnny said finally with a faint hint of his old insolence. “You gonna let my brother do that? Or are you going to shoot him in the back, too?”

“I’m gonna let him do that, Madrid,” came the cool, emotionless reply. “Now are you going to let your brother feed you some of this broth or do you want to waste what strength you have arguing.”

“You. . .you do the cooking, Boston?”

“Nope, you’re in luck,” Scott answered with forced cheerfulness, his heart aching at his brother’s attempt at their old banter. “You’re about to sample the Texas Rangers’ recipe for rabbit soup. With no rabbit.”

“Gachas,” Johnny pronounced with a weak stab at a grin.                        

Avante looked at Scott wryly. “Told you.” 

* * *

Scott rechecked the meager contents of his saddlebag and closed the flap with stiff fingers. It was too early for the sun to hold any warmth and the chill of the long night was still with him. He felt terrible, as bone-weary and achy as an old man. A hung-over old man, he ruefully amended: headache remained his companion. 

Joining Avante by the fire, Scott rubbed his hands together briskly then squatted beside his sleeping brother. Placing the back of his right hand against Johnny’s forehead, he felt for fever.

“Hasn’t changed from the last time you checked,” Avante drawled laconically as he stirred the heating soup. “This stuff is just about ready.”

Silently Scott held out a battered cup and let the Ranger fill it. Johnny was right, he thought. It was terrible. And it would be a long time before he’d be ready to face rabbit-anything again.

“I don’t think we’ll see any rain today,” Avante ventured into the silence. When there was no answer from Scott, he shook his head and asked softly, “What’s bothering you, son?”

“Nothing,” Scott said shortly. And everything, he thought. As he watched Johnny sleeping, he remembered the flash of fear he’d seen surface briefly in his brother’s eyes the night before as Scott talked about what the next few days would bring. It was only a flash, a glimpse of startlingly raw emotion. But it had made Scott trip over his words and look away. When he had the courage to look at Johnny again he found his brother’s eyes hooded and unfathomable.

It bothered Scott that he couldn’t put a name to Johnny’s fear, couldn’t do anything to put it to rest. He knew Johnny didn’t like the idea of being left on his own with Avante but somehow Scott knew that wasn’t the problem. Maybe part of it, but not all of it. The few comments Johnny had made as his voice faded, becoming barely audible, had more to do with Scott’s plan to try the high country pass.

Without thinking, Scott reached out and felt his brother’s forehead again. There was no other way; he had to ride ahead for help. But he was divided, hating the thought of leaving Johnny helpless and sick. He’d lost so much blood, the bullet had been in there so long, the conditions under which Avante had operated were so primitive. . . Scott’s stomach churned as he ran through his litany of fears.

Fear. Fear that his brother would die, that he would lose an extension of himself. Scott bit his lip. Was that what Johnny feared too? That something would happen to Scott and he would lose his brother?

“I better hit the trail.”

Avante heard the attempt at gruffness and gave him an assessing look. “Maybe you better help me get some of that broth into your brother first,” he suggested carefully.

Scott shook his head. He couldn’t speak. Then he muttered, “I need to go.”  Without a backward glance, he strode over to where his horse was tied and scooped up the reins. In one fluid movement he swung into the saddle and kneed the chestnut forward.

As he passed Avante he heard the Ranger call out, “Wait a minute, Lancer. Aren’t you forgetting something?”

Scott turned questioningly.

Avante walked over to his mare, rooted in his saddlebag and withdrew Scott’s gun.

“You might need this,” he said, handing it up. Then he casually turned his back on the astonished young man and went back to the campfire. “Vaya con Dios, Lancer.”
 

* * *

The river had risen dramatically overnight. Standing on the grassy bench that only two days ago provided safe haven, Avante found the muddy waters now scant inches from his feet. Just how high would the river get, he wondered, squinting upstream appraisingly. The sun would do as much damage as the relentless rain. Runoff from melting snow in the mountains already was overwhelming the narrow creeks emptying into the river.

Without thinking, Avante stooped down, picked up a broken branch and tossed it into the brown torrent. He watched for a moment as his small vessel bobbed and dipped before disappearing. Then he turned, gathered the butt ends of the three sturdy saplings he’d scrounged and began dragging them through the scrub back toward camp.

He dropped the saplings not far away, turned and saw that Johnny was awake and restlessly pulling at his blankets. Kneeling down, Avante put out a quieting hand.

“How’s the pain?”

Johnny looked steadily at him, his eyes dark and unreadable, before turning away.

“Lo siento,” Avante whispered softly.

Jerking his head weakly, Johnny turned his smoldering eyes back on the Ranger.

“Don’t,” he said hoarsely. Closing his eyes he swallowed deeply and tried again. “Don’t tell me you’re sorry, Ranger. . .I don’t want to hear it.”

“Madrid. . . “

“Not . . .in English. And ‘specially not in . . .Spanish.”

“All right,” Avante said brusquely, biting back the anger he felt at his own foolishness. What the hell had gotten into him, apologizing to a gunslinger. He forced his voice to be matter of fact.

“You don’t have much of a fever but I expect that to change by this afternoon. Meanwhile, you need to take in some more of that broth.”

“How long. . .has Scott been gone?” Johnny asked, as if Avante hadn’t even spoken.

“Five hours, thereabouts.”

“And you just . . . let him go. . .”

“We settled that last night, Madrid.” The Ranger’s tone was curt. “Your brother insisted and I agreed. He’s right. No matter what you think, I’m not enjoying this and I got no intention of sitting here and watching you die.”

“No,” Johnny rasped, struggling to roll away even as Avante restrained his shoulders. “Instead you let an unarmed man ride . . .”

“I gave him his gun.”

All at once Johnny was still, his momentary show of strength flowing out of his body like sand. As Avante watched he could see the battle being waged as the injured man fought back unconsciousness and won. The Ranger shook his head.  Stubborn son-of-a bitch, he thought again.

“You gonna listen to me now, kid?”

There was no reply, just that familiar mute look of suppressed anger. And something else which at first Avante had difficulty identifying and then realized, with shock, could only be fear. What was Johnny Madrid afraid of? Avante asked himself as he studied the strained face before him. Death? No, the gunslinger had faced that demon ever since he drew on his first man. Then Avante knew. It was not the spectre of his own death which haunted Johnny but his brother’s. Avante now had the leverage he needed.

“Madrid, your brother is out there risking his life to save yours,” he said mildly. “Seems to me you owe him a debt and you can start payin’ right now by letting me help you.”

Again, there was no answer. But Avante thought he detected the faintest release of tension.

“You gonna let me give you some of this broth?” he questioned and was surprised when Johnny’s pale cheeks colored and the young man looked away. Perplexed, the Ranger considered for a moment. Then he understood.

“Well, we might as well deal with this right now,” Avante said, not unkindly. He slid his arms beneath Johnny, scooping him up as if he were a child, ignoring the startled groan the movement provoked.  It was going to hurt no matter how gentle he was, so he figured he might just as well get the task done as quickly as possible. “You know and I know I’m the last person you want helpin’ you answer Mother Nature but the way I see it you don’t have much choice.” Straightening, the Ranger shifted Johnny’s weight then made his way to a large boulder on the edge of the make-shift camp. Gently, he lowered Johnny’s legs to the ground and half held, half propped him against the waist-high rock.

“Can you manage the buttons?”

A nod.

“All right.” Keeping a steadying arm under Johnny’s shoulders, Avante turned his head and began to talk about the design of the travois he planned to build and how he’d rig it to Barranca. It was prattle and both men knew it, Johnny grateful despite his anger.

“Done?”

 Another nod.

“Let’s get you back in bed. Or,” the Ranger amended, hearing the faint snort, “what passes for bed right now.”

Settling Johnny back in his blankets, the Ranger took a quick look at the rough bandage covering the still-open incision. He couldn’t see any signs of new bleeding; the bloodstains were all rust-colored and dried.

“Let’s change this later,” he said, “after you get something in your belly.” He poked at the embers of the campfire and set the blackened soup pot among them.

“Avante?” Johnny’s voice was so exhausted the Ranger had to bend close to hear him.

“What, kid?”

“Gracias.”

* * *
 

The long days of rain had dug deep, eroded gullies into the flanks of the foothills and washed out long sections of the trail leading into the high country. Early on, Scott found the trail to be faint at best and more than once he had been forced to dismount and backtrack on foot to discover a change in direction.

With worry the spur that goaded him on, he found it difficult to rein in his impatience and concentrate on following what was only a vague mental map. He hadn’t been really truthful with Avante. Or maybe forthcoming was the proper word. He’d given the Ranger the impression he had traveled this trail before. He hadn’t.

What information he had was what he’d heard from Cipriano, the source of so much of what he had learned about Lancer. The old segundo knew and loved the land with a passion Scott saw nearly matched Murdoch’s. And he loved telling stories that not only spoke of the land’s history but linked it to the peoples who walked it.

As he slowly picked his way through the scrub, the faint mid-morning sun warming his back, Scott thought of the day Cipriano told him about the pass. They’d been stringing wire in the Green Meadow section, wrestling with rotting fence posts and rocky, unyielding ground.

Suddenly, there had been a storm of angry Spanish as Emilio, the hand manning the post digger, threw down the heavy iron rod he was using to loosen the soil and stormed over to the buckboard to grab a canteen. As he stood there sputtering, Cipriano laughed heartily and called out, “Mind your manners, young one. If you speak English you will not be as embarrassed to visit the padre on Sunday.” The warning evidently tickled the younger man and he broke into a smile.

“What’s going on?” Scott had asked curiously. His Spanish was not yet up to following conversations, especially if they were long, or angry, or even joking. But the laughter and the sense of companionship had been contagious. Remembering it Scott even now found a smile playing at his lips.

“Ah, Señor Scott,” grinned Cipriano. “Emlio is angry at the rocks and the hard clay which are making it so hard to dig these new holes.”

“And that’s what’s funny?”

“No, Emilio said something very rude. He made a comparison, which is perhaps a good one but not something he should say in front of a patrone.” Cipriano’s eyes twinkled. Seeing Scott’s incomprehension, he asked, “Do you know the Spanish name for what your father calls the ‘Stockton Pass’?”

Scott shook his head. “Tell me.”

“No,” Cipriano smiled, “I will let Señor Murdoch do that. But I will tell you that the name describes a lady of many charms who teases men and then denies them.” The old vaquero’s eyebrows gave a wag. “Comprende?”

“Si.” Scott had laughed ruefully, knowing full well what was meant. “There was a name we used for such ‘ladies’ back in Boston, too.”

The trail was a tease, Scott thought as kept his eyes trained on the uneven ground. But Cipriano had been specific about landmarks; at Scott’s urging he’d described them with detail and not a little color. Scott had been intrigued by the segundo’s suggestion the trail might have been used by the country’s first peoples long before the Spanish arrived with their horses and guns and sickness. Perhaps, he’d thought then, he could persuade Johnny to go exploring with him someday.

Johnny.

He felt a chill the sun couldn’t warm and tried to push away the memory of his brother lying motionless by the morning’s campfire. How hard it had been to turn his back and ride out. How necessary.

“God damn it all to hell.” The words erupted unbidden from nowhere, but Scott was surprised at how good they made him feel. He added a few more, some especially choice ones from his cavalry days, and felt even better.

 

Chapter 11

He felt like a kid skipping rocks over still water. Only the water was anything but still and he hadn’t been a kid in a long, long time, and right now he felt the burden of every one of those years. Without his brother there to act as buffer, Johnny had been a handful. Not all his fault, Avante berated himself. The fever kept spiking and it had been a wearing night of sweats and delirium and no sleep for either of them.

Madrid, when rational, had cursed him both in Spanish and English. But it all boiled down to one thing. The kid was worried about his brother, and that fear and anger had focused on the only logical choice -- Avante. That was okay, he’d certainly been cursed before and he sloughed it off easily. What wasn’t so easy to shake off was the nagging guilt that he was wrong, wrong about all of it. And Jason Avante wasn’t a man used to making mistakes or letting his heart rule his head. He resented the uncertainty and he resented the boy who kept reminding him of it.

Early that morning he’d managed to find a stand of cottonwoods that had been dismembered by the storm, plenty for a cook fire and to assemble the rest of the travois. Cottonwood burned poorly, but it was what was available and he wasn’t turning down any free firewood.  Now the only question was whether Madrid would be able to make the trip in a rig that was sure to hit every rock, every dip, every piece of uneven ground. There was nothing to help with the pain, either. Well, he decided, picking through river-smoothed stones, they were about to see just how tough Johnny Madrid was. His arsenal collected, he hefted a couple of stones and went in search of unwary quail.

He found three in short order. It was almost sad to bash in the heads of the unsuspecting birds; they showed nothing but curiosity until rock met skull. A well-aimed rock was much better than the .45 at his hip . . . that is, if they wanted to eat more than feathers. Still tired and stiff, he headed back to their makeshift camp.

Madrid was awake, a little scared looking, maybe, at waking up alone. Avante noticed the unconscious grab at his right hip, fingers seeking the gun that wasn’t there. The kid recovered quickly, though, his face going blank and expressionless.

“You look cold,” Johnny said flatly.

“Well, you’re hoggin’ all the blankets,” Avante answered wryly, and was pleased to see a weary grin in response.

But Madrid was obviously exhausted, his face that odd mix of fever flush and pallor. Although he was fighting to hold onto consciousness as Avante started stripping feathers and boiling water, he drifted. An hour and a half later, Avante woke him with a hand on his face, surreptitiously checking for fever at the same time.

"Come on," Avante said, "try some of this. It ain’t much more than the rabbit was, but it’s hot and it’ll make you stronger."

"I don’t mean to be beholden to you." Another odd statement. This boy was full of them.

"Don’t you think it’s a little late for that, boy? I mean, who do you think took that slug out of you?"

"I didn’t ask you to."

"Your brother did. You not willing to honor your brother’s wishes?"

"Yeah, well, I know who put it there in the first place."

"Well, there is that," Avante said thoughtfully. "So, since the stew’s not any better than the rabbit anyway, and my puttin’ the bullet in kinda balances out my takin’ it out, I figure you can eat this broth without owing me any life debt."

Johnny watched the sky and considered; he knew he was being contrary out of pure cussedness. And because he felt so goddamned helpless. He hated to be at this man’s mercy, hated being so dependent on him. He wasn’t a very good patient at the best of times, and this sure wasn’t the best of times. But Johnny knew Avante was right; he had to eat something. And hunger was finally kicking in.

Awkwardly, Johnny rolled to his side and with a sharp intake of breath struggled up on one elbow. Avante reached out a hand as if to help but withdrew it as Johnny shot him a dark look and said, “I can do it.” Silently, Avante handed him the steaming cup and watched as Johnny tested the lukewarm broth. There were beads of perspiration on his forehead and the hand raising the cup to his mouth trembled slightly, but he managed to finish the full cup of broth.

Avante considered offering another but had no desire to be on clean-up detail if it proved too much of a good thing. Instead, he picked at a piece of quail and gave into curiosity. "Usted mató a muchos hombres, chico?"

At first he thought Johnny wasn’t going to answer. For a time the silence between the two men hung heavily in the air. Then Johnny inhaled deeply, as if releasing some inner tension, and looked at Avante. "A few," he agreed amiably, setting the cup down beside him, but remaining propped on one elbow. "I’ve killed a few."

"You’re still just a kid, Madrid. Hard to believe you already killed as many men as that report read. Got any regrets?”

"Some," Johnny said after a moment’s hesitation. "You?"

"Some."

Johnny shifted unsteadily, wincing with the effort at movement and sagged back down into the blankets. His head seemed clear; to Avante he appeared to be making a lot more sense than he had during the night, maybe even gathering back some strength. Well, the fever would probably hit later and that strength would vanish as quickly as it had come.

Now Johnny was looking sideways at him, his gaze disturbingly assessing. "You know, you’re a fraud."

That wasn’t what he expected either. "And why’s that?" He covered his surprise at the offhand statement by pouring himself some more of the pallid coffee.

"Texas Rangers were disbanded."

Avante took a sip of the weak brew. It didn’t even taste like coffee. He swore he would pack his saddlebags full of the stuff so he didn’t have to skimp on strength again. "Ah. Well, that’s not exactly true.”

“Not what I heard,” Johnny said intently. "Los diablos Tejanos, those murdering bastards that’d as soon kill a Mexican as look at ‘em, they had their day."

“Naw, Madrid,” Avante stood and stretched casually. “The politicians, they use us or abuse us. Need us or don’t. Depends on who’s holding the reins and who ain’t. But we’re always there, one way or another. And as for the ‘Texas Devils’, you’re talking history, boy, when us and Mexico were fightin’ for the same bit of land.”

“Yeah? Well, I hear that instead of Rangers, Texas got itself a fancy force of crooks callin’ themselves ‘State Police.’” Johnny’s fingers played with the edges of the blanket as he watched Avante carefully.

“You think I’m one of those, boy?” Avante asked, unintentionally letting a measure of anger seep into his voice.

“Aren’t you?”

Avante swore. “Corrupt bastards,” he said. “No, boy, I’m a Ranger. Don’t make no difference what you call me, that’s what I am. The honchos got a new name for us – Frontier Ranger Scouts.”

"Pretty fancy."

"Yeah, it does have a ring to it, don’t it. Hell, it’s just another name for the same thing. One way or another, Texas’ll always have Rangers."

Johnny was fading fast and his eyes shut before his mouth... “Well, well, ain’t Texas lucky.”

* * *

As the day progressed, the trail became steeper and rockier and more twisting. It was easier to follow but harder to ride. Runoff from the slopes above had carved channels in the narrow path and Scott’s horse stumbled and slid, shod hooves scraping on rock as they climbed.

No longer a stranger, the sun beat down intensely. Patches of wet appeared on the gelding’s neck and Scott could feel his own sweat running in rivulets down his back. Without a hat, his head was taking the full brunt of the sun’s heat: the pounding was becoming relentless. His clothes felt stiff and rough, as if they had just come off Teresa’s clothesline.

Feeling utterly drained and miserable he still was unwilling to stop for even the briefest rest. The trail ahead was, at the moment, unmistakable. They could go up. Or they could go down. For a few minutes he could let the horse pick the way while he practiced a long unused talent. Locking both hands around his saddle horn, he settled back and closed his eyes. I must look like the greenest, most timid Eastern tenderfoot imaginable, he thought ruefully as he relaxed into the rhythm of the horse’s stride.

What seemed like only seconds later Scott felt the chestnut come to an abrupt halt. Reluctantly opening his eyes, the exhausted man realized he’d slept much longer than he’d intended. It was late afternoon. Although there was still plenty of light, the sun was all but hidden by the mountains above. As he tried to get his bearings, he became aware of the sound of rushing water, an ominous roar that made his stomach twist.

Kneeing the now-skittish horse forward, Scott found himself unconsciously holding his breath. The trail ahead was a narrow passage between two rock outcroppings; he had to quickly slide his legs forward high on his horse’s shoulders to avoid getting rubbed off. Another twist, a turn and the trail disappeared into the angry torrent of a mountain stream swollen with runoff. Scott’s heart sank.

This time the obscenities that came to mind brought no relief. The violence of the white water as it crashed and tumbled against rock was numbing. A change in wind sent the spray Scott’s way and he shivered, chilled by its cold touch and by the thought he might have hit the end of the trail.

He dismounted stiffly and with shaky legs led the hesitant gelding closer to the water’s edge. The horse picked his way carefully, head low, blowing air out of his nostrils in suspicion. Thirsty, he extended his velvety muzzle toward the water then snorted and drew back quickly. Scott watched absently, considering his next course of action.

If he was going to go on, the stream had to be crossed. There was no way to ride around it, nor any way to follow its course and look for a better crossing. And he was going to go on. There was no question about that.

Suddenly hungry and grateful for any delay in making a decision, Scott felt in his pocket for the piece of jerky Avante had handed him that morning. “Been in the bottom of my saddlebag a while,” the Ranger had said wryly. “But it’ll put something in your belly.” Now, with hunger rumbling in his gut, Scott found the scrap no more appetizing than he had earlier. White with age and stiff as shoe leather, the jerky was covered with light brown flakes that looked a lot like tobacco crumbs. He popped it in his mouth and started to chew.

The stream wasn’t all that wide, he reasoned, taking a closer look. Five feet or maybe six at most. About the width of the water obstacles cavalry horses were trained over. Ignoring the nagging voice reminding him the water in those training obstacles had been still, the approaches smoothly raked and prepared, Scott stuck his foot in his stirrup, turned his toe in toward the cinch and pulled himself back into the saddle.

Using his hands, his legs and his voice, he gently urged the chestnut closer to the water. When the horse backed up nervously, Scott responded firmly with his legs, increasing the pressure and all the while talking reassuringly, his voice just loud enough to be heard above the sound of the water.

After a few minutes, the gelding seemed to relax. Scott patted his neck and let him stand quietly before reining back toward the trail downward. Just before the narrow rock passage they’d squeezed through before, Scott drew up. Neck-reining to the right and using his boot heel to apply pressure to the horse’s right flank just behind the cinch, he eased the gelding into a parade-ground-perfect turn on the forehand. Then he clucked the horse forward to the water again.

Advance and retreat. The process was methodically repeated several more times. Then after a final retreat, a final turn, Scott dug his heels into the gelding’s flanks, leaned forward in his saddle and urged the horse full-tilt toward the torrent. The startled horse faltered slightly at water’s edge then, bunching his hindquarters under him, took off. Scott grabbed wildly at his saddle-horn as the horse’s jerky take-off threatened to catapult him from the saddle.

The landing was inelegant. The gelding scrambled on slippery rock as he felt his hindquarters slide back toward the water. Scott found himself thrown up on the horse’s neck, one stirrup lost, a rein dangling. But they’d made it. Scott righted himself as the chestnut trotted nervously away from the water, head held high, following the trail upward.

 

Chapter 12

Scott turned up his collar, slipped his hands into his coat up under his armpits and leaned wearily against his dozing mount. With the darkness had come the cold, the sharp, crisp cold of a mountain night. Hatless and with only his thin coat for protection, he felt the chill begin to take hold.

Darkness had brought a halt to travel; the trail was just too treacherous to navigate by guesswork. But in the clear night sky the stars were starting to come out and a sliver of light heralded the arrival of the moon. A full moon, Scott figured, or near enough. When it rose, he’d push on. Until then he’d wait here, in the relative safety of the narrow passageway between two rock outcroppings.

The last stretch of trail they’d traveled had been tough. An old slide, its steep slope formed by loose shale, had forced Scott to dismount. In mid-crossing the gelding had panicked, frightened by the uncertain footing and the small avalanches of pebbly stone set off by each footstep. Floundering, he slid onto his haunches, regained his feet and then lunged forward, knocking down Scott in the process.

   With great awkward bounds, as if fighting quicksand, the horse had fled to the open, meadow-like patch which lay beyond the slide. Once there, he broke into a trot, his exaggerated, extended movements and flaring nostrils signaling distress. Then to Scott’s astonishment -- and relief -- the horse stopped, snorted and put down his head to graze.

     Ruefully, Scott stood up and slid his way across the rest of the slope. "Easy, boy," he soothed as he approached the chestnut slowly. With no reason to feel alarm,t he horse allowed himself to be caught and mounted. Maybe he should get Johnny to teach him that whistling trick he used on Barranca.

    Nightfall had found them twisting through another long section of narrow rock passages. Scott dismounted, leading his horse and feeling his way for as long as he could. But after a misstep sent him to the ground, clutching at the sharp wringing pain of a wrenched ankle, he knew he had to stop.

    Now as he waited in the cold for the moon that would light his way, Scott knew he’d been lucky. The ankle was sore but not sprained, not broken. It complained when he stamped his feet to keep his circulation going. But complaints he could handle. It was the waiting that was growing hard.

    While he had been wrestling with the challenges of the climb, Scott had been able to push thoughts of his brother to the back of his mind. It was something he’d learned to do during the war, when the unbearable had, somehow, to be borne. Standing around waiting gave him too much time to think, and he ran through his litany of fears again

    Could he trust Avante? Well, he had. There’d been no choice. He’d had to trust the Ranger with Johnny’s life. Trust that the man would do everything necessary to keep Johnny alive.

Johnny.

  His brother.

The shudder that rippled through Scott’s body had nothing to do with the cold. It was fear and anguish, which held his heart in an icy grip. He’d gone most of his life without feeling close to anything or anyone. Grandfather was different, a man he’d grown up respecting, and obeying, but from whom he’d always felt emotionally distanced. And none of his numerous dalliances either before or after the war had stirred in him anything but amusement. He had broken heart but never given his away.

Now there was someone with whom he felt such a strong tie, such deep friendship, such gut-wrenching love, that at times he felt frighteningly vulnerable. It was if his skin had been peeled back, leaving the raw nerve endings exposed. They were so very different, he and Johnny. But sometimes he felt as if his brother’s soul had been grafted onto his own. Johnny had woken something in him that he hadn’t even realized was there.

"Men don’t embrace one another," Harlan had sternly told his five-year-old grandson when Scott, excited and moved by his grandfather’s return after a long journey, had reached out his arms in greeting. "Men don’t weep," he’d rebuke the boy when his favorite spaniel died.

Johnny wouldn’t allow that kind of distance between them. With Johnny he’d hugged and been hugged. And he had wept. And wrestled in boyish horseplay. He had lost his temper, and laughed until his stomach muscles ached. He had given loyalty, and received it in return. From a man who too often was forced to fight the demons of his past, Scott had found hope for his own future. If
someday the woman with whom he shared his life and his dreams thought him a loving husband, a caring father, he knew the credit should go to his brother. Johnny had taught him how to care.

And a damn bit too successfully, Scott thought miserably, shifting position again. Images of the previous day’s horrors kept flashing to mind. Johnny in pain. Avante probing, probing . . . And the blood. . .

Scott shook his head. Once more his brother’s past was wrapping its tentacles around Johnny Lancer and dragging him back into the dark realms of Johnny Madrid’s world. The legend refused to die. No matter how much time passed, no matter how much Johnny tried, the legend had taken on a life of its own. And, Scott was learning, there were people who found it useful to keep it alive. Who had spun a tale about Johnny Madrid to Jason Avante, Scott wondered. And why?

As one part of his mind focused on that question, the other began a silent refrain. It wasn’t a prayer really; Scott would have scoffed at the thought for the war had destroyed most of his belief in organized faith. No, it was more what his Religion professor at Harvard would have labeled a mantra:

Please, God, take care of Johnny. Please, God. Please, God. Please. Please. Please. Please. . .

* * *

Avante poked at the small fire. Beside him, the remains of the quail sat in a battered, blackened pot, congealing in its own grease. It had been a long hot day and he was tired. Too tired to face dealing with that mess. He was tempted to toss the pot right into the river but knew that would be just plain foolish. When the fire got hot enough and the grease melted, he’d dump the grease and bones into the fire then clean the pot with pebbles and hot water. It was the trail routine he always followed. He set the pot back on the fire.

He’d spent the day alternating between struggling to put together the travois and watching over Madrid. Both had proved more troublesome than he’d expected. Simple as the design of the primitive carrier was, he hadn’t been able to get it quite right. He didn’t trust it to hold a man’s weight or to hold together through the scrub they’d have to travel through to get back on the trail.

Numbly, he looked at the sky. The stars were out and the moon was rising. It was getting late but tired as he was he wasn’t in a hurry to turn in. With one blanket already attached to the half-finished travois, the other, along with both saddle pads wrapped around Madrid, it was going to be a long cold night. He knew his bones were going to protest both the unyielding ground and the
night chill.

Can’t be helped, he thought as he cleaned the pot and set it beside the fire. He stretched out and laid his head on the relative comfort of his saddle. The cold and exposure could take Madrid as surely as the fever that made its reappearance late that afternoon.

"Nuestro padre que arte en el cielo, santificó es el nombre tu..."

Startled, Avante started to get wearily to his feet when he made out the words of the old prayer. The kid probably didn’t even know he was talking out loud; he was too wrapped up in fever and pain and a worry he couldn’t hide. He smiled at a gentle nudge of surprise. Who’d have thought it, he mused, Johnny Madrid, a good Catholic boy, resorting unconsciously to prayer. Well, seemed natural. The kid had been raised by a Mexican mother in border towns. He wondered as he was fading into sleep at last himself, if there was a patron saint of brothers.

* * *

The chestnut gelding ducked his shoulder and shied once again, snorting at the moon shadow blackening the already dark trail. Scott grabbed for the saddle-horn even as he reined in sharply. Damn horse is going to get me yet, he thought wearily. The night was becoming one long battle between skittish horse and determined rider. Every moonlit rock outcropping, every odd shadow sparked a skirmish. It was taking all of Scott’s expertise and too much of his energy to force the gelding on.

Scott angrily dug his heels into the horse’s flanks and snapped the ends of his reins across the chestnut’s shoulders. Silently he forced his will on the animal, knowing the chestnut, like all horses, was acutely sensitive to the moods of man. The horse had heart; he’d proved it just that afternoon. But his reaction to dark and the dangers it hid was primitively ancestral; his instinct was to flee.

Snorting nervously the horse danced a detour around the shadow, curving his body away from the danger. Scott tightened his reins as he felt the animal’s hindquarters bunch, ready to run, and put a soothing hand on the chestnut’s neck. Once back in the moonlight, Scott dismounted. His point had been made but it was time to capitulate. They would both walk from now on.

Later he would remember little of the torturously long hours that followed. Numbed by exhaustion and the increasing cold, he concentrated only on the immediate, urgent need to keep moving. That urgency drove him when his thigh muscles shook after climbing a steep grade, when he stumbled into an unseen hole and fell heavily, when the chestnut, shying yet again, spun and slammed him
violently to the rocky ground.

He had struck the point of his elbow as he fell that time, and the sharp flash of intense agony made him afraid for a minute the elbow had been broken. Head bowed, he sat cradling his arm and rocking away the pain. For the first time, he wanted to weep with frustration. But as the pain faded he staggered to his feet, gathered the reins and walked on.

* * *

Avante spent the morning readying for the trail. He cleaned the pot and cups and plates as well as the circumstances would allow, forced some more broth down an increasingly unresponsive patient, and went back to work on constructing the travois. The saplings were waterlogged and hard to shape and cutting up a sodden lariat to use to finish lashing the carrier together had left his hands raw and sore. His gloves had vanished somewhere in the rushing water and he found he really missed them.

Then more time caring for the horses, the most important task he had assigned himself that day. If they lost either mount, their odds would drop perilously and Madrid’s palomino seemed to be as hard-headed as his rider. He was pretty and purebred and high-stepping but Avante figured he would be a handful for a stranger rider. So fancy breeding notwithstanding, the gelding was going to find himself turned into an Indian pony for at least the next few days.

Madrid had spent the previous night virtually in a coma. Then, in the morning he wavered in and out of feeling stronger and restless, then losing it all in the next round of rib-shattering coughing.

It was midday before the travois was finished, the branches reinforced and one blanket stretched over and lashed with a cut-up lariat from Madrid’s saddle. The palomino was leery of the contraption and gave Avante some trouble as he tried to maneuver the crossed poles into place over the horse’s broad back. If the horse didn’t settle down, Madrid was going to have one rough ride. He finally got things situated and their small amount of gear stowed.

One last cup of watered-down coffee and he decided it was time to head out in spite of the rising heat. The idea of sitting around waiting for rescue wasn’t an acceptable one. It would be just as hot here, and the sooner they hit the trail, the sooner the young gunfighter would have a chance to survive. One thing they had plenty of was water; wet bandanas would do some good toward keeping Johnny from too much exposure.

Besides, there was no guarantee Scott was going to return. It had nothing to do with thinking the older Lancer would abandon his brother. By now, Avante had given up on that idea altogether. These two were close, much closer than he and Chris had ever been. He found that he resented that too.

He took a handful of the comfrey paste from the cooling pan and headed for his sleeping prisoner. It took a couple of good shakes to wake Madrid. "Roll over."

Instant suspicion. "Why?"

"You want to get better?" He managed to stare Johnny down, then regretted the blatant power play and asked, "Hurting?"

Johnny started to open his mouth, obviously thought better of it and bit his lip.

Avante chuckled and shook his head, "You are one stubborn little shit. C’mon let’s get you turned so I can put some of this stuff on that wound."

Johnny managed a glance at Avante’s handful of white paste, but was sidetracked by the agony of changing position as the Ranger forced him over onto his stomach. For a good five minutes, questions were out of his reach. By the time his entire body stopped twanging pain, Avante had the bandage removed and was pressing the glop into the wound.

Replacing the soiled bandage, Avante eased him over again and ran a hand across his forehead. The fever was on another spike.

"Can’t be helped," Johnny said softly.

Avante agreed. "Yeah, but it could be a problem on the trail."

Johnny laughed weakly. "Hell, Ranger Man, I’m liable to be your problem on the trail."

* * *

Murdoch Lancer would never forget the sight of his first born son riding into the stable yard that brilliant sunlit afternoon. At first he hadn’t noticed the rider approaching so slowly. Working with Jelly to replace an old outdoor hand pump, his attention was focused on trying to pry loose the rusted bolts holding the pump to its rough-hewn washstand. He didn’t look up until he heard Jelly’s urgent, "Boss!"

"Heh?"

"Look!" Jelly jerked his chin as he stared wide-eyed over Murdoch’s shoulder.

Turning swiftly, Murdoch stared toward the far end of the yard to see an exhausted chestnut horse approaching at a plodding walk, head bobbing low with each stride it took, its flanks white with dried sweat. The man listing in the saddle appeared to be lashed in place at the waist, so acute was the angle of his body with its lolling head and ragdoll limbs that Murdoch could account for his defiance of gravity in no other way.

"Scott!" With an anguished, strangled cry of recognition, Murdoch dropped his tools and ran toward the horse and rider. "Jelly! Quick! Help me get him down."

With trembling hands Murdoch fumbled at the strange mixture of leather and cloth Scott had used to tether himself to his saddle horn. Desperation made him clumsy but he was aware of Jelly calmly working on the offside of the horse, sawing through layers of cloth with his pocketknife. When the last bit of cloth gave way, Murdoch caught Scott’s unconscious weight as his body slipped out of the saddle.

"Let’s get him in the house, Boss." Jelly placed his hand gently on Murdoch’s arm, leaving unasked the question both men dreaded having answered: where was Johnny?

 

Chapter 13

"That boy looks like he’s bin to hell and back," Jelly muttered as he stood by Teresa’s elbow holding a basin of warm water. "I think we kin jus’ thank our lucky stars that he ain’t got no bullet holes in him and nothin’ seems to be broke."

"What could have happened, Murdoch?" asked Teresa as she dipped her cloth in the water and wrung out the excess. Her eyes filling with tears, she bit her lip as she glanced across to where her guardian sat silently on the opposite side of the bed. His face was set in those hard lines she recognized all too well; he was trying to hide his emotions. Without thinking, she darted her small hand over to cover his large rough one before returning to her task. Gently, she wiped at the scratches that covered Scott’s cheeks and hands, cleaning away the accumulation of dirt and dried blood.

Oblivious to everyone around him, Murdoch could not take his eyes off his unconscious son. Fear had constricted his heart while he and Jelly carefully examined Scott for injury. And that fear had only slightly lessened when they’d determined that aside from cuts and bruises and a nasty lump on his head, Scott seemed relatively unscathed by whatever ordeal he’d been through. That it had been an ordeal, Murdoch did not question.

His son was gaunt, exhausted, filthy . . . and alone.

Where was Johnny? The question struck at Murdoch’s heart like a hammer striking a smithy’s anvil. He knew the boys had planned to travel together. The cattle sale money was too tempting a target for any down-on-his-luck saddletramp who just might happen to catch wind of it. Is that what happened? Murdoch wondered. Had someone gotten the jump on Scott and Johnny, robbing them and . . .

"Señor Murdoch?" At the door to Scott’s room, Cipriano paused inquiringly, looking at the silent man sitting watch.

Murdoch roused himself. "Si?" he answered without moving his eyes from Scott.

"Ramon has seen to the horse," the old segundo said softly. "When he was removing the saddle, something dropped from the saddlebag. I think you should see it, señor."

At last Murdoch looked up and saw in Cipriano’s outstretched hand a battered, tooled-leather document folder. It was the folder he’d handed to his sons before they left. Tucked in it had been the various papers and documents they’d need to conduct business at the end of the drive.

"And I bet you want us to bring it back to you full of money?" Johnny had quipped with a smile.

"Of course, I’m counting on you – but of course I’ll be counting it, too," Murdoch had retorted in mock warning and had enjoyed the laughter that followed.

Wordlessly, he rose from the bed and took the folder. Opening it he saw currency bills tied in neat bundles inside. Cash on the barrelhead had been the agreement with the buyer, a man who distrusted banks and bank drafts.

"So they wasn’t robbed?" Jelly asked wonderingly.

"No, apparently not," Murdoch answered absently, lost in thought. "Cipriano . . ."

"Si, señor." The segundo nodded. "The horses will be ready. As will I, myself."

Startled, Murdoch jerked his head up and met the penetrating gaze of his old friend.

"We will find him," Cipriano said, a quick smile flashing under his huge gray mustache. "Miss Teresa," he turned to the young woman who sat with a hand gently resting on Scott’s forearm. "I think perhaps you should start baking so you will be ready when we return. It is always wise to have many sweet things on hand for a brother who has been on a journey."

"Yes, you’re right, Cipriano." Teresa smiled through sudden tears. "I wouldn’t want to disappoint Johnny."

"I guess I better see about puttin’ some grub together for the trail," Jelly said, setting the basin on the table by the bed. He patted Teresa on the arm. "You jus’ sit here and keep an eye on him, missy, and call me if you need anything."

"There are a number of the men who would like to ride with us, Señor." Cipriano looked questioningly at Murdoch.

"I’ll leave it to you, old friend."

"Murdoch!" The urgency in Teresa’s voice made Murdoch whirl around. Scott was stirring restlessly, plucking at the sheets and turning his head from side to side. Cipriano hesitated, hovering at the foot of the bed while Murdoch moved swiftly to his son, bending low to speak softly into Scott’s ear. Teresa tried to soothe away the young man’s unease with her touch.

"Scott, it’s all right, son. You’re at home. Safe."

But instead of quieting, Scott struggled more. Murdoch could see his son fighting to regain consciousness and was torn between wanting Scott to wake and wanting him to rest and recoup his strength. Then he saw his son’s eyes flick open and he knew Scott’s will had won out. He was awake.

As awareness flooded back, Scott saw his father by his bedside and reached out in shaky panic. "Murdoch," he rasped, bunching the older man’s sleeve into a weak fist. "We’ve got to ride out. Now!"

"Whoa, son." Murdoch sat down on the bed and gently disengaged Scott’s grip, taking his hand in his own. "What you need . . . "

"What I need is for you to listen to me, sir," Scott said in frustration. He looked at his father intently and their eyes locked.

"Scott," Teresa tried to intervene. "You’re not well. . ." He looked at her briefly, almost unseeingly and turned back to his father.

"There’s been a . . . there’s been an accident," Scott began, ignoring Teresa’s swift intake of breath. "Johnny’s pretty badly hurt."

"Where. . .?" Murdoch spoke with icy calm.

"Somewhere on the Stockton trail, this side of the river," Scott answered. "I’m not sure exactly. He’s, he’s not alone," he added hastily. "There’s a man with him. Avante. A Ranger, from Texas."

"Los diablos Tejanos!" Cipriano spat angrily. "Pueda ellos se pudren en. . . Yo, yo soy Señorita Teresa arrepentido y." He flushed under his tan. Teresa looked at him with wide eyes and hid a nervous giggle behind her hand.

Murdoch shot Cipriano a dark look and turned back to his son. "A Ranger? Are you sure, Scott?" he began doubtfully, then shook his head. "Never mind. How many days’ ride?"

"I think at least three, Murdoch," Scott answered, rubbing his eyes tiredly. "They were going to start the day after I left. Avante was building a travois . . .”

"A travois?" Teresa’s voice was shrill with alarm.

Scott turned to his adoptive sister, his eyes compassionate in spite of his own exhaustion. "Johnny took a bullet in the back, Teresa," he said softly. "The bullet’s out but . . . but, well, we figured it would be better if he didn’t try to ride." Scott glanced at Murdoch expressively.

"You’re going to need medical supplies, Murdoch," Teresa said resolutely. "I’ll go down and tell Jelly." She rose, gave Scott a swift kiss on his forehead and was gone before they realized it.

"What haven’t you told us, son?"

Inhaling deeply, Scott looked at his father and then at Cipriano. "I don’t. . . I don’t know if he can make it," he whispered shakily. "It was . . . bad. The bullet was in so deep and there was so much blood." He closed his eyes briefly and when he opened them the older men saw in their haunted depths the horrors of the past few days.

"That’s been all I can think of," he admitted. "All that blood. And the pain. And if he gets pneumonia because of those broken ribs . . ."

Murdoch started to speak and then fell silent.

"Señor Scott," Cipriano said. "You said you think Johnny and this man are three days’ ride from us?"

"I think. If they were able to start traveling today, the day after I left.”

"Excuse me, but I am confused," the old segundo shrugged apologetically. "You left Johnny and this man yesterday?"

"Yes, Cipriano. Your directions were very good." Despite his worry, Scott found himself grinning at the old vaquero’s confusion. "And you are right, the Stockton Pass is no lady."

"What?" Murdoch demanded sharply looking from his son to the now smiling segundo.

"I am most pleased that for once you listened closely to my advice, Señor Scott," Cipriano teased. He then turned serious. "You made that crossing in less than two days, chico?"

Scott nodded. Cipriano patted his leg and turned to go. As he went through the door he looked back over his shoulder. "You are a true vaquero, compadre. And a Lancer, I think, also."

"Cipriano?"

"Si, Señor Murdoch, I will make the buckboard ready."

Gazing at his son appreciatively, Murdoch tried to find the words to express the admiration he felt. And the love.

He was not a demonstrative man. Growing up in poverty with a mother made mean-spirited by suffering, he had never learned much about giving or receiving love. In adulthood, he had been lucky enough to find two very different women who had seen through his initial awkwardness and reached past his hard shell. But he had lost them both and, for a long time, their sons, too.

In the end, he simply reached over and squeezed Scott’s hand. "Get some sleep, son, " he advised as he rose to go. "Don’t worry. We’re forming a search party and now we know where to search. We’ll find them."

"Yes," Scott said firmly, "we will." Pushing the sheets aside he swung his legs over the edge of the bed.

"Now wait a minute, son."

"I’m going, Murdoch. I don’t care if I have to tie myself onto my saddle again to make it. But I’m going with you." Despite the pallor of his face, there was iron in Scott’s voice and Murdoch knew it would be useless to argue.

"All right," he agreed crisply. "But you’ll be riding with Jelly. In the buckboard."

Scott opened his mouth to protest and then thought better of it. "Agreed," he said. "But we bring a horse so I can ride later."

Murdoch nodded, a small smile playing at the corners of his mouth. Cipriano was right. A Lancer indeed. Stubbornness going toe-to-toe with stubbornness.

"You better get some food in your stomach, son. We’ll leave in an hour."

 

Chapter 14

The late afternoon sun beat down on the odd little caravan as Avante reined his mare off the trail into a clump of tall willows. Madrid’s palomino, reins dallied around Avante’s saddle horn, followed sedately, resigned now to being ponied instead of ridden. Dismounting stiffly, Avante unlooped a canteen and walked back to where Johnny lay cushioned on his back, silent and unresponsive

A half-smile touched Avante’s sun-cracked lips as their initial argument replayed in his weary thoughts. He’d tried to put Madrid face down on the travois to keep pressure off the bullet wound low in his back but the kid was having nothing of that.

No compromise would do. Or in Madrid’s own words, “If any part of my anatomy is gonna crack against every rock between here and Lancer, it’s gonna be my well padded backside, thank you very much.” He’d balked at being tied onto the travois too, but Avante rode right over those objections. He had no intentions of stopping every fifteen minutes to drag 170 pounds of limp body back up onto the blankets, so ropes it was.

"Madrid," he called softly, going down on one knee beside the travois. Not even an eyelid flicker. Black hair was plastered with fever sweat to a forehead so pallid that the skin appeared almost translucent. For a heartbeat, he thought the kid was dead.

With uncharacteristic reluctance, he reached out tentatively and shook one shoulder with a gentle hand. He was rewarded with a weak moan of protest. Deciding against forcing water down the throat of a semi-conscious man, he took the dried-out bandana from Johnny’s throat and soaked it again, as he had been doing ever since they had broken camp, with lukewarm water from the canteen. When he brushed the wet cloth over Johnny’s cheek the young man turned toward it as if seeking the source of the small comfort. His eyelids flickered, opened for a split second, then closed again. It was evidently too much effort to reach for awareness.

After a chilly night, they had endured a sun-soaked day. Dust kicked up in puffs of brown by plodding hooves intermingled with splatters of mud that dotted the horses’ legs and flanks. The still-racing river was close enough that Avante had no qualms about using copious amounts to douse his young prisoner regularly with water from the canteens, trying to combat both the heat and fever that had reached a level of real threat to Madrid’s life.

The kid wasn’t going to make it.

That was a bitter pill, too, considering that Avante had nearly come to terms with the fact that he had put a bullet into the back of the wrong man. Whatever larger-than-life reputation Madrid had earned for himself had little to do with the soft-spoken, brashly irreverent young man who now lay, probably dying, on a crudely constructed mish-mash of poles and rope. He had just about mentally buried the boy when startlingly clear blue eyes opened and pinned his gaze. 

There was a fight for recognition, a shift of statement that might have been fear, then Madrid released the stare and glanced past Avante’s shoulder as if searching out another face in the dimness of his vision. Avante saw his muscles tighten, recognized the beginning of an effort to rise and easily halted it with one hand to Johnny’s chest. The effort clearly stole any reserves of strength away. Johnny sighed, closed his eyes against the sun’s glare and let his head drop sideways.

Avante held Johnny’s chin in place and lifted the canteen to his lips. "Drink some," he said softly. His dry, graveled voice carried enough weight of authority that he got no resistance.

* * *

Johnny was too exhausted to fight the forced attention or the tepid liquid being poured into his open mouth.

Lukewarm water trickled down his parched throat, hit an empty stomach and nearly caused an internal rebellion that would have dismayed them both further if he hadn’t forced himself to swallow. Johnny squinted his eyes tightly shut and willed his stomach to settle.

Questions tumbled through his mind, demanding answers, but then wandering off before he could make the connection between thought and voice. Scott? That was the main question, the only one he could hang onto. Memories tugged at his half-conscious mind. The water swallowing his brother up like a tale of monsters at sea. Scott’s horse lunging out of the water, riderless, panicked. The trail of fire in his own back when he spurred Barranca forward. Then even more vague memories of cold, pain, and his brother leaning over him, holding him against the fear and the loss that threatened them both. He wasn’t sure which was the dream and which was the reality.

"Scott?" It was barely a whisper, a mere breath of air past cracked lips.

It must have been a question he’d asked before, he decided, for he could see the film of weary patience slip over Avante’s face. When the Ranger answered, the words had the feel of repetition. "He’s on his way home to get help. He’ll be back. Give it time, boy."

"...‘self...?"

"Yes, he went by himself. Yes, he had a gun. Yes, he will be back."

"We need to … go… on.”

"We’ll go in a few minutes." The Ranger sat back on his heels and rubbed a dirty hand across his face, fingers scratching audibly on days’ worth of untended beard.

It was hot. Johnny almost thought he’d spoken the complaint aloud when Avante immediately poured more water over the stained bandana and laid it across his flushed face. It felt wonderful. The pain had been buried for a while now beneath layers of exhaustion and numbed by the fever that stole through his body, draining his strength and even his ability to think. He wondered how many days it had been since they’d set out from Stockton, intent only on getting the money from the cattle sale safely into Murdoch’s hands. Past that, his plans wavered between seeing the ranch, eating a hot meal, then wandered no further than a ride to Morro Coyo with Scott, a bottle of tequila, and a bowl of lime and salt.  He was lost in half-sleep and the tantalizing images of being home that he didn’t notice they had started moving again until the first lurch of the travois tore a path of agony through his back and side. He wanted to cry out, to beg Avante to stop, to wait, just a while, but sheer stubbornness clamped his teeth into his lower lip and he concentrated on breathing in and out through his nose.

* * *

Watching each step taken by the palomino rigged into the travois harness had been Avante’s first mistake when they’d set out on this trek. Every pace took a tug on the makeshift bed, every rut, every rock jerked or jolted the man strapped to the rig. For a while Madrid had buffered any responses to the obvious pain with sheer stubbornness, gritted teeth and the hamburger he was making of his lower lip as he bit down each time a moan demanded escape.

An hour later, that stubbornness deserted him. By then he was too weak to make more than an occasional groan and then even that stopped. The silence was much, much worse.

Avante tugged his hat lower to shield his eyes from the lowering sun and sagged into his own saddle. They’d try for another few miles before it got too dark to safely negotiate the broken ground and then set up a camp and fire to ward off the chilled night to come. Madrid needed the rest. He wasn’t quite ready to admit that he needed it too.

 

Chapter 15

 “You had enough?”

Arms full of trail gear, Jelly leaned over Scott’s shoulder and eyed the half-finished plate of food suspiciously. 

“I’m fine, Jelly.” 

“Don’t look fine.” Jelly pursed his mouth into a scowl as he continued on his way toward the kitchen door, headed for the stable yard beyond. “Gonna unload this and be right back in. You stay put. I wanna brew you up one of my ‘coctions.” 

Scott groaned and looked at Teresa sitting across from him at the broad, scarred oak table. The lines of worry disappeared suddenly as she broke into a giggle.

 “You might as well give in,” she advised, rolling her eyes. “Otherwise he’ll go on about it for hours.” 

“I know, I know.” Scott smiled in return and was dismayed when the light in Teresa’s face disappeared as quickly as it had come. She was not to be distracted. 

“Scott, are you well enough to do this? To ride with them?” She reached over and put her hand on his forearm. “You look, well, you look . . .” 

“Like hell?” Scott suggested with the ghost of another smile playing at his lips. 

“Scott Lancer! Be serious!”

“I am, Teresa,” he replied earnestly, placing his hand over hers. He looked down at the table and then up into his adoptive sister’s troubled eyes. “I’ll be honest with you, Teresa. Yes, I’m tired – so tired I wonder if I’ll ever be able to sleep again.” 

“So. . .” Teresa began. 

“So, nothing,” he interrupted firmly. “I’ve been tired before, will be again. I’ll be fine. Jelly will see to that,” he added lightly, hearing the backdoor slam as Jelly returned. 

“I’ll see to what?” Jelly asked, hands on his hips and his chin jutting out like a pugilist’s. He looked so ornery that Teresa had to smile. 

“Murdoch’s ready to go.” Dropping his pose of outrage, Jelly looked meaningfully at Scott. “Told him I had to fix a ‘coction first.” 

“Bring it with you,” Scott said, pushing away from the table. “I’ll go check in with Murdoch.” He stood slowly, trying to mask the sudden shakiness of his legs by pretending to stretch as he rose. Neither Jelly or Teresa was fooled but they said nothing.

Once outside, Scott found the buckboard pulled up close to the house, a harnessed team of bay geldings already dozing comfortably in the late afternoon sun. The bed of the wagon was loaded with rolled blankets, ropes, canvas tarpaulins and bags, and an assortment of wooden provisions boxes. He saw his own saddle, horn down, leaning against one of the boxes, an unfamiliar rifle in its scabbard and full saddlebags slung across the top. Someone had been packing for him, he thought with a feeling of wry gratitude. He sure hadn’t been up to doing it himself. 

Across the stable yard he saw Murdoch, already mounted, giving directions to Frank and Emilio, two of the vaqueros who’d asked to be made part of the rescue group. They would take over control of the remuda.  The outriders would go through their mounts scouting ahead and return for fresh horses before going ahead again.

Rescue. 

Scott fought back the sudden wave of worry that chilled his stomach. Johnny was all right; everything was going to be all right. Returning Murdoch’s acknowledging wave, Scott pushed back thoughts of his brother and resolutely tried to focus again on the wagon-bed full of supplies.

“I wonder what’s going on?” Teresa was by his elbow, handing him a steaming mug that could only be one of Jelly’s vile ‘coctions. At his questioning look she nodded behind him and to his left where Cipriano and his wife Elena were standing, obviously arguing.

“Whatever she’s selling he ain’t buyin’,” Jelly observed, dumping an armload of canteens unceremoniously into the buckboard. Without a second glance, he returned to the house.

It was true, Scott thought, whatever Elena was saying to her husband was not carrying water. Cipriano stood impassively, arms folded across his massive chest, legs spread, weight back on his heels, listening as Elena spoke rapidly and emphatically. Every once in a while he would shake his head and Elena would throw up her hands in disgust then return like a terrier to the fray. 

“I’ve never seen those two so angry at each other,” Teresa said wonderingly. Cipriano suddenly stepped toward his wife and they heard his angry “Enough, mi esposa!” before he turned on his heel and stomped off toward Murdoch and the vaqueros. 

“Hmmpf.” Jelly had reappeared by the buckboard. “End of the Mexican stand-off?”

“Jelly!” Teresa gave a strangled gasp, half amused.

“Uh-oh,” Jelly said, spying Elena coming their way. “I gotta pick up some more stuff inside. Here,” he said hurriedly, handing Scott a revolver and some boxes of ammunition.

Before either Scott or Teresa could say anything, Jelly was gone and Elena was standing before them, her usually composed face still flushed with the fires of her anger. Strands of graying hair had escaped the neat bun at the back of her head and her eyes were darkly smoldering. 

“Señor Scott,” she began, her low melodious voice soft and surprisingly calm. 

“Si, Señora Justiano” Scott answered politely. Between them there existed an odd formality suggesting a distance that had bothered Scott until one hot summer’s day when Johnny explained its basis. 

“Naw, she likes you all right, Boston,” Johnny had said as they worked together re-hanging a gate on one of the corrals. “Hold it up a little higher – there – now let me tap in some nails. . . It’s just that you’re the patrone, after Murdoch of course.”

“Didn’t . . . anybody . . . tell her, tell her we’re partners . . . equal thirds?” Scott grunted, struggling to hold up the heavy gate. “Johnny . . .” 

“Almost got it. There.  Let ‘er go.”  Johnny stepped back, took the nails out of his mouth and eyed the top line of the gate. “Looks pretty level – See, you’re the first-born son, the one to carry on the name. Elena, she’s Old School.” 

“And the second son doesn’t get any respect in the ‘Old School’? I think I like that, little brother,” teased Scott. 

“Yeah, well,” Johnny was suddenly serious. Shifting his weight from one foot to the other, he ran his fingers thoughtfully along the valley of his hammer’s claw. “I don’t know, Scott, it’s like I’m, I . . .” He looked out across the rolling grasslands to the mountains in the distance. “Maybe it’s because my mother was, was a la mujer Mexicana. Or maybe it’s cause it don’t seem to matter to Elena or Cipriano who I was or even what I am now.” Turning back to Scott, he said softly, “We can sit down at the table together and eat a meal and . . . and it’s like I been there before.” He gave a little shrug and smiled self-consciously. 

“You don’t have to explain.” 

“Yeah, I know that, Boston.” Another smile, this one growing. Johnny poked his brother gently in the stomach with the butt of his hammer. “But as first-born son and patrone-in-training you’re gonna have some explaining to do to Murdoch if we don’t finish with these corrals. Let’s go.”

Teresa’s voice, then Elena’s, broke into Scott’s reverie. 

“Scott?”

“Señor?” 

“I’m sorry,” he said with embarrassment as Elena regarded him gravely. 

“It is all right, señor. He is your brother. It is natural that he will be in your thoughts.” 

Scott started. How did she know? As he looked at her in wonder, she smiled reassuringly. And he was struck anew not only by the classic beauty of this middle-aged woman, but by a sense of her warmth and generosity. When she reached out and placed her hand on his shoulder, he felt strangely comforted. 

“He is a very insistent man, our Juanito.” 

Scott swallowed. “He is that.” 

“There is something you must do for me, señor,” she said quietly. “For Johnny. My foolish husband has refused.”

As Scott raised his eyebrows, she shrugged. “He also is a very insistent man. And very superstitious. He does not agree with what I shall ask of you.” She looked intently at Scott and he felt the heat of her gaze. “My husband believes that we can change what is meant to be. I do not.” Elena turned to Teresa, reaching out to touch the young woman’s cheek gently. “I think what is to be is to be.” 

“What do you want me to do, señora?” Scott whispered.

“I want you to give this to Johnny,” Elena said, taking Scott’s hand in hers. She pressed something into his palm and folded his fingers tightly closed. 

“What is it?”

“It was a gift to me,” Elena continued, still holding Scott’s hand closed. “A long time ago. It was from a, a friend. . . A beautiful, kind and generous friend. Who was also a very, very angry and stubborn lady.” She looked meaningfully at Scott.  “You must give this to Johnny,” Elena whispered, her eyes suddenly glistening, “when it is the right time.”

 “How will I know?” Scott said, desperation rising in his throat like bile. 

“You will know, caballero mio. He is your brother, you will know.” With a hand to the back of his neck, she pulled him low enough so she could give him a swift kiss on his forehead, a kiss Scott knew to be a benediction of sorts, then Elena was gone. Slowly, he uncurled his trembling fingers.

“Scott?” Teresa’s voice was tremulous. 

“It’s, it’s a cross, Teresa.” Scott held out his palm. In the center lay a thin gold chain and a small, hammered-gold cross with delicate etching, obviously the work of a master goldsmith with poetry in his soul. 

“Oh,” Teresa gasped. “It’s so beautiful. Scott, do you think. . . I mean, was it really . . .” 

“Johnny’s mother’s? Yes, it must have been.” 

“But why would Cipriano be against taking it to Johnny?” Teresa asked, puzzled. 

“Because,” Scott drew a deep breath, “I think because he is afraid that giving Johnny the cross is like. . . like giving him the Last Rites.” 

Teresa bit her lip, looking searchingly at Scott.  Without thinking, he shook his head slightly.  He knew he couldn’t give her the reassurance she sought.

 “Scott! Are you ready?” From across the stable yard they heard Murdoch’s call. Beside him, Cipriano, Frank and Emilio were mounting up, ready to move out. 

“Just waiting for Jelly,” Scott called guiltily, feeling like a child caught in wrongdoing. “What should I do with this, Teresa?” he whispered frantically. “I don’t want to lose it.” 

“Here,” she said, taking the necklace from him. “Bend over.” Reaching up she slipped the chain around his neck and quickly fastened its clasp. “This will keep it safe until. . .” 

The kitchen door slammed and Jelly returned. “That’s the rest of it. Boss ready?” Without waiting for an answer, he hoisted himself up onto the buckboard’s seat and gathered up the reins.

“Yup,” Scott answered, quickly tucking the cross down the front of his shirt where it would be hidden. It felt funny against his skin, alien, foreign. He had been raised an Episcopalian, Back Bay-Beacon Hill, Anglo Episcopalian. Gentlemen, Harlan would have said, do not wear jewelry.

He gave Teresa a crooked smile and climbed up into the buckboard to sit beside Jelly as Murdoch rode over. 

“We’re going to handle this like one of our drives,” Murdoch told Scott. “I want to keep some horses fresh so that as we get closer to the point where we might meet up with them, Cipriano and I can push on ahead.” 

“And me.” 

“Yes,” Murdoch smiled briefly, “and you. Frank will ride with me until then. Emilio will lead the remuda and ride with the buckboard. We’re going to go as far as we can before dark tonight and then hunker down until the moon comes out. Then we’ll press on.” 

“What about grub, Boss?” Jelly asked. 

“We all have something in our saddlebags, Jelly. I want to keep moving as long and as fast as we can.”  

Scott nodded approvingly. 

“Murdoch?” Teresa ran over to where Murdoch’s horse was restlessly shifting from one foot to another. Holding onto a rein with one hand, she reached up with the other. Murdoch grasped it and gave her knuckles a soft kiss. “Take care, sweetheart. We’ll be back with Johnny as soon as we can.” Turning away, he reined his horse over to where the others waited.

 “Now, Teresa, honey, don’t you worry.” Jelly called as the young woman, head down, walked slowly back toward the buckboard. “Ever’thing’s goin’ to be fine.”

When she reached Scott’s side of the buckboard, Teresa stopped, her eyes meeting those of her adoptive brother. And Scott felt lost in the depth of her enormous sadness. 

“Bring him home, Scott,” she whispered. “No matter what, bring him home.”

Beyond words, Scott simply nodded.  Then Jelly slapped the reins and the team of bays jerked forward.  Emilio and his string of five horses fell in behind. 

As they pulled out of the stable yard, passing the corrals and the bunkhouse, they approached the small house belonging to Cipriano and Elena. In the darkness of the doorway, Scott saw Elena standing, watching silently. He saw a flash of motion and knew she was making the sign of the cross.

Against his chest, her gift rested safely.

 

Chapter 16

The campfire crackled and spit sparks, forcing Scott to move his legs back from its comforting heat. Carefully, he sipped his coffee. By the time Jelly had poured him a second cup, the pot was close to empty and Scott was sure he’d gotten a pretty good dose of grounds. Maybe there was time to brew more; even two cups of Jelly’s coffee weren’t enough to chase the grogginess from his thoughts.

They’d driven for less than an hour when he had been forced to give up his seat and surrender to the constant sway of the buckboard. He crawled into the back to sleep; Jelly had pursed his lips, sniffed and given him a knowing look. But he hadn’t said a word. A blessing, thought Scott before closing his eyes and drifting off, a blessing.

He had wakened to dark and the sounds of the others talking in muted voices, the words lost in a murky background of night noises. Throwing off the blanket that had appeared out of nowhere, he’d made his way over to the campfire and gratefully accepted Jelly’s offered cup of coffee. The beef jerky he declined.

“Think you could brew us another pot, Jelly?” Murdoch asked with a sideways glance at his heavy-eyed son, who was curled around his own steaming cup like a surly bear protecting disputed prey.

“Sure, won’t take me but a few minutes,” Jelly agreed. “Scott, you oughta eat something. Try that jerky, or I got some of Teresa’s biscuits tucked here somewhere.”

“I’m fine, Jelly,” Scott called, shifting his shoulders. Catching Murdoch’s inquiring look he said it again, more emphatically. “I’m fine.”

“All right, son.” Murdoch looked back at the fire and there was a long silence as each of the men sat alone with their thoughts and watched Jelly fuss with the fire and his coffeepot.

“Scott,” Murdoch said finally. “What happened out there on that trail? How did . . .” The older man paused, seemingly unsure how to continue. “How did you boys come to be travelling with a Ranger? What’s the man’s name?”

“Avante.”

“Avante. ” Murdoch tipped his hat back on his head and rubbed at his tired eyes. “What does this Avante have to do with Johnny’s . . . accident?”

Everything, Scott thought as he allowed himself to be mesmerized by the flickering flames. Avante has everything to do with it. And I’m gonna kill the son of a bitch if . . .

“Avante arrested Johnny and me the first night out of Stockton,” Scott forced his voice to be calm and matter of fact. He ignored his father’s jerk of surprise. “Apparently, he’d been tracking us for some time. He was convinced we’d robbed a stage a couple of months back.”

“Two months ago? But that’s when . . .”

“I know, I know.” Scott nodded. “That’s what we tried to tell him. But he didn’t want to hear it. A man was killed during the robbery and some deluded eyewitnesses said Johnny had done it.”

Murdoch groaned. Angrily he set his coffee cup down and rubbed his face with his hands. “Good God, when are they going to leave him alone?” he asked with a naked anguish that Scott could never recall seeing there before.

“There’s more,” Scott warned.

Murdoch looked at him questioningly.

“The man who was killed was Avante’s brother.”

From across the campfire came Cipriano’s muttered curse. “So you have run into a Ranger with la venganza ,” he said, his heavy brows knitting together in a frown. “And this Ranger, he is the reason Johnny has a bullet in his back?”

“Yes.”

“Bastardo!”

“I thought you said this fella was a Ranger.” Jelly squatted by the fire and pulled the bubbling coffee pot off to the side. “Last I heard Texas got rid of Rangers and was hirin’ some sort of, oh, what’s the word, Murdoch? They got ‘em in cities.”

“Police.”

“That’s it. But I heared what Texas got now is a buncha gun-happy crooks.”

“Heard that too.” Frank spoke for the first time. He glanced at Cipriano. “That friend of mine passed through here a month back, the one that was looking for a week’s work?” Cirpriano nodded. “Used to be a deputy back in some small town near Brownsville. Said things was bad for honest men lookin’ for honest work.”

Scott shrugged. “All I know is the man has a badge and a grudge. And he shot my brother in the back because Johnny was trying to rescue me from the river.”

“The river, Senor Scott?” Cipriano puzzled.

“We were at the ford. The river was already high, because of the rain. I was supposed to be the first one to cross but. . . I didn’t make it. Deadfall, I think. I don’t really remember much.” Scott’s voice was grim. He sighed and looked at the cup of coffee held between his hands, savoring the warmth. For some reason it was hard to talk about what happened, about how it gave him this pervasive feeling of failure.

“Scott?” Murdoch was so uncharacteristically gentle that Scott almost smiled.

“I woke up somewhere downstream,” he continued quietly. “The next day I found them, Johnny and Avante. Johnny was. . . pretty sick. The bullet was still in there and Avante had a hard time getting it out.”

“You let that varmint . . .”

“Jelly!” Murdoch’s tone was knife-edge sharp and cut off Jelly’s sputtering immediately.

“I had no choice!” Scott snapped angrily. “It was a bad wound, in a bad place. The man’s had far more experience . . .”

“Scott.” His father held his gaze. “You had a decision to make, and you made it. Don’t beat yourself over the head about it.” Murdoch watched as his son turned back to the fire, his mouth set in an obstinate line. “You mentioned something, back at Lancer, about Johnny’s ribs. I didn’t understand . . .”

“The bastard kicked him,” Scott said shortly, his tension almost palpable.

Cipriano stood up abruptly and walked away into the dark. Murdoch watched his old friend for a moment and then, like his son, studied the fire. Frank motioned to Emilio and the two men withdrew. Endless minutes passed until Jelly broke the quiet.

“Moon’s up, Boss. Maybe we oughta get on the road.”

Murdoch nodded mutely. But still he sat, chin cupped in his hand, index finger over his lips, thinking.

“Son,” he said finally. “Why did this man, this Avante, let you leave? Because he did, didn’t he? You didn’t escape, he let you ride off for help, isn’t that right?”

Drawing his knees up and encircling them with his arms, Scott silently considered. “Yes,” he said finally. “I proposed it, and he agreed. And I’m still not entirely sure why, Murdoch. But hell, I don’t even understand why he dug that slug out of Johnny’s back; he was so damned determined to see him hang. Why turn around and save his life? Why pull him out of the river in the first place?” Scott shook his head ruefully. “The man is a walking paradox.”

“A what?” Jelly asked suspiciously.

“A paradox, Jelly – contradictory.” Murdoch smiled.

“Well, why didn’t he say so in the first place?” sniffed the older man. He picked up the coffee pot, emptied the grounds into the dying fire and stood up. Working quickly, he gathered the dirty coffee cups and scattered bits of personal belongings, all the while muttering to himself.

“Fellas with fancy educations like to use them two-dollar words when any fool knows the two-bit ones work jus’ as good. Contrary, that’s a good ole plain word. ‘The man’s contrary’ – see, ya say that an’ everyone knows ‘xactly what you mean . . .Mind your feet, Murdoch,” he warned as he carefully nudged the hot stones away from the fire and kicked dirt over the embers.

“Time to hit the road.” Murdoch rose to his feet and stretched a helping hand down toward his son. “Ready to ride, son?”

“More than ready,” Scott said as he let his father help pull him to feet.

In the night sky, the big, sugar-cookie moon glowed brightly.

Man in the moon, Scott thought. Hello, old friend. . .

They had to stop meeting.

* * *

Full moon tonight, Avante thought, poking at his campfire with a long, charred stick. Why is it that the bigger that moon, the colder the night? Never have figured that one. But then there’s lots of things I never quite puzzled out. The how’s of this. The whys of that. Don’t reckon it makes any difference if I know the answers to a lot of ‘em. Some, though.

He’d planned to keep traveling through the moonlight. But by the time nightfall signaled its arrival, he knew they’d pushed on about as far as he dared. Madrid couldn’t take anymore. Hell, HE couldn’t take anymore. The morning and the late start had taken a lot out of him. He’d been almost too exhausted to cook up the rabbit he’d managed to scare up.

Ugly memories of that rabbit. Hadn’t known rabbits made sounds.

He’d caught the flash of movement out of the corner of his eye, drew and fired. It wasn’t a clean shot. For the first time since he was a boy, he’d had to grit his teeth and force himself to skin and clean his kill.

In the end, once he’d lifted the semi-conscious Madrid off the travois and settled him on blankets, started a fire and put the rabbit on a makeshift spit, he’d had no energy to eat. Nor had the kid. The constant rise and fall of fever was exhausting him almost as much as the sun and the grind of travel.

The wound was oozing again and Avante knew that despite the comfrey salve, the infection was slowly spreading. Almost as bad was Madrid’s breathing, too shallow and quick. With everything else going on, the kid was probably getting pneumonia.

Happens like that with kicked-in ribs sometimes, the Ranger thought guiltily. My fault. It’s all my fault.

Scott Lancer was right – he’d set them all on an impossible trail. And he was paying for every mile of it. Stiff, sore and disheartened, he felt like there was a lump of lead in his belly. With Madrid desperately ill and his brother’s fate unknown, the road ahead seemed long indeed. And at the end, all he would find was more self-loathing.

He’s been so sure when he started this trek. Everything seemed to fit. All the pieces. The descriptions of the robbers, the slick coolness of their leader. And Chris -- what his brother had said, what he had taunted, about Johnny Madrid. Maybe Avante the Ranger heard from the stage driver and from the eyewitnesses only what Avante the Older Brother wanted to hear. The Older Brother had hated Madrid from the minute Chris started bragging on him.

Chris. Shit. If Chris hadn’t died on that dusty road where would he have ended up? What kind of man would the kid have become? With a start, Avante realized sadly that Chris already had been a man, just a little younger than the man now across the campfire from him lying so still and quiet. Chris had wanted to be a Johnny Madrid but he’d missed a turn somewhere, missed a truth Madrid had somehow managed to find and keep out of the muck.

My fault, Avante repeated the haunting thought. I didn’t do right by him. And I tried to get rid of my guilt by doing my best to kill Madrid.

The fire needed feeding. He threw on another stick of wood, then got up and went over to squat stiffly beside Johnny. Even in sleep, the former gunslinger appeared to be in pain. Avante placed his palm against the furrowed forehead and shook his head at the heat pulsing off the skin. Reaching behind him, he found the canteen and the bandanna he’d used earlier in the day. Madrid flinched weakly as the cool, wet cloth touched his skin then was still again.

Returning to his seat by the fire, Avante settled back against his saddle. Tired as he was, sleep felt a long way off. It’s the moon, he thought. So damn bright. Mama used to talk about the man in the moon, watching us.

For long minutes, the Ranger watched the night sky, staring as if searching for his own features in a distant mirror. He didn’t much like what he saw.

 

Chapter 17

Madrid seemed stronger in the morning. 

At first light, Avante found him awake and lucid, his eyes following the Ranger as Avante worked on the dead fire.

“Hungry?” Avante asked as he reached for the blackened pot filled with the congealed remains of his previous night’s attempt at a stew. He held it up inquiringly.

“Naw,” Johnny rasped and shook his head slowly. He gave Avante a weak grin. “You’re a . . . terrible cook.”

“Gotta eat, boy.”

“Let’s hit the trail, Ranger,” Johnny said shortly, looking away. “I reckon we didn’t cover much ground yesterday.”

Avante studied his young prisoner carefully. Suddenly he thought of the one time he’d seen the ocean, when he’d been outside Corpus Christi – and stood watching on a sandy beach, fascinated by the movement of the tide. He’d been spellbound by the way the water rushed in and then rushed out. Each advance was a little smaller than the last; each retreat deeper. An old man mending a fishing net had told him the tide was going out.

Madrid’s tide was going out.

Shit.

“Wait a minute, kid,” he said, shaking off the chill that gripped his gut. “We’re not going anywhere just yet. Lemme look at your back – and I figure we’ve got to get you to sit up and cough a little.” He smiled at the mulish look Johnny gave him. “And you ain’t goin’ nowhere until you put something in that belly.”

Silently the Ranger moved over toward Johnny and began what by now was a familiar routine to them both. Gently, the injured man was rolled onto his side, his shirt lifted, the bandages checked. In truth, there was little Avante could do. He was afraid to disturb the cloth that adhered to what he knew were the edges of the incision, afraid he would start a torrent of bleeding he’d be unable to halt. A little cleansing water, a little more salve smeared where the bandage lifted easily. They were gestures more than anything. The skin around the wound was still hot and red with infection.

“Bleeding?” Johnny asked as Avante rolled him back.

“Not much. Only to be expected.” The Ranger shrugged, pretending unconcern.

“Infected?” Johnny’s knowing eyes now held his and Avante found he couldn’t look away.

“Salve’s doing its job,” he answered as cryptically as he could manage. But he could see Madrid wasn’t fooled. He changed the subject. “You hear nature callin’ yet, son?”

A small smile played at Johnny’s lips as he shook his head.

“Look, you gotta drink more water,” Avante told him frankly. “You don’t drink, you don’t piss. And you don’t piss, well . . . that’s trouble.” The Ranger eyed his prisoner appraisingly. “All right, let’s get you upright.”

Leaning down, Avante draped each of Johnny’s arms around his own neck and reached behind his shoulders. Ignoring the choked sob that escaped the injured man, Avante lifted him to a sitting position.

“You gotta help yourself now, kid,” Avante whispered to the top of Johnny’s head. “You gotta try to cough.”  

He could hear Johnny’s breath coming in rasps, a faint crackle punctuating the end of each inhalation. Avante closed his eyes and mentally muttered the most vulgar obscenity he knew.

“Cough, son.”

“. . . Can’t . . .” The reply came breathless and weak.

“Give it a minute. Then, Goddamn it, you’re gonna cough.”

Avante waited. A minute passed. Two. And then there was a weak sputter, more like a clearing of the throat than a cough. It would have to do.

* * *

He felt as if he’d been in the saddle all his life.

It was only midday but the night had been a long one. Already the hours were beginning to blur. And the journey had only just started. How long? Murdoch wondered. How long could he hold out? How long before that niggling complaint in his back, Pardee’s memento, became an outraged roar of protest?

Well, let it roar, he decided grimly, I’m damned good at ignoring what I don’t want to hear.

Have to stretch, he told himself, shifting his weight forward so he could stand in his stirrups. Lightly holding onto his saddle horn for balance, he felt the big chestnut’s easy loping strides lengthen beneath him: Ajax needs a stretch, too. Thank God for a horse with a rocking chair ride. 

Out of the side of his eye he caught Scott’s inquiring glance and nodded in return. I’m fine, son, he thought. It’s you who looks like hell. Drawn, exhausted and . . . haunted. I’d do anything if I could ease the pain in your eyes, vanquish the spectre that’s haunting your thoughts. My thoughts. 

Oh God.

Johnny.

My son.

He was so tiny when Elena held him up for me to see. So tiny. I was too afraid to hold him. Afraid I would drop him, hurt him. But Elena insisted. Put him in my arms and showed me how to hold him. My son. A wee little dark thing, his face all red. Angry then, too. And Maria so proud . . . 

No. Murdoch grimly pushed the memories back. It is over and done with. Long gone. A lifetime ago. 

Johnny’s lifetime . . . No!

He settled back in his saddle and tried to concentrate on landmarks, fiercely ticking them off in his mind as they passed. The road was so familiar to him that groups of trees or outcroppings of rock or even scrubby patches of brush were the only mileposts he needed. 

Less than three days now to the ford, he thought. Two? Surely we will meet them before then. 

 

* * *

Two days, Cipriano guessed, riding easily. If they are traveling slowly . . . perhaps a horse loses a shoe. Perhaps they do not leave in the morning as early as they should . . . at most two more days will pass by before we will see them. . . 

Listen to me, he thought with wry amusement. A child still, despite this gray hair, this great gray mustache that reminds me of my abuelito, of Papa Vincente. Telling myself stories so the waiting is easier. So I will not be disappointed. If I do not expect to see them so soon I will be surprised when we meet them on the road. Or see the light of their campfire in the dark.  

Two days, at least. I must not be so anxious. It will bring on bad luck. Elena is right; I am a superstitious old man.

At the thought of his wife, he scowled, remembering their angry conversation of the day before. Unconsciously, he glanced over at Murdoch astride his big chestnut gelding, one of the few of the Lancer string of horses that could accommodate a man of such height. Cipriano remembered when the chestnut colt with the full white blaze was born. All legs, a big foal with his destiny already mapped out for him. How they had enjoyed breaking and training him together, he and his old friend.

His old friend whom he did not want to hurt. Who had been hurt so often and was still so angry.

Elena had no right to ask me to carry Maria’s cross, Cipriano told himself defensively. No right. She knows how I feel about that matter. And about Maria. Her cross can only bring bad luck to Johnny. And it will give Murdoch pain. Maria has much to atone for, he thought darkly, may she burn . . .

Guiltily, he caught himself and said a silent prayer for Maria’s soul. But not for her son. Not yet. His chico was strong and a fighter. He had no need of Cipriano’s prayers or his stubborn wife’s jewelry. 

Johnny would be fine. They would see. He was going to be just fine.

* * *

It’s the cavalry all over again, Scott thought grimly. The endless hours in the saddle, constantly on the move, constantly on watch. Not knowing what you’re going to find when you stop

If you stop.

Gut bothers me as it did then, too. Can’t help it. Always takes me that way, my stomach feeling like it’s eating itself. Because I’m scared. More scared than I’ve been in a long time. Not supposed to admit that, I suppose. But it’s true. Oh, Johnny boy, you better be putting up a damn good fight . . .

Wearily, Scott shifted his seat and wished he was riding his own chestnut gelding. This brown, the mount he’d chosen without thinking from the remuda last night, had a bone-shattering trot and a lope that was not much better. The miles were taking their toll.

Still, he thought, Murdoch’s plan was a good one. Late last night they had been able to exchange their tired mounts for fresh horses. And by the end of this day’s ride, when they stopped again in the dark, these horses would be worn out and in need of rest. The riders could eat and move out when there was enough light, rested horses carrying them forward.

Have to hand it to the old man, Scott told himself. We could have used him in the army.

To his left, he saw his father lean forward in the saddle and stand, balancing in his stirrups. Stretching out his back, Scott thought. He shot a questioning look and noted the noncommittal nod in reply. Sore though he may be, Murdoch was not going to let up on himself. Well, with luck they would meet Johnny and Avante in a couple of days. 

With luck Murdoch’s back would hold out and he himself could stick in the saddle and ignore the renewed pounding in his head. Funny thing, headache, he decided. Makes your head feel heavy and light at the same time. Makes it hard to think about things.

Well, don’t think, he told himself.

Don’t think about how your head feels, or your stomach – or your butt.

Don’t think about how many days are ahead of us.

Don’t think about your brother, maybe fighting for his life, alone with the man who tried to kill him.

Ride. Just ride.

 

Chapter 18

Avante had lost track of the days. And the nights.

When had they crossed the river? When had they left it? He couldn’t quite remember. It seemed like all he’d ever done in his life was sit on this horse and plod through time. The slow pace, the passage of the sun, the steady drone of the travois dragging through the dirt all conspired to lull him into a stupor. He had even become hardened to hearing the moans Madrid wasn’t quite able to stifle.

The only changes in their day came when they stopped, and Avante had increasingly found it necessary to stop. Constant travel had proved too much for Madrid; the travois too compressed and uncomfortable. He did better when they made frequent rest breaks. Then Avante would unlash the travois and lower it carefully to the ground, and they’d both doze until it was time to move on. Again.

Despite the moon that lit their nights, Avante had opted for staying put after sunset. In his lucid moments, Madrid would argue they should push on. But the Ranger knew that as the kid sensed the last remnants of his strength ebb away, he was feeling an urgent need to travel, to meet up with his family. 

“Look, Madrid,” he’d told Johnny sharply one morning. “I’m not real excited about hauling a corpse around with me. And I reckon that’s what you’ll be if we start gallivantin’ around in the moonlight. No, boy,” he added more gently. “We’ll do it my way. And you’ll see that damned brother of yours soon enough.”

Now, as he reined his mount toward a cottonwood grove and what had to be a small creek beyond, Avante wondered if Scott Lancer had indeed made it through that pass and found his way home. And if he had, how long would it take for him to return with help?

Never mind, he chided himself. You got other worries to attend to.

The center of the grove suggested a perfect campsite – there was even an old fire ring – and Avante abruptly decided to stop here for the night. Never camp under a big old cottonwood tree, his grandfather had told him years ago. Roots are too shallow and a big wind’s liable to knock it over on you. But these trees were young and not yet weary; the night would be clear and still. And the creek, with its promise of cool water and good graze, was too good to pass up.

Avante dismounted and went back to check on Madrid. Sleeping. Or unconscious. Didn’t much matter which, the Ranger thought, and went about the business of unlashing the travois and setting up camp. In a bit, maybe he’d do something about looking for food. Or maybe not. His stomach was so empty he was past hunger and the kid could barely choke down water anyway.

Madrid’s not going to make it.

The thought, cold and unyielding, fixed itself in his mind again. He was finding it harder and harder to push away. 

Get some wood, Avante told himself wearily. Start the fire. Get some water. Let the kid sleep for a while longer before you go foolin’ around with that back. And wait.

Wait.

* * *

Hot . . . madre, I’m hot . . . Desert, must be . . . mouth’s dry, thirsty. . . What are ya doin’ crossin’ the desert without a canteen, Johnny Madrid? . . .Shoulda learned that lesson . . . Sixteen, thought you knew it all . . . didn’t. . . Just a kid trying’ to be a man . . . Tryin’ to be a hardcase . . . Cold! . . . ’s gone all cold now . . . Hate the desert . . . need . . . Hard to breathe. . . God. . . oh God . . . Somebody, please . . . That goddamn fire . . . burning a hole in my back . . . Let me up . . . by la Santisima Virgen . . .please . . .

“Easy, kid, rest easy.”

Johnny’s eyes flicked open. Above him he saw the stubbled face of Jason Avante, deep creases of worry lining his forehead. The Ranger’s hands were on his shoulders, firmly pinning him to the ground. 

Not the desert. Johnny told himself, closing his eyes. Worse.

“Madrid?”

The pressure on his shoulders disappeared; he felt a hand rest on his forehead then disappear. He struggled to open his eyes again. Night, he thought as he won the battle and became fully awake. It’s night and we’ve stopped. 

“How’re ya doing, son?” Avante asked, eyeing him intently. “Hungry?”

The Ranger was now hunkered back on his heels, holding out a bowl of something that smelled a lot like chicken. No, chicken entrails. Johnny felt the nausea rise in his throat and tried to swallow. 

Mouth’s so dry. . .

“Thirsty.” 

Silently, Avante put down the bowl and reached for a canteen. He filled a battered tin cup then slid an arm beneath Johnny’s shoulders, raising him slightly. Johnny felt the burning in his back shift, flare and then settle. The rim of the cup clanked against his teeth, splashing water over his cracked, bitten lips. He gulped greedily, trying to catch it all. 

“Whoa, slow down,” Avante warned, pulling the cup back when he choked and gasped for air. Quickly setting the cup aside, the Ranger raised him to a half sitting position.

“. . .’M okay,” Johnny said finally. “I am,” he insisted as Avante continued to watch him closely.

“More water?” the Ranger asked quietly.

Johnny nodded. He was too hot again, and his mouth still felt like someone had lined it with cotton lint. With a trembling hand he guided the cup Avante brought up to his lips. This time he sipped slowly, pausing often to breathe the shallow breaths that seemed to be all he could manage. He felt the Ranger’s eyes on him but when he looked up they slid away, fixing instead on a point somewhere off to the side. What was wrong with the man?

The water gone, he drew back his head a little. “No,” he said as Avante held out the cup with a questioning look. “No more.” 

“You up to me doing some doctoring now?” the Ranger asked, lowering him carefully back to the ground. Again Johnny saw the man was having trouble meeting his eyes. 

Odd. The Ranger seemed almost ill at ease.

“You . . . giving me a . . . choice? . . . Somethin’ new.” Despite his breathlessness, Johnny tried for a semblance of a grin, hoping to josh the man out of his disquieting strangeness. 

“Naw,” Avante drawled, briefly flashing a smile. “Just givin’ you the fun of thinking you got a choice.”

“Most fun . . . I had all. . .day.”

“Yeah,” Avante said somberly, cutting short the banter. He reached for his saddlebag and retrieved his pouch of herbs and medicines. “Used up the made-up salve last night,” he explained, his tone matter of fact. “Time to make more.” 

As Johnny watched, the Ranger began to measure ingredients into a small pot, his movements uncharacteristically awkward and self-conscious. Fumbling with his canteen’s plug, he swore softly. He poured a splash of water into the mixture and then set the pot on a rock close to the hottest side of the fire. With a spoon he stirred slowly and steadily. After a few minutes he lifted the pot, gave the mixture a few rapid stirs and set it aside to cool. Then, still studiously avoiding Johnny’s gaze, he sat back, leaning against his upturned saddle, and morosely watched the fire.

What was wrong with the man, Johnny wondered tiredly. It was bad enough the two of them were thrown together this way -- Avante’s doing, he reminded himself grimly. Bad enough that he had to depend on the man for everything, even the most, well, the most embarrassing things. But it was going to be nigh on impossible if the bastard went all squirrelly on him. Funny, for a while it seemed they’d come to some kind of unspoken truce. Now . . . 

God, I hurt, he thought. Shot up, busted up. Can almost forgive the bastard that. A man acts out of instinct, that’s what you do. I’ve done it. Scott. Murdoch, even. And Val . . . You’re wandering here, Johnny. . . Can’t help it. . . Forgive, huh? Can’t forgive him leavin’ Scott to die in that river. Never forgive that. Stubborn vengeful bastard. . .Maybe not the ribs either. . .Well, ya knew he was gonna react, wanted him to . . .

Energy flagging, he half-closed his eyes and let his thoughts drift on their own until a sudden sharp twinge in his back caught him up short. He tried shifting his weight to relieve pressure on the wound but pain followed him as he moved. 

“Okay, Madrid,” he heard Avante say brusquely. “Let’s get you up again and coughin’ before I see about tendin’ to your back.” 

Resignedly he watched the Ranger step around the fire and come over to squat beside him. Their eyes met briefly before the Ranger flushed and suddenly found something of interest on the ground above Johnny’s shoulder. All at once, with the clarity fever sometimes brings, Johnny realized what was wrong and fury worked on him like adrenaline.

The stupid shit! Pity! He’s feelin’ pity. For himself? No, for me. Damn him anyway!

“Don’t you go getting’ soft on me, Ranger Man!” 

Startled, Avante sat back on his heels, surprise and discomfort written in equal proportions on his face.

“I don’t need your . . .pity,” Johnny spat with disgust. He paused, angrily struggling for breath. “Need you to, to . . . get me outta this mess. 

“I . . .”

“You listen!” A spasm of pain suddenly shot through him like an arrow and he arched against it, head back as if searching the stars.

“Madrid!”

“Shut up,” Johnny hissed, gritting his teeth, waiting it through. When the spasm no longer held him in its grip, he turned back to Avante. “Listen . . .you wanna pity somebody you go . . . shoot some other . . . old . . .gunhawk . . .hear? Or maybe . . . just another . . . innocent man.”

He saw the Ranger’s face flush again, saw him angrily bite back whatever it was he was going to say. And then Johnny recognized another look on the man’s face. A look that scared him as much as it enraged him. Guilt.

Guilt was a luxury they couldn’t afford. Now more than ever he needed Avante to be tough and capable. Needed him to be every bit the hard-nosed lawman. His survival, their survival, depended on it. 

“Ranger,” he said, his tone as insolent and as contemptuous as he could manage. “You want absolution . . . you go find yourself a padre.”

The words hung in the air between them. A challenge.

Then Avante spoke, his voice cold, flat. “That’s enough, Madrid.” His face, now expressionless, hovered above Johnny’s. “You had your say. Now you and me got some business to attend to.”

Before Johnny could catch his breath enough to protest, the Ranger was straddling him, placing his weakly resisting arms around his own neck and lifting him to a sitting position. As Johnny tried to steady his heavy head, instinctively resisting the urge to let the Ranger’s shoulder take the weight, a flash of movement caught his eye and he stiffened.

Out of the darkness a strange voice called, “Evenin’, friends.”

* * *

Something close to panic had gnawed at Scott all day. 

Each time the rescue party stopped to rest their horses, every time they stopped to fill their canteens, he found himself too restless to do anything but pace. He had calculated and recalculated the times and the distances, and always the arithmetic added up to the same alarming conclusion: they should have met Johnny and the Ranger by now.

He knew Murdoch shared his anxiety. When they had stopped at nightfall that evening, it had been Murdoch who proposed they not wait for the moon but rather continue and pick their way through the dark. Scott knew the long hours in the saddle had been tough on his father. He had seen the way the older man kneaded his back when he thought no one was looking. More telling still were the new lines in his face, lines etched by pain and worry and fatigue. But like Scott, Murdoch was impatient with any delay.

And Cipriano . . . As the days passed, Cipriano had grown increasingly silent and uncharacteristically remote. The man Scott had grown to value as much for his warmth and sense of humor as his vast store of knowledge had become a distant, smoldering presence, a volcano threatening to erupt. He had said nothing earlier that evening when Murdoch talked of pressing on; he had simply gathered up his horse’s reins, swung up into the saddle and ridden off.

Now, as they jogged their horses through the night, Scott knew they were all thinking the same desperate thoughts and all cursing the darkness which refused to yield those they so needed to find. 

He shivered. The nights seemed to be getting colder. Or maybe it was him. Maybe his body was finally betraying him. Giving in. No, he decided, pushing the thought away, it’s definitely colder. And it’s the darkness that’s making you feel lightheaded. Riding like this, when you can’t really see the ground beneath you, it’s disorienting. Just tough it out ‘til the moon is up.

Resolutely, he forced himself to peer ahead into the black night, willing his eyes to find a glimmer of light. He suspected Avante and Johnny would not travel much after dark; he hoped the Ranger had enough sense to camp near the road so their campfire could be easily seen. 

Johnny’s face, smiling across a campfire. The memory was so vivid and so unexpected that Scott sucked in his breath. "We done good, didn’t we? The old man’s gonna be impressed." Oh, Johnny, would things have been any different if I hadn’t been so hard-headed about getting that cattle money home to Murdoch? What would have happened if we’d stuck around Stockton like you wanted and Avante had found us hunkered down in some hotel? 

Tired, dispirited, Scott no longer had the strength to fight off the tide of remorse that had been threatening to overtake him for days. 

I’m sorry, brother. I’m so sorry.

* * *

Avante froze. His mind felt blank, like an empty revolver. God . . .Damn! 

“Two men,” he heard Johnny murmur. “One real twitchy. . . ‘bout twenty feet behind you . . . past fire. . . Let go – let me. . . sit . . .”

“You can’t,” Avante muttered dazedly.

“Gotta,” Johnny rasped, sliding his arms from Avante’s shoulders to his own sides and balancing tenuously. “Stand up . . .face ‘em,” he ordered hoarsely.

Still stunned by Madrid’s angry attack, the Ranger sat back on his heels. Slowly, his gaze met Johnny’s and he was shaken by what he saw. In space of a few fleeting seconds, the angry fever-bright blue eyes had become darkly opaque, immune to scrutiny.

His Madrid mask, Avante thought. The cold-eyed, expressionless gunslinger. Damn, the kid is good. Half dead, fighting pain, he’s still got the brass to play poker.

“Do it!” Johnny ordered again.

Gathering his wits, the Ranger realized something about the intruders had alerted Madrid to danger. Without thinking twice he decided to trust the kid’s instincts and follow his lead.

Unhurriedly, Avante stood up and forced himself to turn casually toward the strangers, his gun hand hanging loose and relaxed by his side. Into the circle of light stepped a tall man, maybe 35, a reddish scruff of beard barely hiding his pock-marked skin. Behind him, still in the shadows, was another man of about the same height and weight but decidedly more nervous. Twitchy, as Madrid had said.

Both men, Avante noted, wore their guns low. Not gunslicks but lethal just the same, he judged. Opportunists who wouldn’t hesitate to use guns to get what they wanted. And the second man, with his hand hovering close to the butt of his gun, looked as if there was something he wanted -- now.

“What can we do for you, gentlemen?” Avante asked calmly.

“Name’s Callahan,” the first man said. “This here’s Marks.” Marks gave a quick jerk of his head and stepped into the dim light to stand a few feet behind his partner. “On our way to Stockton and lookin’ for some information. We was wondering -- you know anything about that crossing up ahead? The ford?”

“River’s pretty high,” Avante said. “Don’t think anyone will be crossing it for another couple days at least.” He paused and let his silence speak for a moment before adding, “Might be best to go back the way you came, Mister.”

Callahan looked over his shoulder at Marks then turned his gaze on Johnny. “Looks like you had yourself some troubles.” Cocking his head inquisitively, he pulled a tobacco pouch from his breast pocket and began rolling a smoke.

“My partner got thrown from his horse a couple days back,” Avante answered, the lie coming easily, instinctively. “Just a mite banged up.” 

“Your partner looks a sight more than banged up,” Callahan said. He bent low to strike a match on a campfire rock, lit his cigarette and looked closely at Johnny. “How about it, boy? Fact is you look ‘bout done in, don’t he, Sam?”

“Just about,” Marks agreed tersely.

“Don’t say much, your partner.” Callahan took a deep drag on his cigarette then exhaled noisily, his eyes still fixed on Johnny. “You always let someone else do your talkin’ for you, boy?”

“Whenever possible,” Johnny agreed with an insolent half-smile. “Don’t much like wastin’ words.”

Avante sucked in his breath. “Let me handle this, Madrid,” he growled.

“Madrid, huh?” Callahan shifted his weight onto one leg and hooked a thumb in his gunbelt. “Now that wouldn’t be Johnny Madrid, would it? Someone said the bastard was dead. Killed down in Mexico. But me, I heard that half-breed gunslinger lost his nerve and was keepin’ his head down, hangin’ round some little two-bit town. Morro Coyo or somethin’, weren’t it, Sam?”

“Morro Coyo. That was the place.”

“You any relation to that Madrid, boy? To that Mex coward Johnny Madrid?” 

“No relation,” Avante answered quickly. “This here’s Jesus Madrid, from El Paso.”

“The Madrids. . . now, we’re a big family,” Johnny drawled softly, the half-smile still in place.

“For crissakes, kid,” Avante muttered. “Keep your yap shut. You don’t have the breath for this.”

Ignoring the Ranger, Johnny added: “And some of us . . . have more cojones than others, cabron.”

Avante saw Callahan’s eyes narrow. He could tell that although the man didn’t understand Spanish he had not mistaken Johnny’s tone and intent. The Ranger felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise; the menace in the air was so thick he felt he could reach out and touch it. Beside him he heard Johnny’s ragged breathing and wondered how long the kid could stay in the game. Maybe it was time to change dealers.

“Somethin’ we can do for you?” Avante repeated carefully.

“Now that you mention it, there is.” Callahan grinned. He took a final drag on his cigarette and flicked the butt into the fire. “Norton!” he shouted without taking his eyes from Avante.

Out of the darkness stepped a third man, the rifle in his hands aimed directly at the Ranger’s chest. “Don’t,” Johnny rasped as Avante’s hand involuntarily moved toward his gun. “Wait . . .”

Avante froze, his hand stilled. Then he sensed rather than saw Johnny sink back to the ground and his stomach twisted as he heard a stifled groan of pain. Maybe the kid had passed out; the effort he’d expended was almost beyond comprehension Maybe it was better this way. For what had to happen.

“Well now, seems your partner’s takin’ a turn for the worse,” Callahan said, still watching Avante closely. “Kind of a shame seein’ as he’s got a such a long ride ahead of him.”

“Oh?” Avante raised his eyebrows.

“Yeah.” Reaching for his tobacco pouch again, Callahan slowly began rolling another cigarette. 

This one’s for show, Avante thought as he watched the intruder carefully shake flakes of tobacco along the length of the cigarette paper. This one’s to show me he’s in control.

“See, me and my friends, we’re short on cash and thought we just might find some in Stockton.” Callahan lit the finished smoke, took a deep drag and then exhaled through his nostrils. “But maybe we found ourselves a mother lode right here, right, boys?”

Without waiting for an answer he continued. “Just goes to show it always pays to keep your eyes and ears open. Sam, here, he didn’t think you fellers would have more’n a couple dollars in your pockets. Not worth the effort, he thought, even though it would be kinda easy pickin’s, what with your partner stove up and all.”

Callahan paused and took in another lungful of cigarette smoke. With elaborate casualness he put his foot up on a nearby rock and rested his gun hand on his thigh. “Well, Sam, he’s a ‘pessmiss’ but not me. I told him and Norton both if we was just patient and hung back a little we jus’ might learn somethin’. So what happens but turns out we got us Johnny Madrid and his wet-nurse.”

“Jesus,” Avante said dully, “Jesus Madrid.”

“Naw, Mister,” Callahan shook his head. “Sam seen him before, a few years back. Some range war, weren’t it, Sam? And you and him on opposite sides of the fence? All it took was hearing the name to decide Sam we should pay you boys a visit.”

“And now?” Avante questioned. Adrenaline rushed through his body and his mind was suddenly going a mile a minute, weighing the options, considering his course of action. He resisted an urge to steal a look at Johnny; he was playing this hand alone. The third man, Norton, was still in the shadows with his rifle trained on Avante’s chest and Marks still stood on the balls of his feet, his hand close to his gun butt.

“And now we got us Johnny Madrid,” Callahan repeated. “While back, when we was in Texas, we saw a wanted poster on Madrid. Made Sam think about the grudge he got with that boy – from bein’ in the range war, see?”

With a sinking heart Avante realized he had provided the instrument for his own destruction if not Johnny’s. The wanted poster was the one he’d written out and authorized and distributed. At $500, the bounty was large enough that scavengers like Callahan would feel no compunction about killing anyone who got in the way of efforts to secure their prize. 

That the reward was to be issued only if Madrid was brought in alive mattered not one whit. If Madrid died on the way, Callahan would either dump him by the side of the trail or bring in the body, hoping that someone somewhere wanted Johnny Madrid bad enough to pay for a corpse. And someone would, Avante thought bitterly. A legend has currency, even in death.

He wondered, briefly, why Callahan hadn’t just shot them from the shadows. It would have been far easier, quicker, too. But maybe the man was like a cat. Likes to play with his prey before he kills it. Or has someone kill it for him.

“Norton!” Callahan called to the man with the rifle. “Why don’t you see what our friends got in their saddlebags. Maybe we’ll find us a little pocket money for the road. Sam, you bin achin’ to draw that gun – well, pull it out and keep this feller covered while I take a look at Mr. Johnny ‘Jesus’ Madrid.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Avante saw Norton move off to where the horses were tied. And he saw Callahan walk over to Madrid and squat down beside him. But it was Marks who had the Ranger’s full attention. Despite the cool of the night air the man was sweating profusely. His gun, now drawn, was steady enough, yet Avante could see his thumb moving in a nervous tic back and forth over the hammer. 

The Ranger had seen men like Marks before. Men whose nerves had gotten the better of them. They’d draw on shadows, fire at phantoms. And they were dangerous.

“Damn!” Callahan sputtered as he straightened. “Bastard’s out cold and looks like he’s a goner anyway. Norton!” he shouted. “You find anything?”

“Just this, Boss.” The man with the rifle waved a small object in the air.

“Bring it on here,” Callahan called. He glanced at Avante. “You fellers are travelin’ light.”

The Ranger shrugged. “Had a little trouble at the river. Lost some gear.”

“What’s this?” Callahan asked as Norton handed off his find. Startled, Avante realized Norton had found Johnny’s journal. He watched silently as the intruder yanked off the protective oilcloth wrapping and flipped roughly through the pages.

“Just a book with writin’,” Callahan said with contempt as he tossed the journal aside. “Thought there might be some money stuck between the pages but looks like you fellers are clean out of everythin’ useful.”

“Get on with it, Callahan,” Marks spat angrily. “You’re wastin’ time.”

“Sorry about Marks, Mister,” Callahan said. “He ain’t got much patience for the niceties. But then he’s probably right. See, we got a use for Madrid whether he’s dead or alive.

“But you, Mister. I’m beginning to think you ain’t no earthly use at all.”

 

Chapter 19

Three guns to one. The odds weren’t good.

I’ve seen worse, Johnny thought. Bet Avante has, too. But that don’t give me much comfort somehow. Three guns. A rifle and two revolvers. Ranger Man’s going to have himself a time when they make their move. And they’re going to do it. Soon. I can hear it in Callahan’s voice. Marks, well, I can smell it in him, even from here. His fear. What about Norton?

Don’t know about Norton.

Got to even those odds somehow. Callahan’s just written me off. Thinks I’m out. Well – let him keep thinkin’ that. Wish I was. God, do I wish I was. I’m so Godawful tired. Tired of hurting. Tired of trying to breathe normal. Tired of being tired. Feel like one of those sandbags we used to dam up that creek couple months ago, the one that broke open when Murdoch tried to throw it on top of the pile. All the sand just spilled out and left the bag flat. I’m flat.

And hot. Sweet Jesus, I feel hot, so hot, like I got sunburnt. Skin hurts. . . Scott, where are you?

Can’t think about Scott. Hafta think about three men with three guns. Who are gonna try to kill Avante. And sorry bastard that he is I think I’d rather stick with him than hit the trail with those three.

What’s Callahan talking about now? A book? My book Teresa gave me. Damn him. Damn him. God damn him. 

Marks. He’s getting close to the edge. It’s gonna happen soon now, Ranger Man. And I’ve got no gun to help you out. No gun. No knife. No strength. Nothing . . . nothin’ but the tin cup you left on the ground around here – somewhere beside me, I think . . .yup, here it is . . . Could throw it . . . yeah, I’m gonna chuck this cup . . . and Marks, twitchy as he is, he’s gonna fire on it . . . and maybe, just maybe . . .
 
Johnny heard the cold click of a hammer being drawn back and knew it was time. Summoning all his strength he drew back his arm and flung the cup as far as he could toward the darkness beyond the campfire. He felt something tear in his back and a shaft of ripping pain seemed to pin him to the ground. But before the red haze descended he saw Marks spin and fire into the dark while simultaneously a shot he knew was Avante’s rang out and slammed into Marks’s chest. 

Give ‘em hell, Ranger Man. I ain’t got no more to give.

* * *

Murdoch held up a hand, signaling the others to stop. 

“There’s a creek over there to the left somewhere,” he said as Scott and Cipriano looked at him questioningly. “Let’s water the horses and give them a breather.”

The others nodded and Murdoch turned his mount off the road, letting the horse pick his own way along the narrow, moonlit path that lead through a rock-cut to the creek. With the moon out, they had been making good time and he really didn’t want to stop now. Or at all. He was sure that somewhere out there, not very far ahead, he would find his son. Around the next bend. Or the next. And he wanted to keep riding, keep driving them all, until they found Johnny.

But that was one Murdoch Lancer, the impetuous, emotional inner man he’d spent so many years trying to understand and come to grips with. The other Murdoch Lancer, the rational self he credited with building up the ranch and managing to hold onto it despite all odds, that Murdoch knew both horses and riders needed a stop if they were to continue through the night.

Reaching the creek, he stiffly swung his right leg over the cantle of his saddle and carefully felt for the ground with his foot, transferring his weight slowly so as to not jar his back. Beside him Scott had already dismounted and was lifting a stirrup to loosen his cinch.

“Cipriano?” Murdoch looked over at his old friend, puzzled. The vaquero was still on his horse, his head slightly turned, as if listening. He held up a hand, hushing more questions.

Suddenly the sound of gunfire, faint but unmistakable, reached Murdoch’s ears. He saw Scott freeze and then look wildly, first at him, then at Cipriano. “Shots! Is that what you . . .”

“Yes, two shots first, I think. Then these,” the vaquero answered. “Could you tell – from where? My ears are too old.” Cipriano shook his head in dismay.

“North, I think,” Scott said, looking to his father for confirmation. “Somewhere ahead of us. Do you think it’s them?”

“I don’t know, Scott,” Murdoch shook his head. “But I think we should check it out – now!”

* * *

It took Avante only a split second to recognize Johnny’s ploy and he reacted instinctively, drawing, aiming and firing his gun in one fluid and oddly graceful movement. He saw Marks stagger back and fall as a stunned Norton belatedly raised his rifle. Too slow, Mister, Avante thought, as he dove to the ground, rolled and fired twice from a squatting position. Norton staggered then went face down into the dust.

Callahan, damn it, where was Callahan?

“Nooooooo,” Avante shouted in rage and despair as he spied the tall intruder standing over Madrid’s still body, gun aimed directly at the kid’s head. Startled, Callahan turned and fired, the bullet catching the charging Avante in his left shoulder and throwing him off stride.

The Ranger’s first shot went into the ground but his second found its mark. He saw Callahan clutch at his belly with a look of disbelief, the blood flowing between his fingers, turning his hands and his shirt scarlet – and Avante knew then that his slug had hit something vital, and that even as he watched Callahan was a dead man.

The air was acrid with the smell of gunsmoke. Avante shut his eyes wearily and thought about how much he hated that smell. The smell of death. With a start, he remembered Marks and Norton. You’re getting old, hombre, he told himself. What if one of the snakes is still alive, waiting to sink his fangs in you or Madrid?

Carefully, he checked first Marks and then Norton, bending low over each to feel for a neck pulse. They were dead. 

The dizziness hit after he’d stooped to collect Norton’s rifle and he waited, swaying slightly on his feet, for it to pass. His shoulder was still numb, a state he knew wouldn’t last for long, but he figured he wasn’t bad hurt. From what he could see, which wasn’t a helluva lot, he admitted to himself, there wasn’t much blood.

When his world righted itself, he started to walk back toward Madrid. Something caught at his feet and he looked down curiously. Madrid’s book. Carefully, protecting his injured shoulder, he bent down and retrieved the journal and its oilcloth wrapping. His hands felt awkward as he tried to retie the string of the wrapping and he was forced to give up. Later, he thought, as he stumbled over to Madrid’s side. Deal with this later. 

“Avante?”

The Ranger found himself fixed by a pair of translucent blue eyes. The gunslinger Johnny Madrid was gone. “Yeah, kid.”

“Are you. . . in one piece?”

“Yeah . . . Thanks for the . . .” But before he could even finish his thought, the Ranger heard the staccato sound of horses approaching at speed. Again adrenaline coursed through his veins, crowding out the weakness and putting his instincts on alert. Grimly, he lifted his gun and reloaded. Then he checked Norton’s rifle. No telling if he’d need it. Maybe Callahan had more cohorts out there in the darkness.

He glanced at Johnny and saw the kid had passed out again. Maybe this is our last stand, boy, he thought as the riders drew closer. Maybe this is the end of the trail for both of us after all. Without thinking, he stepped protectively in front of Madrid’s still form, ready to face whatever forces were about to descend upon them. But a sudden wave of dizziness caught him, and he was confused by the sound of a voice that seemed familiar, calling his name, telling him not to shoot.

Beads of perspiration formed on his forehead as he struggled to remain upright. Blearily he watched as one of the three riders slowly dismounted and walked toward him, hands held in the air, talking quietly.

Abruptly, the Ranger sat down, the ground a lot farther away than he remembered. He had to use Norton’s rifle as a pole because for some reason he was having a hard time sitting upright and his left arm was useless. The talking man was beside him now and gently disentangling his fingers from his gun. But that was all right.  Because Avante knew him now, knew he could let down his guard.

Wake up, Madrid, he thought. Your brother made it.

 

 

Chapter 20

Death was everywhere in that clearing.

 It rode the wisps of gunsmoke that lingered in the still night air and smothered the smell of the campfire with its own sour stench. It was in the moon shadows cast by the cottonwoods; it was in the silence, the profound, almost physical silence. Scott felt he had come upon one of the darkest places he had ever been and his gut cramped with the kind of dread he hadn’t known since the war.

Johnny . . . oh God, Johnny . . .

As if sensing the mood of the man on her back, the chestnut mare became skittish, stepping sideways and barking Scott’s leg on a sapling before allowing herself to be reined closer to Murdoch’s mount. It was then he saw the bodies . . . the dark, contorted shapes. Men once, before death had lain with them in quick and careless hunger.

Scott’s mind numbed to the possibility that one of them might be his brother, concentrated instead on the one man who was still standing. Avante the Ranger, whose rifle bore seemed to be aimed directly at Scott’s own chest. 

Instinctively he raised his hands and kneed his reluctant horse slightly ahead of Murdoch and Cipriano, into the Ranger’s line of sight. “Avante! It’s me, Scott Lancer – don’t shoot,” he called. From behind him came the click of the hammer being cocked on his father’s gun and knew that Cipriano, too, had his weapon at ready. “Avante!” he called again, slowly swinging his right leg over his horse’s withers and sliding to the ground. “It’s Scott – I’ve brought help.” He moved cautiously away from the protecting cover of the trees, walking slowly toward the center of the clearing, his hands still raised.

The rifle’s bore was an unblinking eye staring at his heart. 

“Scott,” Murdoch rumbled in warning.

“It’s all right, let me handle this, Murdoch,” Scott answered over his shoulder. He could hear the urgency in his own voice and he took a deep breath, forcing his worry, his desperation, into the far reaches of his mind.

Where had the night sounds gone? Again aware of the silence, and the overloud beating of his heart, he took in another deep breath and began to talk. Calmly. Steadily. About whatever came into his mind. And as he advanced into the open he kept his eyes fixed on the bearded, unkempt man who still refused to lower his weapon, who remained at war, on guard . . . Suddenly Scott knew without a doubt that the sprawled, motionless figure behind Avante was Johnny and that the Ranger was his protector.

The hunter had become the defender of the hunted. 

He didn’t have time to wonder at that, or to question it. He just knew that the Ranger was standing between him and his brother. With a rifle. And nothing Scott was saying seemed to have any effect on the man or his aim. But he continued to talk, and to press forward, slowly, with care.

 “I was right, Ranger – the pass cut out a lot of time. . . But it was a son-of-a -- . . . tough, Ranger. Like you. Like my brother . . . Johnny. He’s alive, isn’t he, Avante? You’ve kept him alive, haven’t you . . . Well, you’ve got help now. . .You can put down that rifle – I’ve brought help. My father, and our segundo . . . We’ve a wagon and fresh horses coming . . .”

Not until Scott was within spitting distance did the rifle waver and fall. He felt a rush of relief, dizzying in its intensity. Anxiously his eyes went to his brother and a prayer he wasn’t conscious of formulating kept pace with his racing pulse. When he looked back at Avante, he saw that the Ranger’s gaze was curiously unfocussed and that there were beads of perspiration on his brow. Without warning the man swayed, took a step backward and sat down, hard. Even sitting Avante’s balance was off-kilter, the rifle needed as an extra arm.

Swiftly Scott moved forward to squat beside the exhausted, dazed man. He registered matter-of-factly the existence of a small neat hole in the Ranger’s jacket, high in the left shoulder. There was very little blood, but he knew there was a good chance that beneath the grimy canvas Avante’s shirt was soaked. His voice soft, reassuring, Scott reached out with a steadying hand while he eased the rifle from the Ranger’s grip.

Now Murdoch was beside him, and he could hear Cipriano moving around the clearing, collecting fallen guns and checking the anonymous mounds for signs of life. He felt Murdoch’s hand press his shoulder lightly before his father’s long strides carried him to Johnny’s side. Mechanically, Scott inspected the chamber of the Ranger’s confiscated rifle and discarded the live cartridges before setting the weapon on the ground. But all the while his eyes were fixed just beyond Avante, to where Johnny lay, half on his side, one arm extended across the ground in front of him as if he were reaching for something just outside his grasp.

The dying campfire flared suddenly, illuminating Murdoch’s face as he knelt in the dirt and stretched a shaky hand toward his younger son’s cheek. Scott watched his father bend at the waist to listen to Johnny’s chest and felt his own heart stop until Murdoch straightened, turned and jerked a quick nod of relief. His throat hurt; the huge lump that seemed to have settled around his Adam’s apple caused him to swallow painfully.

“You better go to him, boy.” Avante’s harsh rasp drew Scott’s focus away from his father and brother. The Ranger sat with his legs spread over-wide in front of him, like a child playing jacks in the schoolyard. His gun hand was pressed tightly against the wound in his shoulder and his face had the pallor of shock. “I ain’t so bad off -- slug went through.”

“Still have to stop the bleeding,” Scott said brusquely. He dug in his pocket for his handkerchief. “Let me see.”

“Gimme that,” the Ranger ordered, his voice hoarse. He reached clumsily for the cloth in Scott’s hand. “I’m fine. Now go . . .”

Scott stared, awkwardly torn between duty and desire. Then he rose unsteadily to his feet. He watched as his father peeled back Johnny’s coat and shirt, examining what even from a distance Scott could see were unspeakably dirty bandages. Grim-faced, Murdoch lifted his eyes to look at Scott before lowering the cloth and gently rolling Johnny to his back. “Ask him what he’s been doing for this,” Murdoch called, his expression tight, constricted. “There’s fresh blood – but I don’t think we should disturb these bandages until we can . . .until we can deal with things properly.”

Before Scott could respond Avante gave a stifled moan and hunched forward in a vain attempt to keep upright. For the first time Scott saw the exit wound in the man’s back: It was bleeding heavily. Swearing softly, he knelt again by the Ranger. “Cipriano!” he shouted. “Could you throw me a canteen and my saddlebags?” 

“Scott . . . ” Avante’s face had gone ashen. Scott reached out quickly and caught the Ranger as he began to fall sideways. Suddenly Murdoch appeared, squatting behind the wounded man, easing him to the ground.

“I’ll take over from here, son,” Murdoch said. His gaze met Scott’s and their eyes held the silence for a long moment. Wordlessly Scott touched his father’s sleeve and then, legs trembling with fatigue and dread, he crabbed his way over to Johnny.

“Johnny?” 

A feeling of helplessness settled about him like a cloak as he sank cross-legged at his brother’s side. Four days had passed since Scott left Johnny in care of Avante and those days had exacted a heavy toll. The man lying before him on the filthy, tattered blanket could have been a stranger. An impossibly fragile stranger wearing the clothes of a much bigger man. The hand Scott held in his seemed too large for its thin, almost delicate wrist. And beneath the thick black stubble of beard the cheeks were hollow, flesh stretched tightly across the underlying bones. Memory, like a shaft of pain, pierced Scott’s thoughts. A hotel room with one tiny, cracked mirror and two brothers laughingly elbowing for space. 

--Shove over, Boston. You don’t need a mirror to scrape at that peach fuzz you call a beard.

--That’s not a beard you’re sporting, Boy, that’s underbrush. You’re going to need a barber to hack that away.

--Not gonna let that leech touch me -- gimme room, Scott. You want to eat tonight or not?

Johnny. . .I’m here. I’m back. Just like I said . . .Come on, brother, open your eyes . . . Please. . . open your eyes . . . Squeeze my hand. Do something . . . anything. 

Tears burned unexpectedly, angering him, and he blinked them away, a distraction for which he had no patience. He willed Johnny to respond. It was the stillness that worried him as much as anything. His brother was so rarely still; even at repose there was always a part of him vitally alive, intense. But now – nothing. The restless energy, the vibrancy that was Johnny had been drained by illness and pain, leaving this shell. Flesh and blood were as stone, an effigy for a sarcophagus. The fallen knight atop his tomb.

 “Johnny . . .” The word caught in his throat. Scott shook his head; even to his own ears his voice sounded foreign, strangled. He coughed, tried again. “C’mon, boy. I’ve traveled a lot of miles . . . Murdoch’s here. And Cipriano . . .” 

Nothing.

“We’re going to take you home . . . Jelly, well, he’s on his way. And Teresa and Elena, they’re back there just aching to spoil you . . .”

He paused. Reached out to touch the back of his free hand to his brother’s too-warm forehead. Cleared his throat.

“Johnny?” 

Nothing. No tremble of an eyelid. No flinch or tensing of the jaw.

Emotion threatened to overwhelm him; he had to look away, look up, to where the tops of the cottonwoods brushed black against the night sky. Fiercely he searched for a constellation to trace, a myth to remember. But the storm broke over him anyway, robbing him of control. Everything he had been fighting to contain, the profound, dark fear, the agonizing remorse, the desperate, helpless anger, the exhaustion – it was all suddenly there. And so were the tears.

Burning, burning . . . This time he didn’t have the strength to wipe them away.

* * * 

The exit wound was a vivid reminder of the violent damage a bullet could do as it tore through flesh. A bullet goes in so easily, Murdoch thought as he pressed his folded handkerchief to the bloody hole in Avante’s back. Too easily, God knew. But when a slug found its way out of a man’s body on its own it usually came busting through like a gang of bank robbers heading for their horses.

This wound wasn’t as bad as some but it was bad enough. After he had helped the Ranger lie down, had maneuvered him out of his jacket and then cut through the fabric of the bloodied shirt, Murdoch had found a large ragged-edged hole bleeding profusely. Using water from the canteen Cipriano handed him he’d cleaned the area as best he could, folded his pocket handkerchief into a square and applied pressure. He had heard Avante’s hiss of pain as torn flesh was pressed back into place. And he’d ignored it. Just as he was ignoring the man himself. The man who’d tried to kill Johnny. Or save him. Which?

Both.

Time to figure that out later.

Shifting his weight, Murdoch tried to find a more comfortable position. Kneeling was hard on him. But then, after so many hours in the saddle damn near every position he tried was hard on him. He lifted the handkerchief experimentally. The wound was still oozing blood. He replaced the cloth and pressed harder. Beneath his hands he felt Avante flinch. But the Ranger didn’t make a sound.

Murdoch’s eyes again found the figures of his sons. The elder, sitting vigil, was as still and silent as his brother. Sensing his father’s gaze, Scott looked up and  shook his head. Murdoch’s stomach lurched; he closed his eyes, trying to block out the fear he saw written on Scott’s face.

He had been fighting the same fear himself for days. It had begun the afternoon he had seen Scott arrive home lashed to his saddle, unconscious and alone. And it had traveled with him these many miles, goading, taunting, hectoring him about his helplessness. He was afraid, profoundly afraid, that the battle for Johnny’s life had already been decided.

Johnny had dodged death before, and the father was aware that his younger son -- too knowing, too old before his time -- had long ago accepted his own mortality. Murdoch could not. He had come to terms with the eventuality of his own demise. Oh yes, that he had done. But he could not, would not accept that death might claim one of his children. Not after he had just found them. He feared it, but he would not accept it. And God help him, he would do everything within his power to prevent it from happening this night or any other.

“Lancer? It is Lancer, ain’t it?” Avante’s gravel-voiced question startled him. He looked down at the man lying beneath his hands and briefly considered getting up and walking away. Just leaving . . .

“What?” he answered, his tone even more curt than he intended.

“I . . .” There was a pause while the Ranger struggled. But whether he was fighting to find words to say what he meant or whether the pain of his wound had made him lose the words altogether Murdoch didn’t know. Minutes passed.

“Nothing,” the Ranger muttered finally.

“Good,” Murdoch snapped. “I didn’t want to hear it.”

“Look, Lancer --” Avante began angrily. 

 “I said I didn’t want to hear it.” Murdoch coldly cut off the protest. “There is nothing you can say. Nothing. Hold still.” He lifted the handkerchief again and surveyed the wound dispassionately. It appeared to have stopped bleeding; he rummaged in the saddlebag Cipriano had set by his side and found three rolls of bandaging. Not enough. Not near enough. But Jelly would be here before long.

Instinctively he looked back over to Scott and Johnny. Although he couldn’t hear the words, he knew Scott was talking to his brother, reassuring, cajoling, maybe even teasing – anything to drag Johnny back from wherever he was, that dark, that in-between world. Murdoch shivered. He had been there, to that place; he didn’t want to lose his youngest in its depths.

“You’ve got tough sons, mister.”

Murdoch eyed the Ranger with disbelief. Avante’s tone had been soft, as if he meant to reassure. To comfort. Did the man think his pronouncement would bring solace?

“If anything more happens to either one of them because of you. . .” Even Murdoch could hear the hate, and the promise, in his voice. Bile rose in his throat. He tried to rein in his anger, knew it was threatening to erupt. It had been a long time since he’d felt the urge to do violence to another human being. But now the feeling was there, and he fought to master it.

“I’m going to help you sit up,” he said finally. “We can’t bind your shoulder in that position. I need you to help me -- but without putting too much weight on that side.” Without waiting for the Ranger to answer he slid an arm behind Avante’s back, helping the man shift position. When Avante was once again sitting, Murdoch began the task of bandaging the wound.

“Who were those men?” Murdoch asked after a bit. He looked closely at where the cloth strips crossed over the Ranger’s shoulder blade, decided the bandage was too loose, and readjusted his wrapping angle.

“Huh?” Avante responded dully.

“The dead men,” Murdoch said. “There are three of them,” he prodded, his tone caustic. “Or didn’t you notice?” He felt the Ranger’s slack muscles tense under his hands.

“Scum.” Avante snapped. “Bounty hunters.”

“And they were after . . .?”

“Your son.”

“What?” Murdoch froze.

“They wanted Johnny Madrid,” Avante said tiredly. He brought his good hand up to his forehead and rubbed vaguely at his temples. “There’s a $500 bounty out there, for Johnny Madrid. Wanted for murder.”

Stomach churning, Murdoch sat in stunned silence, the roll of remaining cloth bandage dropping unnoticed to the ground. His mind raced, returning, despite himself, to the ugly, coldly impersonal words of the Pinkertons’ report on John Lancer a.k.a. Johnny Madrid.

“Wanted for murder,” Avante repeated, his voice curiously bemused.

Murdoch looked at him sharply.

“Who issued it?”

The Ranger paused, looked up at the sky, and inhaled deeply. “I did,” he said at last. “Me.”

“You bastard!”

“The witnesses named Madrid.”

“The witnesses were wrong,” Murdoch retorted. He picked up the dropped roll and pulled the bandage tight. Avante grunted. 

“Mebbe,” the Ranger said after a minute. “Mebbe they were.”

“I’ll have your badge,” Murdoch answered tersely.

Avante’s head fell back, as if he was looking up at the sky, and he let out a shuddering sigh. “Too late,” he said. “Your boy’s already had it.”

* * *

It was best he stay clear of the Ranger, Cipriano decided. He had answered Scott’s call for supplies, brought the canteen and saddlebags over to Murdoch. But he would not offer anything more. The patrón was down on one knee beside the injured Ranger, bandaging the wound. Cipriano wanted no part of it. The man could bleed to death and it would be fine with him.  An unworthy thought but an honest one. El Tejano may have saved Johnny's life or he just might have been interested in saving his own.  Either way, Cipriano didn't want to be near him.

His rage was too great.

He had very nearly given in to it earlier, when he’d realized just who was standing in that clearing, rifle aimed and at ready. His own gun had felt a physical extension of himself, his need to squeeze the trigger, to feel the gun kick in his hand as it sent a lethal message of hatred, almost overpowering. Only his concern for Scott, vulnerable and exposed, had kept him from abandoning the code he’d always lived by.

Warily, he had watched as Scott approached the Ranger and disarmed him. Then while Murdoch went to Johnny’s side, Cipriano had busied himself with the three bodies strewn about the clearing. It hadn’t been his place to go to Johnny. Scott and Murdoch had earned that right.  He knew he would have his own time with the boy, but it would wait.

The business of dealing with the dead gave him respite from his tension. It was impersonal, something that required no thought. He collected their weapons, searched for billfolds, papers or other bits of personal information. There wasn't much point, but he had checked for pulses, too. He was unmoved by their deaths. No loss there, he had decided.  They had obviously been opportunists figuring on an easy kill; he doubted they ever expected the opportunity to be dead at the hands of one man.

After delivering Scott’s supplies to Murdoch, he had set himself to the task of dragging the outlaws’ bodies out of the ring of light afforded by the fire. Corpses would not be the first things Johnny would see when he woke. At least he could spare the boy that. The night was cool but he found himself sweating with exertion as he hauled the first of the bodies toward a scrubby patch of cottonwood saplings closer to the creek.

A rustling in the darkness just ahead prompted him to drop the dead man’s wrists and draw his gun. Investigating, he found three horses ground tied just behind the stand of saplings. He holstered his weapon and again took up his load. As he dragged the body past the horses, a ewe-necked pinto snorted and danced backward, shying away from the sweet smell of blood.  If the animal hadn't been well trained he probably would have taken off.  No matter, Cipriano thought as he grimly arranged lifeless arms over a still chest, there were plenty of horses in the remuda traveling with the wagon a few hours behind them.

Once he had laid the last dead man beside his companions, Cipriano turned his attention to the outlaws’ horses. He gathered the reins and walked the animals in closer to the clearing. Taking a rope from the pinto’s saddle he fixed a remuda line between two trees and tethered the horses before removing their saddles. In the dim light he could see they had been ridden hard; white flecks crusted their necks and flanks and rings of dried sweat edged the damp spots were the saddles had rested.

It was growing colder. He looked up at the clear sky, trying to reckon the time. Then he went back to their own horses and led them around the edge of the clearing to where the Ranger had tied Barranca and his mare. Cipriano moved the mare to the far end of the remuda line and tethered his own, even-tempered gelding next to the stranger before tying Scott and Murdoch’s mounts on either side of Barranca. The palomino nickered. In recognition? Cipriano wondered. Does the animal know these are stablemates? Absently, the old segundo stroked the horse’s muzzle and felt comforted. He returned to his self-imposed tasks. When all three horses had been unsaddled, and he had rubbed at their damp backs with a saddlepad, he grasped first his saddle and then Murdoch’s by their horns and toted them back to the campfire.

Scott was sitting cross-legged on the cold ground , his head bowed, Johnny’s hand in his. At Cipriano’s approach, he looked up and the vaquero saw his physical exhaustion, evidence of the high price Scott Lancer had paid to return to his brother’s side. Yet Cipriano could also see in those drawn features the weariness of relief. Good, he thought, taking a measure of reassurance. That meant Johnny still lived. He looked away; the intimacy of the scene, the naked anguish in Scott’s eyes, touched him to the core and the boy’s pain fanned his anger.

A torrent of worries and questions spilled into his mind but he closed the floodgates and put off all thought. He set the saddles down on the far side of the campfire, away from where Scott sat with Johnny, still farther from where Murdoch was working on the Ranger. Then he returned to the horses for Scott’s saddle and the blankets.

When he came back, and had arranged the saddles and bedrolls to his liking, he hunched down by the fire-ring to stir the glowing embers before throwing on some more wood. A flame-blackened coffeepot sat almost in the coals; he pulled it aside and looked around for a cup. There was nothing except a battered cooking pot filled with a strange, pasty white substance. He brought it up to his nose and, recognizing its medicinal odor, carefully placed it on one of the cooler stones.

The casual desire for coffee had become a physical need, and he left the fire intent on retrieving a cup from his saddlebag. Partway across the clearing his foot found a dented cup and, deciding it would do, he returned to the camp. The coffee was bitter and not quite hot but that served him just fine at the moment. As he reached behind his back for more wood to throw on the fire his fingers brushed across a piece of cloth covering something hard. Curious, he set down his cup and brought the object closer to the firelight.

It was some sort of book, ineptly wrapped in a piece of oilcloth. Cipriano fumbled with the loosely looped string and off-handedly opened the book at its middle only to find himself face to face with his own likeness. Numbly he stared at the page, feeling both flattered and curiously ashamed. It was a portrait of him as he knew he would like to be seen. Not young, but strong, with machismo still but also something more. The wisdom of an elder. He turned to the flyleaf. His knowledge of written English was not very good, but he recognized the names, and the handwriting. Abruptly he closed the cover and set the book in the center of the cloth, wrapping it carefully.

A guttural sound drew his attention to the far side of the campfire, to where Murdoch was helping the Ranger don his jacket. Suddenly he realized Avante was watching him and that his gaze was fiercely – no, aggressively -- protective. What was this book to the Texan? Cipriano didn’t know. Nor did he care to find out. Blandly he returned the Ranger’s stare. Then he turned and tucked the parcel into his own saddlebag where it would remain safe, and secret, until its owner was well enough to claim it.

 


Chapter 21

The first time he tried to open his eyes he found someone had put pennyweights on his eyelids. Heavy. His eyelids were heavy and he hadn’t the strength to open them. Someone . . . who? A barber playin’ undertaker? Layin’ him out, weights on his eyes, his jaw held shut by a strip of white linen -- Johnny Madrid on display in a pauper’s coffin? Madre, he’d never wanted to end up that way. People gawking and pointing . . .

No, it was dark where he was; he knew that. Didn’t have to look. Not a boardwalk in some dusty sun-bit border town. He was in a room without lamps, a cellar, a cave, a hole deep below ground. Any of them. All of them. It was nowhere and somewhere. Miserably familiar. He’d been there before. But a safe place, for all that-- the pain was far away, almost far enough to belong to someone else. Almost. A dull, distant throb pulsing with his heartbeat.

Tired, tired . . . so tired. . .

 Too tired.

Someone was talking to him, the words indistinguishable, but that voice . . . Scott? . . . Scott. He wanted it to be Scott. . .  Scott had been gone too long. Where did he go? He went. . . and then he was gone. . .  And maybe the voice was just fever talking. Fever was a cruel enemy. Spiteful. Had a way of mocking a man’s hopes and throwing them back in his face . . . He had a fever. Must have . . . No, he felt cold. Cold and empty. Chilled to the bone . . . That voice again. He couldn’t catch hold . . . Let go, let go, just let go . . .

He did.

 

* * * 

The fire was blazing now, stoked high as a signal that Jelly and the others could not miss. Murdoch stood back a little from its heat, lost in thought and nursing the cup of hot, bitter coffee Cipriano had thrust into his hand. He had finished with the Ranger and, with some effort, managed to help the man to the bedroll Cipriano had pointedly placed at some distance from theirs. Then he had returned to Johnny, sharing Scott’s anxious watch, sitting in silence on the cold ground until an angry spasm in his back had forced him gasping to his feet.

The spasm had eased, but the stiffness and ache remained. Murdoch put a foot up on one of the fire rocks, shifting his weight. Sometimes that helped. Sometimes, like tonight, it didn’t. He resigned himself to the discomfort and pushed it out of his thoughts. It was not important. It could be borne. Much harder, impossible to bear, was the suffering of his sons. He tried to put that out of his thoughts, too, concentrating instead on making a plan, dealing with the morrow. Tried to ignore the fact that one son was possibly dying before his eyes and that the other had pushed himself inhumanly far beyond the point of mental and physical exhaustion.

 Unbidden, the image of a dirty, blood-encrusted bandage and fierce red streaks of infection crept into his memory. When he had first seen those streaks he had felt sick with fear, afraid to do anything that might loosen his son’s fragile hold on life. Now a cold, harsh voice told him there was nothing he could do that would make any difference. Johnny had no chance. Had never had a chance.

 He and Maria, between them, they had seen to that.

 He shook himself and ran a tired hand over his eyes. Fatigue was gaining a hold on him; he should know better than to give in to it. Johnny was a fighter. So was he; so was Scott.

 Think about tomorrow -- no, wait, today. It was probably well past midnight. At what point had he stopped winding his pocket-watch because the hours had been endless and there had seemed no point to marking their passage? This night was already tomorrow. The others -- Jelly, Frank and Emilio -- should be arriving soon. All right, they would need some sleep before starting out again. How much time should he allow?

 The sound of a hatchet striking wood startled him and he realized Cipriano was somewhere in the surrounding darkness, hunting additional fuel for the fire. Guilt nibbled at the edge of Murdoch’s conscience; he’d shifted the burden of their basic needs entirely on his old friend’s shoulders. Yet part of him understood this was how Cipriano wanted it. A complicated blend of respect, anger and superstition was governing the vaquero’s actions this night. Despite Cipriano’s feelings for Johnny, Murdoch knew he would keep himself apart and busy until his inner consejero advised him to do otherwise.

 Dragging his thoughts back to practicalities, Murdoch tried again to wrestle with the logistics of the day’s travel, reminding himself there were decisions to be made that only he could make.  But he was too restless for the answers to come easily. The need to sit with his sons, to have them within easy reach, was deep and inexorable. He finished the remains of his coffee in a gulp, set the cup on a rock and stepped around the fire.

 “Son?”  He placed a questioning hand on Scott’s shoulder and was disturbed by the vacant stare that was returned in answer. Stiffly, his joints aching in protest, Murdoch lowered himself to the ground.

 “He’ll be all right, son,” Murdoch said, trying to put assurance into his voice. To persuade himself as well as Scott.

 “He’s dying.” Scott’s voice was flat, his eyes haunted by an emotion Murdoch recognized with shock as guilt.

 “Scott . . .”

 “We’re too late, Murdoch. I failed him. He trusted me and I failed him.”

 “No!” His heart pierced by his son’s words, Murdoch’s self control slipped, pain robbing him of the ability to speak. Moved by an overwhelming desire to comfort and be comforted, he stretched his arm across his elder son’s back.

 Not for the first time did he wonder whether to bless or rue the profound attachment his sons had for one another. He recognized that on some fundamental level the two had found in one another the missing half of a secret whole. It had not happened instantaneously, but more swiftly than reason would normally suggest. And without it, Murdoch knew, father and sons never would have survived those first rocky months together at Lancer or become a family.

 But now, as Johnny balanced precariously above a yawning abyss, it seemed to Murdoch the boys’ bond was endangering Scott, too. His reserves depleted by his desperate efforts to bring help to his brother, Scott was bereft, as if John’s death had already taken place. Murdoch had never seen his elder son so empty, so devoid of his usual drive and resolve. 

 He tightened his arm, drawing Scott’s unresisting body closer, and they sat together in silence. Suddenly Cipriano was beside them, wordlessly handing him a cup of steaming coffee and two blankets before returning to his self-imposed isolation on the far side of the clearing.

 Scott shivered. “Here, drink this, son,” Murdoch gruffly ordered, pressing the cup into the young man’s hands. Perplexed, Scott looked at the cup as if it was something foreign. But he took it, and after a minute he raised it to his lips.  Relieved, Murdoch rose, shook out one of the blankets and clumsily spread it over Scott’s shoulders. Then he wrapped himself in the second, stretched out his back and sank again to the ground.

 “Johnny didn’t want to leave Stockton that afternoon,” Scott said dully. “If we’d stayed on, spent the night in a hotel instead of on the trail . . .”

 “Scott—“

 “It’s as if he had a premonition there would be trouble.”

 “No.” Murdoch studied the dark shapes of the cottonwoods across the clearing as he desperately searched for the right words to say. “No, Scott,” he continued after a bit, “you can’t think like that. There will always be ‘what ifs.’  It’s pointless to think about them. I should know,” he grimly added. “I’ve spent most of my life tormenting myself about what might have been had I done things differently. It’s a nasty habit. Pointless. Don’t let me see you succumb to it, too.”

 “What’s past has passed . . .?” Scott asked, a tinge of irony in his tone.

 “Yes.”

 There was a silence between them. Then Murdoch heard Scott let out his breath in a long, shuddering sigh.

 “Murdoch?”

 “Yes, son?”

 A whisper, so low, so halting, that Murdoch had to lean close to catch the words. “If . . . I don’t think I could bear it if . . .”

 The father reached out blindly and found his elder son’s free hand. He grasped it tightly.

 -Please . . . By all that is holy . . . please . . .

* * * 

Avante watched dully as the grizzled little man in the funny cap squatted by the campfire and sniffed at the contents of the blackened cooking pot. He wondered if the man would recognize what he was sticking his nose into and cotton on to the fact the Ranger hadn’t exactly been ignoring Madrid’s wound. Had, in fact, been taking care of the kid the best he could. Avante wasn’t sure why he cared that someone understood that. But he did.

Shifting his back awkwardly against the skirts of his upturned saddle, he tried to find a more comfortable position, one that would make his throbbing shoulder give him some peace. He felt ill and out of sorts. If only he could return to the dreamless sleep he had fallen into earlier, after Murdoch Lancer had helped him to his bedroll. But the arrival of the wagon and riders had put an end to that. He had wakened to noise and an explosion of activity. At first his sleep-dazed mind had thrust him back into the fight with the bounty hunters, and he had made a panicked grab at his empty hip. Then he saw the slumped-shoulders figure of Scott Lancer sitting at Madrid’s side and his confusion had cleared. The help Scott had mentioned earlier, he realized. It had finally come.

They’d ignored him mostly. He’d seen their eyes flick his way as Madrid’s father talked in low tones. The old vaquero, the one that rode in with the Lancers -- he’d spat on the ground when he looked at Avante, the hate in his face so intense it burned. The Ranger had closed his eyes in escape. When he opened them again everyone seemed to have gone off toward the wagon. Except Scott Lancer and the old feller with the cap, the one who had started in fooling with the fire. And who was standing in front of him now with the medicine pot in his hands.

“This yore doin’?”

Avante nodded.

“You bin usin’ this on Johnny?”

The contempt in the man’s voice riled him. The old bird had his chin stuck out like a back-alley bully, like he was raring for a fight. Well, Avante thought tiredly, not tonight, old man. I’m sick an’ I’m sore and I’ve already had me a bellyful of trouble.

The Ranger took in a deep breath, looked across the clearing to where Madrid lay motionless. Exhaled.

“Yeah,” he said finally. “Yeah, that’s what I been using.”

“Well, mister, you mind tellin’ me what’s in it?” The man brought the pot up to his face again, taking a tentative whiff before eyeing the contents suspiciously. Dabbing his index finger in the paste he brought out a small glob and rubbed it with his thumb, testing the consistency. He looked at Avante questioningly.

“Comfrey.”

“Well, I reckon I know that, don’t I?” Hunkering down on one knee, the man pushed his cap back on his head and gave the Ranger a disgusted look. “What else?”

“I don’t know.”

“What do ya mean ya don’t know?”

“Just that,” Avante said testily. He shifted his weight to change position and scowled back at the angry face stuck close to his own. “Look, mister, I know an old curandera – she gives me the makings. I don’t know what’s in it. She tells me the recipe’s real old, handed down from her grandmother, who learned it from the Chiricahua. All I know is it works.”

In silence, the other studied him closely for a minute. “Is it workin’ for Johnny?” he asked finally, without belligerence.

“As much as anything can,” the Ranger replied, his tone soft.

Their eyes met and held. Avante saw the man’s uncertainty, and his fear. “I don’t know,” he answered, forestalling the question he knew would come next. “He’s held out this long. Maybe – well, he’s a tough kid. But . . .”

“He don’t have much left.”

“No.”

The older man stood and looked thoughtfully at the pot of salve. Then his gaze went over to the campfire, where Murdoch and the others were carefully moving Johnny closer to the warmth.

“The wound’s infected,” Avante said bluntly. “But the poison don’t have hold of him. That salve’s doin’ its job. You use it, hear?”

Nodding, the other began to walk away, his attention now focused on the group by the fire.

“Mister!” Avante called. The weakness of his voice surprised him and he was relieved when the grizzled little man stopped and turned.

“What?”

“You tell Murdoch Lancer . . .” The Ranger paused for breath; he was more tired than he’d realized. Sleep, or something like it, was calling.

“Tell Murdoch Lancer what?” The belligerence was back in the other man’s tone and his eyes were cold and hard.

“Not to give up . . . he’s gotta fight.” Avante struggled to keep his head steady, but it felt too heavy and his eyes didn’t want to stay open anymore. Not yet, he told himself, this is important. Gathering his strength he forced himself to stare back at the man with the cap. “Tell him the kid’s worth it.”

The grizzled older man shook his head and gave him a look of pity.

“He knows that, Ranger. Believe me, he already knows.”

* * *

“Johnny?”

Scott. Calling him.

--Yeah, I’m comin’.

“Johnny!”

Scott. Talking to him. Talking, talking. Telling him to wake up. And Jelly. Can hear Jelly, too. Fussin’ at somethin’. What? Something cooking, maybe. Breakfast? Must have slept in.

-- I’m sorry, Scott . . .won’t happen again, I’m just so tired  . . . I . . .

His eyes jerked open. It was night still, not morning. A chill breeze fluttered over him, cooling his cheek, ruffling his hair before moving on. And Scott’s face suddenly above him, deep lines carved in the cheeks and around bloodshot eyes. Creases in his forehead. Looking old as Murdoch. Maybe older. And so weary. Scott . . . watching him unwaveringly, as if he were reading his soul.

Johnny knew then where he was: somewhere on the road home, closer than before. Maybe even close enough. He knew that Scott had made it back to Lancer and had returned with help. Scott had found his way through that pass, and hadn’t fallen off a ridge or down a rockslide, hadn’t tangled with a cougar or been thrown from his horse or broken his damn fool neck in any one of a thousand ways a man can get into trouble. The Madonna and los santos, they had listened to the silent, desperate prayers of a one-time gunslinger, ignored his past and his shame, and taken care of his brother.

He felt his eyes fill and overflow, the humiliating tears spilling down toward his ears. Blinking didn’t stop them. Nor could he say anything because the muscles along his jawbone were doing the craziest kind of dance and the ache in his throat was a tightening noose threatening to choke him. Scott had one of his hands and was holding it, tight, like he was never going to let go. The ache in Johnny’s throat became a convulsive sob and it escaped from his lips before he knew it.

“Murdoch!”  Scott looked up, shouting urgently into the night. “Murdoch!”

--Don’t let go, Scott.  Please, don’t . . . don’t let go. Brother . . . hermano mio . . . mi cuate.

Summoning his strength, Johnny tried to return Scott’s grip. To hold him; to keep him there. To let him know.  Once again his brother’s eyes met his.

--¡Dios mio! He knows, he knows. Look at them tears. It’s the same with him . . . Two growed men cryin’ like kids . . . don’t care . . . Oh God, Scott. . .

Scott lifted his sleeve to his eyes, to his running nose. He started to speak and couldn’t. His grip on Johnny’s hand tightening, he fought to compose himself. Finally Johnny saw that familiar half-smile, slightly bemused and mocking, faintly self-conscious, and heard Scott say, “Awake? Well, you took your sweet time about it, brother.”

The voice was thicker than normal, not quite right. But the words were pure Scott and Johnny felt a surge of fierce joy. He wanted to laugh with relief, to joke and rib and make the kind of smart-mouth remark that would set Scott to rolling his eyes as he searched for a suitable rejoinder. Most of all he wanted to wrap his brother in a headlock, the headlock that drove Teresa crazy but which was their code, their way of saying things. The things men felt but couldn’t come right out and talk about. Not even brothers.

 In the end all he could manage was the barest vestige of a grin. Because the tears would come again, and with them hiccoughing sobs that stole away what breath he had.

Suddenly he was in trouble. The noisy rasp of his straining lungs told him he was drawing in air but it wasn’t enough. He was a hungry man sucking on an empty spoon. Fighting panic, he arched his neck and looked into the night sky, away from Scott’s distress. His back burned and over his ribs there was an unforgiving iron band of pain, a reminder of his encounter with Avante’s boots.  It was – too much.

And then someone was behind him, raising him, with Scott’s help, to a half-sitting position, taking the weight of his head against his shoulder, supporting his upper body with his broad chest. Under the smell of woodsmoke and dust and sweat Johnny caught the faintest whiff of lime, the scent of the imported men’s toilette soap his father regularly had shipped in from San Francisco.

“Murdoch.” The name came out as a strangled gasp.

“Sssh, take it easy, son. Don’t try to talk,” Murdoch murmured into his ear. “You’re all right, Johnny. You’re going to be all right.”

Feeling the rumbling vibration of Murdoch’s chest as he spoke, Johnny was oddly comforted. An old, forgotten memory briefly stirred and then faded. He closed his eyes. Slowly his labored breathing eased a little, and so did some of the pain. He felt better if he kept his breathing shallow; that way his ribs didn’t hurt as much, and he didn’t sound like a used-up old cow pony with broken wind.

 But he knew the feeling of ease was deceptive, and dangerous. All too well he remembered his bout with pneumonia, in the aftermath of Pardee. It had taken pretty near everything he’d had to fight that battle; he didn’t know if there was enough of him left this time to do it again. Cough, that’s what the Ranger had kept ragging at him to do. He cleared his throat weakly and tried.

“Son?” Murdoch’s hands tightened on his upper arms and he felt himself being lifted more fully upright.

“Cough – Ranger Man says to cough.” For a moment Johnny wasn’t sure if he’d actually said the words or just thought he had. He heard a quick intake of breath at his side and looked over in time to see Scott’s contorted face turn away. Confused, he groped for his brother’s hand.

“Scott?”

“What, Johnny?”

“Avante . . . he all right?”

“What?” Scott asked, swiftly turning back in surprise.

 “He’s fine, son,” Murdoch answered. “He took a slug in the shoulder but it went through.”

“Saved my life,” Johnny whispered. He closed his eyes and let his weight relax back against his father. Oh Lord but he felt done in. There was just nothing left. He had to sleep. Maybe if he got some sleep –

“Johnny?” Murdoch’s chest rumbled.

-Later, Murdoch . . . talk to me later.

“Johnny!” There was an edge to his father’s voice this time and Johnny struggled to open his eyes.

“Yeah . .  .”

“Drink this, brother.” Scott’s face was before him again, and as he blearily tried to focus he felt a tin cup bump against his lips.

“No, Scott.” He turned his head aside and raised a weak hand in protest, then let it fall.

“John, listen to me.” Murdoch said gently, breath warm against his ear. “Are you listening?”

-Yeah, Murdoch, I’m listening.

“Johnny!” He heard the alarm in his brother’s voice, felt Scott’s hand pull at his arm.

“Yeah. ‘Kay.” He paused, made the effort. “I’m listening, Murdoch.”

“You’ve got to drink this. It’s one of Jelly’s concoctions – it’ll help.”

“Can’t.”

“Johnny, please . . .” Scott said.

He closed his eyes again. “Can’t, Scott. I’ll . . . puke.”

“Not if you take it slowly,” Scott argued.

“Can’t.”

“Son, I’m going to be straight with you.” Murdoch’s arms moved around him, encircling him, steadying him. “We changed your bandages earlier, while you were . . . asleep.”

“Murdoch!” Scott snapped in what sounded like angry warning and Johnny found himself smiling.

“It’s okay, Boston,” he whispered hoarsely. “He ain’t gonna tell me anything I don’t already know.” Breathless, he stopped to struggle for air. “Doesn’t look too good, does it?”

“No,” Murdoch said. “It doesn’t. So you’ve got to help us, son. Do whatever it takes.” Johnny felt his father’s arms tighten. “We’re going to take you home – to Lancer.”

“That a promise, old man?” He strove to make his voice light and felt rewarded when his father shook with silent laughter at the once-hated epithet.

“Yes, Johnny,” Murdoch said huskily. “That’s a promise.”

 


Chapter 22

The creek was so cold it made his feet ache. But a bath he wanted and a bath he would have. Gingerly, Scott waded to the center of the stream, counted to three, and then dunked down into the knee-high water. The iciness of it made him shout and he was suddenly ten again, braving his grandfather’s displeasure by eluding his music instructor to sneak off to an old millpond far from their summer hotel.

He had never been sure what had bothered Harlan most: That he had skipped his piano lesson or that he had done so in the company of stable boys and cook’s helpers, a raggedy band of village boys enjoying an afternoon off from their work at “the rich folks’ hotel.” Afterward he had been sternly reprimanded, and punished -- he no longer remembered how. But swimming in cold water would always be associated in his mind with one of his favorite childhood memories, the feeling of utter freedom as his naked body cannonballed into that pond.

Splashing vigorously he managed to wet his hair without actually having to stick his head in the frigid water. Then he rose and made his unsteady way over the slippery creek bed, back to the grassy bank. The midmorning sun began to warm his shoulders as he dried himself off with his shirt. A wave of unexpected optimism washed over him: Everything was going to be all right. Johnny was better this morning. Stronger. He’d kept down the foul brews they’d given him last night and again this morning. He was talking. He’d even back-talked Jelly.

Murdoch had been right; a few hours’ sleep had done everyone good.

Scott dressed, pulled on his boots and then gathered the buckets Jelly had asked him to fill. He walked upstream of his swimming spot, filled the buckets and, whistling, carried them back through the cottonwoods to the clearing. He could see Murdoch hunkered down by Johnny, and across the way Cipriano was deep in conversation with Frank and Emilio.

“You’re soundin’ mighty chipper,” Jelly grinned as Scott set his load by the improvised kitchen set up near the buckboard. “Whatcha find down by that crick? Someone’s corn likker stash?”

Clapping the old handyman on the back Scott smiled in return. “Something better, Jelly my man.” He looked over at the campfire, where two pots, a large and a small, were boiling. “What’s cooking?”

“That there’s the makin’s of a stew.” Jelly jerked his chin in the direction of the larger pot. “But first I’m boilin’ down the jerky for beef tea. For Johnny. And that Ranger fella.”

“Oh.  Yeah.” Scott looked over to the edge of the clearing, where Cipriano had set Avante’s bedroll apart from everyone else. Like a leper, Scott thought. As if the Ranger had a disease the rest of them might catch. “Have you talked to him this morning, Jelly?”

“An’ what if I have?” Jelly retorted.

Startled by the other’s angry defensiveness, Scott held up a protesting hand. “Whoa, slow down! I was just wondering how the man was doing, that’s all.”

“Someone has to see to him, ya know. I ain’t forgettin’ what that varmint done to Johnny, to both’a you boys. But—“

“Someone has to deal with him,” Scott finished. “You’re right, Jelly, and thank you. So how is he doing?” 

But Jelly’s feathers, he saw, were still ruffled, and the older man’s answer was curt. “Wal, he’s about what you’d ‘spect of a man that’s got a hole in hisself.” Wryly, Scott shook his head, gave Jelly’s shoulder a squeeze and went over to sit with his father and Johnny.

“’Lo, Scott.” The pleasure in Johnny’s voice was unmistakable. There was still no color in his face, and pain was lurking in the depths of his eyes, but Scott sensed in his brother a glimmer of something that had been missing in the grim hours before dawn. Scott wasn’t sure he could put a name to it. But he found it reassuring.

“Hey,” he grinned in response. 

“Murdoch’s just been givin’me my marchin’ orders,” Johnny said. A small smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. “He’s a hard man, brother.”

“Oh?” Scott shot a quizzical look at his father. But Murdoch’s gaze was fixed on Johnny and he wouldn’t meet his older son’s eyes. Troubled, Scott looked back at his brother and tried to keep his concern from showing. “And you’re just learning that?” he asked lightly.

“Reckon I’m the slow one,” Johnny said. He squinted up at Scott and his smile slowly widened. “Hair’s stickin’ out in back there, Boston. You’re gettin’ careless about your ‘pearance.”

Scott ran his fingers through his still-damp hair and shrugged. “Your bad influence, boy. Next thing you know I’m going to have hair down around my collar and Percy Trowbridge will have to take down that striped pole and shut his shop.” He saw Johnny’s eyes close and he reached out quickly, touching a suddenly relaxed hand. “Johnny?”

“Give him a minute, son,” Murdoch said quietly. Scott looked up questioningly. “He’s only got so much strength.” Murdoch’s face was impassive but Scott could hear what was hiding behind his father’s stoic words.

“What’s going on?” Scott asked in a low voice.

“Nothing. Forget it,” Murdoch said tiredly. He brought his hands up to his face and rubbed fiercely at his temples.

 “Murdoch?”

 “Please, Scott, leave it for now.”

 In frustrated silence Scott watched his father gently rest his hand on Johnny’s forehead and then reach for the cloth soaking in the pan beside him. Squeezing out the excess water, Murdoch folded the cloth in thirds and laid it lengthwise across Johnny’s forehead.  “Fever’s up,” he explained tersely. “He’s been drifting off --”

 “Not drifting,” Johnny whispered, his eyes still closed. “Ain’t a drifter. I’m a rancher.”

 Murdoch snorted. “I’ll remind you of that the next time you grumble about having to get out of bed in the middle of the night to pull a calf.”

 “Scott’s turn.” Johnny’s head turned restlessly, his breath already going.

 “Thanks, brother,” Scott said with a soft chuckle.  “Just what I need to complete my education, an evening spent with my arm stuck up a cow’s nether end, trying to haul out a calf that would rather stay where it is, thank you very much. Give me those black ledger books any day.”

 “Boss?” Jelly’s shadow fell across Johnny’s feet. “Beef tea’s ready.”

 “Well, I ain’t,” Johnny drawled in protest before Murdoch could answer. He paused, and Scott could see him struggling for breath to continue the banter. “Boiled boot leather,” Johnny added finally, a half-smile at his lips. “Not much to my likin’.”  

 A scowl appeared on Jelly’s face and he slipped his thumbs under his braces as he theatrically puffed out his chest in indignation. Scott laughed in spite of himself. Jelly was trying to chase away their demons the only way he knew how. Earlier that morning, after Jelly had spent some time sitting with Johnny, Scott had come across the handyman standing at the buckboard’s tailgate, his expression stormy, beating a bowl of biscuit dough as forcefully as though it were the devil himself. The older man was fond of Johnny, Scott knew. No one could bring a smile to his face as fast as Johnny. But then there was no one who could make him quite as mad either.

 “Don’t give yerself airs, Mr. Persnickety,” Jelly groused, chin jutting.  He winked at Scott. “The boot leather’s for thems that does the work around here. You jus’ get the heel.”

 “My luck just keeps on gettin’ better, don’t it?” Johnny sighed.

 Shaking his head in amusement, Murdoch cleared his throat. Then his expression grew serious as he looked up at Jelly. “A little later with that tea? Thanks. I’d like to change his dressings first.”

 “Sure, Boss,” Jelly nodded. “You got all you need or there somethin’ I kin get ya from the wagon?”

 Murdoch looked at the ground beside him where there was an assortment of saddlebags and oil-cloth pouches. “Hot water?” he said finally. “And the Ranger’s salve. I think that’s over by the buckboard.”

 “Sure thing,” Jelly said. With another exaggerated mock frown in Johnny’s direction he hurried off.

 Absently Scott collected a handful of pebbles from the ground between his splayed knees and sifted the gritty bits from one hand to another. “When do you want to get started?” he asked his father, cocking his head quizzically. “On the road, I mean.”

Murdoch looked up from the saddlebag he’d been rummaging in. Scott saw his eyes meet Johnny’s and lock before he went back to checking the contents of the leather pouch. “Just after noon, I think,” Murdoch said as he drew out several rolls of bandaging and inspected them carefully. “After everyone, and I do mean everyone, young man –” he raised one eyebrow expressively and gave Johnny a stern look. “After everyone has put some food in their bellies. And,” he added, his tone almost casual, “after we bury those bodies.”

“Bury? You don’t think we ought to, er, bring them in with us?” Scott asked.

“No.” This from Johnny, soft but firm. Scott looked at him curiously. “The heat, Scott,” Johnny said, his eyes dark and impenetrable. “Don’t need that smell traveling with us.”

Scott swallowed then shifted his gaze to a point beyond the campfire. He began tossing pebbles, one after another. “Val might have different ideas,” he said doggedly. “And besides, someone might be able to identify them.”

“How, Scott?” There was scorn in Johnny’s voice, and not a little anger. “Now how is someone gonna identify them men when their faces have gone all black and they’re so ripe you can hardly get near ‘em? Whole town’ll be walkin’ on the other side of the street . . .  just to get away from the smell.” He drew a ragged breath and whispered what sounded like something akin to a plea, “Bury them here. Bury them here and just let ‘em be.”

Disturbed by Johnny’s vehemence Scott suddenly imagined the dismal scene his brother described. He saw the townsfolk breaking their daily routine of errands to stare and speculate. He saw the rough wood coffins tilted against a storefront like so many orange crates, a canvas awning rigged to keep off the worst of the sun. And he saw -- in one of those coffins he saw Johnny Madrid. The image was shattering. Murdoch was studying him intently and he flushed, realizing his father had imagined that same scene long before. And understood Johnny Lancer’s anger.

“Cipriano!” Murdoch called without taking his eyes from Scott.

“Sí?”

Murdoch turned and beckoned with his arm. “Please, por favor.”

Hesitantly, the old vaquero came over, first standing awkwardly across from Scott, then, at Murdoch’s nod, slowly lowering himself until he was sitting at Johnny’s side. Scott saw his brother’s hand snake out, meeting Cipriano’s in silent greeting. No one said anything for a moment. Couldn’t. The glistening tracks on Cipriano’s cheeks remained undisturbed until finally the segundo seemed to wake to them and banished the tears with a quick wipe of his glove.

“¿Cómo le va, chico?”

“Estoy cansado, tio,” Johnny answered, his voice just above a whisper. “Time to go home.”

Hearing a sharp intake of breath beside him, Scott looked quickly at his father. But Murdoch was pushing himself to his feet, his face hidden as he stiffly unfolded his tall frame and stood. “I’ll see what’s taking Jelly so long,” he said gruffly and was gone, leaving Scott to wonder whether his father was as troubled as he was to hear Johnny’s admission of fatigue. Or was it his brother’s use of “tio,” with all the respect and intimacy the Spanish equivalent of “uncle” implied -- had that bothered Murdoch? Did it remind him that while between his segundo and his younger son there was an uncomplicated bond of deep affection, his own relationship with Johnny was not so simple?

Scott shook his head ruefully. Johnny liked to rib him about thinking too much. Johnny was probably right. He was being ridiculous. Foolish. After all, hadn’t Murdoch brought Cipriano out of his self-imposed exile? For reasons known only to himself, the old vaquero had stayed away from Johnny, from the rest of them. Even earlier, when Jelly had come to sit with Johnny, Cipriano had disappeared into the trees, to check on the horses, he’d said.

Murdoch was back, a pan of steaming water in his hands and a small, blackened cooking pot precariously wedged by its handle under his arm. Scott rose swiftly to lend a hand, rescuing the small pot as it began to slip.

“Cipriano, I need your help here, to change Johnny’s bandages.” Murdoch’s gaze was fixed on his old friend, his eyebrows raised in unspoken question. “Good!” he pronounced as Cipriano nodded his agreement. “But first, would you ask Frank and Emilio to take care of those men? Bury the bodies?”

“It has already been discussed among us, señor.” Cipriano looked from Murdoch to Johnny and back.  “There is a place. Away from the creek.”

“All right,” Murdoch said. “That’s fine.”

Cipriano’s shrill whistle pierced the air, easily reaching Frank and Emilio on the other side of the clearing. Scott saw them look up and nod, responding to whatever silent signal Cipriano had arranged earlier. Scott was suddenly reminded of his first days at Lancer, when he’d been struck by the way Cipriano seemed to be able to direct the running of the ranch with so few words.

 The man was something of a legend around the San Joaquin ranchos, Scott knew. In the past, more than one neighbor had tried to lure him from Lancer only to be met by fierce looks from under bushy eyebrows and unspoken disdain. Cipriano’s loyalty to Murdoch was unshakeable; he would lay down his life for their friendship. And Murdoch, Scott had learned, would do the same.

“Scott?”

“Yes, Johnny?” Scott knelt by his brother and took his fumbling hand.

“Do something for me?” Johnny’s voice was weakening, his breath now coming in gasps, and Scott realized his brother’s small reservoir of strength had once more been depleted.

Feeling emotion rise in his throat again Scott searched for a flip reply but came up empty. “Of course, brother.”

“Go check on Avante for me, will yuh?”

“But, Johnny--” Scott was confused. “I was going to help  . . .”

“Please,” Johnny murmured.

Scott glanced at Murdoch and was surprised by the look of compassion written on his father’s face. And something else. Something Scott did not fully understand.

 "Go on, son,” Murdoch urged gently. “I’ll call you when you’re needed.”

 Biting back the angry, hurt retort that made his mouth taste sour, Scott managed a smile.  “Sure,” he said. “Sure.” He pressed his brother’s hand.

The blue of Johnny’s eyes was now as clear and brilliant as a summer sky and as Scott rose he saw in their defenseless depths what Johnny had not intended him to see. He knew then that Johnny was trying to protect him, to save him from pain. Maybe even to prepare him.

Johnny was not better. He was only at the edge of worse.

Insides churning, Scott stumbled across the clearing toward Avante. His brother understood him far better than he had known.

* * *

 With frank curiosity, Jason Avante watched the older Lancer brother’s approach. Earlier, the old hombre with the cap, the one they called Jelly, had checked his wound and brought him a cold, hard biscuit and a cup of strong coffee. But no one else had bothered to come near. So why, the Ranger wondered, this sudden interest? He had no desire to butt heads with young Lancer. If Scott wanted to go over old ground and rub his nose in the mistakes he’d made – well, fly at ‘er. For once he would keep his yap shut.

 Hitching his shoulder uncomfortably, Avante scowled. He was achy and feverish and, yes, out of sorts. If he were to be honest with himself he’d have to admit he hated having everyone avoid him like he was carrying the plague. He’d admit, too, that he couldn’t get over the uneasy feeling he should be doing something to help the kid. The irony of that wasn’t lost on him. But he couldn’t help it; that’s how he felt. He and Madrid, together they’d managed to make it this far.

 Reason told him he should feel relieved, even grateful, that the tall young man now before him had made it back to his father’s ranch and returned with help. Avante could sit back, let Madrid’s family do the work -- and the worrying. Wasn’t his job anymore. Except he couldn’t get over this feeling that it was.

  “Avante?” Scott Lancer’s voice was coldly distant.

 In spite of himself, the Ranger felt his hackles rise and his scowl deepened. “What do you want?” he asked sourly. “Get on back to your brother, Lancer.”

 “My brother sent me over here. To check on you.”

 “What?” Avante gaped at Scott in disbelief.

“Johnny sent me to check on you,” Scott repeated flatly.

Rubbing his thumb thoughtfully along his jaw, the Ranger studied the younger man for a moment. Then he looked across the clearing, to where Madrid lay. Murdoch Lancer and the old Mexican were carefully turning the kid on his side.

“How is he?” Avante asked, watching as Jelly appeared, squatting in front of Madrid and extending a comforting hand to the wounded man’s shoulder. “He can’t breathe good like that,” Avante said shortly. “Lyin’ on his side.”

“He can barely breathe at all,” came the almost inaudible reply.

The Ranger jerked his head up and regarded Scott sharply. The elder Lancer son seemed to have lost all his starch. Earlier Avante had heard him whistling as he walked back from the creek. His step had been light and his face animated as he talked first with Jelly and then with his brother. Of course, Avante had been surprised to find Madrid was even conscious. But then the kid had a way of constantly amazing him. And, equally amazing, he’d begun to count on it. He didn’t want to accept the despair that was darkening Scott Lancer’s eyes.

“You givin’ up on him? Look at me, Scott,” he commanded not unkindly as the other continued to stare at the group closer to the campfire. “You givin’ up?”

“No, Avante, I am not giving up on my brother.” The words were enunciated so precisely that the Ranger knew he had just been given a warning.

“You sure?” he growled, pushing. “He didn’t give up on you. An’ he needs you to be strong, boy.”

“Look, Ranger,” Scott turned swiftly, his expression one of fury and resentment. “You have absolutely no right to tell me what my brother needs, do you hear me? None!”

“Now wait a minute –“

“I haven’t forgotten who took that bullet out of Johnny’s back, Avante – but I damn well know who put it in there in the first place.”

Avante bit back a retort and looked away from Scott’s accusing glare. It came down to that. It would always come down to that. There was no denying that shooting Madrid in the back had been more than a mistake; it had been an indefensible breech of his own rules. But even worse was the brutal kick he had delivered to Madrid’s ribcage. He remembered with shame the pulse of savage pleasure he had felt as his boot connected with flesh and bone, halting the taunted truths he wanted to evade. That was the crime most difficult to admit, the sin for which he would forever do penance.

 A wave of nausea cramped his stomach and he put out a hand blindly, trying to get up.

“What --?” Startled into action, Scott crouched beside him, steadying him.

“Help me . . . up,” Avante gasped, his teeth clenched against the sickness that now threatened to spill. He felt clammy. “Hurry.”

With Scott’s help he managed to make it far enough away from his bedroll, from the clearing, that no one else would have to deal with the results of his body’s betrayal. There was very little in his belly, but what was there came up. Along with what felt wretchedly like the stomach itself. He ended up on his knees, bent over and balancing shakily on one hand.  Must have been the coffee, he thought, as he miserably tried to look anywhere but at the mess on the ground in front of him.

“All right?” Scott asked from above.

“Yeah.”

“Ready to go back?”

“Gimme a minute,” Avante said, closing his eyes. He straightened slowly and sat back on his heels. A small fire burned in his shoulder and at his back he felt something wet seeping below the bandage. He didn’t want to move. From a distance came a sound that seemed familiar yet vaguely disquieting. The sound of shovel and pick hitting hard-packed dirt.

They were digging the graves.

Opening his eyes Avante found Scott Lancer staring in the direction of the sound, his expression stricken.

“Scott?”

“What.” It was less a question than a statement; Scott seemed riveted by the ring of the pick striking rock, the shovel scraping at gravelly soil.

“You don’t want to hear it, but I’m gonna tell you anyway,” Avante said softly. “Listen to me, Son.”

Obstinately, Scott kept his face averted.

“That kid back there, he’s a stayer,” Avante ventured. “He’s got more grit than anyone I’ve ever known.” Pausing, he thought carefully, groping for the words.  He wasn’t good at talking about things like this. That was part of what went wrong with Chris; he was always saying the wrong thing to his angry little brother. He shook his head, tongue-tied and frustrated.

“Ranger, I don’t need you to tell me about my brother,” Scott rasped into the silence between them. “I don’t need you to tell me what I already know.”

“Well, then you know we shoulda have lost him way back,” Avante retorted angrily. “We shoulda lost him by the river, when we dug into him. Or somewhere on the trail – yesterday, the day before, the day before that.” The Ranger drew a deep breath and let it out in an explosive sputter. “Last night – commonsense would tell ya that a man sick as he is, half-dead with pain, the poison burning in him . . .”

He broke off uncomfortably, aware that Scott was staring at him. Avante couldn’t read his expression. Couldn’t tell whether the man was angry or disgusted or simply curious about what he intended to say. What did he intend to say? He wasn’t sure. Slowly, he pushed himself upright, waving away Scott’s offer of help. He stood for a minute, waiting for the world to stop tilting.

“Son,” he said finally, “I’m alive today because your brother doesn’t know when to quit.”

Scott closed his eyes. “Maybe he’s decided it’s time to learn,” he whispered.

Avante looked away, off through the cottonwoods toward where they had heard sounds of digging. Now there was only silence. Whether that was because the Lancer hands had finished their grisly chore or because the light morning breeze had changed direction Avante wasn’t sure. He suddenly wasn’t sure of much except one thing.

“No,” he said. “No.”

* * *

 The day was cooling, the sun less relentless than it had been even an hour before. Still, Scott was grateful for the shade afforded by the small canvas tent Jelly had rigged up for the back of the buckboard. Precarious the set-up might be, but at least it kept the sun off Johnny’s face and most of his chest.

 Scott shifted uncomfortably. The awning wasn’t quite high enough for him to sit fully upright by his brother’s side; he had to slouch down, a saddle blanket padding his back from the buckboard’s hard side. Later, they could take down the canvas. And then as they traveled through the night Johnny could see the stars. He’d like that. When he woke again.

 They had set out shortly after noon, after they had tended to Johnny, and the Ranger, whose reopened wound had given them some problems. And, as Murdoch had wanted, after everyone had eaten something. Even Johnny.

 Scott had returned from his efforts with Avante to find Murdoch and Cipriano had finished doctoring Johnny’s back and had managed to prop him up slightly using his saddle and a large number of rolled blankets. Johnny had called softly to Scott, asking about the Ranger and making a mildly rude joke about calls of nature. Scott was almost fooled. But then he saw the too-bright eyes and the flushed cheeks above the thick stubble of black beard, and he knew his brother’s fever was continuing its daily climb.

 It had taken surprisingly little time to break camp and begin the homeward journey. Jelly had efficiently organized his domain; Cipriano had done the groundwork with the two vaqueros. With their remuda increased by an additional five horses, Frank and Emilio would now share the wrangling chores.

 The buckboard was not spacious but Jelly had managed to load its bed so that there was plenty of room around the area where Johnny would be placed. The old handyman had snagged a straw-filled pallet from the bunkhouse stores and had obviously raided the same source for the many canteens and blankets he seemed to have on hand.

 Together Murdoch, Cipriano and Scott had lifted Johnny and moved him to the pallet. His brother’s frailty had taken away Scott’s breath; Johnny was as light as a child, and just as vulnerable. Scott had seen the alarm in his eyes as they’d lifted the improvised blanket litter and realized Johnny knew this final leg of his homeward journey had its own perils.

 Lifting an edge of the canvas tent Scott looked ahead for his father. Murdoch had ridden at their side while Johnny was awake, spurring up to ride with Cipriano only when Scott’s nod told him Johnny had drifted off. There was, Scott now knew, definitely some sort of secret agreement in place between his father and his brother. When he had tried to broach the subject with Murdoch, his father had firmly put him off. “I’m afraid that’s between your brother and me, Scott,” Murdoch said. “I’ve given my word.”

  He had known better than to ask Johnny about it. Close as they were there were times when Johnny closed the shutters and barred the door against any intrusion on his inner thoughts. Those were the times Scott feared the most, when Johnny went his solitary, stubbornly independent way. And this was one of them.

 “Please, son,” Murdoch had said, his hand resting on Scott’s sleeve. “Don’t worry about it – it’s just, well, it’s just something that is giving your brother some comfort right now.”

 That had bothered Scott more than anything.

 There was no sign of Murdoch and Scott let down the flap of canvas. From the front of the buckboard he heard the lilt of Jelly’s voice followed by a short, grunted response from Avante. The Ranger had wanted to ride his own mare, Scott knew, and had been none too happy when Murdoch had ignored his arguments and assigned him to the buckboard.

 Scott reached over and retrieved the damp cloth from Johnny’s forehead. Digging beside him he found under a blanket one of the canteens he’d had filled just before they left. Unscrewing the plug, he poured some of the still-chilled water up and down the length of cloth before laying it back on Johnny’s head. Avante had warned him about the fever. So far they had managed to keep it in hand.

 Listlessly, Scott watched the road behind them slowly recede. Murdoch hoped they could keep moving into the night. But it all depended on Johnny.

 --I depend on you, Johnny. Never expected it – certainly not when we first met that day on the stage going to Morro Coyo. Or later, when you stood by and watched Pardee’s men try to beat the stuffing out of me. Certainly not then. But it happened, didn’t it? And now, now we depend on each other.

 The buckboard lurched and bumped as they hit a patch of rutted road. As Scott quickly leaned toward Johnny, trying to save him from the worst of the jarring, their forward motion stopped.

 "Y’all right back there?” Jelly called anxiously from the front. “There’s a bad stretch comin’ up.” The canvas behind the buckboard seat was suddenly lifted and Jelly worriedly glanced down at them, peering at Johnny. “Might wanna get under him if ya can, Scott,” he advised. “Roadbed took a beating during that storm, I reckon. Need some help?” he asked as Scott carefully slipped an arm behind and beneath his brother and gently moved Johnny’s head and shoulders onto his lap.

 “We’re okay,” Scott said, settling back. “Let’s keep moving.”

 “Right!” Jelly let the canvas fall. “Here she goes.”

 The bad bit was longer than Scott expected.  Jelly drove the impatient team as slowly as possible but the bed of the buckboard rocked and lurched. Scott grasped Johnny firmly to prevent his brother’s limp body from rolling off his lap.

 “All clear,” Jelly called from the front, and with relief Scott felt the buckboard resume its steady course.

 “That’s sort of what it feels like to be sailing through a summer storm off Cape Cod, brother.” Scott smoothed Johnny’s shaggy hair back from his forehead and readjusted the fever cloth. “Maybe some day I’ll take you out with me – we’ll sail out of Marblehead or maybe Gloucester, so you can see the working boats, the fishermen. You’ll like them, Johnny. They’re rugged, stubborn, a breed apart.”

 “You say somethin’, Scott?” Jelly called from the front.

 “No, Jelly.”

 He was tired. Body and soul, both were tired, worn out from ricocheting between hope and despair, faith and fear. He looked down at his unconscious brother, so frail, so desperately ill. The road home suddenly seemed impossibly rough.

 

 
Chapter 23

Murdoch impatiently spurred his big chestnut gelding through the narrow neck of the small canyon, his eyes desperately seeking the wash that ran along the canyon’s western wall. At this time of year it was usually dry, but he was gambling the recent storm had brought the small creek back to life. Gambling because the canyon was a thirty-minute detour off the main road, and in this unseasonable heat that would be a hot and dusty thirty minutes too long if there was no water.

There was water farther on, of course. Two hours would see them to a good year-round spring. But they needed the water now. The buckets and canteens filled just recently were all empty, drained by the greediness of Johnny’s raging fever.

They had thought they had it under control, that between Jelly’s bitter brews and Scott’s cold compresses they had found the way to defeat their wily foe. The battle had been waged fiercely each of the three days and two nights they had been on the road. But never had fever gotten the upper hand as it had today. Despite all their efforts, Johnny had been comatose since mid-morning.

The chestnut heard and smelled the water before Murdoch saw it. The horse’s ears pricked forward and he snorted, dancing sideways as they rounded a large boulder and came upon the creek. It wasn’t much, just a small stream zigzagging through the rocky wash, but it was enough. Murdoch let the gelding stretch his neck and take a long drink. He had pushed the animal hard, afraid his judgment would let him down when needed most.

When the horse was done, Murdoch kneed him into a walk, following an old wagon track as it wandered at the edge of the wash.  The chestnut was too warm to stand around after drinking cold water; they didn’t need a foundered horse on top of everything else. The others wouldn’t be far behind, Murdoch figured, perhaps twenty minutes at most.

After a bit he came upon the remains of someone’s old campsite set back by a small stand of trees a short distance from the creek. Fire-blackened tins were scattered in the ashes of a fire ring and a broken board straddled two low, round rocks to form a bench. They would set up camp here, he decided suddenly. They would set up camp and fight Johnny’s fever until they could move on. Lancer wasn’t far. A steady five- or six-hour ride would do it. But not with Johnny in his present state. They couldn’t risk it. No matter what he had promised.

Slowly Murdoch dismounted, stumbling against the gelding as his bum leg buckled under his weight. Head against his saddle he rested for a moment, waiting for the tingling sensation to go. Sudden tears of frustration surprised and angered him; this was no time to give in to weakness. He sternly told himself to ignore the small voice deep within that was crying for succor. When the feeling returned to his leg he stretched out his back and limped to the chestnut’s head. He checked with the back of his hand the warmth of the horse’s chest. Satisfied the gelding had cooled, he tied his reins to a small sapling. Then he began to search for firewood.

He had just managed to get a fire going when the chestnut’s shrill whinny heralded the arrival of the others. In the distance Murdoch saw Cipriano pull up uncertainly, looking around as if searching for something, and then, spying smoke or perhaps Murdoch himself, he pointed in that direction.

The buckboard had barely stopped before Scott and Jelly climbed off, grabbed an armload of canteens and buckets and hurried over to the creek. While Frank and Emilio took the remuda horses downstream to drink, Cipriano pulled up next to the tail end of the vehicle and smoothly stepped from stirrup to buckboard bed. Ducking under the shaky little canvas tent he disappeared from view. But Murdoch was certain the segundo was touching his hand to a hot forehead, checking fever’s progress.

Without waiting to see the anxiety he knew would be written on Cipriano’s face, Murdoch turned back to the chestnut and began to unbuckle his cinch.

“Let me, amigo.” He turned to find the segundo standing at his elbow. “Go. Sit with your son,” Cipriano said softly. “I will do this, and unharness the team. We are staying here, sí?” At Murdoch’s mute nod, the vaquero grasped his forearm reassuringly. “It is better so. We will move on later, when the fever is down.”

Finding his voice, Murdoch managed a gruff, “Gracias, old friend,” before clambering into the buckboard. He made his way to the front of the wagon-bed, carefully stepping over Jelly’s store of supplies, and lowered himself down on the folded blanket at Johnny’s side.

Johnny lay as he had since morning, slack-limbed and still, his skin hot, dry to the touch. Despite his unshaven cheeks – or maybe because of them – he seemed to Murdoch appallingly young, a desperately ill, fever-ridden boy who was having increasing trouble breathing.

They had tried to make him more comfortable by placing additional layers of folded blankets under his back, raising his head and shoulders slightly higher than his legs. That had eased things for a time. Each shallow breath had still come as a crackling wheeze, but at least the lines of distress had disappeared from around Johnny’s eyes and his hands had no longer plucked restlessly at his chest. Yet now, Murdoch saw, even that slight advantage had been lost. The wheeze was louder, raspier. Johnny was laboring.

Was fever raging because of the back wound or had pneumonia finally, truly set in? Murdoch wasn’t sure. Not for the first time did he feel the blackness of despair begin to fall about him. Death was laying siege on his son. On them all. And their defenses were in danger of being overwhelmed.

Again Murdoch took himself to task, reminding himself of the promises he had made Johnny and those his son had given in return. Then, as if waking from a trance, he became aware he was sitting on something uncomfortable, something that was digging into his hip. Reaching down he found a half-empty canteen lying forgotten under the blanket.

First things first, he told himself. Get the fever down. He looked around but the cloths Scott had been using earlier seemed to have disappeared. Unknotting the bandana from his neck he dampened it thoroughly with the lukewarm water and placed the small blue scarf on Johnny’s forehead.

 “Lancer!” a voice croaked from behind the curtain of canvas, startling him so that he almost dropped the canteen. The Ranger. He’d all but forgotten he was there.

The canvas rustled and Murdoch looked up to find the Ranger had pulled back the flap and was watching him.

“What do you want, Avante?” he responded gruffly.

“How is he?”

“Not good. No change.”

“You gotta get some of that tea in ‘im,” the Ranger rasped. “He ain’t had enough – your man’s gettin’ more on the ground than in the kid.”

Biting back a sarcastic retort, Murdoch took a deep breath and watched the canvas curtain fall back in place. He turned again to his unconscious son. Jelly had done his best. They all had. But during the increasingly rare times Johnny was fully awake the tea they had managed to get him to swallow had often come right up again. Equally unsuccessful were their attempts to get him to drink when he was semi-conscious and caught in the world of delirium.

“Lancer?”

“Yes, Avante.”

“You run out of that tea, remember I got some in my saddlebag, right?”

“Yes,” Murdoch answered, wondering if Avante was falling prey to fever, too. They had had this conversation several times already today. Each time the Ranger had become more and more insistent, his tone of voice verging on the aggrieved. The last time Jelly had checked the man’s shoulder he reported back that the entrance wound was beginning to look more inflamed. Shouldn’t be surprised, Murdoch thought. Although he had been careful to clean the hole thoroughly that first night, he also knew bullet wounds became infected more often than not.

Jelly had told him the Ranger refused the use of his own medicinal salve despite its purported effectiveness against infection. “Said he only had so much and we should save it for Johnny,” Jelly had said, shaking his head. “Don’t understand him, Boss, I surely don’t. He’s the reason that boy’s in the shape he is, but now it’s like he don’t trust us to do right by him. By Johnny, I mean.” Pulling thoughtfully at the loose wattle under his bearded chin Jelly had given Murdoch a puzzled look. “’Splain that, would ya?”

-I can’t, Jelly, I can’t, Murdoch thought now as he stared at the shallow rise and fall of Johnny’s chest. Except that Johnny has a way of getting under people’s skin – of drawing people to him, making them like him despite themselves. If they can see past the legend, that is. If they look past Madrid and see Johnny. Just Johnny.

 “Sometimes I haven’t been able to do that myself, have I, son?” he murmured. Bleakly he gazed past the awning into the distance, caught up in his memories and his self-reproach. The Pinkerton report had been thorough. Meticulous. Everything the agents had discovered about his younger son had been set out in neat black copperplate. And they had discovered a lot. Dates. Places. People. Twice he had read each page of the thick folder. Then he had gone to the backhouse and been sick. Something he ate in town, he’d told an anxious Maria. Something at the cantina.

Returning to his desk, he had written instructions to the agency. He wished no further investigation. If they would be so kind as to forward an itemized account, he would arrange for a bank draft. Payment for services rendered. Account closed. And then he had told no one. Not even O’Brien.

-Oh, Johnny . . . oh God, I am so ashamed . . . I knew. I knew and I did nothing. And I almost lost you because of it . . .

Shaking off the paralysis of guilt Murdoch checked the blue bandana and found it nearly dry. He removed the incongruously bright cloth from his son’s forehead, poured the last of the water on it and sponged Johnny’s face and neck. Outside the canvas he heard someone returning and before he knew it Scott was squatting beside him, handing him one of the cold, wet canteens before stashing the others under their insulating blanket.

“It’s taking some time to fill these,” Scott explained. “The water’s pretty shallow. Jelly’s put a bucket in the creek and has got the compresses in there soaking.”

Murdoch nodded. Wadding up the bandana he held it cupped in his hand and clumsily tried to dribble fresh water over it.

“Let me,” Scott said, taking the heavy canteen.

Jelly appeared at the back of the buckboard, canteens slung over his shoulder and two buckets in hand. “Them cloths are in this one,” he said, hoisting a bucket onto the tailgate. “Can ya take these canteens, Scott? Ranger don’t look too good up there.” Jelly looked at Murdoch inquiringly. “We gonna stay put for a spell?”

“Yes,” Murdoch answered as Scott reached for the canteens and pulled the bucket closer to them. Craning his neck to meet Jelly’s gaze, Murdoch jerked his chin toward the front of the buckboard and said in a low voice, “You might want to check him for fever, too.”

“Sure, Boss.” But Jelly didn’t move. His gnarled hands gripped the edge of the tailgate as he stared at Johnny. Even the visor of his cap couldn’t hide the lines of worry furrowing his brow.

“Jelly?” Murdoch prodded softly.

“Right, Boss.” Tearing his eyes away, Jelly gave Murdoch a wry look. “All the work that needs doin’ here and I’m standin’ round jawin’.” Like a dog coming out of water, the handyman gave himself a shake and squared his shoulders. “Few hours restin’ here’s going to make a world o’ difference,” he muttered. “You’ll see,” he added, his tone as scolding as if Murdoch had dared contradict him. “Johnny’s fever is gonna drop like a stone purty soon. You’ll see, Boss. Jus’ like a stone.”

Still talking, Jelly disappeared from view, moving off toward the front of the buckboard and soon Murdoch could hear the man barking an angry defense as the Ranger once again began his tirade about tea. Murdoch rubbed his eyes tiredly. He hoped he was wrong about Avante and that they wouldn’t have to fight fever on that front, too. One war was enough. More than enough.

“Murdoch?” Scott’s low voice interrupted his thoughts and he looked up to find his son holding out a folded wet cloth. “Put this under his neck, would you?” Silently Murdoch took the cloth and gently raised Johnny’s head enough to slip the compress in place. Then he exchanged the nearly dry blue bandana for a second cloth and began to wipe Johnny’s face while Scott sponged his brother’s chest and arms.

It was warm under the awning. The still air smelled like hot canvas and stale sweat. When the sun dropped, Murdoch thought, they would take down the shelter and let the cool of nightfall come to their aid. But for now the tent offered protection. Sitting by Johnny’s head, working beside Scott in the cramped space, Murdoch felt he was living in a small, separate world. There was no one else. He was alone with his sons, his boys.

He would keep them safe and allow no intruders. None.

* * *

Scott did up his trouser buttons and gave one more look at the night sky. The moon was waning; each night shaving off another sliver. Each night a little darker than the one before. But tonight, tonight there was light enough still.

Stepping away from the bushes, he turned and wearily began to walk back toward the campfire. It was chilly, colder than he had expected. He had come away from the buckboard without his coat; sitting these long hours with his brother he had not needed it.

Johnny’s fever had not come down although they had bathed him continually. All through the late afternoon and into the evening, they had swaddled his head and chest with cold, wet cloths. They had slipped off his pants, unbuttoning the conchas down each side, and cut the long cotton drawers away at the knee. They had soaked an entire blanket and laid it over him. But they couldn’t get the fever to relinquish its hold.

Scott kicked a stone from his path and heard a horse snort in alarm. Then the entire remuda shied nervously, surging and retreating as he passed near. Amidst the dark shapes he saw a pale horse, white mane and tail dancing, and he stopped, his heart caught in his throat. Barranca. Barranca and Johnny.

 Memories immobilized him.

“Scott!” Murdoch’s shout shook him out of his stupor and he ran, panicked, toward camp, startling the horses anew as he pushed through brush and stumbled over the rough ground. Approaching the fire he saw his father in the buckboard, bending over Johnny, and the others, even Avante, standing motionless by the tailgate.

-No, no, no, no, no, no . . .

“Whoa, boy! It’s all right,” Jelly said, catching his arm as he staggered against the back wheel. “He’s awake, that’s all. It’s okay.” But when Jelly helped Scott up into the wagon-bed the expression on his face belied his easy words. On trembling legs Scott made his way to the front. Murdoch was standing now, his hand stretched out to steady Scott as they exchanged places.

Dimly he was aware of movement, of Murdoch moving back and away, of men walking over to the campfire. But as he sat down at Johnny’s side he saw only his brother’s eyes, huge and strangely luminous in the gaunt face. Instinctively he stretched his hand out to Johnny’s burning forehead and he saw his brother’s lids close at the coolness of his touch.

“Johnny?”

“Scott . . .” Johnny’s voice was a soft, breathless whisper. The blue eyes opened again, fixed on something beyond Scott’s perception. “I bin dreamin’, Scott.” A pause. “Mighty odd, them dreams . . . Or maybe not.”

“Shhh,” Scott said, smoothing the hair back from Johnny’s forehead. “Don’t talk now.”

“Don’t want . . . don’t want to sleep again,” Johnny answered, his gaze still focused on the indefinable distance. “Don’t let me sleep . . . ‘kay?”

Struggling with the lump in his throat, Scott moved his hand to his brother’s bare arm. Hot, like Johnny’s forehead, so that Scott’s palm felt scorched. He looked up to find Johnny watching him. “Sleep’s supposed to help a man heal, Johnny,” he muttered.

“No.” Johnny said, his eyes fathomless. “No, Scott . . .Sleep’s ‘the brother of Death.’”

From somewhere beside and behind him Scott heard a guttural sound of distress. Glancing back he saw his father shift position and quickly look away toward the campfire.

“That right, Murdoch?” Johnny whispered.

Murdoch cleared his throat. “That’s what Hesiod wrote, yes.” He turned, his gaze meeting Scott’s. “The Theogony,” he explained softly.

“Warburton,” Johnny coughed. “He told me. . .”

There was a long agonizing pause as the cough turned into a choking wheeze. Catching his brother’s hand as it weakly grabbed at the air in front of him, Scott thought he had never felt so helpless.

“Can’t breathe . . .” Johnny gasped suddenly.

“Raise him up, son –  quick! Get beneath him!” Murdoch was kneeling now, reaching toward Johnny, and with his help Scott slid Johnny’s head and shoulders onto his lap. Immediately the heat radiating from his brother’s body made him feel over warm. But the desperate struggle for breath was won and after a few minutes Johnny began to relax.

“Promise,” Johnny said finally, looking up to search Scott’s face. “’Kay, Boston?”

 “All right. Yes,” Scott stammered. He forced a smile. “Just don’t go all surly on me when I start prodding you awake, all right? You know,” he added, his voice gaining strength. “None of your smart-mouth sass.”

A half-smile played at the corners of Johnny’s mouth, and its familiar boyishness made Scott ache. “No, “ Johnny whispered. The smile widened. “No sass.”

Scott felt a hand on his shoulder, Murdoch leaning on him briefly as he clumsily rose to his feet. “I’m going to get him some of that tea,” Murdoch rasped, his face contorted, pained. He wouldn’t meet Scott’s eye. “I’ll -- I’ll be right back.”

The wagon-bed rocked slightly as Murdoch made his way to the tailgate and eased himself down to the ground. Scott watched his father limp stiff-legged to the campfire where Jelly was leaning over a large pot. As the two conferred, Cipriano stood at Murdoch’s elbow, stroking his mustache and listening intently. From the shadows Frank emerged carrying an armload of wood. He threw it down and then began feeding pieces into the fire. Flames leapt as the dry wood caught on, snapping and spitting. Emilio lunged for Jelly’s pot, moving it to safety.

Scott felt Johnny’s head move restlessly in his lap. “Okay?” he asked, anxiously searching his brother’s face in the renewed firelight.

“Yeah . . . jus’ --  feel hot’s all.” Johnny swallowed.  His hand picked fretfully at the damp cloth on his chest. “Real . . .hot.”

“Well, then let’s cool you off, boy,” Scott said with forced optimism. Suddenly aware of his own body’s heat, he rolled up his sleeves and unbuttoned his shirt.  He was as warm as if he’d been working over a smithy’s forge. “Want to try lying back the way you were?” he asked, groping for a canteen. “Might be cooler.”

“No!” Eyes wide with alarm his brother reached blindly and caught at his elbow, distracting his search.

“All right, all right – it’s okay,” Scott soothed, his heart racing. Again his hand found its way to Johnny’s forehead, easing the pain lines, pushing back the long dark hair. He saw the panic recede from the fever-bright blue eyes, replaced by a look of such profound trust that he had to bite his tongue to keep his composure.

After a moment, he felt strong enough to test his voice. “You need a haircut, little brother,” he murmured, his fingers lightly combing shaggy ends. “Think we’ll set Teresa loose with her scissors when we get home.” The light grip on his elbow loosened and he heard Johnny exhale in an ugly, raspy wheeze.

Scott reached behind himself and found under the mound of blankets a half-filled canteen. He soaked the cloth that had been on Johnny’s chest and replaced it. Then he felt around, searching in vain for the cloth that had been on his brother’s head. Just as he was about to give up he saw a hint of white twisted into the rucked-up blankets covering the pallet where Johnny had lain.

He leaned forward, his unbuttoned shirt brushing over his brother’s face as he awkwardly stretched his hand out toward the cloth. Suddenly there was a light pull on his neck and he looked down to find Johnny looking at him in wonder, Elena’s chain caught around his fingertips, her cross dangling, turning in gentle spirals. Scott slowly straightened, the cloth forgotten, and the gold chain ran over Johnny’s fingers like sunlight before falling back against Scott’s chest.

“Never knowed you to wear jewelry, Scott.”

 There was an unasked question in the strained whisper. Scott’s hand rose self-consciously to his neck, touching the cross as a talisman. “It’s from Elena,” he said, watching Johnny carefully. All thumbs, he began fumbling with the clasp. “She asked me to . . . to give it to you – for good luck,” he added hurriedly, head down. “Teresa put it on me so I wouldn’t lose it. I almost forgot.”

“’Lena’s?” Johnny asked softly.  “She lendin’ me her faith, too?”

“It’s – it’s a gift, Johnny,” Scott stammered as the chain’s tiny clasp finally yielded. Carefully, he removed the necklace and held it in his palm. “She wants you to have it.” He faltered, unsure how to continue. Unsure of the words. How had Elena put it? He took a deep breath. “She said it had been given to her long ago, by a -- a dear friend. A very beautiful, stubborn and  . . .  very angry friend.”

The naked pain in his brother’s eyes flared like photographer’s flash powder, exposing his vulnerability and searing Scott’s heart. But Johnny didn’t make a sound. A pulse thudded at the base of his throat. His hand clenched and unclenched. But for a long moment Johnny said nothing. Then he closed his eyes and let out a long, shuddering sigh.

“Johnny?”

“Put it on me, would yuh, Scott?”

Gently Scott slipped the chain around his brother’s neck, mentally flinching as his hand brushed the hot skin, and fastened the clasp. With Johnny watching him gravely, he checked the clasp a second time. A hand caught his. And held it.

“Thanks . . .”

Scott ducked his head, no longer able to meet his brother’s gaze. He had no strength to fight the tide of emotion welling inside. It was all gone. He was exhausted beyond measure. Then, startled by a rustling sound coming from behind them, he looked around to find Murdoch standing at the buckboard’s tailgate, his back turned to them, his head down. His shoulders shaking in silent grief. Scott was stricken.

--For whom are you grieving, Murdoch? For a son who is dying? For a wife who was lost?

Eyes brimming, he turned back to Johnny and saw that once again his brother was watching something he could not see, in a world where he could not follow.

--Grieve for us all, Father. Grieve for us all.

 

Chapter 24

Avante bit off another piece of the tough jerky Jelly had given him and stared morosely at the fire. With night, a pall had fallen over the camp. It had lifted momentarily when Madrid had first come to but descended again almost immediately, when everyone realized the kid’s fever hadn’t broken, only notched higher. His lucidity was just another of fever’s cruel tricks.

Like the others, Avante had rushed to the buckboard when he heard Murdoch Lancer shout for Scott. He had stood with them all as they watched the father tend to his waking son. But he soon became aware he wasn’t wanted. He was not welcome – not even, or perhaps especially, on a death watch. Cursing angrily he’d staggered away and defiantly took a spot on the rough bench by the fire. Let someone try to move him, he’d thought to himself. Let ‘em just try.

Time was playing him for a fool. He had no idea how long he’d been sitting alone by the fire watching the flames. A shiver ran through him. Either the night was getting colder or his fever was rising. With gloom he realized it was probably the latter. The hole in his shoulder wasn’t healing very well. The old cook had pushed some of his own tea on him earlier and muttered sourly about folks who made trouble for themselves and everyone else. But Jelly’s reproof was milder than the unspoken words than hung in the air whenever anyone happened to look his way.

For Old Man Lancer, however, it was like he’d ceased to exist. The tall rancher had not acknowledged him at all when he had returned to the campfire searching for more medicinal tea. His eyes hadn’t even flickered when Jelly told him the last cup had been given to “the Ranger” and that he’d have to wait for the next batch to steep. Instead, he’d stood staring at the fire for a while and then abruptly began to pace. When the tea was ready, he had taken it without a word and returned to his sons.

Why the hell was everyone givin’ up on Madrid anyway? The jerky suddenly seemed tasteless and Avante spat the wad he was chewing in the direction of the fire. Sure, the fever was high – but it would come down if they’d just get that damn tea down his throat. Lancer had said something about the wound looking better; the salve must be doing its job. And Madrid was a born fighter . . .

--Oh dear God, that kid don’t deserve to die.

The thought came unbidden, and he clamped down on it hard. Running a shaky hand over his rough cheeks, he stared fiercely at the fire and fought to ignore the self-loathing that sat like a bitter pill at the back of his throat. He wasn’t going to go there – not tonight.

The horse wrangler, Emilio, appeared from nowhere, tin cup in hand, and squatted down to pour himself a cup of coffee. Avante looked away. He could feel the man’s eyes on him, watching him. But when he looked up again the wrangler was gone.

A restlessness came over him and he felt an urge to move. He needed to walk. Rising slowly, he fought the wave of dizziness that threatened to pull him back to the bench. When his vision steadied he found his eyes being drawn to the buckboard, where Murdoch Lancer was still sitting with his sons. He took a tentative step forward, then another, and found himself grabbed roughly by the arm, the bum one, so that he gasped and had to double over with the pain.

“You are not wanted there, Tejano.” The warning in the old segundo’s voice was unmistakable – and so was the menace.

Avante straightened, blinking away the pinwheels of light that made it hard to see. Cipriano stood before him, an implacable barrier between Avante and the buckboard. Contempt was written on the vaquero’s face. And something more. A deep and primitively merciless hate. The Ranger felt his hackles rise, self protection overcoming his sense of guilt.

“Back off, old man!” he growled.

“Bastardo!” Cipriano spat in contempt, his eyes glittering.

 “This ain’t the time and that ain’t our fight,” Avante rasped. “I was a kid, a snot-nosed kid when the Rangers -- well, when some of them did what they did to your people.”

The old vaquero looked at him with disgust and Avante realized he had misjudged the man. Cipriano wasn’t fighting old grudges; his hate was deeper. For Avante the man rather than Avante the Ranger. Suddenly he was again aware of the pounding in his shoulder and he clapped his hand over the pain.

 --Whatever happened to the days when I could read a man and get it right? Used to be able to do that. Somethin’ I was proud of. Did it die or did I kill it off?

Cipriano’s voice interrupted his thoughts. “You are wrong,” the old man said, his voice low, throaty. “It became my fight when you shot a man in the back, cobarde.” He stepped closer, so close that Avante could feel the heat of his breath and his anger. “It became my fight when you kicked in the ribs of a man who is like –”

Abruptly, Cipriano stepped away. The tension in him was like a metal coil just waiting to be sprung, and his hand had moved close to his gun butt. Avante knew he was looking death in the face.

“Hold on there!” Jelly was now at Cipriano’s elbow, his hand deflecting the segundo’s, his body moving between the two men. “That ain’t gonna solve a goldarned thing and you know it,” the grizzled little cook challenged Cipriano. “Sure, you could put another coupla holes in this hombre. Make him look like that fancy tea strainer Teresa’s got back home. But that ain’t gonna help Johnny. ‘Sides, Ranger ain’t even packin’ a pistol, Cipriano.” Jelly looked from Cipriano to Avante and back “Don’t reckon you ever shot an unarmed man, compadre. And I ain’t about to let you change your ways now.”

The minute it took for the angry segundo to regain control of himself was one of the longest Avante could remember. But as he watched, he saw the tension subside. Still the dark eyes smoldered as the man slowly moved a hand up to his vest pocket and withdrew a folded piece of paper.

“You are like la peste,” the vaquero said, shaking the paper at Avante. “What you do not kill you scar -- ruin.”  Cipriano inhaled deeply and threw the paper in disgust at the Ranger’s chest. “You will pay, Señor. That I promise you.” Turning swiftly on his heel, he walked off into the darkness.

Stooping low, Jelly retrieved the paper from the ground.  For a moment he stood in silence, watching Cipriano’s disappearing back. Then he turned to Avante. “You don’t want to rile Cipriano,” he advised, his voice curt. “He loves that boy like his own son. Thinks the world of him.” Avante saw Jelly’s chin jut and a glimmer of something like defiance showed in his bloodshot eyes. “An’ so do I.”

Jelly opened the paper and read the printed words on the tattered, creased wanted poster.  Bright spots of color appeared on his cheeks above the beard. With deliberate movements he folded and refolded the paper until it was a small, bulky square. “Mister,” he said angrily, “this is—this is horseshit. An’ you know it.”

Tired and shaky, Avante hadn’t the energy to defend himself. He wanted to argue that he’d merely been doing his job; he’d put a price on the head of a man he had thought a murderer. A man who, after all, did have a reputation. Who was Johnny Madrid. But his strength had deserted him and he desperately needed to sit down. First, though, he had to go over to that buckboard. Had to see that kid. If Jelly made any move to stop him he would collapse. He knew that. He didn’t want the old man’s help but he did want – what did he want?

A truce.

“Look--” he began, grabbing at the cook’s arm and leaning on it rather more than he planned. “I don’t got much starch left but I gotta – I gotta go over there.” Jelly drew back, his face hardening. “No,” Avante pleaded. “Please – listen. I won’t . . .” He stopped. There weren’t any words to explain. Or at least none that would make sense to anyone else.

The older man regarded him steadily.  “All right,” Jelly said finally. He wiped at his mouth with the back of his hand and shook his head. “Scott said you was an ornery cuss.” Drawing in a deep breath he glanced over towards the buckboard and then back to Avante, his expression severe and unyielding.  “You go over there,” he said. “And you look at Johnny real close. And you think on how it’s ‘cuz of you he’s lyin’ there like that.  I want that to haunt you, mister. Whether that boy lives or dies, I want that to haunt you.”

Avante heard the catch in the old man’s throat and understood he’d just been given as close to a reprieve as he was ever going get from the grizzled cook Nodding his thanks, he turned and began walking toward the buckboard, his hand again pressed tightly against his shoulder.

As he approached, he saw Murdoch Lancer’s head lift and knew the man was watching his unsteady progress. Drawing closer, his eyes adjusted to the dimness of the light away from the fire and he could see the weary rancher working to keep his face impassive. Struck by a sudden awkwardness Avante hesitated by the tailgate. Murdoch Lancer stared at him but said nothing.

Avante made his way to the side of the buckboard to stand just behind the front wheel.  His knees were letting him down now, trembling with fatigue, and he had to let the wheel take part of his weight. Despite the coolness of the night he was sweating; the small of his back was wet. Wedged between wheel and wagon-bed, he closed his eyes and tried to will strength back into his legs. There was no way he was going to fall on his face right now. Not here.

“What do you want?” Scott Lancer’s husky voice roused him from his daze. He opened his eyes and returned the young man’s stare. He could think of no answer that would satisfy so he merely shook his head. Gathering his strength, he straightened and let his gaze fall and find Madrid.

The kid was lying with his head and shoulders across his brother’s lap and he was shivering. He was covered to the neck with blankets but his body was being shaken by violently strong shudders. Avante’s stomach dropped. He knew fever’s tricks all too well.  He knew the cycles of hot and cold. But this was different.

Avante drew in a ragged breath. Scott Lancer and his father no longer existed. He didn’t care what they thought or what they saw. Instinctively he stretched out an uncertain hand. But there was a distance between him and Madrid that couldn’t be bridged.

Avante’s hand fell back to the buckboard’s side, steadying his sagging weight. When he looked again at Madrid he found the startlingly blue eyes open, watching him with an expression that he at first found difficult to read.  The penetration, the knowingness of those eyes was almost beyond him. And when at last Avante understood what he was being told, he had to turn away.

--No, boy, I got a feelin’ it ain’t no longer yours to give. Now it’s somethin’ I gotta find on my own.

* * *

His brother’s voice drew him back.

He had been floating again. Drifting on the lake, the one T’resa always said was the best swimmin’ spot on Lancer. The one with water so clear you could see pretty near down to the gravel bottom. Even at the deepest part.

Just floating on his back and feeling the sun hot on his face.

But no, now Scott was pulling him back in, drawing him to shore and making him come awake. Scott -- keeping his word. Not letting him sleep.

Johnny struggled to open his eyes. The soft, low tones of his brother’s voice washed over him. Hoarse but familiar. Comforting. He smiled.

There really wasn’t much pain any more. There wasn’t much of anything. Damn shivers were gone. They had about done him in. And they had left him hot again.  But at least they had left.

So had the Ranger.

He’d known what Avante wanted even though the man himself had not. It wasn’t hard to figure, or to grant. But in some curious way he’d also known that Avante would never accept his forgiveness.

--See a padre, Ranger Man, Johnny thought. Let one of them deal with your Catholic guilt. I can’t do no more than what I done.

But Avante was unimportant. Everything was. Everything that had happened. Everything. Even the things that happened in his own past . . . it was too long ago. Another lifetime. And none of it mattered.

What matters is now. And Scott talking. Talking about whatever comes to mind. Just talking. Helping him hold onto the now.  Keeping away the nightmares. Fighting that dark.

Scott . . . telling him about the new barn he thinks they should build. Next to the old one. With larger box stalls for foaling mares.  A decent tackroom. Scott’s face growing more and more animated as he adds one outlandish embellishment after another.

--Think I’ll hold you to this foolishness, Boston. If we get home  . . .

His breath caught at the base of his throat, a wheeze choking him, and he felt Scott reaching under him, lifting him slightly as Murdoch slid more blankets behind and beneath his back. His father’s eyes caught his and he saw the worry in their depths. And something more. There was a pain in his heart then. Sharp as a honed knife blade.

--You know, Old Man. Yuh gotta know after all this time. Yeah, we’re always arguing and butting heads, like two of them mountain billys, both of ‘em too stubborn to give in. But yuh know, Murdoch, don’t yuh?

He must have drifted off because Scott was calling his name again, like he did when they were mending fences together and Scott wanted him to haul in on the wire. Impatient. Like he was needed in a hurry.

He tried to reach up, to brush away the hand that was cupping his chin. But there was no strength in his arms. None at all. It was hot. Too hot. Scott would have to tighten that wire all by himself.

“C’mon, Brother, open your eyes! No sleeping on the job. That’s what you said – and I’m going to keep you to it.”

Scott’s voice sounded hoarser now, as raspy as when he’d had the grippe and they’d just about had to tie him to his bed to keep him from going out and putting in a full day’s work. No slacker, Scott. A good man – more’n good. A man anyone would be proud to call brother.

--‘Cept what’d you do to draw Johnny Madrid as a brother, Boston? What crime coulda been bad enough to make Lady Luck give you them cards, huh? Any other man would have said she was dealing off the bottom of the deck. Not you – you never let on that you bin cheated. Just went and treated me as if . . . as if I was worth every bit of what you give me.

Johnny’s eyes opened. Met his brother’s.

--I’m tryin’, Scott. I’m tryin’ hard not to let you down.

* * *

Avante wakened slowly. For a groggy moment he couldn’t place where he was, or what had happened. His shoulder throbbed dully and he could feel his wound pull as he shifted on the hard ground. It was night still, not morning, and he wanted to sleep. Needed to sleep. But why was there so much noise and commotion?

Someone was shouting, calling for more water. Someone was running. A man cursed. In Spanish.

Abruptly, memory flooded back and he was fully awake. His eyes found the buckboard but it took him a few minutes to sort out the confusing images. In the wagonbed he could pick out the figures of Scott Lancer, sitting as he had earlier in the evening, and his father. The rancher was kneeling and appeared to be searching for something. As he pawed through a small mound of supplies, the other men -- the cook and the vaqueros – stood waiting by the tailgate. The old segundo was pacing restlessly.

Madrid, Avante thought with alarm. The kid’s in trouble.

Worry goading him, the Ranger painfully pushed himself to a sitting position and was surprised by how much effort the simple movement took. He felt lightheaded and his good arm shook when he leaned on it for balance. With dismay, he realized he was too weak and exhausted to stand much less make it over to the buckboard.

Well, he reminded himself sourly, you wouldn’t exactly be welcome anyway. They didn’t want you there before and they ain’t gonna want you there now. Besides, what can you do for that boy that his own family can’t?

“Damn little,” he muttered aloud. But the admission brought him no comfort. He couldn’t shake the feeling that somehow he still should be the one responsible for Madrid’s care.

Helplessly, he peered across the smoldering fire and watched as Jelly passed a collection of canteens and buckets to Cipriano and the two other men. Then, as the trio disappeared into the darkness, Avante heard the rumble of Murdoch Lancer’s voice and Jelly’s louder reply.

“Now, Boss, you know that ain’t nothin’ but a shallow little crick. It’s gonna take ‘em some time to fill those up. We got some more right here.”

 “We need them now, Jelly!” Murdoch ordered brusquely and in the dim light Avante saw him reach from the buckboard with impatient hands.

“I never seen a fever go this sour,” said Jelly, sounding worried. “Try jus’ pouring it right on him, Murdoch.”

Avante lost the rancher’s reply and cursed the weakness that prevented him from at least moving closer. He could just see the hunched figures of Madrid’s father and brother; he could imagine the scene in the cramped wagonbed as the two men frantically worked to cool Johnny down. Then he heard Scott Lancer, the strain all too evident in his voice:

“He’s burning up!”

“I know, son, I know. Give me that cloth. That bandana, too.”

“Now he’s shivering, Murdoch – this isn’t working.”

Again Murdoch’s reply was too soft for Avante to hear. 

Hold on, kid, Avante thought as he gave in to weakness and sank back down in his borrowed blankets.  You’ve come so far and you’re almost home. Don’t give up now. Keep fightin’, boy.

The Ranger looked up at the sky, staring without seeing. Time seemed suspended. The men returned from the stream and were sent back again. Jelly came over to the fire, fed in more wood and then returned to his vigil. The voices from the buckboard continued to rise and fall, sometimes angry, sometimes entreating, often desperate. He gave up trying to make out the words.

 Self-consciously, Avante thought about saying a prayer but wondered whether it would do any good. He wasn’t sure if there was a creator up there like his mama and the priests said. If there was, he knew someday he’d have some explaining to do. Maybe not as much as some men, he reminded himself, but a good sight more’n most. Especially now.

A prayer for a gunfighter, Avante thought ruefully, never thought I’d see the day. 

“Oh, God! No!”

Scott Lancer’s anguished cry broke into Avante’s thoughts and the Ranger felt a cold fear clench his gut. He struggled upright again, making it to his knees this time, trying to see what was happening, why Scott and now his father seemed to be wrestling with an unseen opponent.

“He’s convulsing!” Murdoch’s shout was despairing. “ . . . Jelly, grab his legs . . . His tongue, Scott, Mother of God, don’t let him swallow his tongue . . . ”

Numbly, Avante watched the men struggle, their bodies jerking as they fought to subdue whatever violent force had taken control of Madrid’s battered body. Then as suddenly as it had started, the seizure was over. The men froze, their strength stilled. In the uncertain light of the dying campfire, Avante saw Scott lean over and when he straightened his brother was in his arms, cradled against his chest. The Ranger’s heart thudded painfully in his ribcage. The kid looked like some child’s cast-off rag doll, head lolling, arms spilling loose. All fight gone.

The Ranger saw Murdoch Lancer, still on his knees, reach out for his sons then sink back awkwardly on his heels, face buried in his hands. Shoulders drooping with exhaustion, the father sat as stone. At the tailgate, the old segundo made the sign of the cross while the others stood silently in the shadows.

Out of the depths of an altar boy’s past came half-remembered words:

“Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritu Sancto. Sicut erat in principio. . .” 

Avante wasn’t even aware he spoke them.

 

 

 Chapter 25

Teresa shaded her eyes against the late afternoon sun. Once more she scanned the distant foothills and searched the ribbon of narrow road that wound down to the ranch. There was nothing to see. No longer was she fooled by the play of sun and shadows on rock or seduced into hope by the sight of far-off men on horseback. Her long vigil had sharpened her eye.

With resignation she turned back to her task, drawing a small pair of scissors from her apron pocket. She bent low and snipped some parsley from one of the still vigorous plants, then pulled an errant weed, shaking the dirt from the roots before tossing it aside. Despite the recent rains, the soil in this small herb garden near the side of the house was dry and powdery. She made a mental note to ask one of the vaqueros to bring her a wheelbarrow load of horse manure to turn into the soil before winter.

It had been seven days since Murdoch, Scott and the others had set out from Lancer in search of Johnny. A week – the longest week she had ever lived. The unsettled feeling in her stomach, an uneasy fluttering which made it difficult to eat and, some nights, impossible to sleep, had increased with each passing day.

Reading had always been her solace and her escape. But now not even Miss Austen, her favorite, could hold her attention for long. The banter of Eliza Bennett and Mr. Darcy, lovingly read and reread in the past, held no interest. Instead, she tried to bury her anxiety in a flurry of activity.

Ignoring Maria’s protests, she busied herself helping with the cleaning and dusting and scrubbing chores that were usually within the housekeeper’s domain. She dug out a long-ignored basket full of hole-ridden socks and darned them; she raided her family’s armoires and chests-of-drawers in search of clothes needing mending. She even cleaned out the hens’ laying boxes, a smelly, dirty job she particularly hated and usually fought a secret war with Maria to evade.

When the restlessness was too strong and she couldn’t sweep or wash or mend away her fears, she saddled her dappled gray mare and rode, always toward the west, toward the Stockton road. Always fighting the urge to keep on going until she met Murdoch and Scott. And Johnny.

She liked to play out the daydream of their meeting in her mind, embellishing it, drawing it out as long as she could. Because she wanted it to be so, she pictured Johnny as his healthy, laughing self, imagining that somehow Scott and Murdoch would find him stronger than when Scott had left him on the trail. So strong that he would insist on riding Barranca. So well on the road to recovery that he would tease Scott mercilessly, until his older brother responded in mock outrage and ended the game with a well-placed barb.

But then when the gnawing worry returned, as it always did, and when she couldn’t keep reality at bay any longer, she would give the barren road a final searching look. Then she would turn her patient horse and ride slowly back to the house.

A restlessness had overtaken Elena, too. Like Teresa, she seemed to need a physical outlet for the emotions tumbling within and she instinctively returned to the familiar routines of the great white hacienda where she had worked as a young woman. There was tension at first as Maria struggled to cope with the disruption of two other women meddling in her housework. But soon an unspoken agreement was reached, the old alliances repaired, Lancer’s domestic triumvirate restored.

Not a corner of the big house escaped the women’s attention; not a cobweb was allowed to remain undisturbed. The house fairly reeked of lemon oil and soap. The kitchen floor was scrubbed and re-scrubbed. The pantry was re-arranged and the root cellar’s spoilers culled. The Great Room, with its panoramic view of Lancer pastures and the long drive, received rather more attention than usual. The furniture was moved to new positions, eyed critically and tugged back into place. Windows were washed and flatware was polished. The bookshelves were emptied, their contents dusted and replaced.

Nor were the bedrooms forgotten. Murdoch’s room, Scott’s – even the vacant guestrooms fell before the onslaught of dust-cloths and brooms. But it was Johnny’s room that received the most care. There the furniture was dusted and oiled, the floor scrubbed, the curtains and counterpane washed and carefully pressed with a flat iron. The bright Indian blankets he favored were hung out to air. Twice.

On the fourth morning Teresa woke to a sound she couldn’t quite place and looked out the window to find Elena had removed the rug from the Great Room’s sitting area and was using the carpet beater with great arm-shaking swats, the thwack, thwack a dull cadence of anger. On the fifth, she walked into the kitchen and found pies cooling on the window and cakes baking in the oven. Elena, her sleeves rolled up and her apron covered with flour, stood at the table rolling out biscuits. Wordlessly, Teresa tied on her own apron and began lifting the cut-out rounds onto baking pans.

That night Maria packed up the cakes, the biscuits, the pies, the cookies and the loaves of bread and took them over to the bunkhouse. And the next morning, Elena and Teresa began to bake again.

By unspoken agreement, Elena had moved into the big house the night the rescue party left on its quest and the two women spent their evenings sitting in the Great Room doing handwork, watching the fire and listening to the ticking clock. They had always been close, their relationship something akin to the uncomplicated, accepting love of niece and favored aunt. As a small child, Teresa would climb onto Elena’s lap and whisper secrets into her comforting bosom. Now that she was older she often turned to Elena to help her puzzle out the things she couldn’t or wouldn’t ask anyone else.

But during these long days of strain, Teresa had found Elena curiously, bewilderingly distant. She seemed to be holding herself apart, as if she was protecting a very raw and very painful wound. Sometimes she would disappear for hours at a time, and Teresa knew she was praying in the small, long-unused chapel left over from the ranch’s Spanish past. She would emerge, her dark eyes red-rimmed but burning with defiance, and embark on another round of activity.

Teresa kicked at a clod of dried dirt. This garden really was too far away from the kitchen, she decided. Maybe she should turn it into a flower garden and forget sentiment. Murdoch once told her he thought the garden predated the house and she had liked the idea that the cooking and medicinal herbs she used today were somehow descendants of those planted by the ranch’s first owners. Now, though, that seemed rather silly, a whimsical notion that no longer mattered.

The clip-clop of horse’s hooves interrupted her thoughts and she looked up to see Bartlett, one of the older hands, riding in from the south pasture. “Afternoon, Miss Teresa,” he called as he reined his mount toward the hitching post by the barn.

“Hello, Nate.” She waved a greeting and gave the garden a final glance. It was time to give Maria a hand with supper. Stew tonight, she thought absently; that mean old pecking rooster is finally going to be good for something. Clicking shut the garden gate she turned toward the house.

Later, she couldn’t say what first caught her eye. Whether it was the sun flashing on a horse’s bit or whether it was just the steady up-down bob of the tiny figures silhouetted against the distant hillside, halfway down the road. But once she realized her eyes weren’t playing her false she dropped her basket of herbs and ran over to where Nate was about to tie up his horse.

“Nate, I have to borrow Molly!” she said breathlessly as she grabbed the reins from his hand. Before the astonished vaquero could say a word, she had hitched up her skirts and swung into the saddle. “Tell Elena they’re back!” she shouted over her shoulder as she dug her heels into the rangy mare. “They’re back!”

Her eyes fixed on the distant riders, Teresa headed her mount out the gate. The point where the road started its twisting climb seemed days away. But halfway there she met Cipriano, who had obviously been sent on ahead to alert the household. Heart in her mouth, she slowed and nodded. Without stopping, without meeting his eyes. All of a sudden she didn’t want to know the answer to the question that had loomed large in her mind all week. Not from Cipriano. Not yet.

She urged Nate’s tired mare back into a gallop. Now she could see that the buckboard and its outriders were traveling slowly, just barely above a walk. She reached them at the bottom of the last long hill, reining in the lathered mare as Murdoch signaled a halt. Flinging herself off her horse, Teresa stumbled toward the buckboard, gasping, her heart threatening to burst from her chest.

On the seat sat Jelly and a man she didn’t know. Behind them was the skeletal canopy of what appeared to be some sort of tent frame. And beneath it she could see Scott, his shoulders slumped, his bowed head now slowly lifting as if he were waking from deep sleep. His face, impossibly gaunt, spoke of the past week’s ordeal.  Her throat tightened. Afraid to come closer, she stopped, watching, waiting until Scott’s bloodshot eyes met hers.

“Teresa. . .” Murdoch began hoarsely, breaking off as she shook her head, her gaze still fixed on Scott.

When she saw the lines around his eyes deepen and his mouth twitch into a small, tight smile, the tears began to fall and she drew in great noisy draughts of air. She didn’t notice Frank take Molly’s reins from her and was hardly aware of Emilio’s helping hand as she scrambled awkwardly up into the buckboard. She now had eyes only for the filthy, emaciated man who was lying with his head cushioned in Scott’s lap. He looked so still and fragile, his hold on life seemed so tenuous, that without thinking she placed her hand lightly on his bandaged chest just to reassure herself he was still breathing.

“You’re home, Johnny,” she whispered through her tears. “You’re home.”

She heard Jelly cluck to the team of matched bay horses and she sensed rather than saw Murdoch pull up alongside. With a jerk the buckboard rolled forward and the small procession began its final, slow approach to Lancer.

* * *

The chapel’s heavy door scraped across the uneven stone floor, catching just before the threshold so that Elena had to use her strength to pull it tightly closed. It had been chilly inside, and she stood for a moment, her face turned upward, letting the sun gently warm her.

She had taken to visiting the chapel in the late afternoon, just before it was time to join with Maria and Teresa to begin preparations for the evening meal. There were other times during the day when she would slip into the small, dark sanctuary. But her afternoon retreats were different, her prayers different, her need different. She was loath to admit it but she knew in her heart it had to do with the coming of nightfall, the time of oscuridad. She did not like the dark. Too many bad things had happened under night’s black cloak.

So in the chapel, before even the hint of dusk could make itself known, she would kneel before los santos to say the prayers and light the candles she believed would protect her loved ones throughout the long uncertain night. 

The sound of Teresa’s voice interrupted her reverie and as she opened her eyes she saw the young woman wave at someone across the courtyard. The basket on her arm reminded Elena of the guisado simmering on the cookstove. We must soon add the herbs, and some peppers, she thought, so they will cook and that old gallo will have some taste. She found herself smiling as she remembered Maria’s smug look of triumph when she had returned to the kitchen that morning clasping the dead rooster by his feet. Finally one of them had achieved victory over the nasty creature.

Thinking with amusement of Teresa’s last encounter with the rooster, when he had successfully chased her shrieking into the bunkhouse, Elena began walking toward the house. Teresa had refused to budge until one of the hands caught the angry fowl, causing Elena and Maria to laugh until the tears ran down their cheeks and Maria had to make a hurried visit to the backhouse. There had been so little reason to laugh these days.

Suddenly Elena heard the drumbeat of hooves, the sound of a horse galloping, and she ran back toward the stable-yard to see Nate’s mare Molly disappearing down the road, her rider’s skirts flying. And Nate himself running toward her. And she knew. Her heart skipped a beat, raced then steadied as she took a deep breath. She knew.

“Miss Teresa says they’re back, ma’am,” Nate said, now standing awkwardly before her. “There anything you want me to do? Most of the boys should be comin’ in from the range soon.”

“Gracias, Mr. Bartlett. Would you ask Maria to stoke up the fires and put water on to boil? Please,” Elena responded, scarcely looking at him, her eyes scanning to see what Teresa had seen.

“Water, ma’am? Do ya really think . . .” Nate let his question wither as Elena caught his eyes with hers. With a respectful nod he left for the house.

Hurrying toward the herb garden where Teresa’s basket lay abandoned outside the gate, Elena turned her attention back to the horizon. Silently, she repeated a prayer over and over as she searched the distant road. Finally she made out the small figures riding slowly down the winding hill and in the foreground a lone rider approaching Teresa.

The two riders passed each other without stopping, Teresa continuing at what appeared to be great speed, the oncoming rider traveling at a steady lope. As he drew closer the rider’s ramrod straight seat, his bulky torso, his sombrero all confirmed what she instinctively had known from the moment she saw him. Cipriano was riding on ahead of the others to alert her to their homecoming. Good news or bad news, he would want to tell her before the others arrived. So she could make her preparations. For what must be done.

She walked toward the front courtyard as in a trance, stopping finally on the edge of the drive. Waiting. Knowing that her husband would see her standing still as a sentinel, and ride to her directly.

And when at last he pulled up in front of her, and sat letting her read all in his eyes, her throat ached and she felt a dam within in her break, letting loose all the tears she hadn’t allowed anyone else to see. She saw her husband dismount stiffly, felt his arms wrap her in a great bear-like embrace and she buried her face in his shoulder, breathing in the familiar, oddly comforting smells of sweat and smoke and trail dust. 

“He is alive, mi querida,” he whispered into her hair, smoothing the tendrils at her neck with his thumbs. “He is very sick, very weak. But he is alive.”

She pulled back and looked at him questioningly.

“I don’t know.” His expression was bleak as he returned her gaze and she saw all at once how tired he was. And how old. She ran her fingers lightly over the gray and white stubble of beard, then traced the unruly arc of a bushy eyebrow.

“Last night,” Cipriano began hoarsely, “last night was very bad. For the first time . . .” He shook his head. “The infection . . . And his lungs are weak. La pulmonía, I think . . . He has been through much, lost much blood.”

“We must send someone for the doctor,” Elena said, pulling out of her husband’s embrace. She fumbled in her skirts for a handkerchief and dried her eyes.

Cipriano nodded. “Who is here?” he asked.

Elena struggled to gather her thoughts. “Nate . . . and Otilio. Yes,” she added with more confidence. “Otilio is here. He has been working on the wagon – the broken axle you wished fixed. The others should be in soon.”

“I will send Otilio,” Cipriano said, rubbing his chin in thought. “And Nate will go for Sheriff Val. Later, when Frank and Emilio arrive with the horses.”

 “The sheriff?”

“Sí,” Cipriano said with a look she didn’t understand. “There is another injured,” he added quickly. “Murdoch asks that a guestroom be prepared for him.”

“The man who took care of Johnny?” 

“The man who shot Johnny,” Cipriano retorted, his anger breaking over her like a sudden storm. “The Tejano who wants to see him hang. That is the man Murdoch wants you to welcome into his house. Un cobarde, a filthy, back-shooting coward.”

* * *

Word had somehow spread.

Among vaqueros coming in from the range, within the small community that was Lancer, the news that el Patrón was returning traveled swiftly. By the time the buckboard and its weary escort pulled up to the house, a group had gathered, standing silent vigil with Elena.

She was scarcely aware of them. Once Cipriano had disappeared to dispatch Otilio, once she had conferred with Maria and sent Rosa to turn back Johnny’s bed, she had returned to the front courtyard to wait, her eyes hungrily searching the long drive and beyond. As she watched, she repeated to herself again and again the prayer that had become as natural and as instinctive as breathing. And when at last the buckboard and riders passed beneath the huge white arch, she felt a curious sense of relief. Los santos had given their protection thus far; she must take over the rest.

The waiting group surged into action as Jelly halted the team in front of the portico. Walt stepped forward to take Murdoch’s horse, other hands moved to help Frank and Emilio lead the remuda to the corrals. Elena was vaguely aware that someone was reaching out to steady the tall stranger who was attempting to climb down from his seat. She heard the familiar rise and fall of Jelly’s voice sputtering at Quince. But her attention was centered on the back of the buckboard, where Teresa was kneeling beside an immobile Scott Lancer, whispering to a man who seemed oblivious to the activity around him.

El hermano mayor -- the elder brother, Elena thought, her heart aching. How naturally the young man had assumed that role over these past months. How well. Few would have guessed, at the beginning, that it would be Juanito who would require the protection of his brother. That it would be Johnny Madrid who would be the uncertain stranger trying to find his way in an unfamiliar world.

“Everything is ready?” Her husband was suddenly at her elbow. He was carrying a rolled-up stretcher, the rough-made canvas litter usually stored in the barn. At her nod, he pushed through the murmuring crowd of vaqueros.  Murdoch was in the buckboard now, and she saw him talking with Scott, his hand on his son’s shoulder. Then the tall rancher motioned to Cipriano, who passed the litter to Murdoch and helped Teresa step down before climbing into the buckboard himself.

The waiting cowhands once again crowded close and for a moment Elena lost sight of her husband and the others. Maria was at her side, murmuring something; young Nando, Rosa and Benito’s boy and her godson, was tugging at her skirts, asking a question. She ignored Maria and shushed the child with a stern look. When her eyes once again found the buckboard she saw that Johnny had been placed on the stretcher and that Cipriano was trying to tuck a blanket around him even as Scott and Murdoch were carefully lowering the litter into the waiting hands of the vaqueros.

A sob caught at the back of her throat and she fought to keep it from escaping. Johnny’s stillness was unearthly; the painfully thin, half-naked figure on the stretcher bore more resemblance to a santero’s carving of the tortured Cristo than to the young man she had come to know.

--Ah, Juanito, was Tia Josefa right? I was so angry at the old crone. What she said to your mother – what kind of a woman tells a new mother such things? What mother can bear to hear that her child was born under a dark star and will suffer? Even a skilled adivinadora should keep such things to herself.

“’Lena?” Jelly’s voice, hoarse and strained, reminded her of her duties.  She turned to find him watching her expectantly, the tall, ashen-faced stranger at his side. El Tejano, she thought bitterly. The coward. “You got a room for this fella?” Jelly asked.

 “I will show you,” Maria said with a quick look at Elena. “Upstairs. We will put him in one of the guestrooms upstairs.”

“You sure?” Jelly asked in surprise.

“Sí,” Elena confirmed. She fought feelings of impatience: what did it matter – deal with the cobarde and be done with him. There was more important work to be done.  And she must force herself to do it. “This is easiest – for now,” she said dismissively. Jelly muttered a response but she ignored him, instead pushing forward to meet the silent procession now slowly walking toward her.

Murdoch looked up at her approach and she was stunned to see how aged he appeared. In the week that he had been away he had turned into an old man. Strain had carved deep gullies in his cheeks, and his eyes, usually direct and commanding, were now sunken and haunted. He was limping, she noted; the tight lines of pain at his mouth told her that his back was bothering him. Without thinking, their differences forgotten, she reached out her arms and he walked into her embrace. She felt a deep tremor run through him before he stepped back, clearing his throat self-consciously.

“His room is ready,” she said softly, sparing him the effort of speaking. Murdoch nodded, his eyes fixed ahead. She felt his hand fumble for hers, grasping it briefly, and then, head down, he limped into the house, the vaqueros following with Johnny. Scott walked by his brother’s side, a sleepwalker seemingly unaware of his surroundings. As he passed she spoke his name softly but he did not acknowledge her, so intent was he on the stretcher’s journey.

Elena closed her eyes, momentarily overwhelmed. Then Cipriano was beside her, his arm slipping around her waist, lending her his great strength. She allowed herself to lean back against him for a heartbeat and then she hardened her resolve and broke away to follow the stretcher into the house.

“Elena?” Teresa caught her elbow and she turned. Tears were running down the young woman’s face but she was, Elena saw, otherwise astonishingly composed. “What do you want me to do?” Teresa asked, her voice calm.

“Will you help Maria with the stranger?” Elena replied, studying Teresa intently. “Am I asking too much, Little One, that you would tend to that man?”

Teresa inhaled deeply. “No,” she answered finally. “But . . .”

Elena looked at her kindly. “I know, chica, and I will need you, he will need you later. But el Tejano must be settled and his wound seen to. And I am worried about the others – Señor Lancer, Señor Scott. You and I, we must take care of them, too.” She cupped Teresa’s cheek with her palm, diverting the fresh steam of tears with her thumb. “Can you be my segundo?” she asked softly.

“Yes,” the girl whispered. Her hand finding Elena’s, she brought it to her lips. “Gracias, Tía Elena.”

“Child?”

“You are my strength,” Teresa said simply.

Elena smiled. “As you are mine.”

Arm in arm, the two women walked through the wide entranceway of the old hacienda.

* * *

A surprisingly large group of men was speaking quietly together in the hallway outside Johnny’s bedroom. Some of them Elena knew well, others she didn’t know at all. When they noticed her approaching they fell silent and parted respectfully, clearing a path for her. “Ma’am,” they said. “Señora.” She smiled without really seeing them and stepped across the threshold of the bedroom.

Inside she found quiet confusion. Other men, those who had carried the stretcher, were standing just inside the doorway, blocking her way. Across the room Rosa and another woman, Elena couldn’t see who, seemed to be bustling between the bed and a small side-table. She could see her husband, his broad back bent over the foot of the bed, and Scott, leaning down at the head. And from somewhere she heard the low rumble of Murdoch Lancer’s voice.

She realized Cipriano and Scott were lifting Johnny so that Murdoch could remove the canvas litter from underneath his unresisting body. Her heart ached. Was it cowardice that made her look away? Straightening her shoulders she stepped among the murmuring vaqueros and with a few words, a smile and a firmness that announced she would brook no resistance, she herded them out the door. The young woman, whom she now recognized as Otilio’s recent bride, was thanked for her help and dismissed; Rosa was to stay.

Murdoch looked up from his seat on the bed as she came alongside. “Here,” he said, rising to make room for her. “Please . . .” But he swayed as he stood and was caught from falling by Scott. “I’m all right, I’m all right,” he rasped, brushing off his elder son’s steadying hand.

“No, you are not, Señor,” Elena corrected. She regarded him gravely. “You must get some rest. All of you,” she added. “Yes, you also, mi marido,” she said, ignoring Cipriano’s shrug. “We do not need any more patients in this house. Now, por favor . . .”

“Señora—” Murdoch began and then fell silent. He stood watching his unconscious son, as if monitoring the shallow rise and fall of Johnny’s chest. “All right, Elena,” he said finally. He looked up and a wry expression twisted his weary face. “I know better than to argue with you.”

“It is good to hear you have learned that lesson, old friend,” Elena replied, her tone light. She was about to say more when she felt Scott looking at her. Even as she met his gaze, saw his eyes burning so fiercely in his haggard face, she knew that she would relent. She would surrender to his will, and his need.

“Rosa?” she said.

“Sí?”

“Señor Scott will be giving me the assistance I require. If you please, I would like you to help Miss Teresa and Maria with the – with the injured man Jelly brought in.”

“Of course, Señora,” Rosa answered. “But first I will see to the water. I think you will need more than is here.”

“Gracias.”

As Rosa left the room, Cipriano turned to Murdoch and raised his eyebrows. The tall rancher nodded, touched Scott’s shoulder briefly and, casting a final look at his younger son, limped with the segundo’s assistance toward the door. At the threshold he stopped. “You’ll call me--?”

“Yes,” Scott answered, for Elena had lost her voice. Sitting on the bed, gazing at Johnny’s still features, listening to his labored breathing, her eyes had filled with tears and she suddenly was unable to speak.

How different was this shadow from the vibrant young man who had so often sat at their dinner table, filling the room with his light and his laughter. El picaruelo, Cipriano called him affectionately. The rascal. “I have invited el picaruelo to dinner tonight,” Cipriano would announce. And she would know to serve something special.

But there was no laughter left in this boy; there was very little of anything.  The once-handsome face was all sharp angles, his mother’s high cheekbones now prominent. There was a grayness to his skin beneath his tan, and purple half-moons were smudged below his closed eyes. When she pulled back the sheet covering him to the shoulders, she was again stunned by how thin and wasted he had become.

For the first time she was forced to admit to herself that Johnny might die. That despite her prayers los santos may have allowed him to come home only so that he might leave. Whatever magic Señor The Doctor Jenkins might conjure up from his little black medico bag, whatever love and care they his family could give – it might not be enough. A chill ran through her and she shuddered.

“How can I help?” Scott Lancer’s question pushed away her dark thoughts. She took a deep breath; she could do this. She must. As she had for countless others, countless times before. The world of men was fraught with danger and deceit; it was always left to women to repair the damage.

“Tell me,” she said, reaching for the pair of scissors Rosa had placed on the small table by the bed. “Tell me first what I must know.” She slipped her left index finger between Johnny’s skin and the grimy bandage wrapped round his chest, lifting slightly so she could safely snip away the layers of cloth. She heard Scott’s sharp intake of breath but kept her eyes on her task, knowing he would find it easier to talk if she was not watching him.

While one part of her mind listened to Scott’s halting recital, the other made its own inventory of Johnny’s injuries. She saw the bruising that told her, even as Scott described it, how someone had put boots to Johnny’s ribs. The dark traces of dried blood that trailed down his side and stained the waistband of his drawers spoke of a back wound that had bled freely.

“Please help me turn him on his side – so I can see,” Elena said when Scott fell silent.

“He has trouble breathing like that,” Scott warned. She found his eyes watching her worriedly. Exhaustion had turned his skin as gray as Johnny’s, and Elena wondered how much longer he could manage to hold off the collapse she was sure must be inevitable. The stubborn strength of the father runs through the sons, she thought. But even the very strong must succumb at some point.

“Then we must make it easier for him,” she replied. The bed’s frame creaked as she rose. Crossing the room, she lifted the lid of an ornately carved wooden trunk and pulled out several feather pillows. “Here,” she said, handing them to Scott. “We will put these under his chest – they will help.”

Together they rolled Johnny onto his right side and then, at Elena’s insistence, slightly forward, so that his chest and ribs were partially cushioned in the nest of pillows. With Scott lightly supporting his brother’s shoulders so that Johnny could not fall further forward, Elena bent over to listen for sounds which would signal distress. But there was no change in the labored breathing. Satisfied, she gave a quick nod to Scott and turned her attention to Johnny’s back.

She bit her lip as she studied the flesh above and below the grimy bandaging that still hid the wound. The infection, she thought, Scott and Cipriano, they each said it was better. Is this better? How much worse could it be? She leaned low and inhaled through her nose. To her relief she could detect no odor of putrefaction. Yes, it could be much worse.

Straightening, she began to carefully lift the loose ends of the bandage, only to find the cloth remained stuck to Johnny’s skin. The bandaging covering his lower back was like a hardened shell; whatever had been used to treat the wound had permeated the layers of cloth and dried. The bandage would have to be soaked off.

There was a knock at the door and Rosa’s voice answered her inquiring call. When the woman entered the room, Elena saw she was carrying a large pot of hot water, another armload of clean cloths and a small glazed terra cotta bowl.

“This is a medicine,” Rosa said, holding out the bowl for Elena’s inspection while she placed the cast iron pot on the floor by the bed. “Señor Lancer says it is very good – it fights the poison.”

“The Ranger’s salve,” Scott said, looking at Elena. “Jelly said he got it from an old healer.” He shrugged tiredly. “They say it’s worked.”

“A healer?” she questioned. “A curandero?”

“Yes. I think.”

Rosa turned from the bedside table where she was arranging the stack of clean cloths next to a half-filled water basin. “Is there anything else you need?”

“Sí.” Elena stood, smoothing her apron. “I would like the little table – yes, that one, by the window. I would like to move it closer – here,” she directed, pointing to a spot just behind her. “With the basin and the other things placed on it.” She heard Scott shift position on the bed and she looked at him closely. “You are fine, still? And his breathing – it has not changed?”

Scott looked down at his brother and then back to her. He nodded. “Go ahead.”

Swiftly and efficiently, the two women arranged the table and supplies to Elena’s liking. Then, because her emotions were again bubbling too close to the surface and because dread was making her stomach turn over and over, Elena slipped her arms around her friend and kissed her hair.

 “Have strength,” Rosa whispered. And then was gone.

Elena worked in silence. At first it seemed that the bandage would never come free. By the time she could see the cloth begin to lift, the folded sheet she had wedged against Johnny’s side was stained pink and saturated with water. Still she continued to soak the bandage until she was certain the fabric would come free easily. Even then she held her breath as she applied gentle tension to peel away the last strips. She felt their resistance give and fought the urge to close her eyes.

This is what she had wanted to spare Teresa. This truth. This final ugliness.

--¡Dios! . . . oh, Juanito  . . .Por favor, by the blessed Virgin . . .

 “Elena?” Scott rasped. He craned his neck, trying to look over his brother’s shoulders at the wound. “Well?” he asked harshly when she didn’t answer.

“How many days since the bullet was removed?” Avoiding Scott’s gaze, she leaned over and forced herself to look closely at the large swollen and discolored area on Johnny’s lower back. The wound itself was still raw looking, still a weeping obscenity.

“I don’t know,” Scott said. “A week? More?” He shook his head in exasperation. “I – I can’t remember.”

“And he could move his legs? After the bullet was removed, did he move his legs?”

“Yes.”

“Bueno.”  Blinking furiously, Elena reached for the bowl of salve and scooped out a large daub. Johnny hadn’t stirred; at no time had there been even a flinch to tell her that he felt her ministrations. Nonetheless, she made certain her fingers barely brushed his skin as she dabbed the salve over the ragged edges of the wound.

“We will use this instead of the carbolic,” she explained, her tone brisk. “Doctor Jenkins has told me he does not like to use that when a wound is old – we will let him decide.” She looked at Scott briefly and then continued with her task. When she was satisfied she had thoroughly covered the injured area with the salve, she folded a clean cloth into a square and pressed it against the wound. Neat rolls of bandaging were piled on the table behind her; she put one in her lap and began bandaging Johnny with the other, relying on Scott to help her manage Johnny’s limp weight.

“Now we will roll him back this way, sí? Can you lift him? Higher on the pillows. Yes, like so,” Elena said approvingly as Scott settled his brother back in a semi-reclining position. She reached out to check Johnny’s fever, brushing the long dark hair from his forehead in an unconscious caress. Hot, she thought as she pressed the back of her hand to his skin, he is still too hot. He must be bathed, his body wiped down – that will help cool his skin.  And his breathing is bad. A mustard plaster, she decided, a mustard plaster on his chest . . .

She froze, seeing for the first time the glittering thread at Johnny’s neck, the trace of gold hidden in the dark hollow above his breastbone. Her talisman. Maria’s gift. As her fingers lifted the small, delicate cross she repeated her silent prayer. Then Scott was standing behind her, his hands on his shoulders, and he was telling her, in a voice so low she could barely make out the words, telling her about the black hours of their night.

He told her of his fear, and his despair, of the truths he had discovered about himself – and about his brother. She let him speak, listening without comment, without even turning around. Because she knew that one word from her would stop the torrent and then he would carry his pain within, scarred over but not healed.

When he had done she reached her right hand up to his and drew him forward, until he stood facing her. Then she pulled down, forcing him to sit with her on the bed. His troubled eyes met hers.

“Johnny has not given up, mi hijo,” she said softly. She studied the drawn, ravaged face. “But you know that, don’t you?”

Scott ducked his head. “Yes,” he answered finally. “I do know that. But – “ He shook his head in frustration.

“Juanito has ridden with death too often to consider it a stranger.”

“What do you mean?” Scott asked sharply.

“I mean that I think you are finding it hard to understand that a man can fight to stay alive but accept that is a battle he may not win.”

“What is meant to be, will be?” Scott rasped, his eyes still averted.

“Yes,” Elena answered. She paused, again considering the angry and exhausted young man before her. Cupping his chin with her hand, she gently forced him to look at her. “But somehow I do not, I cannot believe that los santos will allow him to be taken from us now – here.”

“Nor do I,” Scott whispered. He lifted his sleeve to his eyes and let his gaze return to his brother.

“It was hers, wasn’t it?” he said finally. “The cross belonged to Johnny’s mother.”

“Sí.”

“I—I almost forgot it.”

“But you didn’t.”

“No.”

“She would be happy,” Elena whispered, now fighting her own need to weep. “She would be pleased to know that her cross is protecting him now.

“As she never did?” Scott asked harshly.

Elena looked at him with compassion. So often she had found him wise beyond his years. But he was young, after all. Still young.

“As she could not,” she said firmly.  “Please, chico, light the lamps. It is getting dark and we must bathe him.”

Scott rose from the bed and stepped over to the bedside table. She watched as his long slender fingers lifted the lamp’s glass chimney and set it carefully aside. There were matches in a carved box on the table. He withdrew one, struck it against the heel of his boot and held it to the wick.

A flame flickered uncertainly and then caught.

 


Chapter 26

Scott grabbed at the pillow behind his head and punched at the feathers. His bed was too soft, the pillow too giving. Elena was wrong – already he regretted promising her he would try to sleep. Sleep was impossible and rest was elusive. He should have stayed with Johnny.

He stared into the darkness of his room, trying to see something other than the one horrific image that persistently crowded out all others. Rivers he had fished, museums he had visited, his room back in Boston, his philosophy professor’s study at Harvard – in none of these places would his thoughts let him linger long enough to find comfort. All he could see, all his mind would remember, was that devastating moment in the buckboard when Johnny’s body began to convulse and he thought they were going to lose him.

--This was what it was like during the war. After an attack. In Libby -- always. When you were so tired that your hands shook and your legs seemed to belong to someone else. And you could never sleep because the horrors you saw when you closed your eyes were the worst of all . . . 

Angrily, he pummeled his pillow again and turned on his side. His joints ached. His head hurt. The tick of the clock on his bookshelf was overloud.  And what was keeping Sam Jenkins? Elena said Otilio had been sent as soon as Cipriano had arrived back at the house.

There was a noise in the hallway. Someone was walking past his door. Rosa, bringing more water. He had come to recognize her step. She had been back and forth several times already this evening to bring water to Elena and to Maria, who was waging war on another front. Teresa had told him the Ranger’s fever was rising steadily. His wound showed the ominous signs of infection.

Teresa . . .  Just as he and Elena had finished bathing Johnny, she had knocked – uncharacteristically -- on the door of the bedroom, and Elena had made her wait outside until a sheet covered their brother’s nakedness. In spite of his exhaustion and worry, Scott had come close to laughing aloud. Maybe Señora Justiniano was the only person beside Murdoch who could curb Teresa’s notorious habit of barging into bedrooms unannounced.

Teresa had brought a tray of food and insisted that he at least taste the chicken stew she ladled out for him. When Elena added her voice to Teresa’s he’d had no choice but to acquiesce. A place was set for him at the small table behind Elena, and Teresa took his seat on the bed. After the first reluctant spoonful he’d been surprised by his sudden hunger.  He’d finished the bowlful, and all three biscuits, while Teresa held Johnny’s unresisting hand in hers and talked, as if the unconscious man could hear, about the pecking rooster who had met his match in Maria.

It was the kind of story Johnny would love, Scott thought now; they should remember to repeat it to him later.

Another set of footsteps in the hall, these pausing at his door before going on toward Johnny’s room. The limping, heavy tread was unmistakable. Murdoch. Obviously his father was as unable to sleep as he. Restlessly, Scott rolled onto his back again and stared through the darkness at the ceiling. Elena had chased Murdoch out of Johnny’s room twice before. Scott wondered if she would relent. The last time she had even shooed him out, too.

She had been adamant with both of them. Between Johnny and el Tejano the women of the family had more than enough to do, she had said sternly. It would be easier to work in alternación, sí? But not if the patrón and his elder son continued to act so mulishly. Scott had heard the exasperation in her voice, as well as the anxiety that underlay it, and he had given in. Murdoch looked like hell, and he knew he probably didn’t look much better. He gave her the promise she demanded. He would try to get some sleep.

Easier said than done.

The headache was relentless. His brain felt like a Minié ball expanding, expanding, exploding inside his skull. Digging his fingertips into his scalp he tried to massage away the pain. Must have been some wallop he’d taken to have the aftereffects linger so long. How many days had it been since the river?  He still wasn’t sure. A week or more, he’d told Elena earlier. Now he realized it was probably much more. Two weeks?

Two weeks since Avante shot Johnny.

--God . . .

Murdoch’s footsteps sounded again in the hall, distracting his thoughts, and on impulse he called out his father’s name. There was a pause, and then the door to his room was cautiously opened. He saw his father’s tall frame silhouetted against the hall’s dim light. “Scott?” Murdoch whispered.

“I’m awake,” he said, quickly swinging his legs over the side of the bed and sitting. A spell of vertigo punished him for his rashness. He had to brace his elbows on his knees and put his head in his hands while he waited for everything to steady. “Could you—could you light a lamp, Murdoch?” he asked.  

A match flared and the wall lamp by the door was lit. Murdoch turned to look at him sharply. “Son?” 

“I’m fine. How’s Johnny? Any change?” 

Murdoch crossed the room and sank down into the upholstered chair near the bed. Leaning his head back wearily, he closed his eyes. “Elena thinks the mustard plaster is helping his breathing -- she hopes it will sweat out the fever, too.”

“That sounds . . . encouraging.”

“Maybe.”

Scott looked at his father sympathetically. “Get any sleep?”

Murdoch opened his eyes and returned his gaze. “Did you?” he asked, cocking one eyebrow.

“Er . . .”

“You have to get some rest, son,” Murdoch said. The warmth and concern expressed in those simple words touched Scott to the core and he had to look away. He was coming to realize that his father’s hard shell hid an intensely private man. Murdoch was capable of deep, even fierce emotions, but he was awkward about letting them show. It was something Scott understood because it was so familiar. His grandfather was a lot like that. Harlan Garrett would sooner walk through the Commons in his undergarments than allow his emotions to be on display for all and sundry to view.

“Son?”

Scott shook his head – and immediately regretted it. “Later. I’ll sleep later,” he replied curtly as he struggled to hide his dizziness. “I’m fine, Murdoch – or at least I’m no more tired than the rest of you. Leave it.” Seeking to blunt the rudeness of his words, he attempted a ragged grin. “Youth is resilient, you know.”

Murdoch snorted in disbelief. But he did as Scott asked. He left it. They sat in silence for a few minutes, each alone with his thoughts. Then Murdoch shifted impatiently in his chair and cast an irritated look at the clock. He swore vehemently, and so obscenely that Scott looked at him in surprise. It was unlike his rancher father to resort to the vocabulary of a cavalry drill sergeant.

“Sorry,” Murdoch said brusquely. “But what the hell is taking Sam so long? He should be here by now.”

Before Scott could answer they heard noise in the hallway, someone rapping first on the door to Murdoch’s bedroom and then moving quickly to Scott’s.

“Scott?” Jelly called softly through the partially closed door. “You know where Murdoch is?”

“Here, Jelly,” Murdoch said. “Come in – what’s wrong?”

The door creaked wide open and Jelly tentatively stepped inside, squinting as if his eyes were trying to adjust to the dim light of the single lamp. He must have been pulled from his bed, Scott noted. Wisps of hair stuck out from his head in all directions and his suspenders were hanging down from his hips, as if he’d pulled his trousers on in a hurry. But if the older man had managed to get some sleep, Scott thought, it didn’t show in his face. Jelly looked as exhausted as the rest of them.

“Sheriff’s here, Boss,” the handyman said. “Just rode in with Nate.”

“All right,” Murdoch answered, leaning forward. “I’ll be right down. Any sign of Jenkins?”

Jelly shook his head.

“Damn.”

“Boss?”

Murdoch paused, his hands on the arms of the chair, and looked at Jelly questioningly.

“How’s Johnny?” 

As Scott watched, his father’s strength suddenly seemed to desert him. Sinking back in his chair, he looked drained and shrunken in size.  “He’s hanging tough, Jelly,” Scott said quickly. “We’ll be down – just give us a minute, all right?”

“Sure, Scott,” Jelly said, glancing from Murdoch to Scott and back. “See ya downstairs,” he muttered and left, pulling the door softly shut behind him.

Murdoch drew in a deep breath and let it out noisily. His hands went to his eyes, fingertips dragging across his closed lids as if wiping away the remnants of sleep, and then traveled backwards to knead his neck muscles.

“Murdoch?”

“What can I tell them, Scott?” With his head down, Murdoch’s whisper was barely audible. “Jelly, the men – the others who want to know? What can I tell them when I don’t even know what to tell myself?”

Stomach twisting, Scott looked at his father. “Tell them—“ His throat tightened and he swallowed away the lump that was beginning to form. “Tell them to remember Johnny’s never backed down from a fight and that he’s not about to start now. Because that’s true, Murdoch, isn’t it?” Scott eyed his father closely. “No matter what it seems, it’s true, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Murdoch said. “Yes.”

In the quiet that followed, Scott heard again the steady tick of the clock. Murdoch sat as motionless as stone, staring into the dark corner of the bedroom. And Val waiting downstairs, Scott thought. Pressing his hands against the mattress, he gingerly leaned forward and began to push himself up. But the maddening vertigo came over him again and he settled back.

“D’you see my boots anywhere?” he asked, feigning a naturalness he didn’t feel.

An awkward minute passed before his father answered. “I think Val might as well come on up here, don’t you?”  Murdoch said, still staring off into the distance. “No sense both of us going down.” He turned to Scott with a penetrating look. “Why don’t you wait here?”

His bluff called, Scott could only manage a wry smile. “All right,” he said as Murdoch rose stiffly to his feet and limped heavily over to the door. “Murdoch?”

His father turned and looked at him inquiringly.

“You don’t miss much, do you, sir?”

Murdoch stared at him, his eyes suddenly dark and brooding. “More than you can ever imagine, son,” he whispered. “Maybe more than a man can ever be forgiven.”

* * * 

Val Crawford stared idly at the wooden sailing ship sitting on the table behind the flowered sofa and wondered once again why a grown man like Murdoch Lancer had a fancy toy decorating his front room.  Sure was a beaut, though. He’d seen one of them ships once, in ‘Frisco, and he reckoned this one was as close to bein’ real as any toy could be. All them little ropes and bits of riggin’ . . .

“Boss’ll be right down.” Jelly was at his elbow, looking old and utterly spent. Val realized the old man must have been part of the rescue party Bartlett had told him about. The Lancer hand had tracked him down having dinner at Ma Brady’s café and ruined his meal by laying out on the table a couple of blood-stained billfolds, three saddlebags and a collection of guns and rifles. Val had had trouble following the convoluted story of three bounty hunters and a Texas lawman, but had put down his fork and flipped beady-eyed Fiona Brady her dollar when Bartlett said Johnny had been shot and was bad off. Maybe dead.

“Kin ya tell me what’s goin’ on, Jelly?” Val asked now. “I ain’t sure I got it all straight.”

“Better wait for the boss – an’ Scott,” Jelly answered. He waved a hand vaguely at the sitting area. “Might as well set – I’ll go see if there’s any coffee on the stove. I ‘spect the women bin busy, what with Johnny and that Ranger, so I ain’t makin’ any promises.”

“Jelly?”

The grizzled old hand raised his eyebrows quizzically.

“How’s Johnny doin’?” Val nervously ran his hands around the brim of his battered hat. “Any word?”

“Holdin’ on, Scott says.” Jelly shook his head. He seemed to want to say more, but instead he ran a hand through his sparse fringe of already unkempt hair and then shook his head a second time. “Lemme see ‘bout that coffee.”

Too restless to sit, Val walked over to the large fireplace. A single log was smoldering in a dying bed of coals. He raked the embers together with the iron poker he found hanging from a hook on the wall. Then he took two rounds of wood from the neat stack beside the hearth and laid them on either side of the glowing original. Squatting, he thrust his hands out toward the growing warmth. The house was uncharacteristically quiet and he found it unnerving.

“Sorry to keep you waiting, Sheriff.” Murdoch Lancer’s voice, hoarse but still commanding, startled Val into standing and he twisted around to find the tall rancher limping across the Great Room.

‘Gol-darn but the man looks old,’ Val thought as he shook the outstretched hand. ‘Never seen Murdoch Lancer look so beat-up and downright -- old.’

“We didn’t really expect to see you out here tonight,” Murdoch continued, motioning Val to a chair. “We sent Nate in because we thought it important to report those deaths.”

“Yeah, well, town’s quiet tonight, Mr. Lancer,” Val said. “Old Man Parkinson’s on another bender and that seamstress lady, Miss Emma, she’s seein’ rapists ‘n’ murderers at her window again, but ain’t nothing McTeague and Hardy can’t handle.” He looked down at the hat still in his hands and then at Murdoch. “I heared you got yourself a houseguest – a Texas lawman, Bartlett said.”

“Ranger,” Jelly corrected as he entered the sitting area carrying a tray with a coffeepot and cups. “I reckon this is gonna be more than a mite bitter,” he warned, glancing at Val. “But it’s coffee and it’s hot.”

“Thought Texas done in the Rangers and got itself some other kind of lawmen?” Val accepted the steaming cup Jelly offered, sniffed at it tentatively and scooped in three heaping teaspoons of sugar.

“Whatever he is, he put a bounty on Johnny’s head and a slug in his back,” Murdoch retorted angrily.

Wordlessly, Val stirred his coffee, his gaze politely focused on his cup instead of the crumbling face of an exhausted father who was fast losing control of his anger. Never mind that his amigo, one of the best friends he’d ever had, was lying somewhere upstairs. Hurt real bad, from what they were saying. Sheriff Crawford knew how to do his job; Val Crawford, friend, drinking buddy, compadre, would have to step aside.

“You wanna tell me what happened, Murdoch?” he asked softly and was surprised when the other shook his head.

“I told Scott I’d bring you up, if you don’t mind. He’s . .  .”

Val put his half-finished coffee back on the tray and stood. “If he looks half as bad as you two, I better not waste time chokin’ down this witch’s brew. Let’s go.” He waited as Murdoch replaced his own cup and stiffly rose. Then, with Jelly bringing up the rear, he followed the tall rancher into the front entrance hall and up the wide, dark wooden staircase that led to the hacienda’s second floor.

It was brighter here than downstairs. The wall lamps, turned up as high as they could go without smoking, cast their light against the hallway’s white-washed walls. On either side of the corridor Val saw a number of heavy, carved doors. Bedrooms, he figured. And at the far end of the hall, in a chair next to the final door, sat Cipriano. Sitting guard.

Johnny’s room, Val thought with a pang.

-- Sweet Mother of Mary . . .  

“Okay with you if I look in on that Ranger first?” Val asked as Murdoch paused before a door partway down the hall.

“All right – good idea,” the rancher nodded. “Let me just tell Scott. Jelly, would you take Val on down to the guestroom? I’ll be there in a minute.”

“Sure, Boss.”

Val had hoped to take the measure of the man who’d put Johnny in danger, but it was not to be. Maria answered the door with her index finger already pressed against her lips. El Tejano had given them a hard time, she said. His fever had made him delirious and he had only just now fallen into a restless sleep. It was not that she was particularly concerned about the health of a man such as el cobarde. But Sheriff Val must understand: She and Rosa would find it much easier if the man remained asleep. However, if Señor Murdoch required . . . She looked questioningly at Murdoch, who had appeared behind Val and Jelly.

“No, Maria, gracias.” He looked at Val. “Perhaps Sheriff Crawford would be able to spend the night? He could speak with the Ranger tomorrow.”

“Thanks,” Val answered. “Save me makin’ that ride twice. I’m obliged.”

With a nod of agreement, Murdoch turned as if to walk back to Scott’s room. But Val hesitated, his eyes drawn in spite of himself back to the door at the end of the hallway, where Lancer’s old segundo was keeping silent watch. He felt a hand on his shoulder and knew it was Murdoch’s.

“Would it be okay – would ya mind . . .” Suddenly shy, Val couldn’t find the right words to express what he wanted to say. He wasn’t being a lawman right now. Now he was just Val, worried about his friend. But maybe it was steppin’ outta place to ask. It wasn’t like he was family or anything.

Murdoch didn’t answer. Instead, he took Val by the elbow and ushered him down the hall, past an expressionless Cipriano and into Johnny’s room.

The wall lamps had been turned down so that the room’s corners were hidden in darkness. But tapers burned in a tall wrought-iron candelabra standing along the far wall and a single oil lamp glowed by the bedside. On one side of the bed Teresa dozed in a rocker; on the other Señora Justiniano, Cipriano’s wife, sat ramrod straight in a deep, upholstered chair. She looked up as they entered, and Val was struck by the suffering he saw written on her face. Yet her composure, even now, seemed unshakeable and all at once he understood why some of the younger vaqueros called her Doña Elena.

Dread tightening his belly, Val let his eyes move to the bed, and what he saw made him inhale sharply. His first thought was that the bearded man lying half-propped against a mountain of pillows was someone he didn’t know. Not Johnny. Someone else. A starved, wasted man. A dying man fighting for breath. A husk.

Val had a sudden flash of their first meeting, when a laughing, insolent young gunhawk named Johnny Madrid had saved Val’s hide, his badge and his sun-parched little desert town. They’d started out as enemies; they finished as friends. Val had known the legend. He had heard the tales.  Johnny himself was to prove a surprise.

--What have they done to ya, Johnny boy? What in Sam Hill have they done to ya?

There was a burning feeling behind his eyes. Pinching the bridge of his nose between his thumb and index finger, he blinked away the blurriness.  He felt Señora Justiniano watching him and in clumsy acknowledgement he flapped the hand holding his hat. When at last he had the courage to return her gaze, the compassion he read in her dark, burning eyes nearly undid him.

Gruffly, speaking to the floor instead of the tall rancher beside him, he said, “Let’s go see Scott.”

* * *

Something roused Teresa. Perhaps it was the sound of the sheriff’s voice, or perhaps the shuffle of Murdoch’s boots as he limped out of the room. But as the heavy dark door was pulled to, Elena saw the young woman stir and half twist in her chair.

“Elena?”

“¡Chito, chica! Hush! Everything is fine. Go back to sleep.” 

But Teresa sat up, blinking, fully aware now, her gaze moving swiftly to the bed. “How is he?” she asked anxiously, looking worriedly at Elena. “Was someone here? Has Doctor Jenkins come?”

“He is still sleeping,” Elena said. “No, it was just Señor Murdoch, with Señor Crawford, the sheriff.” She paused, considering Teresa closely. “You should go to bed, mi pichoncita.”

Brushing her hair back from her forehead, Teresa gave a little smile. “It’s been a long time since you called me that.” She sighed. “I would rather stay here but maybe you’re right. Maybe the ‘little pigeon’ should find her roost.” She shifted her weight, rocking forward so that she was leaning close to the bed.

“I’ll be back, Johnny,” she said, taking one of Johnny’s hands in hers and caressing its back with her thumbs. “Elena’s here, right here. So rest, please. Because you need all your strength to get well . . .” As her voice faltered, Teresa looked at Elena, her eyes over-bright.

“Come here,” Elena beckoned. With a stifled sob, Teresa abruptly rose, rushing around the foot of the bed. Elena opened her arms in welcome and pulled the young woman onto her lap as if she were a child again.

“Hush, Little One,” she whispered to the dark head that found its old, familiar nest under her chin. Stroking Teresa’s hair, she waited until the choking sobs slowed, and then spoke. “Everything will be all right, Teresa. You must have faith.”

“I do,” came the muffled reply. “I do. It’s just . . .”

“Sí. It is just – difficult.”

“Yes,” Teresa said. She sat up and looked at Elena tenderly, managing a half-smile. “You always know, don’t you?”

Elena gave a little laugh. “If that were so I would be una adivinadora – I would like that very much. Think how useful I would be to everyone.” She sighed heavily, suddenly serious. “No, Teresa, I do not always know.” She looked past the tear-stained face in front of her and let her gaze fall on Johnny. “But I believe. I believe in Dios el Padre, and los santos, and Our Lady.”

“And in Johnny.”

“Sí, and in Johnny.”

“Thank you,” Teresa said. “Thank you for that – most of all.” She rose and turned to the man on the bed beside them. Bending at the waist, she leaned over and lightly kissed his cheek. “I’ll see you in the morning, Johnny.” 

“You will try to get some sleep, chica?” Elena asked as Teresa headed for the door.

“Yes, but first I’ll check on Maria,” Teresa answered, pausing at the threshold. “If she is tired, I’ll see if Lupe could sit for a while, or perhaps Placido’s niece.”

“She is too flighty,” Elena said disapprovingly.

“No, not Inez -- Margarita.” Teresa smiled. “Good night.”

“Dios le guarde,” Elena murmured as the heavy bedroom door scraped closed and the wrought-iron latch fell into place. The room seemed suddenly darker, and a shiver ran up Elena’s back. Before she could stop herself, her hand traced the sign of the cross. Then the smell of scorched wax was very strong and she realized that two candles had burned down to the wick. Chiding herself for her silliness, she went about the business of replacing all five tapers in the candelabra and, for good measure, lit another lamp. Then she returned to the bed and sat down beside Johnny.

Cocking her head, she listened carefully to his breathing. No, she had not lied to his father. Johnny’s breathing had eased. Just slightly. But it was better. And there were small beads of perspiration on his forehead. The mustard plaster was doing its job; it would fool his body into ridding itself of fever.

He was so still . . . Fear began to gnaw again and she fought to ignore it. Instinctively her right hand rose to her neck, seeking the comfort of Maria’s cross. When memory intervened, she reached instead for Johnny’s hand.

--You learned to walk holding my hand, Juanito. Sí, it’s true. Your tiny hands would wrap around these fingers and you would strain forward, so anxious to move. Then one day, all at once it seemed, you learned to walk on your own, without other hands protecting you from falls. And then there was no holding you. You were off, exploring, searching. 

--We used to lose you. Your mama would be working in her little garden, turn her back for one brief moment – poof, you were gone. I would be hanging up laundry, you handing me the pegs – and then you were not there.  Your mother and I, we would call out to one another: Have you seen Juanito? Is Juanito with you? Because we could not keep up with you. Your need to know.  Everything a “Why?” “¿Por qué? ¿Por qué?” you would say. So curious, you were; your blue eyes missed nothing.

--But if your papa were home, ah, then we would know where to find you. You would be with him. At the corrals, or in the barn or even in the house. He would work on his papers while you played noisily under his big desk. How you kicked and screamed when one of us would retrieve you for your afternoon sleep. Until your mama took you into her arms and sat in that rocking chair, yes, the one over there . . . until she sat with you . . . and sang.

--Do you remember, Juanito? Are the good memories there, hidden under all the bad ones? Or did your poor mother destroy everything of her past – of yours?

Elena wrapped Johnny’s hand more tightly with hers. Those days seemed at once so recent and yet so long ago. Without thinking she began to hum, a song she had not thought of in years. The lullaby her own mother had sung to her.

* * *

And in that dark place, where there had seemed to be nothing, nothing at all, words long forgotten were heard.

 And remembered.

 

Chapter  27

The hallway was dark. Someone had recently extinguished the lamps and the pungent smell of oily smoke lingered. Dawn had yet to reach the single window so Murdoch stood for a minute, letting his eyes adjust before he made his way down to the far door, where a narrow ribbon of lamplight marked the threshold to Johnny’s room.

Cipriano was no longer sitting vigil. Either fatigue or his indomitable lady had won out and forced him to bed. Murdoch was betting on the latter.

As he entered the room he saw that Elena sat as she had the night before, impassive, composed.  It was as if she had never moved, or slept. Her dark eyes were huge and strangely haunting and he felt awkward under their scrutiny. He was never quite sure what she was thinking. There was too much of the past still between them for him to feel entirely comfortable in her presence. Yet he knew that because of the boy on the bed, because of Johnny, they had to put aside what had gone before.

If they possibly could.

“It’s morning. That was my promise,” he reminded her in mock apology and was rewarded by a small, tired smile.

“Sí, you may return.”  She leaned forward, stretching a hand out to touch Johnny’s forearm. “He is better, I think,” she said, forestalling Murdoch’s question. She gestured at the bed. “Sit here for a moment. Listen and tell me if I am hearing what I want to hear or what is.”

He looked at her quickly and she gave another half smile. “I think I have counted each breath,” she confessed in a small voice.

Slowly, heart pounding, Murdoch sat. His eyes searched Johnny’s gaunt face, hoping for something that would tell him his son was there and fighting his way back to his family. But there was no movement, no sign. Johnny was lost somewhere in the uncharted territory of desperate illness.

The vinegary odor of the mustard plaster was strong and without thinking he held his own breath as he reached for Johnny’s hand. Doing as he had been asked, he listened. After a few minutes he glanced back at Elena and knew the relief on her face was a reflection of his own. He cleared his throat. “He still has quite a wheeze,” Murdoch said. “But I think you’re right – it’s not as bad as before.”

Elena nodded. “He has fever but it is not as you described,” she said. “What happened before – el paroxismo, la crisis – that is the way of la pulmonía sometimes. But . . .”

“But?”

“His body needs water. I am worried. He has not – ” She colored. Then, obviously attempting to regain her composure, she repeated herself. “His body needs water.”

“Doctor Jenkins should be here soon,” Murdoch said, meaning to comfort. But before she looked away, he saw by the bleakness in her eyes she was not fooled. He watched her stand and smooth her skirts before she began gathering and stacking the various pots and basins that seemed to have multiplied overnight.

“I will take these down so they will be ready when the doctor needs them,” she said, her back to Murdoch. “And I should check on Margarita, who came to sit with el Tejano last night so Maria could rest.” She walked to the windows and pushed back the heavy draperies. The faint light of early morning crept into the room. “Do you want the lamps left burning, Señor?” she asked as she blew out the candles of the candelabra and snuffed the glowing wicks between her index finger and thumb.

Murdoch sighed heavily. The formality between them was back. And the coolness. “No, Señora,” he answered, carefully matching his tone to hers. “If you please . . .”

The nagging pain in his back had returned, the penalty for his twisted perch on the bed. He had to change position. As he moved to the armchair Elena had vacated, he heard the bedroom door open.

“Elena?”

“Sí?”

“I . . .” He faltered, stopped.

There was a short silence broken only by the rattle of tin pots and pans being shifted and resettled. “I shall bring you breakfast,” she said. The door closed and he knew she was gone.

Dispiritedly, Murdoch stared for a minute at his hands and then, giving himself a mental shake, he leaned forward toward the bed. Eyes on Johnny’s face, he listened again to the labored breathing, reminding himself that it had been worse before. The glitter of Maria’s cross caught his attention and he stretched out his hand to touch it, gently tracing its shape as it lay nestled in the hollow of his son’s neck.

The goldsmith had been old, his hands so arthritic that Murdoch had doubted at first that the array of exquisite pieces of hammered and engraved jewelry he was shown could possibly be the work of this gnarled old man. Yet from a rough sketch made at that first meeting, the goldsmith had produced something breathtakingly beautiful.

Like Maria herself, Murdoch thought sadly.

There had been earrings, too. Tiny crosses attached to thin gold wires that had reminded Murdoch of a shepherd’s crook. Smaller, even, than the necklace. So small that his work-thickened fingers had had trouble catching hold to lift them from their protective velvet nest. She had worn them always.

An old anger stirred and with it the hurt. He fought to ignore both. It’s over and done, he reminded himself.

-- Isn’t that what you told this boy when he first stood before you, flashing his hate and his defiance, so like his mother that you felt like turning to the window behind you and smashing it with your fist. Just as you did that terrible morning so long ago.

“But I didn’t, did I, Johnny?” he whispered, clumsily catching hold of his son’s hand. “No, I turned my anger on you instead, didn’t I. Right at that moment, before you even had a chance, I turned my back on Johnny Lancer and began to plan how I would use Johnny Madrid. And you knew. You knew that and yet . . .”

He fell silent. What use was it to plow this old ground, to turn over memories better off forgotten. He and Johnny, they had made a peace of sorts, hadn’t they? Yes, they argued and slammed doors on one another. They could go days at a time without speaking. But surely his son knew, didn’t he? Johnny might not forgive him, but surely he knew?

 He bit his lip.

--You’re a coward, Murdoch Lancer.

 Yes, he answered himself, yes, I am.

* * *

The tunnel was dark, black as midnight on a moonless night. Somewhere there was an up. Somewhere a down.  But for some reason his feet could not find the ground, or his hands the roof. Yet he knew it was a tunnel. Everything felt closed in, small. And he was close to suffocating.

He had no weight, nothing to anchor him in place. He was at the mercy of the current. And that was the curious thing. That there should be a current carrying him lazily through the dark. But no water. He was floating in this dark underground. And there was no water.

There was sound. He couldn’t see but he could hear. Someone was talking in the distance. A deep voice, low and steady and somehow familiar. Comforting. He wanted to move toward it, to track the sound like a man following footprints in the dust.

Floating. The surface was too far away.

First maybe he would rest. Just a little.

But the voice--

Murdoch? . . . Wait . . .

Please . . .

* * *

The woman, Rosa, had brought him breakfast, but Avante had pushed away the tray, feeling too tired and too sick to eat. Now he wished he had something in his stomach. There was a lawman sitting there in that hard-backed chair, asking hard questions, and there was no reason to hope he’d go away anytime soon.

The Ranger exhaled wearily. He didn’t remember much about the day before, and virtually nothing about the night. All he knew was that when they had brought him to this room he’d fallen into a feather bed as soft as any he’d ever known. At some point in the night he’d woken, thinking himself back by the flooding river, in the dark, in the rain. And this time Madrid was drowning, dragged downstream out of reach. Fever dreams, he now realized. Mixed up. Crazy. But at the time they had been all too real.

“Mister, I’m askin’ ya again – what evidence did you have that Johnny Lancer held up that stage?”

Avante looked back at the sheriff. Crawford, he’d said his name was. From Green River. Wherever that was. Sheriff Val Crawford. Looked more like the town drunk than a lawman, Avante thought. Even sick as he was, the Ranger had noticed that Crawford’s clothes were old and shabby and none too clean. His beard, if that’s what you could call it, was patchy -- as if someone had interrupted the man in mid-shave a couple days ago and he’d never got around to finishing the job he’d started.

But they’d been at this question business for a good hour already and Avante had realized from the start that no matter how down-at-the-heel this Crawford appeared, he was a first-rate lawman.

Just his luck.

“We bin through this,” he said irritably, resettling himself against his pillows. “I told you about the witnesses, I told you what I thought made it an iron-clad case against Madrid.”

“Lancer.”

“Look, sheriff, pretending ain’t gonna change the fact the kid was once a hired gun named Johnny Madrid.”

“Ain’t pretendin’ a thing,” Crawford answered, eyes fixed on Avante. He leaned forward in his chair, forearms resting on his thighs. “His name is Lancer – but callin’ him Madrid makes it easier on ya, don’t it? What’s one more crime to a gunhawk? ‘Cept, of course, there’s a line there somewhere, and Johnny Madrid never crossed it.”

“You know that for a fact?” Avante felt his anger waken. He didn’t want this man raking the coals of his shame.

“I do.” Crawford’s gaze never wavered. He paused, as if choosing his next words carefully. “You wanna tell me agin who authorized that bounty?”

“I did.”

“Try agin. No Ranger’s got that kinda power these days.”

Suddenly confused, Avante looked at Green River’s sheriff questioningly. “Well, I hadda have it approved, if that’s what ya mean.”

“That’s what I mean.”

“McCrae.”

“‘Brazos’ McCrae?”

“You know him?” Avante asked curiously. What would a man like Crawford know about Major Frank McCrae? A man who rode with Mustang Gray in the forties. Who was one of the early Rangers who signed up to fight with Terry for the Confederacy. A legend in Texas. But here in California?

“I know him,” the sheriff said, his tone grim. But he didn’t volunteer any more. “This robbery – how’d the Rangers – what ya call yourselves now? Frontier Rangers? – how’d you get pulled in on this?”

“McCrae got notice and sent me out.”

Crawford was silent, considering. “And that man Johnny’s supposed to’ve  shot?”

“Told you,” Avante answered curtly. “The dead man was one of the robbers – a young gunslinger. Whoever led that robbery shot one of his own partners.”

“But there’s more to it than that, ain’t there?” Pushing his chair back from the bed, the Green River sheriff stood up. But he made no move to leave. Wouldn’t, Avante, knew, until he had the answer to his question.

The Ranger exhaled noisily, feeling defeated. “Avante,” he said. “Chris Avante . . . my kid brother.”

Crawford nodded once. Then again. But he said nothing until he had walked across the room, opened the door and was halfway into the hall. Then he turned and looked back at Avante.

“Don’t plan on goin’ nowhere for a spell,” he advised. “We ain’t done.”

* * *

The afternoon had turned unseasonably warm and Teresa wondered again why the weather this year seemed so topsy-turvy.  She stood at the open window, the slight breeze cooling on her face, and watched Placido rake the driveway gravel out of the grass, back onto the roadway.

Behind her she heard Murdoch shift in his chair. He had dozed off after lunch, waking when she took his half-finished plate from his lap and resisting their efforts to get him to nap in his own room. Grumpily he had told them he was fine, that he was just resting his eyes, and he had straightened up, sitting stolid and stern-faced until exhaustion again closed his eyes.

Scott was settled in the rocker, reading a book. Or pretending to. Teresa had noticed that he was more likely to be found staring at Johnny than at the page before him. When she tried to talk to him she found him in no better mood than his father.

In the kitchen, as they prepared the lunch, Elena had told her how the elder Lancer son had stumbled into his brother’s bedroom that morning, sleep still heavy in his eyes, and angrily asked his father why he hadn’t been woken early as promised. Scott’s voice was so hoarse that it was barely there, but Elena said that had not stopped him from bitterly giving el Patrón a dressing down worthy of an errant vaquero. For at least an hour, Elena reported, the two men had avoided each other’s eyes and said barely two words to one another. But at some point, perhaps when she stepped out to refresh the pitcher of water, they had sorted it out.

“Men!” Elena had said, as she sawed off a large slab of cheese and slapped it onto a wooden plate. “With all there is to do, chica, with all that is happening, they argue. What would happen if we started quarreling? Who would prepare the food? Or take care of the injured Tejano?” Tongue against her teeth, Elena made a clicking sound of disapproval.

Teresa had laughed in spite of herself, knowing that was Elena’s intention, that she be amused and distracted. Because the day – for all of them – had started too early, and the tension of waiting was grinding everyone down. They had hoped morning would see the doctor’s arrival, or that by noon they would find Sam Jenkins pulling up to the door in his ancient sagging buggy. Instead, just after lunch a weary, dust-covered Otilio had ridden in with the news that Jenkins was dealing with the aftermath of a kitchen fire at the Brennan rancho, several hours south of Spanish Wells. He might make it to Lancer by mid-afternoon. Or by dark.

Restlessly, Teresa turned from the window and went over to Johnny. Scott caught her hand as she passed his chair, and she stopped, looking at him questioningly. He merely shook his head, gave her hand a light squeeze and then let her go, his gaze returning to his brother.

She sat carefully on the edge of the bed and reached for the flannel square soaking in the basin on the table. Wringing out the tepid water, she gently wiped away the perspiration beaded on Johnny’s brow and the sheen on his neck. The strong odor of the renewed mustard plaster overrode the room’s mingled smells of stale sweat and medicinal salve and leftover lunch. She wrinkled her nose.

“Well, Johnny Lancer, when you wake up I bet you’re going to have something to say about this plaster. Last time we had to use one of these on you, you made as much fuss as little Nando did when he had the grippe.” Teresa paused, watching Johnny’s face closely. There was not even a quiver of an eyelid. She heard the raspy wheeze of breath being drawn in and the odd whistle of its escape. His chest rose and fell. But there was nothing else to grab onto, no sign that could put paid to her fear.

Fighting the lump in her throat, she picked up his hand and gently brought it to her lap. Such a large hand, she thought, turning it over as if it were a bolt of cloth she was going to buy. Her fingers traced the calluses on his palm, and she remembered Johnny’s early days at Lancer, when his gloves hid blisters the size of silver dollars. He’d been embarrassed when she noticed, and allowed her to care for them only when she promised she would tell no one.

This won’t do, she told herself sternly, blinking at the burning sensation in her eyes. Thinking about that will only make you sad – and then you will be of no use to anyone.

“Teresa?” Murdoch’s voice startled her and she turned round to find him studying her closely. “Are you all right?” he asked softly.

She stared uncomprehendingly for a minute and then, collecting herself, nodded. “I’m fine, Murdoch. I was just . . . just thinking about how much Johnny hates things like mustard plasters and poultices and medicinal teas.”  She managed a weak smile. “He’s such a terrible patient – we’re going to have our hands full.”

Murdoch ducked his head. “I hope you’re right, sweetheart,” he whispered.

“Of course I am, Murdoch,” she said firmly and turned back to Johnny. “He always comes back to us – always.” Unconsciously she began to play with the ring on his middle finger, now so loose that had she wanted she could have slid it off easily. “You’re just going to have to listen to us for once, Johnny. Elena’s not the pushover I am, or Maria. You’re going to have to toe the line, you know.”

There was a snort from the other side of the bed and she looked up to see Scott’s ragged grin. “Now that I want to see,” he said hoarsely. “My little brother, toeing the line.” Rocking forward in his chair, Scott dropped his book on the floor and put all his weight on the arm resting on his crossed leg. He tugged at the sheet covering his brother’s foot. “Time to wake up, boy.”

“Scott, your voice . . .” Teresa looked at the elder Lancer son with concern. But before she could say anything more, Murdoch began to speak, haltingly at first, then more confidently, reminiscing about his early days at Lancer. About the thrill he’d felt when the property first became his, when he’d put his name to the deed and ridden out to the estancia, flush with the feeling of ownership. He talked of cattle deals and horses sold. Of the days when he was afraid he wouldn’t have enough ready cash to pay the bank his monthly tithe. He spoke of the vaqueros who had worked with him to build the ranch, and of Teresa’s father, Paul, telling stories she had never heard about things that had happened before she was born.

Murdoch talked until his voice, too, began to give out. And so Teresa took over, telling her own memories, her own tales. When she ran out of those, she chatted of her friends and their friends and the gossip surrounding Placido’s niece, Inez. Prattle, Johnny called it whenever he wanted to really rile her. Silly prattle.

Well, Johnny, she thought as she reported on Inez’s latest indiscretion, I’m going to keep prattling on until you tell me to stop.

--Tell me to stop, Johnny. Tell me to stop. . . Now.

* * *

  There was a weight on his chest. A heavy weight, making it hard to breathe.

 That colt, it had fallen on him again. Crashed him into the fence and was layin’ on him. C’mon, Jelly, Frank  . . . get this fella off me so I can breathe.

 No, it wasn’t the colt . . . something else. The river. He was in the river. . . oh God, where was Scott . . . he was breathin’ in water. Heavy, heavy, chest so heavy . . . And people calling . . . voices again.

 Miss T’s prattle.

 The thought came to him so clear and so real that he knew he was right. He wasn’t in the river. No colt had fallen on him. He was in a bed. His bed? Teresa was talking to him, and someone else – Murdoch. Murdoch’s voice. They were so close, so close. Where? Too dark to see. Too –

“Johnny?”

Scott? Where . . .

"Johnny!”

There. . . Scott, oh God . . .

He was home.

* * * 

It was dusk by the time Sam Jenkins started down the long hill winding toward Lancer. And although he clucked old Gertie on at a fairly good pace, it was almost dark before his buggy passed under the great white arch. As he pulled up before the hacienda a vaquero quickly emerged from the shadows. Jenkins grimaced; the fact that they had been watching for him didn’t bode well.

“You stayin’ on, Doc? You want me to bed down Gertie here?” the cowhand asked as Jenkins reached for his black bag and stiffly climbed down from the buggy.

“Please,” Jenkins said, trying, and failing, to remember the young man’s name. Busted ulna. Last year, he thought. Clean break. No complications. “Thank you, er, . . .”

 “Quince,” the man supplied. He took Gertie by the reins and began leading the reluctant old mare toward the barn. “You take good care of him, ‘kay, doc?” Quince called over his shoulder. “Of Johnny, I mean – see him right.”

Just then the front door opened and Murdoch Lancer stood silhouetted against the warm glow of lamplight, Jelly at his side. “Samuel?” he called.

“Right here, Murdoch,” Jenkins answered. “Sorry to be so late,” he said as he stepped into the front hallway. He removed his battered hat, hanging it on the coat-rack, and brushed the travel dust from his clothes. “Long drive – I’ll need some water to wash up.”

“I got some heatin’ on the stove, doc,” Jelly said. “Follow me.”

“The Brennans?” Murdoch asked as they walked back to the kitchen. When Jenkins didn’t answer immediately, Murdoch stopped walking and turned to look at him searchingly.

“Hattie Brennan was rendering fat yesterday morning and it caught on.” Jenkins passed a weary hand over his face. “She tried to put a cover on the pot to smother the flames. Her little one got underfoot . . .”

“No, Sam!”

Jenkins sighed heavily. “I tried everything I knew, Murdoch. But Hattie was so badly burned—“

“And the bairn?”

Jenkins shook his head. “We lost her, too.” He looked over at his friend, already haggard with his own grief, now stunned by the tragedy of another family. “Life’s not very pretty, is it?” he said. He put his hand on Murdoch’s arm. “And your boy?” he asked softly, steering the tall rancher to the kitchen. “Tell me about Johnny.”

An enameled washbasin partially filled with hot water sat waiting on the kitchen table, a cake of hard brown soap and a clean towel beside it. Jelly was already busy at the stove and Jenkins wondered briefly at Maria’s absence. Then he remembered what young Rodriguez had said about “another injured.” That might explain things.

Rolling up his sleeves, Jenkins began to scrub his hands and forearms vigorously, all the while listening to Murdoch describe his son’s injuries. The rancher’s voice had gone flat, all emotion tightly contained. It was only when he talked about the last night on the trail, when Johnny’s fever had gone out of control and he apparently had had some sort of fit, only then did Jenkins hear the faint echo of the father’s agony.

“All right then,” he said briskly when Murdoch fell silent. “It’s time I see my patient. No, Jelly, thanks,” he held up a protesting hand at the coffee the handyman offered. “That smells strong enough to stand up a spoon and my gut’s giving me what-for as it is. Have you got any chamomile tea? Good, I’ll have some after I’ve tended to young John.” He looked expectantly at Murdoch, who nodded mutely and pushed away from the wall where he’d been resting his weight.

With Jelly beside him, he followed his old friend up to Johnny’s room. Murdoch was limping, Jenkins noted, and holding himself awkwardly, as if in pain. The doctor knew better than to ask. If the stubborn Scot wanted his advice, he would ask for it. If he didn’t – well, then Jenkins knew better than to waste his breath. Catching his eye, Jelly muttered something unintelligible and shook his head gloomily.

Upstairs they found a curious skirmish underway. Lancer’s segundo, Cipriano Justiniano, stood barricading Johnny’s room, his arms spread protectively across the doorframe to block the passage of a tall angry man wearing only a stained union suit, a sling and bloodied bandage. The tall man was shouting, the index finger of his good hand jabbing wildly at the air, and on either side of him pressed Maria and Rosa, cajoling in Spanish as they tried to herd him away.

“Who’s that?” Jenkins asked as Murdoch hurried ahead.

“Your other patient,” Jelly answered grimly. “Man who shot Johnny.”

“Trouble?”

“Could be.” Jelly scratched at his chin thoughtfully. “Ornery cuss. A pair-o-dox.” Jenkins looked at him sharply and the handyman shrugged. “Dunno – that’s what Scott said. The man’s contradict’ry.”

Whatever Murdoch said seemed to have worked, for all at once the fight went out of the “ornery cuss” and he allowed the women to lead him across the hall and into another room. As the door closed behind the trio, Cipriano surrendered his position and allowed Murdoch, Jenkins and Jelly to pass into Johnny’s room.

As he entered, Jenkins saw Scott Lancer rise from a rocking chair near the foot of the bed. Young Teresa sat at the patient’s side, and across the room, lighting the tapers of a tall candelabra, was Elena. The tension and sense of expectation suddenly seemed oppressive, the room airless, and Jenkins gave Murdoch a sour look. This was going to be hard.

“I can’t use all of you,” he said, glowering from under his eyebrows. “And I’m not going to choose between family members. So—” He stopped as Scott made an inarticulate protesting sound. “So,” he continued, “I am going to ask all of you except Señora Elena to wait out in the hall. You, sir,” he said to Jelly, “you could do me a favor by bringing me a basin of fresh hot water.”

“Sam—?”

“You know my rules, Murdoch. They haven’t changed in twenty-five years. I’ll call you if I need you.”

Turning his back in dismissal, Jenkins set his black bag on a small round table and pretended to rummage through its contents. He waited until he heard the shuffling sound of departing feet fade and the heavy carved door close with a short, defiant slam. He smiled to himself. Murdoch’s last stand. Then he went over to the bed and sat down on its edge.

“Well then, son,” he said soothingly. “Well then.” He felt his professionalism crumble as he got his first good look at the young man he’d once expected to loathe and had, instead, come to regard fondly. Very fondly. He’d warned Murdoch against putting too much faith in Johnny Madrid. Warned him, right at the start, that the kid might break his heart. And he’d been right, in a way – Johnny had broken their hearts. Because he was not the hard-case, soulless gunhawk they’d feared but something altogether different . . .

“Señor Sam.” Elena’s voice interrupted his thoughts. He saw that she had moved silently from her post by the candles to stand across from him at the bedside. Struggling to regain his composure, he pulled the pocketwatch from his vest and placed his fingers on the inside of Johnny’s wrist. He wasn’t pleased with what he felt, but the thready pulse was about what he’d expected.  The boy looked terrible, his color bad. Like death.

“Murdoch said he came round for a short time this afternoon,” Jenkins said, slipping the watch back in his pocket. His stethoscopes were in his lap, both the fancy, new binaural Cammann’s and his trusty wood-and-ivory single bell. He looked up at Elena as he fit the ivory earpieces of the Cammann’s into his ears.

“Sí,” she answered. “I am told he opened his eyes  -- and Teresa said when she pressed his hand, she could feel him press also.”

“Did they manage to get him to drink anything?”

“No.” Elena hesitated and then blurted her concern. “He has not made water since he was brought home, Señor Sam.”

“No, I would expect not,” Jenkins replied. “From what Murdoch told me, I suspect the boy is seriously dehydrated – er, el, um, la deshidratación,” he said, seeing her look of incomprehension.

“Ah.”

“This mustard plaster – yours?” As he began to peel back the heavy, saturated cloth Elena took over, efficiently removing the poultice and wiping away the remnants with a damp cloth.

“Yes,” she said. “It has helped. His breathing is better.” 

Jenkins nodded.  He placed the cone of the new stethoscope on Johnny’s chest and listened. But there was so much noise that he reached for his old monaural tool and placed his left ear against the single earpiece of the delicately-turned wooden bell. 

“Could be worse,” he said.

“It was.”

With gentle fingers the doctor lifted Johnny’s eyelids, checking the dilation of the pupils. Satisfied that his patient was unconscious but not in a more worrisome, deeper sleep, Jenkins turned his attention to the bandages swathing Johnny’s chest. Stretching toward the table, he retrieved his bag and withdrew from it a pair of scissors.

“You have extra bandages ready?” he asked as he snipped at the layers of cloth.

 “Yes,” Elena answered as the door opened and Jelly entered carrying a basin.

 "Thanks, Jelly,” Jenkins said briefly. And when the handyman didn’t move, “That’s all I need for now, thank you.”

 “Sure, doc,” Jelly stammered. “I’ll—I’ll be right outside, if ya need anythin’.”

 Jenkins waited until he was sure Jelly was gone and then resumed his task, Elena working beside him. She seemed to be able to anticipate his needs, to know what he would do next, and not for the first time he thanked God for the skills of women like this one. Without them, he knew, there would be far more deaths than anyone could tally.

 They worked for more than an hour, Jenkins examining, assessing. Cleaning the back wound and probing it gently. Cipriano had been called in to help, his strength needed to lift and move Johnny. And then at the last, as Jenkins and Elena began re-bandaging the wound, the doctor saw Cipriano’s eyes widen and a smile begin under his mustache. Beneath his hands Jenkins felt movement, a small ripple in a pond.

 “He waking up?” the doctor asked as he tied off the last ribbon of cloth with a neat, flat knot.

 “Poco a poco,” Cipriano said.

 “All right,” Jenkins said briskly. “Done. You can move him back – yes, as he was.”

Wearily, the doctor stretched his back, leaning first to one side and then the other to smooth out the kinks. But he kept his gaze on his patient, and as Cipriano settled the young man against the small mountain of pillows Jenkins saw Johnny’s lids open, quiver closed, and then open.

 “Hello, son,” the doctor said gently. He paused, waiting a long minute until he was certain Johnny was fully aware and could understand. Out of habit, he reached for his patient’s wrist and felt for the pulse. Racing a little now, but that wasn’t altogether unusual.

 “It’s mighty good to see you awake,” he continued. “Your father tells me you’ve traveled a pretty long, hard road.”  The blue eyes fixed on his, studying him intently. Searching. Questioning. Jenkins knew he was being asked for a prognosis. The truth. He had never known this boy to accept anything less.

 “Not good but better than I thought, John,” he said frankly. “You’ve lost a lot of blood and that hole in your back is infected. I hear that whatever else you have to discuss with the man who shot you, you have him to thank for the fact the infection’s not worse. But there’s still poison there so I daren’t close the wound.”

 He stopped. Surely that was more than enough information for now. They needed to get some fluids into this young man before he lost consciousness again. Jenkins looked around for Elena and found she was behind him, a glass of water already in her hands.

 But when he turned back to his patient, the old doctor saw that he hadn’t answered all of Johnny’s questions. Something more was silently being asked of him.

 Understanding came and Sam Jenkins slowly nodded.

 “If we’re lucky. If we’re careful – then yes, I think yes,” he said. “Welcome home, Johnny.”

 

 

Chapter 28

 Scott stopped reading, his voice trailing off in mid-sentence as he looked at his brother. Ishmael and company would have to wait. Johnny was asleep again. Not the restless twilight of the fevered. Or the frightening, abnormal stillness of the dying. No, this was just sleep. Healing sleep. Scott smiled.

The nightmare was behind them.

Leaning back in his chair, Scott wedged off his boots and put his feet up on the bed, carefully, so as not to jar his brother’s slumber. Then he reached down to the floor beside his chair and exchanged Murdoch’s leather-bound volume of Melville for his own much-thumbed copy of Johnson’s Rasselas.  He was looking forward to one day reading this one to Johnny, to hearing what pithy observations – and what homespun philosophy – his always-surprising brother might care to offer. Early on in their days at Lancer, Scott had learned not to underestimate Johnny’s powers of discernment and his native intelligence. Or to second-guess his taste in books.

With embarrassment, Scott remembered the lurid dime novel he’d found in Morro Coyo several weeks after the battle with Pardee.  He’d bought it on impulse and, pleased with himself, brought it home to read aloud to a restless convalescent. Johnny had listened politely as Scott read the first chapter with self-conscious enthusiasm. But when asked his opinion, Johnny had looked at his brother gravely and said, “ I think yuh just bought yourself a fancy pile of paper for the backhouse, Boston.”

Funny how even now that memory could shame him, Scott thought. They had known so little about each other then. And it hadn’t been entirely unreasonable to think the book might appeal. After all, Johnny had been a tough young gunhawk without much education, a man who had moved in the shadows of a world Scott could only begin to imagine. Who would have expected a man like that to have any interest in the world of ideas? Humility, he wryly reminded himself, was a lesson that often had to be relearned.

He felt the mattress rise and fall as Johnny changed position in his sleep, grunting softly as he tried and failed to turn onto his side. Scott quickly swung his feet down to the floor, instinctively stretching out a comforting hand, ready to respond to whatever his brother needed. But Johnny settled easily and Scott realized ruefully that Jelly was right. He had become a regular mother hen.

But it had been such a near thing.

The night Sam Jenkins had first examined Johnny – was it really less than a fortnight ago?  – the pragmatic doctor had been cautiously optimistic. He had stood with them in the hallway and given his frank assessment. The odds were not good but better than expected.  The back wound, Jenkins had reminded them, was still infected. Even without sutures, there was a possibility of abscess. They would have to be vigilant. He had prescribed a mild carbolic wash – very mild so as not to disturb healing tissue. The mustard plasters should be continued. They seemed to relieve the congestion in the patient’s lungs. If they were lucky, he had added, the pneumonia had reached its crisis that night on the trail. And if Johnny could make it through the critical next week . . .

“Well then,” Jenkins had said, shaking his head at their rising hope. “Let’s just wait and see, shall we?”

So they had waited, and they had followed the doctor’s instructions meticulously. Johnny seemed to make good progress.  But on the fifth morning, just when they had all begun to feel they could relax, Elena reported that he was feverish. By nightfall, the household was running relays to bring buckets of cool water to the sickroom and Murdoch had sent Manuel pounding into town for the doctor.

They had watched helplessly as delirium took Johnny into its merciless hold, and in his anguished cries and ravings they found more pieces of the ugly mosaic that was his past.  At one point the words were so strong, the re-lived scenes so harsh, that Murdoch had sent Teresa from the room on the pretext that they needed yet another basin of water. But scant minutes later it had been Murdoch who left. Johnny had cried out in Spanish, his words unintelligible to Scott but not, it seemed, to his father. Or Elena. Not until Jenkins arrived did Murdoch return, thin-lipped and pale. His eyes avoided Elena’s the rest of the night.

Scott shook his head, banishing the grim memories. Luckily Sam Jenkins had found the wound’s secret abscess, drained and cleaned it. The high fever had lingered another day and then it had left, leaving Johnny more torpid and weak than before. But oddly, that crisis had marked the beginning of his recovery. It was as if the thwarted spectre of death had stopped to shake an angry fist before disappearing.

--Now you’re getting morbid, Scott Lancer. And thinking like a Harvard sophomore with literary pretensions.

The memory of one particular pompous Harvard classmate made him laugh aloud.

“Scott?” Johnny’s voice, soft and groggy, bumped his conscience. He looked up to see his brother watching him, eyes at half-mast but clearing.

“Sorry, Johnny,” Scott said contritely. He put his hand on his brother’s foot. “Go back to sleep.”

“Naw, tired of sleeping.” Johnny gave a half-smile and readjusted his head on the pillow. His eyes wandered over to the window and back.  “An’ it’s the middle of the day, ain’t it?”

“Just about noon,” Scott nodded. “Can I get you anything?”

“Hot bath and a shave,” Johnny grinned. He slowly passed the back of his hand over his whiskered cheek and the smile left his face. “Scott?”

“Hmmm?”

“Can you  . . .  persuade Elena I’m not gonna keel over and die if we sit me up and do something about this beard?”

“Will do. And, uh, you do something for me in return?”

“What’s that?”

“Finish up this tea. I know, I know,” Scott waved a dismissive hand as he saw the scowl form on Johnny’s face. “It’s cold, but you still have to take it. And I did come up with that, er, nice substitute for the thunder mug, didn’t I? You have your bottle.” He chuckled as he saw his brother’s lips twitch in amusement. “How about it? Deal?”

“Deal,” Johnny conceded.

 No matter what his brother said, Scott reflected as he helped Johnny raise his head to sip at the bitter tea, he was weak as a kitten. But Scott and Elena already had discussed the matter, and Elena had agreed to take action that very afternoon. Had his brother but known it, he’d bargained for what was already a done deal. Again Scott chuckled.

 “What’s funny?” Johnny asked as he leaned back wearily against his pillow.

 “Oh, I was just thinking about what you said earlier,” Scott lied glibly. “About Ishmael and the harpooneer.”

 “Yeah?” A crooked grin crossed Johnny’s face. “Well, it’s true, ain’t it? Give a man a choice and he ain’t going to choose to share a hotel bed with a ‘nother fella. Especially if that fella’s a – what’d you call it? A harpooneer.”

 “Or a gunslick.”

 “Yup,” Johnny agreed, a trace of tiredness now in his voice. “Or a gunslick. What did that writer fella say?”

 Scott salvaged Melville from the floor and opened the volume at his bookmark. He flipped back a few pages, searching, and then, finding the passage, began to read.

 “’No man prefers to sleep two in a bed. In fact, you would a good deal rather not sleep with your own brother . . .’”

 “Ain’t that a fact,” Johnny murmured, his eyes dancing.

 “Hush, brother,” Scott scolded. He continued:

  “´I don’t know how it is, but people like to be private when they are sleeping. And when it comes to sleeping with an unknown stranger, in a strange inn, in a strange town, and that stranger a harpooneer, then your objections indefinitely multiply.’”

 “´Indefinitely multiply,’” Johnny mused. “With a hired gun they surely do. Sounds like the two professions got a lot in common. Whyn’t you read me some more, Scott? Promise I won’t go to sleep on you this time.”

 But that’s the general idea, brother, Scott thought as he began to read. And if Moby Dick keeps you awake we’ll find something more soporific. Because that’s exactly what you need, what Sam Jenkins has prescribed: sleep.

* * *

Even a third time through, the long column of numbers didn’t add up to the right sum. With a snort of disgust Murdoch snapped shut the black buckram account book and stuck his pencil behind his ear. Slouching back down in the deep armchair, he sighed deeply and let his gaze again travel over to the bed and his sleeping son.

The boy was growing stronger. Must be. He’d been awake for a long spell this morning, an encouraging sign, Murdoch told himself. And just look at how he’d behaved at lunch, wryly lamenting the difference between the beef tea Maria was spooning into him and the more substantial fare his family was sure to be served at the table downstairs. Of course, the validity of that complaint had been compromised by the fact Maria couldn’t get him to take more than half the contents of the cup. But something akin to the old Johnny was back in his voice.

Murdoch smiled as he remembered Johnny’s reaction to Teresa’s story of Rosa and Maria overwhelming Avante in order to strip him of his tattered union suit. In triumph, they’d taken the unspeakably dirty garment off to be burned and left the furious Ranger alone in the wash house without even a sheet to cling to for dignity.

“Now that musta bin a sight, Maria,” Johnny had drawled, giving the older woman a mischievous look. “An’ I reckon you saw a mite more’n was proper, too. Better spend some time in the confesionario, ma’am.” There was general laughter as Maria blushed red and began sputtering denials.

Yet before long, Johnny’s voice had weakened and his eyelids began an unsuccessful struggle to stay open. Elena arrived to change his dressings, a signal for everyone except Murdoch to retreat. She had managed to convince Scott that Teresa needed an outing and that only he could persuade the young woman to abandon the house. Earlier, she had told Teresa much the same thing about Scott. So the two had taken off, both loath to leave Johnny, but each confident it was in the best interests of the other to take an afternoon ride.

There was a soft rap on the door and the sound of the heavy latch lifting. Curious, Murdoch craned his head round, and seeing Avante standing awkwardly at the threshold, he raised his eyebrows in an unspoken question.

“Can I come in?” the Ranger asked quietly. At Murdoch’s nod of assent, he closed the bedroom door softly behind him and walked hesitantly over to the bed.

“Miss Teresa tells me he’s doing better.”

“Yes,” Murdoch answered. He paused for a moment, considering. Then he gestured at the rocker on the other side of the bed. “Sit down.” Ignoring the Ranger’s look of surprise, he gruffly added, “It’s time we talked.”

“But . . .?” Avante looked from Murdoch to Johnny and back.

“He was awake for a pretty long stretch earlier,” Murdoch said. “I think he’s going to sleep for a while. Besides,” he added acerbically, “I don’t think there’s anything we have to say that he can’t hear, do you?”

“Reckon not.”

Again Murdoch studied the man. He looked gaunt and drawn, tired. Murdoch knew he wasn’t sleeping well. The first week after their arrival, after they’d got his fever under control, he had slept almost constantly. Now, Murdoch knew, he hardly slept at all. At night they could hear him restlessly walking, his footsteps often halting at Johnny’s door, hesitating before moving on.

Yet during his last visit, Jenkins had briskly declared the Ranger much improved. The infection had been conquered and the skin around the wounds had begun to heal. Another week and the sling could be discarded; in two, if all was well, Avante could even ride.

The day their unwelcome houseguest was able to saddle up his horse and ride out of their lives couldn’t come too soon, Murdoch thought grimly. Virtually the entire household ignored him. Scott was cool toward him; Teresa downright frosty. For Elena, as for Cipriano, he had ceased to exist. Maria and Rosa had stoically cared for him without complaint at the beginning, but as his physical injuries had begun to heal, they would have less and less to do with him. Murdoch suspected the tussle over the union suit and sheet had given the women a chance to subtly show their contempt. Only Jelly had the charity to be more than civil and even he admitted it was a struggle.

As for Murdoch himself, well, the anger was still there, cold but bitter. He had avoided talking to the man whenever possible. Especially at the beginning, when he couldn’t trust himself not to do physical harm. He was ashamed of the hate that washed over him whenever he looked at the Ranger. Out on the trail, as they had traveled those agonizing miles, Murdoch Lancer had come to recognize that part of his hatred for Jason Avante was rooted in his own guilt. After all, what assumptions had the Ranger made about Johnny Madrid that Murdoch himself had not at one time made, too?

But overriding all was the fact that Avante reminded Murdoch of a disturbing truth: no matter how much they hoped, nae, prayed it could be different, Johnny might never be able to shed the skin of Madrid.

“Look, Lancer--,” the Ranger began uncomfortably.

Murdoch held up his hand, interrupting him. “I suppose you know Val Crawford’s making inquiries – sent wires,” he said curtly.

Avante nodded. “He told me.”

“Did you really think any reasonable judge, any jury of honest men, would believe I could bribe an entire crew of drovers to lie for my sons?” Murdoch shook his head in contempt. “Surely you must have realized the truth of what Scott and Johnny told you – that they were nowhere near el paso, The Pass, let alone that town where the stagecoach was robbed. You don’t strike me as a stupid man, Avante, but only a stupid man would . . .”

“There were eyewitnesses,” the Ranger said uncomfortably, his eyes on the floor. “And there was other information we’d got, evidence I thought pointed to Madrid.”

“I see.”

“No, goddamn it, you don’t!” Avante’s voice was anguished. “All right, all right – I’ll give you this, Lancer. I wanted it to be Madrid. You hear me? When the report came in and Madrid’s name was mentioned, I was glad. And I wanted to be the one to get the son of a bitch.”

Murdoch half-rose, his fists already clenched. Then, fighting for control, he sat back and held onto the chair arms, as if that one physical act could keep him from committing another. “Why?” he asked finally. “Why?”

“Because the legend of Johnny Madrid killed my brother just as surely as if Johnny himself pulled the trigger,” Avante whispered. He turned a ravaged face to Murdoch. “My kid brother, the man who died during that stagecoach robbery, he wanted to be a Johnny Madrid.”

Murdoch raised his eyebrows quizzically.

“ Don’t you see?” Avante asked. “Chris turned his back on everything I’ve tried to stand for. He didn’t want no part of what I tried to tell him.  Him and me, we was always bumping heads.” Leaning heavily back in the rocker, the Ranger inhaled deeply. “I-I failed him, Lancer. And you wanna know the worst part?” He looked up and the expression on his face was one of self-loathing.

 “I was ashamed of him. Ashamed because he reminded me of what a goddamn poor job I done tryin’ to raise him.” The Ranger put his head in his hands and spoke to the floor. “Dunno if that’s something you can understand, Lancer. But it’s God’s honest truth. And I’m—”

 “'Sorry,’” Murdoch finished shakily, his voice threatening to betray him.  “Yes . . . I know.”

* * *

 A woman was humming, the melody light and pleasing and faintly familiar. Johnny floated on the sound, trying to place the memory.

 Elena. Elena humming in the kitchen, the last time he’d been to supper.

 He was somewhere between slumber and wakefulness, and he briefly considered slipping back into the deep comfort of sleep. So easy. No effort required. Then he remembered Scott’s promise. The beard was itchy and uncomfortable. It made him feel like someone he wasn’t and he was more than ready to see it go. Reluctantly he opened his eyes.

 Something moved at his bedroom window and he turned his head to see what it was. Silhouetted against the frame of light was the figure of a woman, long hair let down and curling almost to her waist. She was dancing a slow, solo waltz in the late afternoon sun, her arms circling her invisible partner, her skirts whispering across the floor. His heart caught in his mouth. She reminded him of someone. Someone he had lost a long time ago.

 He must have coughed, or made some sort of sound, because next he knew Elena was at his bedside, a worried look on her face as she deftly twisted her hair back into its usual tidy bun and pinned it in place with tiny black combs. “You are awake, Juanito?” she asked, bending over to straighten the sheet over his chest. “Are you all right? Can I get you anything?” Her hand brushed across his forehead and then rested gently alongside his cheek as she smiled into his eyes. “You are ready to have some more tea, I think.”

 “Yeah, I guess,” he said, feeling his own smile flicker in response to hers.  He gave her a sideways glance. “Scott talk to you?”

 “About what?” she asked. She plumped his pillows before moving to the table to lift the lid of the cloth-swaddled teapot. “This is ready and not too hot,” she said. “But can you wait un momento? I must do something first.”

 Could Scott have forgotten? Johnny’s stomach dropped. All of a sudden he was overwhelmed by a sense of his own helplessness and he hated it. He was too weak to do anything for himself. Couldn’t sit up. Couldn’t shave when he wanted to. Couldn’t even steady the damn pee bottle without someone’s help. Blinking back tears of frustration he watched Elena walk over to the door and open it.

 “Johnny?”

 He realized she was watching him with concern and he turned away, collecting himself. “Yeah,” he muttered. “I can wait. Don’t have to choke that down now. Anytime in the next year would be fine by me.”

 “Lo siento.”

 Looking up he saw her smiling sympathetically and he felt sheepish and a bit ashamed. He didn’t want her to know. “Well, it does taste somethin’ foul,” he said.

 “That’s not what I meant, chico.” Shaking her head she disappeared into the hall and he heard her calling for Jelly. Then she was back, pouring the bitter herbal tea and slipping an arm behind his head so he could sip from the cup. Even with her help he tired of the effort before he could finish the drink.

 “Elena?”

 “Sí, Señor John?” she replied with mock formality as she replaced the cup on the table.

 Ignoring his frown, she gave him a serene look. But before he could say anything, Jelly walked into the room, a wide grin on his face and a basin of steaming water in his hands. Johnny glanced at Elena but she was busying herself at his bureau. When she turned round, there was laughter in her face and he saw that she had collected his shaving things.

 “Well, boy, you’re about to get yourself the best shave this side o’ the Rockies,” Jelly said. He set the basin on the bedside table and stood back to give Johnny an assessing look. “Yer lookin’ better every day, son, ya know that? Get that thicket off yer face and mebbe whack away at some of that long hair and we just might find somebody we know.”

 “Didn’t know you did barberin’, Jelly,” Johnny grinned, his face feeling like it might split from pure pleasure. And relief.

 “Huh!” Jelly snorted as he bent over the bed and eased Johnny forward so Elena could slip more pillows behind him. “You okay?” the older man asked, his voice low. “Kin ya hold on another minute while the señora here spreads out her cloth?” Johnny nodded, saving his breath. For truth be told, his bedroom was atilt. He let his head rest against Jelly’s shoulder and closed his eyes.

 “Done,” Elena said.

 “All right then.” Jelly lowered Johnny back against the mound of pillows. “How’s it feel to move a mite higher in the world?” he asked, his eyes twinkling. Without giving Johnny time to answer, the grizzled handyman turned to Elena. “Brought my own razor – figgered there’d be need fer two. Stropped it up real good and it’s sharper than a ‘Frisco lawyer and twice as dangerous.” He looked back at Johnny and lightly touched his shoulder. “Enjoy yer shave, son.”

 “H-hey,” Johnny stammered in confusion. “Aren’t you—?”

 “Nope,” Jelly grinned. “There’s a lot of things I do you don’t know nothin’ about, boy, but barberin’ other folks ain’t one of ‘em. Nope, Señora Elena, she’s the one’s gonna give ya your shave. Hear she gives nice an’ clean ones, too. Leaves most of the skin,” he added. “But then I guess yer used to close shaves, ain’t ya, boy?”

 Johnny groaned. “Get outta here, Jelly, why don’t yuh? Before I throw somethin’ at you.”

 “Waitin’ for the day, Johnny. Just waitin’ for the day.” With that, Jelly was gone.

 Elena broke the silence that followed. “Don’t worry, chico.”  She sat on the edge of his bed and tucked a large square of cloth around his neck and over his upper chest. “I am really very good,” she added, her eyes merry. Then her tone turned serious. “When I was a girl, my papá lost the use of an arm, his right one. He was able to teach himself to use his left arm as his right – except for shaving. That he could not do. My mother was busy with the little ones so my papá taught me. And he taught me well. If you do not believe me,” she added, the laughter returning to her face, “ask Cipriano. He does not like to admit it, but I am better with his razor than he.”

 “No, ‘Lena,” Johnny smiled. “ I believe you.” He tugged lightly at her skirt. “Trust yuh, too. So, can we get started on ‘the best shave this side of the Rockies?’”

 Laughing, Elena nodded. But before she would start, there was the matter of a second cup of tea. She insisted. And then she asked if he required a visit from “one of the men.” When he blushingly shook his head, she gave him a disapproving look and upped her ante: he must drink a tall glass of water. Scowling, he gave in, and hoped that she was not only very good with a razor but very fast.

 Teresa burst into the room just as Elena had finished trimming his beard with her scissors. “Oh,” the young woman cried in dismay, “you’re getting rid of it.”

 “I didn’t hear a knock at the door, Little One,” Elena chided as she brushed the clipped hairs from the cloth.

 “Sorry.” Teresa came closer to the bed and Johnny saw she had his saddlebags in her arms. “I sort of liked that beard,” she said with a smile. “It made you look, um, devilishly handsome.”

 “Itched like the devil, too,” Johnny replied, his voice muffled by the warm, wet cloth Elena was now wrapping around his face. “What’re you doing with those, honey?”

 “Oh, Cipriano gave them to me,” Teresa explained, moving toward his bureau. “I guess he thought you might want them. Do you want me to unpack them?”

 “I don’t . . . don’t think there’s much left in ‘em.” He cursed the tremor that had crept into his voice, and the churning feeling in his gut. He hadn’t expected it, but the sight of his saddlebags reminded him of things that for now he’d rather forget.

 “Juanito?”

 “Just restin’ my eyes.” He felt Elena’s hand slide over his. Taking a ragged breath, he looked over at Teresa. “Go ahead, honey, might as well.”

 “You’re right,” Teresa called in a few minutes. “Not much here. Except this. What’s this?” She held up a small object wrapped in oil-cloth.

 His book. The book she’d given him. He’d thought it lost. Memory flared, disjointed and ugly. A man tossing Teresa’s gift aside like it was the butt end of a cigarette he’d just finished. “Nothin’, T’resa – give it here, okay? Or, no,” he amended as she looked at him curiously, “in the bureau.”

 “All right.” Her back was to him. He heard a drawer open and close, and next he felt her cool lips on his forehead. “I’m helping Maria with dinner,” she whispered. “I’ll be in later.”

 As Elena lifted the cloth from his face, he gave Teresa a half-smile and watched her cross the room to leave. Then Elena was lathering his face with shaving soap, the brush tickling his nose. “Are you ready?” she asked with mock seriousness, brandishing his razor with a flourish. He nodded, resettling his head on the pillows and closing his eyes. He felt her hand on his chin and then the scrape of the blade traveling along his cheek. Relaxing, he gave himself over to the comfort of a familiar ritual.

He woke with a start, his hand going instinctively to his chin. From above he heard Elena’s laugh. She was standing by the head of the bed, by the table.

 “Oh no, I am not done,” she said. “We have made your razor dull so now we must test Jelly’s.” Sitting back down on the bedside, she looked at him somberly. “You are all right? Bueno. Just a little longer.”

 He let her work in silence for a few minutes, holding his mouth still while she worked on his upper lip. But his thoughts began to tumble, one on top of another, and when she lifted the razor to wipe it on the cloth he spoke.

 “How come you never told me you knew my mother?”

 His question had come as a whisper, so soft that not even he was sure he had asked it aloud. But Elena’s hand froze in mid-air as if it had been struck. Then she reached forward, as if to resume her task.

 Johnny felt his throat tighten. He lifted his hand in mute protest and, as Elena turned her dark eyes on him, let it fall.

 “Please,” he murmured. “Por favor.”

 “Hold still,” she said, placing the blade against his skin and beginning once again to shave. A long minute passed, and just as he was beginning to despair, she said, “When you first came here, I stayed away. I told myself that I had no desire to know you. No,” she shook her head at his unspoken question. “It wasn’t that. We had heard before, some of us, of this Johnny Madrid, the pistolero who was very fast and very expensive, but who had been known to work for los peóns – without payment.”

 He raised his eyebrows and she shrugged. “These things are known. Information travels. Of course, we could not know that you were you --  that Madrid was John Lancer.” Her mouth twisted in a half-smile. “But no, it was not that. It was  . . . ”

 “What?”

 Her hands fell back to her lap. “Your mama and I . . . we were very close.”

 “'Lena . . .”

 “No,” she said, placing a finger against his lips as he started to speak, “that is not something for now. Someday, sí. Not now.” She looked away, staring at the wall behind him. When she spoke, it was as if she were speaking to herself. “In the beginning, I . . . I  was afraid -- I didn’t want to accept you just because you were her son, her Nito grown up . . .” She turned to look at him, and he could see the tears on her cheeks. “I told myself I wanted to see what kind of man you had become.”

 “And now?” he whispered.

 Her finger lightly touched the cross at his neck. “And now I know,” she smiled. “Hold still. We are almost done.”

 

Chapter 29

The great house was still a dark silhouette against the lightening sky when Val Crawford passed under the Lancer archway. He had left Green River in the blackness of pre-dawn, anxious to be on the road. If it hadn’t been for that likkered-up crew from Moses Runyan’s, he would have ridden out last night, as soon as he’d received the response to his final wire. The reply, along with the letter hand-delivered by a stage passenger the day before, had told him what he needed to know.

Durn Moses Runyan, he thought, easing his weight off his sittin’ bones. It had been a long night. Man likes to brag on how he runs a clean, God-fearin’ operation, with no drinking or cussing allowed. But it’s always his crew that’s the terror of the town. Last night had been even worse than usual – saloon near blown to bits, half Green River’s male population swingin’ punches in the middle of the street and Miss Emma scared out of her silly little wits by Big Jake Wilkins singing under her window drunk as a skunk and naked as a jaybird.

Lamplight glowed in the windows of the bunkhouse as Val reined his horse toward the corrals. An anonymous figure trudging to the outhouse raised a casual hand in greeting and Val sketched a wave in return. Pulling up to the fence, he dismounted and flipped his reins over the middle rail. Then he headed across the stable-yard toward the big house and what he hoped would be one of Maria’s fine breakfasts. As he stepped onto the porch, the back door opened and Maria herself dashed out. Before he could say a word the startled woman shrieked and dropped a bucket full of kitchen scraps at his feet.

“Aiiiiyi! Señor Val!”

“Sorry, ma’am,” Val said awkwardly and squatted down to retrieve her tipped bucket. “Didn’t mean to give ya such a fright.”

“So early!” Maria exclaimed, her hand to her bosom.

“Sorry,” Val repeated, ruefully surveying the spilled coffee grounds and potato peelings. “Ya got a broom or somethin’ I can use to deal with this mess?”

“¡No le hace! Por favor, entre. I will take care of it.” Hands fluttering, Maria shooed him toward the open door. “Go!” she scolded, pushing him across the threshold. “I will be right back. You will eat, yes?”

The kitchen was brightly lit and warm, and it smelled like bacon, biscuits and coffee. As Val stood blinking owlishly by the door he heard Murdoch call his name in greeting and he looked over at the wide kitchen table to find the tall rancher and his elder son smiling in welcome.

“Sit in,” Murdoch said, draping an arm over the back of his chair. There was a scraping sound as Scott pushed out the chair opposite him with his foot and nodded to Val to take a seat. “Have you eaten?” Murdoch continued. “Maria’s just about to serve up some huevos fritos and some of Jelly’s good bacon. Fresh coffee’s on the stove.”

“Thanks,” Val said with a quick grin and hung his hat and his holster on the peg by the door. Running his fingers through his unruly hair, he walked over to the table and took the offered chair. He looked down at the scarred tabletop, uncertain how he wanted to begin.  A cup of coffee suddenly seemed like a good idea and he glanced longingly at the large enameled pot boiling on the stove.

Murdoch got up from the table and moved the pot to the side of the stove, swearing softly as his fingers grasped the hot handle. He retrieved a cup from the shelf above the sink and leaned back against the adobe bread oven, waiting for the grounds to settle.

“What’s on your mind, Val?” Scott asked quietly.

“Bacon’s burnin’,” Val noted.

“Is it?” Murdoch twisted back toward the stove. “It is! Maria will have my hide.”  He dragged the skillet off the stove’s hot spot and poked at the sizzling slabs. “Just in time,” he said and took up the coffeepot.

“Cream? Sugar?” he asked as he set a steaming cup in front of Val and poured coffee for Scott and for himself.

“As it is. Jus’ neat,” Val said.

“Well?” Hands wrapped around his own cup, Scott looked up at Val from under a knit brow. “This is no social visit, is it?”

Green River’s sheriff drew in a deep breath and let it out. “I’ve heard back from San Antonio,” he said. “A letter – an’ another wire.”

“Ah.” Murdoch picked up his coffee cup and walked over to the cold fireplace. His arm on the mantel, he stared into the ashes. “Get Avante, Scott. I want him to hear this.”

“What about Johnny? Shouldn’t we do this in his room?” Scott asked as he slowly rose from his chair. “He’s awake – I heard him trying to sweet talk his way downstairs for breakfast. Almost had Teresa convinced, too. Then Elena caught wind of it.” He grinned broadly at Val. “He won’t be down.”

“He feelin’ better, then?”

“You know Johnny, Val. Feeling better doesn’t enter into it,” Murdoch snorted, turning away from the hearth. “Yesterday Sam Jenkins gave him the go-ahead to try walking from his bed to a chair. A week ago he couldn’t sit up but this morning he thinks he should join the family for breakfast. But yes, to answer your question, yes, he’s better.”  The rancher paused and Val saw a small smile play at the corner of his mouth.

 “And the Ranger?” Val asked, scratching his jaw.

“What about the Ranger?” From across the room Avante’s voice rumbled, gravel sliding into a sluice box. The Texan stood under the curved archway leading to the hall, a tall and oddly tentative figure.

“Scott was just coming up for you,” Murdoch answered smoothly, straightening to his full height. “Sheriff Crawford has some news. No, Scott,” the older man turned to his son, “let’s leave Johnny be for now. Val can talk to him later – alone.”

“News?” Avante looked questioningly at Val but before he could answer the kitchen door scraped open and Maria bustled in, the empty slop bucket in one hand and a basket of eggs in the other.

“Ah, señores, I am sorry it took me so long,” she said, flashing a brilliant but distracted smile as she set the bucket on the floor, the basket by the sink and quickly began to wipe the shells of the eggs with a damp cloth.  “The hens, they are going broody and hiding their treasures. You will be patient with me, por favor?” Rushing over to the stove, she pulled the bacon skillet back to the center, muttered something about los hombres irresponsable and broke the clean eggs into the hot pan with a few deft movements.

“Sit down, Jason,” Murdoch invited, motioning to the Ranger and settling into his own chair. Val tried to cover his surprise. He had heard from Doc Jenkins that the Lancers had come to a sort of truce with the Texan, that Murdoch especially had spent some time talking with the man. But Val hadn’t expected things to be quite so, well, friendly. All right, so maybe friendly wasn’t the word, Val corrected, addressing himself to his coffee. Affable?

Teresa breezed into the kitchen. “Oh, good morning, Val,” she smiled. “Do you need help, Maria?” Without waiting for an answer, she went over to the china cupboard to retrieve a stack of plates. “You’ll eat with us, won’t you, Val?” she called over her shoulder. “What brings you out so early? If you were hoping for some of Maria’s churros you’re out of luck. She’s promised Johnny she won’t make any until his stomach’s better.”

“His stomach?” Val looked at Scott.

“That medicinal tea,” Scott explained. “Helps fight fever but it can irritate your gut, especially when you don’t have much in it. He’ll be fine – just has to wait a while until he can enjoy some of Maria’s specialties.”

Avante cleared his throat and shifted his weight in his chair. Glancing at the other man, Val saw the growing impatience in his face and his restless hands. “No, Teresa,” Val said, his eyes still on Avante, “much as I like Maria’s cookin’ I come to tell ya I got some answers back -- from Texas.”

“Oh, Val,” Teresa breathed. She set the stack of plates on the table and sank into the chair next to Scott’s. Her eyes on Val, she didn’t even seem to notice when Maria took the plates from in front of her and began serving up breakfast.

Uncomfortably aware that all attention was now focused on him, Val studied his coffee for a moment and then tossed off the last gulp. Like magic, Maria appeared at his side, a plate was set on the table before him and his cup was filled again.

“Day before yesterday I got a letter from a fella name of Leander McNelly,” Val began. Avante started, but said nothing. “McNelly’s somethin’ of a big man down in Texas, ain’t he, mister?” Val looked at Avante and then back at his coffee cup. “Headed up the Texas Scouts during the War and made a name for hisself. Then, when Texas got itself back into the Union, the new gov’ner, Davis, he asked McNelly to be one of his four State Police captains.”

“Lasted less than a year,” Avante said somberly, his eyes fixed on Val. “The only honest man of the four and he didn’t last the full year.”

“Val?” Murdoch looked confused, his fork with its pierced piece of fried egg halted in mid-air. “Last I knew you were talking about a man named ‘McCrae’ – Brazos McCrae,  wasn’t it? You said he was a Texas legend but that your Uncle Junie didn’t think much of him.”

“McCrae’s a butcher,” Val said harshly. “Back in the forties, when he rode with Mustang Gray and then during’ the War – nothin’ but a butcher. No, wait on me,” he growled at Avante, who had begun an angry protest. “Wait!”

Val turned back to Murdoch. “Leander McNelly’s a different fella altogether. Until recently, he was a marshal down in LaGrange. But he’s pulling together somethin’ they’re calling a special force, another kind of Rangers. Private force until Davis is outta office.” Val raised his eyebrows in question at Avante but the Texan merely shrugged. “State’s a mess,” Val muttered under his breath. “Anyway, Uncle Junie, Pappy’s youngest brother, he served with McNelly in the Texas Fifth. He said he weren’t comfortable with everything they done durin’ those years but if I wanted the straight goods I should get in touch with Lee McNelly.”

“And?” Scott asked impatiently as Val stuffed a forkful of eggs into his mouth and washed them down with a gulp of coffee.

“Avante, you told me Brazos McCrae set you on Johnny’s trail, right?” Val peered over at the Ranger and when the Texan started to protest, the sheriff raised his hand in acknowledgement. “Okay, I misspoke myself. You said McCrae got the first reports of that stage robbery, right?

Avante nodded.

“An’ he gave you the information. An’ authorized that bounty ya put on Johnny Madrid’s head, right?”

Again Avante nodded.

“He tell ya that thirty-thousand was in gold bullion, not banknotes? That it was on its way from the mint in Denver to San Antone –

“What’s that got to do with anything, Crawford?” Avante growled.

“That weren’t no ordinary stage, Avante – it was arranged special.” Val turned to Murdoch, who was sitting back in his chair, listening intently. “McNelly got recruited by a group of prom’nent Texans who got sick of them pond-scum State Police. They decided they wanted the Rangers back and they wanted Lee McNelly to boss ‘em. Only problem is Davis and his carpetbaggers is still in control of the state and the money. Those rich fellas are the ones bankrollin’ McNelly’s special force. The gold was supposed to cover wages until Davis is out and the state starts kickin’ in its proper share.”

Murdoch shook his head. “I’m sorry, but I’m not making the connection here, Val.”

“You’re saying that someone on McNelly’s new force tipped off those robbers, aren’t you?” Scott put in. “With Davis and his thugs still in power there would have been some elaborate secrecy surrounding the shipment of that gold.” He glanced at his father. “As Val said, it would have been a special shipment – they couldn’t chance sending it on just any stage going south.”

“No,” Val agreed. “McNelly says the gold traveled outta Denver in the bottom of a chuckwagon headed back to Texas. None o’ the drovers travelin’ with it knew a thing, only the ramrod. A switch was made south of Santa Fe. Some little dusthole town where the chuckwagon detoured for supplies. Met the stage there. Both the stage driver and the fella riding shotgun were known and trusted by the man who made all the plans.”

Avante’s head jerked up and his hot eyes met Val’s. “Spit it out,” he growled.

“Brazos McCrae,” Val said. Pushing away his cold breakfast he leaned forward and firmly planted his elbows on the tabletop. “McCrae planned that robbery, Avante. An’ he set it up so the footprints he set you to following would be so clear ya’d never think to check the back trail.”

“You’re talking foolish, Crawford!” Abruptly, Avante stood up, his fork clattering against the plate of untouched food and his chair tipping back against the stove.

“No, mister, I’m talkin’ truth, or what Leander McNelly tells me is the truth.” Impassively, Val looked at the man towering over the table, his face mottled red. “The only honest man Davis had, you said.” Reaching into his shirt pocket Val withdrew a folded wad of papers and tossed them on the table. “There’s the letter, an’ the wire I got last night,” he said. “Read ‘em.” He looked at Scott and then at Murdoch. “McCrae was arrested, oh, three-four days ago. They’d bin watchin’ him for weeks, ever since a man named Carlos Suarte showed up in San Antone tellin’ an interesting story.”

Avante stiffened. “Suarte? The stage driver?”

“The same,” Val confirmed. “Your eyewitness. Whose cousin just happened to be one of the three men who held up the stage.”

“But . . .” Shaking his head, Avante sank back down in his chair, reached for the wad of papers and began to read.

“Val?” Scott questioned.

“McCrae used to be a pretty good lawman at one time. Brutal, but good,” Val said. “And because of that, McNelly brought him into the State Police back when they was hopin’ the police was gonna clean up the state. Then Lee recruited him into the new force. But somewhere along the way Brazos had went sour – or mebbe just greedy. Or,” he added grimly, “mebbe both.”

Pausing to collect his thoughts, Val played with his empty coffee cup. “Anyways, McCrae set up the delivery then turned ‘round and set up the robbery. There was six of ‘em in on it – ‘cept ole Brazos never had intentions of sharing any more‘n he had to.”

Suddenly he became aware that Maria was at his side, waiting to pour him a fresh coffee. “Gracias,” he murmured, lifting his cup. There was a short silence and he knew everyone was waiting on him, that he hadn’t yet told them what they wanted to know.

“McCrae and the Suartes went back a long way,” Val began. “Don’t know the details of it, just that McCrae knew the promise of two thousand in gold each would buy their help. As for your brother,” Val’s eyes caught Avante’s and held. “Well, guess it was no secret you and your kid brother didn’t get along, that the kid was a gun on the make. Wanted a name. Wanted to be another Johnny Madrid, didn’t he?”

For a moment, Avante sat motionless, his face like stone. Then Val saw a muscle twitch in his jaw and the Ranger closed his eyes and nodded slowly.

Exhaling deeply, Val looked around the table and then continued. “McCrae figgered pinning the blame on someone like Madrid would make his life a lot easier. Sounds like he’d heard some rumors about Johnny bein’ dead. Didn’t know for sure, I guess, but neither did anyone else. So one way or another he figgered it was safe to hire himself an imposter. The fake Madrid would do the stage job and then disappear when Brazos had no more use for him.”

“What about my brother?” Avante asked, his voice cold. “Did he know the truth?”

“About the imposter? Lee McNelly doesn’t think so,” Val answered, studying the Ranger closely. “Your brother was brought into the deal because the kid had been shootin’ off his mouth about hirin’ out his gun. Brazos knew the boy would jump at the chance to work with Madrid  -- and to pull off a job that would smack his big brother in the face.”

As Val watched, Avante’s face contorted with pain, and when he next spoke, his voice was a harsh whisper. “There’s more, isn’t there?”

“Yeah,” Val answered. “McCrae never planned for your brother to survive that robbery. You’re too good a lawman, Avante,” he continued softly. “McCrae knew the only chance he’d have to pull this off was to hit your soft spot, your kid brother. He counted on you bein’ blinded by rage and a need for revenge. All he had to do was point you in the right direction. Suarte was to see to it that you kept followin’ the scent they laid down.”

“Which I did.”

“Yup,” Val agreed. “But a little better’n they give you credit for. ‘Cause instead of trackin’ down McCrae’s Johnny Madrid – a pistolero named Héctor Cesar -- you found the real one. Which saved your damn fool life,” Val said tersely. “Yeah,” he added as Avante’s head jerked up. “Cesar’s final job was supposed to be you. He bushwhacked the Suartes. Carlos was wounded, his cousin Eduardo, killed. Next he was supposed to kill the ‘coon dog on his trail. You”

“God, I made it easy for the bastards, didn’t I?” Avante rasped.

“Yeah,” Val said. “But ole Brazos did a durn good job of setting you up, too.”

“Val,” Scott said thoughtfully. “Why didn’t suspicion fall on McCrae immediately. After all, he was the man who knew all of the arrangements.”

Val shrugged. “Told ya, Scott, most folks down there think Major Frank Brazos McCrae is almost as shiny as Sam Houston. Almost. ‘Sides, as I said – state’s a mess.”

Murdoch had been sitting impassively, seemingly frozen in place. Now, as he cleared his throat, Val saw the rancher was fighting for control of his anger. Finally he spoke. “You said McCrae has been arrested. What about the false Madrid? Cesar. Where’s he?”

Suddenly Val found the contents of his coffee cup extremely interesting. This was the hard part, the part that had made his stomach turn cold when he read McNelly’s last wire. But there was nothing to do but come out with it.

“Nobody knows for sure, Murdoch,” he answered. “But . . .”

“What?” Scott snapped angrily. “But what?”

With his thumbnail, Val scratched at an old gouge in the tabletop. He couldn’t meet Scott’s gaze. Or Murdoch’s. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Teresa’s hand slide over to Scott’s, and he realized the faint, very faint sound his ear was now trying to place was the sound of her stifled sob. Surprisingly, it was Avante who spoke, who asked the question to which everyone already seemed to know the answer.

“He’s still out there, ain’t he, Crawford?” the Ranger said. “Cesar’s out there somewhere, playin’ at being Johnny Madrid. And killin’.”

Mutely, Val nodded.

A short, sharp obscenity broke the lingering silence and Murdoch Lancer strode out of the room.

* * *

The sharp rap rattled his bedroom door and broke through the last wisps of sleep. Johnny came awake with a start. He was alone, Jelly and the deck of tattered cards gone, the late afternoon sun puddling across the foot of his bed. Again the knock, this time softer, as if his visitor was debating whether to leave. Murdoch, Johnny thought wildly.

--Wait! Don’t go . . .

Struggling to a sitting position, he pushed away the quilt he couldn’t remember pulling over himself and leaned back against the headboard. “Come in,” he called, hastily brushing the sleep out of his eyes.

But when the door swung open the tall man who stood uncertainly at the threshold was Avante. Not Murdoch.

“Hello, Ranger Man,” Johnny drawled, tamping down his disappointment. “You payin’ your respects, too?”

“Can I come in?”

“Might as well.” Johnny pulled a wry smile and slowly brought up his knees so that his sock-clad feet were planted flat on the bed. “Seems just about all of Lancer has been in here today.”

“We need to talk, Madrid,” Avante said.

Something in the Ranger’s voice made Johnny think twice about the smart-mouth retort he’d been about to give. Ducking his head, he studied the heels of his socks. Talk? He wished Murdoch would talk. The new ease they had found with each other was disappearing. Maybe after today it was even gone for good. The old man had not been in to see him since early morning, since before Val brought word from Texas. Val himself had come up to tell Johnny the news, to let him read the letter and the wires. Scott had been in, and Teresa. Jelly, even Cipriano . . . But no Murdoch. And the silence was deafening.

“Madrid?”

“Yeah, Avante,” Johnny said softly. He looked up, and seeing concern written on the Ranger’s face forced a half-smile. “Yeah,” he repeated, pushing Murdoch to the back of his mind. “I guess we do. But wait a minute, huh?” Stiffly he sat forward and carefully slid first one leg off the bed and then the other. “I want to get up, get out of this bed. No,” he waved a dismissive hand as Avante reached out to help him. “I can handle it – just goin’ to the chair over there by the window.” Using the bedside table for support, he stood, grunting with the effort. Again he waved away Avante’s offer of help as he tottered over to the upholstered chair and sank gratefully into its depths.

Better than this morning, he thought with relief. Almost pulled the damn table over on myself this morning. Lucky Elena didn’t see that.

“How’re you doing, kid?” Avante asked, drawing up a straight-backed chair so he could sit opposite Johnny.

“Been better.”

“No, I mean . . .”

“I know what you mean,” Johnny interrupted. He settled his head against the soft high back of the chair and considered Avante through narrowed eyes. The Ranger was no longer wearing a sling, and Scott had reported that Sam Jenkins’s orders to stay off horses for another week had already been disregarded several times over. But Avante still looked bad. His face remained ravaged, older than his years. A face like forty miles of bad road, Jelly had called it. No, Elena had said, the face of un penitente.

“They set you up good, didn’t they, Ranger?”

“I made it damn easy for ‘em.”

“I don’t know but I might not of done the same if I thought someone had murdered Scott.” Johnny said softly. “If you had killed Scott, Avante . . . ” His voice faltered, playing him false, and he had to swallow before he could continue. “If you had killed Scott out there on the trail, you’d be a dead man now. Oh, you might have thought you was living still. But you would have been dead.”

Reluctantly, Avante met his eyes. “There’s other deaths than the kind where your heart stops beating, Madrid. That’s only the easiest one.” He exhaled heavily and his face became even more old and seamed. “I’m sorry about Cesar, kid. ‘Fraid he’s going to make trouble for you down the road.”

“Look, Avante,” Johnny said quietly. “It’s not your fault there’s some two-bit hired gun trottin’ around Texas calling himself ‘Johnny Madrid.’ There’s other things you can let yourself feel cut up about. For some of ‘em,” he grinned,  “I’ll even give yuh a knife. But not that. Blame McCrae. Blame Cesar. Hell,” he muttered in sudden anger and despair. “Blame Johnny Madrid.” Turning he looked out the window, across the rolling fields to the distant mountains. “You know what they say, Ranger Man, about men who live by the sword.”

Avante cleared his throat as if he were about to speak and then seemed to think better of it. There was a silence between them for a few minutes. “They’re putting a bounty out for Cesar,” the Ranger said finally.

“For Cesar, or for Johnny Madrid?” Johnny retorted, his gaze still fixed on the horizon. “For a man about my height? My weight? Who goes by the name of Madrid?” He shook his head and glanced at Avante. “You and I know the truth of that, don’t we? In the end, there’s nothin’ anyone can do about the way that plays out. Dead or alive, Héctor Cesar’s going to follow me like my shadow. Like Madrid.”

Now it was Avante’s turn to fix his attention on the scene outside the window. Johnny saw the man’s Adam’s apple work as the Ranger wrestled with whatever it was that seemed to have him tied up in knots. A thought struck him.

“You going after him, Ranger? Are you still gunnin’ for a Madrid?”

“No, boy.”

“Well, that’s somethin’,” Johnny said.

“How’s that?”

“Oh, I dunno.” Johnny shifted in his chair, glancing at Avante and then out at the corrals. He could see Manny and Quince playfully jostling one another by the stock trough, each man trying to hook a foot around the other’s ankle hoping to trip him into the water. From the sidelines Emilio stopped working on a broken wheel to catcall and play referee.

“Revenge is a funny thing, ain’t it?” Johnny mused, watching Quince come perilously close to taking a cold bath. “Scott’s been reading me a story about a man who signed away his soul to get revenge -- on a whale, of all things. Pretty good tale, though.” He looked at Avante. “There’s a bit we read the other night I kinda liked. A fella’s talkin’ about souls, and how he’s known some men who don’t have any. I’ve known some men like that. Think you have, too, Avante.”

Hesitantly, the Ranger nodded.

“This fella says men without souls, they don’t miss ‘em. ‘A soul’s a sort of fifth wheel to a wagon,’ he says.” Johnny raised his eyebrows. “You think that’s true, Ranger? No,” he smiled as Avante shook his head, “neither do I. I think it’s more like an axle and the wagon ain’t much use without it.”

“Madrid . . .”

“Don’t go after Cesar, Avante.”

“No. I won’t.”

The Ranger’s steady gaze suddenly made Johnny feel uneasy. He knew himself to be pretty fair at reading the secrets of men, but he was at a loss as to what was now written in Avante’s eyes. This man wanted something from him. Or was it the other way around? What did the Ranger want to give?

“Somethin’ still eatin’ at you, Avante?” he asked finally, his index finger absently tracing the raised pattern of the fabric on the chair’s arm. “Out there on the trail, you an’ me, we settled what was between us.” He eyed the other warily. “Whatever else you want, Ranger Man, you’re going to have to take it up with your confessor. An’ that ain’t me.”

“I know that,” Avante rasped impatiently. Then he brought his hand up to his mouth, as if he could wipe away the words just spoken. He shook his head, and to Johnny’s surprise a grin split his face.

“What?”

“You do try it on, boy,” Avante laughed.

“Look, Avante, I haven’t been a boy since I was ten years old so would yuh stop callin’ me that?” The anger sparked from somewhere but Johnny wasn’t quite sure where. He was beginning to feel tired and irritable, lost on a piece of ground familiar only to the man seated in front of him. He closed his eyes.

“You and my brother,” Avante said, the mirth gone from his voice now. “Both of ya got the same talent for getting’ me riled just by openin’ your mouth. Like chiggers, both of ya. No, listen,” the Ranger held up his hand as Johnny looked at him in astonishment. “You gotta listen.”

Abruptly Avante rose. He walked over to the table on the far side of the bedroom and, after a moment, picked up a small, primitively fashioned carving of a horse. Turning it over in his hands, he examined it briefly and then set it back on the table.

“Do you remember on the trail, before the river and all – you remember what you said?” the Ranger asked. Confused, Johnny shook his head. “When you asked me if kickin’ in your ribs made me feel better. If it took away my guilt.”

“Yeah, well . . .” Johnny began uncomfortably, looking away.

“It did,” Avante said harshly. “It did make me feel better – because instead of hating myself I could hate you. Instead of blaming myself for Chris goin’ so wrong, I could blame you.” He paused, and Johnny knew he was being watched. Studied. “I’m sorry for that, son. I ain’t proud of it, an’ I’m sorry.”

“Avante—“

“Let me finish,” the Ranger interrupted. “I started off hatin’ you because Chris wanted to be you. An’ I thought you stood against everything I spent my life trying to be and do.” Avante shook his head. “But then . . . then I started hatin’ you ‘cause I realized my kid brother weren’t half the man Johnny Madrid was. Or is.”

Suddenly Avante was standing beside him, his hand on the back of the chair, his tone of voice kind.

“I been talkin’with Murdoch, Johnny,” the Ranger said. “This past week we done a lot of talking. And it seems we got a lot in common. Think alike. Make some of the same kinds of mistakes.”

Bowing his head, Johnny stared blindly at his lap. He felt the Ranger’s hand rest on his shoulder, a light pressure.

“Give him time, boy,” Avante said softly. “He’ll come round. Right now your old man’s feelin’ like he’s been bushwhacked. Not just by your demons – he’s got a whole crew of his own.”

* * *

 He had worked through dinner, carrying on with the paperwork that he had allowed to occupy most of his day. He had declined Scott and Teresa’s suggestion that they all eat together in Johnny’s room, pleading the excuse of an upcoming payday and Lancer’s long neglected accounts. But Murdoch knew he had fooled no one, least of all Scott. His elder son had politely listened to his excuses and then said coldly, “I’ll give Johnny your regards.”

A tray of untouched food sat on the edge of his desk. Maria had brought it to him earlier, plunking it down unceremoniously on the papers strewn in front of him and leaving without a word. He had set the tray aside and returned to his work, studiously avoiding the parade of people who passed through the Great Room as the evening progressed.

Now it was late, the house quiet, and he was surrounded by darkness. The lamps in the dining room and on the table by the fireplace had been turned down by Teresa. Guiltily, Murdoch thought of the kiss she had bestowed on him before she had headed off to bed. He knew she was upset with him, maybe even a little angry. But she had not allowed her feelings to interfere with the little nightly ritual that had been theirs since Paul’s death.

The inner anger flared before he realized it and he found himself staring in bewilderment at the pencil he had snapped into three jagged pieces. With disgust he tossed the last piece down on his desk, rose from his chair and strode over to the fireplace. Grabbing the iron poker, he prodded the smoldering coals back into a semblance of life and threw on a couple more rounds of wood. When they failed to catch immediately, he swore obscenely, lifted the bellows from its hook and knelt on the hearth, vigorously pumping the wooden clappers until the fire was going satisfactorily.  Then he thrust the bellows aside and clumsily hauled himself up onto the flowered sofa.

“Can I pour you a brandy?” Scott’s voice, wryly amused, startled him and he turned round to see his elder son lifting a glass from the small table that stood under the map of Lancer’s holdings.

“How long have you been standing there?” Murdoch demanded.

“Not long,” Scott said blandly. “Can I pour you something?” he repeated, hefting one of the crystal decanters. “Brandy? Or would you prefer a whiskey tonight?”

“Whiskey,” Murdoch said curtly. Then, relenting, he added, “A double – please.”

“A double it is.”

A disembodied hand appeared in front of him as Scott leaned over the back of the sofa to pass him his glass. He nodded his thanks, waiting to drink until his son walked around to the leather chair by the fireplace and wearily sat.

“How’s Johnny?” Murdoch asked as the first sip of whiskey burned into his empty stomach.

“Wondering where you are,” Scott said bluntly.

“Did he ask?”

“He didn’t have to.” Scott studied his father over the edge of his brandy glass. “Care to talk about it?”

--No.

“Murdoch?”

“What, Scott? What can I tell you that you don’t know?” Murdoch tossed back the remainder of his drink in a hasty gulp, almost choking as pain flared in his throat and chest. He struggled to his feet and went over to the decanter tray, helping himself to another hefty shot of the expensive bottled whiskey. Then he returned to the sofa and sat on the edge of the cushion, forearms resting on his knees, whiskey glass dangling from long fingers as his palm cupped its top. The renewed fire crackled, shooting a small shower of sparks onto the hearth.

“There’s a lot I don’t know, sir.” Scott’s voice was mild, and, his father knew, deliberately non-accusatory. But even so Murdoch felt his nerves grate. He was in no mood for Scott to play lawyer or even mediator.

“What?” he snapped.

Scott exhaled sharply and contemplated his glass before taking a long sip. Murdoch knew his elder son was fighting to control his own temper. “Well,” the younger man said after a few minutes, “why don’t we start with today, why you haven’t set foot in Johnny’s room since Val told us about Cesar and the others. You have to know how Johnny feels about all of it, Murdoch. It’s bad enough to have your past haunt you for things you’ve done, let alone things you haven’t. Don’t you think you owe it to him to at least  . . .”

“Scott!” Murdoch interrupted angrily. “That’s enough.”

“Why? Because you said so?”

“You don’t understand.”

Scott’s laugh was short and ugly. “You are so right, Murdoch. I don’t understand. We came so close – so goddamn close – to losing him. And now what? You’re going to blame him for what happened?”

“Blame him?” Murdoch cried, whiskey spilling as he twisted to look at his son in horror. “Blame him? No, Scott, oh no – you have it wrong. I don’t blame Johnny.” He slumped heavily against the sofa’s cushioned back.

“Are you sure, Murdoch?” Scott asked. Swiftly pushing himself out of his chair, he grabbed the leather hassock, straddling it as if it were a calf he was about to brand, and sat directly in front of his father. Leaning forward, he searched Murdoch’s eyes. “Then why are you punishing him?”

His control slipping, Murdoch turned away from Scott’s gaze and stood up. He stumbled over to the fireplace, his back to his son. He knew Scott was waiting for an explanation. More than that, deserved one. But Murdoch couldn’t bring himself to say the words Scott wanted to hear. They suddenly seemed to be missing from his vocabulary. That had always been his problem. Always.

Scott broke the long silence. “All right, then. Can you tell me this? When Johnny had that relapse – the night his fever went so high again and he was delirious . . .What did he say that upset you so much that you had to leave the room?”

“Scott . . .” Muttering an oath under his breath, Murdoch lifted his hand from the mantel and then brought it back down hard against the stucco-ed stone.

“Murdoch, it began then, this . . .coldness,” Scott said, his voice hoarse with something close to desperation. “I thought – I thought at first I was imagining it. But I wasn’t. Today it’s just come to a head.”  He went silent, waiting. But Murdoch couldn’t speak. “Tell me,” Scott urged. “It was something about his mother, about Maria, wasn’t it?”

“Yes.”

“Muerte, muerto – he was talking about her death, wasn’t he?”

“Yes.”

“Tell me.”

“I can’t.” Murdoch turned and looked down at his son, torn by the mute plea he saw in the eyes that reminded him so much of the boy’s mother, of Catherine. “I can’t,” he whispered.

Then Scott was standing at his elbow and his voice was low and urgent. “Johnny was there, wasn’t he? Whatever happened, however she died, Johnny saw it, didn’t he? He was just a kid and he saw it all.”

Murdoch nodded numbly and watched the suffering spread out from Scott’s eyes until it seemed to grip his entire body.

“And you can’t forgive him for that, can you?” Scott said slowly. Wide-eyed, he shook his head in what his father recognized as disbelief.

“Damn it!” Murdoch exploded. “That’s unfair.”

“Is it?” Scott threw him an angry look and strode over to the brandy decanter. Pouring himself an overly generous refill, he picked up the snifter and looked at its contents. Then he raised it to his lips and quickly downed the entire glassful. He poured himself another. “Drink?” he asked harshly.

“No,” Murdoch said. “And I think you’ve had enough.” Even he could hear the prim censure in his voice and inwardly he shrank under his son’s cynical stare.

“Oh, I don’t think I’ve had nearly enough,” Scott retorted. “You tell me I don’t understand. You’re right. I don’t. But maybe if I get drunk enough, and rude enough, I can make you tell me what I need to know -- so I will understand. There are too many damn secrets in this family, Murdoch.”

“Secrets?”

“Yes, secrets.” Scott walked over to the sofa and perched on its arm. Swirling the brandy in its glass, he cocked his head and look up at his father, his gaze unflinching. “When Johnny and I first came here – that first day – you said maybe we needed to clear the air. Well, we never have. Your idea of clearing the air is to bury whatever is causing the stink.”

Murdoch felt the blood rush to his face. Fury and fear warred in his stomach and he wanted to vomit. Fighting for control, he blindly brushed past his elder son, heading for the large window behind his desk and the view that even in the dark could reassure and comfort him. Even in the dark he could see the cleared fields, the neat, sturdy fences. His mind could place the lowing cattle and travel the long drive into the foothills.

Glass shattered against stone. Stunned, Murdoch whirled round.

“I’m going to bed.” Scott said and strode from the room.

* * *

By the time he reached the top of the stairs and the long hallway leading to his bedroom, Scott’s head was pounding. Dully, he wondered which was at fault, the brandy or the anger. He had overindulged himself in both.

At the end of the bedroom wing he could see a sliver of light shining beneath his brother’s door. Curious and a little worried, he made his way down the hall to Johnny’s room. It was too late for Johnny to be up; these days he was usually asleep by nine and often nodded off even earlier. This night, in fact, Scott had barely made it all the way through their nightly allotment of Melville before Johnny’s eyes began to close.

Once outside the door he was struck by indecision, his brandy-clouded mind questioning whether to knock or just walk straight in. In the end he did both, drumming his knuckles lightly against the carved panels as he lifted the latch with exaggerated care and tentatively pushed the door ajar.

Johnny was fully dressed and sitting in the over-stuffed chair which just that morning had been placed by the window. Something in the darkness outside held his attention, and he didn’t turn as Scott sidled through the narrow opening between door and jamb to enter the room.

“Hey,” Scott said, gently closing the door behind him. “Can I come in?”

“You’re in, Boston. Or didn’t you notice?” Johnny looked up, a half-smile tugging the corners of his mouth before he turned back to the window.

“Pushing it a little, brother, aren’t you?” Scott asked. “I’m not sure late nights are what Sam had in mind when he said you could do a little more. And,” he added lightly, taking note of the cracked-open window,  “you do realize how cold it is in here, don’t you?”

Johnny held up a shushing hand. “Can you hear, Scott?” he whispered, tilting his head sideways. “Can you hear the horses? Somethin’s got ‘em moving out there. They’re restless – what do you think? Coyote, maybe?” Resting his head back against the high back of the soft chair, he closed his eyes, listening.

Nonplussed, Scott shifted his weight uneasily from one foot to another. Then, making up his mind, he walked across the room and sat on the foot of the bed. A brandy belch caught him unawares. Too late he put his hand to his mouth and muttered a lame, “’Scuse me,” as a startled Johnny laughed out loud.

“You bin drinkin’, Scott?” he asked in delight.

“Yeah,” Scott said gloomily.

“The old man?” Instantly, Johnny’s tone of voice changed and Scott mentally kicked himself. He should have been on guard. Should have made sure he didn’t give anything away. Johnny didn’t need this. Not now. Especially not tonight. While his fogged mind tried to think of an evasion, he heard his brother sigh and any thoughts Scott had of trying to fool him slipped out the opened bedroom window.

“Ever think what it woulda been like if the Pinks hadn’t found me?” Johnny asked, his expression blank. Detached. “Or if that agent of theirs had been just a little late leavin’ town, or if maybe them rurales had picked me first, instead of Celestino? Ever think about that, Scott?”

“No,” Scott said edgily, unsure where Johnny was headed with this and unwilling to travel with him to find out. “Not for a minute.”

“Well, I have, brother.” Moving with difficulty, Johnny bent forward and tugged down on the window. The sash dropped with a thud. “Would have been much easier on everyone if Madrid had died that day and Johnny Lancer had never come home.”

“Johnny!”

“C’mon, Scott, you know it’s true. Let’s not kid ourselves. This business with the Ranger, with Cesar – it’s nothing new. And it’s never going to be any different. No matter what I do, it ain’t gonna change.”

“I don’t believe that.”

“Then you’re a fool,” Johnny whispered sadly.

“Nope, not with all that fancy education grandfather paid for,” Scott quipped desperately. Rising unsteadily from the bed, he walked over toward the window and squatted down in front of his brother’s chair. “Look, Johnny, Murdoch’s just being, well, Murdoch. What did Maria call him, una chumbera, right? A prickly pear.”

“Scott . . . ” Johnny looked at him gravely, watching without comment as Scott reached out for the chair arm to maintain his balance. Embarrassed, Scott grinned foolishly. But there was no answering smile.

“It’s not just Murdoch,” Johnny said. “It’s life, Scott. That’s how it is. I made my choices and I gotta live with ‘em.”

“You made your choices?” Scott asked angrily. “I rather think they were made for you, weren’t they? How old were you when your mother left Lancer, Johnny? How old were you when she died? You did what you did to survive.” Giving up his battle for balance, Scott rocked backward and sat on the floor, letting his arms support his weight.

“Oh, I had choices all right. Everybody’s got choices, if they look for them. And in the end you pay for the decisions you make.” Resting his elbow on the arm of the chair, Johnny wearily put his head in his hand. “Sometimes over and over again. But the hard part, Scott, the part that makes you wonder, is that the folks we care about, they get taxed, too. An’ for them – for the people you call family – maybe the price is just too high.”

Scott could only stare, slack-jawed and stunned. What the hell was Johnny talking about?  Good God, if they had to go through all that again . . . all the hard times they went through at the beginning. Not so long ago but long enough. Unexpectedly he remembered something he’d written to Julie, back when he had hopes she would respond to his letters.

--Imagine testing the ice on the Charles in winter with two strangers, he’d said. You don’t know if the ice is strong enough to hold one of you, two of you, all of you. And you don’t know whether you can trust the other men enough to pull you out if you go in. That’s what it’s like at Lancer these days. We’re all just inching onto the ice, keeping an eye on the cracks – and each other.

Damn it, Scott thought angrily, Johnny should know by now that the ice will hold. That no matter what is said or not said, done or not done, he can trust us. All of us. Even that hard, stubborn man sitting downstairs making himself and everyone around him miserable.

Furious now, he struggled to his knees and used the windowsill to pull himself up to his full height. “That just tears it, brother,” he snapped, trying to disentangle himself from the curtain that had mysteriously wrapped itself around his body. “I mean, that’s something, that’s really something!” Irritably, he clawed at the fabric clinging to his shoulder. “Damn it!” he shouted in frustration.

“Simmer down, Boston,” Johnny murmured tiredly, his face still half-buried in his hand. As Scott straightened the curtain he saw one blue eye was watching his every move. Peevishly he turned his back and immediately felt childish and ashamed. It’s the brandy, he told himself, and knew it wasn’t.

“You know, you looked kinda pretty with that curtain stuff wrapped around your head. Maybe you could earn some poker money dancin’ at the cantina.”

“Very funny,” Scott retorted, beginning to smile despite himself. He ruefully acknowledged a simple truth: he never could stay mad at Johnny for very long. Glancing at his brother, he was delighted to see a weary but still mischievous grin.

“No, I mean it, Scott. You could borrow one of them fancy dresses from Placido’s niece. You know the one, the fast little filly,” Johnny drawled. “The way you play poker, you seriously oughta consider what I’m sayin’.”

At that Scott laughed out loud. It was true. He’d lost money the last time the two of them had hit a saloon poker game together. But Johnny had lost even more, cheerfully swearing off the game – until next payday.

“C’mon, brother.” Scott wrapped an arm around Johnny’s head and gently pulled him close in a sham wrestling lock. Rapping lightly on the exposed crown, he whispered, “Let me help you get back to bed – you look beat.”

“I can make it,” came the muffled reply.

“Where have I heard that before?”

“Yeah, well you bin drinking,” Johnny groused as Scott released him. “Just who would be supportin’ who?”

“Point taken,” Scott agreed. But in truth, he realized he was far more clear-headed now than he had been just minutes ago. His foolish fight with the curtain had doused the burning anger that earlier had led to that shattered brandy glass. He was sober – almost. Sober enough to realize that tonight of all nights Johnny would slip back into his old habit of stubborn independence. He would need to prove to himself he could stand strong, that he could, indeed, still make it.

And that was one of the keys to understanding Johnny, Scott thought. A way to understand both the strength, and the tragedy, of Johnny Lancer. You had to know that no matter what he said, no matter what other people said or did -- or didn’t say or do -- he would always try, always fight. Always, in his own way, make it.

Scott bit his lip as he watched his brother painfully edge forward in his chair, plant his hands on the windowsill and clumsily push himself to a standing position. As Johnny paused, head against the window’s frame, Scott was struck anew by how thin and frail he was. Illness had left him looking like a slim-hipped young boy wearing borrowed clothes two sizes too big for him.

“Don’t, Scott,” Johnny murmured. “Don’t watch me, huh?” He took a deep breath. “I’ll call you if I need you, ‘kay?”

“Sure,” Scott said, forcing himself to sound offhand. He looked quickly around the room, trying to think of something he could pretend to do. “I’ll, er, grab you a clean nightshirt,” he called, sauntering over to Johnny’s bureau. “Anything else you need?”

Johnny grunted. Stealing a look at the carved mirror above the bureau, Scott saw in its reflected image his brother’s shuffling journey across the carpet toward the bed. He swallowed convulsively and, true to his word, looked away. “Anything else you want?” he repeated.

“. . . Don’t--don’t even want the nightshirt,” Johnny gasped. “But Elena . . .insists.”

Scott laughed. “As well she might, brother.”

“. . .Yeah . . .”

Scott opened the bureau’s second drawer, pushed aside a curious-looking parcel wrapped in oil-cloth and carefully pawed through the neat stacks of folded garments until he found a nightshirt. He waited until he heard the bedsprings creak before he turned around. Johnny was sitting hunched on the edge of the mattress, hands clenching the bedding.

“Ready for some help?” Scott asked quietly.

“I’m fine,” Johnny muttered, shooting him a dark scowl.

“All right.” Scott tossed the nightshirt onto the bed and walked back over to the window, peering into the dark until he could begin to discern the outlines of buildings. The sadness that suddenly washed over him was unexpected and unwanted. The lows follow the highs, he thought, poking fun at himself. Both with liquor and in life.

He stole a look at Johnny, and saw his brother was now trying to undo the buttons on his too-large “borrowed” shirt. Only the shirt wasn’t borrowed, Scott reminded himself, it was Johnny’s own, that damn flowered thing. “Let me give you a hand,” he suggested and knew it was too soon even as the words escaped his mouth.

“Damn it, Scott!” Johnny cried in frustration. “You never give up, do you? Just get outta here and leave me be!”

“No,” Scott retorted. “You’re the one who doesn’t give up, brother. When are you going to learn there’s no shame in accepting help sometimes?”

Head bowed, Johnny whispered, “Don’t need any help, Scott. I’m fine.”

“Sure you are,” Scott snorted with contempt. “Big, strong ‘I-can-make-it’ Johnny Madrid. No, wait,” he said, his voice hardening. “That’s Johnny Lancer, isn’t it? Murdoch Lancer’s boy. Two of a kind, they are. Don’t try to help them – God forbid anyone should help them.” He waited, and when Johnny still said nothing, he turned back to the darkness outside. He could be patient now.

Long minutes passed. Scott pressed his forehead against the cool glass and closed his eyes. He wondered if his head would bother him tomorrow. He wondered if he’d have trouble facing Murdoch tomorrow. Or Murdoch him. From behind him there was a faint little sound, at once both odd and familiar. His eyes opened and reflected in the glass he could just make out the figure of his brother, still fully dressed, his sleeve pressed to his eyes. Scott closed his lids and willed away the constriction in his throat.

“Boston?”

“Yeah?”

A pause, and Scott heard the quaver as Johnny took a shaky breath. “I think T’resa, well, she fixed the buttonholes on this shirt, you know?” His voice, barely audible before, began to trail off. “I mean . . .”

Scott pushed away from the window and walked over to the bed. Without looking into his brother’s eyes he bent over and began to unfasten the buttons. “I hate this shirt,” he said conversationally. “You do know that, don’t you, little brother?”

-- Silence

“Let me do your sleeves.”

-- Silence

“I think Murdoch’s got me slated for a round with the books tomorrow morning,” Scott mused casually. “But you want to try facing me over a chessboard tomorrow afternoon?” He chanced a look but all he could see was the top of his brother’s dark head.

-- Silence

Then, a snort.

 “Checkers, Scott,” Johnny said, lifting his streaming eyes to his brother’s. “You’re going to have to wait a spell ‘til you have the pleasure of losin’ to me again at chess.”
 


Chapter 30

Murdoch walked softly across the bedroom floor to the dark mahogany highboy and slowly, quietly, opened his sock drawer. Retrieving a pair of heavy woolen socks and a pair of lisle, he gently pushed the drawer back in place, chose a clean work shirt from another drawer and padded over to sit on his bed. He had, he reckoned, about twenty minutes. Another half hour or so and the rest of the household would begin to stir. It wasn’t that he was trying to avoid anyone, he told himself, he just needed some time on his own.

It had been easy enough to do yesterday, the day after Val’s visit. Time had played everyone strange yesterday. Even Maria had slept in, and he had managed to slip into the kitchen and out again before her usual early arrival. Cipriano had been the only obstacle, the bump that almost robbed him of his balance. The old segundo had stood at the door to the barn’s tack room, arms folded across his great chest, weight back on his heels, mournfully watching him saddle a horse. Shaking his head but never once pointing out the lameness of Murdoch’s muttered story about riding in to Green River to make arrangements for payroll cash.

  Murdoch bent over to pull on his socks and felt his back send a sharp message of protest. Stifling a grunt, he grabbed for the ankle cuff of his long, cotton drawers and hoisted his left leg up until the calf rested on his knee and he could easily capture his foot with his sock. He repeated the process with his right leg and right foot, and felt as old as Methuselah. He cautiously reached for the plaid flannel work shirt.

No, Cipriano had said nothing. But the expression on his face had been eloquent. And later Murdoch had brooded over every unspoken word of disapproval, every bitten-back rebuke, as he sat on the rocks by Pearson’s Spring, waiting for enough time to pass so that he might arrive in Green River at something close to a civilized hour.

He hadn’t planned much past the unnecessary trip to the bank. But afterward he had managed to waste thirty minutes dawdling in Buskirk’s Drygoods and another forty-five minutes discussing the merits of a new line of fencing wire Cal Taylor had ordered for the feed store. He had checked for mail at the post office and freight at the stage depot, and had stretched out lunch at Brady’s café so long that Fiona had threatened to charge him rent.

Mid-afternoon had found him standing indecisively outside Sam Jenkins’s office, reading the neat, hand-printed sign that announced the doctor’s schedule. Mondays, Morro Coyo; Tuesdays through Thursdays, Green River; Fridays and Saturdays, Spanish Wells. He had gone in, taking a seat beside young Mrs. Selkirk and her wailing infant. Across the room Miss Emma, the town’s seamstress and, Sam once admitted with uncharacteristic indiscretion, its most enthusiastic hypochondriac, had coughed delicately and given him a demure smile.

“You need to see me, Murdoch? Johnny?” Sam had asked with concern when he emerged from his back room to usher out the frail, shuffling Micah Dwyer. “Afternoon, Estelle, come on in,” he smiled, motioning to Mrs. Selkirk. Then, before Murdoch could answer, Jenkins had looked at him shrewdly and said, “Go on over to my house, Murdoch. Hattie’s there, she’ll let you in. I’ll be over in an hour.”

It wasn’t one hour but rather closer to two before Sam arrived home. Long before then his housekeeper had served Murdoch coffee and pie, shown him into the doctor’s small, book-lined study and cheerfully left him to his own devices until it was time for her to end her day. Dinner was in the cookstove’s warming oven, she had said, enough for two. And then she had gone home to her invalid husband and simple-minded son.

The meal had been plain, but filling. And Sam had made him smile with an acerbic and highly astute commentary on the mayor’s latest pompous foolery. The doctor had waited until they both were armed with cigars and brandy and settled back into the worn but comfortable chairs of his study before giving Murdoch a long look and asking, “What’s wrong, old friend?”

But even then. Even with Sam, a man he had known and trusted for more than two decades, Murdoch felt as if he had been struck dumb. There had been a long silence between them. Finally, Jenkins had snuffed out his cigar, leaned forward, and said kindly, “Go home, Murdoch. Go home to your family. You’ll weather this business of Johnny’s – if you’ll just stop punishing yourself for what should have been. It’s time to take off the hairshirt. Past time.”

Now, remembering, Murdoch felt his face flush. Samuel Jenkins M.D. never believed in sugarcoating his prescriptions. And it’s awfully hard to swallow bitter medicine, Murdoch thought wryly as he pulled on his pants and then, awkwardly, his boots. No matter how many people tell you it’s good for what ails you. He blew out the lamp beside his bed and went to his bedroom door. Slowly lifting the latch and cracking the door open, he paused to listen, breath sucked in and held. His straining ears could distinguish no sounds. The house still slept. He slipped across the threshold, pulled the door softly shut behind him and began to carefully feel his way down the dark hallway toward the staircase.

Light escaped from under Scott’s bedroom door as Murdoch stealthily approached. Startled, he stopped, listening warily before detouring to the other side of the hall. Scott was an early riser who often liked to spend a solitary hour reading before beginning his day. Yesterday had been an exception. But then, Murdoch thought, his conscience prickling, so had the night before. Scott the strong. Scott the sensible. The elder son who always offered wise counsel. Scott had had enough.

The sound of that brandy snifter shattering still echoed in Murdoch’s ear. So did last night’s reproach, his elder son’s pent-up anger spat over a turned shoulder when they had come across one another in the deserted kitchen. “Teresa was worried. You might at least have had the common decency to think of her.”

The dark hallway seemed interminable. Murdoch couldn’t remember it ever seeming so long. The house was too big, really. Even now, with three young people, there were rooms and spaces never used. But then, maybe someday . . .  He shook his head, sweeping back the hopes that in recent months he had begun to allow himself to dream.

And then, suddenly, there was light dancing just in front of him and he nearly walked head-on into Señora Maria-Elena Justiniano. As he stepped back in confusion, Elena’s lamp jerked upward. He heard the squeak of a bucket swinging and the splash of water spilling on the floor.

“¡Dios mío!”

“Whoa--!”

“Disculpe . . .” Elena began, and stopped, her chin coming up as she looked at him sharply.

“Er, sorry,” Murdoch muttered, moving to the side of the hall to let her pass. She moved with him, as if a partner in that odd little dance of civility that sometimes takes place between strangers whose otherwise divergent paths have led them to the same spot of town boardwalk at the same time. Each politely tries to cede way to the other. Except, Murdoch realized, Elena wasn’t trying to give way. She was blocking his path. Her dark eyes smoldering with anger, her lips pursed in determined defiance, she was blocking his escape.

From the secret recesses of their shared past came a memory of her youthful beauty, and pinned to it was a cameo of his wife, Maria. Two young women, so close in age, such close friends. Laughing together in the little garden beside the house as a toddler played in the dirt beside them.

“Elena,” he said. “I –”

“No! No, Murdoch!” She sucked in her breath and expelled it forcefully. “I do not want to hear whatever pretexto you have invented for today.” In the dim lamplight he saw her eyes glisten. “Why?” she whispered fiercely. “Why do you do this to him? Better to have left him to el pelotón de ejecución than to kill him this way. Slowly. At least with the rurales it would have been fast.”

The shock of her words was like a physical blow and Murdoch rocked on his heels. “No,” he snarled, turning from her. “You don’t —!”  His hands clenched into fists and were half raised before he remembered himself. He felt her move close and instinctively he recoiled.

“¡Sí!” she snapped. “I do know! It is you who does not understand. Who does not wish to understand. You call your son home to you and then you shut the door in his face! Why? Because he reminds you of her? Because you know that because of her, because of you, he has seen things and done things no father would wish for his child?”

He thought suddenly of that private moment beneath the canopy of tall cottonwoods and of the covenant made with a desperately ill son.

--Tell me, old man. No lies, no sweet talk. Truth. I ain’t afraid of dyin’. Seen too much of it.  Comes to us all. But . . . get me home, ‘kay?  My own bed. Never expected to have that . . . Jus’ seems . . . if a man’s got a bed he can call his own . .  . Promise?

--I promise, Johnny . . .

So little had been asked. So little, and yet he had felt as if a very dull knife was slowly splitting him open, slicing his flesh, cutting through the layers of muscle and tissue until every hidden part was exposed. This, he had thought, was the legacy his marriage to Maria had left their son. Not the dreams they had shared when Johnny was born but rather a life lived on a precipitous trail, riding double with death. Knowing that odds were the end would come in a dusty street, a crowded saloon, a rancher’s disputed north forty. Or even in a storm-swollen river one day’s ride from Stockton.

It had taken all of Murdoch’s will not to succumb to the despair he had felt then. But there had been more. Later, much later, when they were home and he had begun to believe that Johnny would live, fever had returned and brought with it a revelation so ugly, so venomous, that he had been forced to leave his son’s bedside in order to rid himself of its poison in the bushes outside.

He felt Elena waiting, watching him. The flame of his anger flared higher and to contain it he crossed his arms across his chest. She had no right to bring this up. None.

“¡Basta, woman!”

“No! It is not enough. And do not tell me that I do not understand, señor.” He heard the tremulous catch of breath as she inhaled deeply. “Maria was wrong to leave,” she said softly. “But you – you were wrong, too. And your son should not be forced to do penance for los pecados of his parents.”

Furious, Murdoch jerked away. But Elena didn’t flinch; her gaze was steady and . . . something else. He went cold. He could accept her anger and hostility. All these years he had done just that. But he would not have her pitying him.

“El Armadillo,” she said, shaking her head. “Do you believe still that a suit of armor will shield you from  . . .”

“Don’t!”

“Fool! Do you want to lose him again? Because you will. And you will lose his brother, too!”

“I cannot  . . . I cannot be other than what I am,” Murdoch answered curtly. He stepped forward, challenging her, and this time she moved aside. As he started for the staircase her bitter, mocking response followed him. “Then I shall light a candle for you, Murdoch Lancer. And for your sons.”

He clomped heavily down the stairs, too stung and too angry now to worry about being heard. Reaching the bottom of the stairs, he stopped, his hand seeking the support of the ornately carved newel post. His gut burned as if he’d just smoked an entire box of cheap cigars.

Damn the woman.

--Damn you, damn you, damn you.

The smell of over-boiled coffee reached his nose, a warning that others were up and that he was not, after all, as early as he’d planned. Maria la cocinera, he thought numbly. She always lets the morning’s first pot of coffee boil too long. Forcing himself to consider practicalities, he debated whether to leave the house now, without eating. No, he decided, better to brave Maria’s ire than that of his empty, already irritated stomach.

Resolutely he strode through the house to the kitchen and was surprised to find there not only Maria, but Cipriano, Jelly and Maria’s husband, José, all sitting at the table nursing cups of coffee. They fell silent as he walked in, and looking at the ring of impassive faces he knew immediately they had been talking about him.

“Mornin’, Boss,” Jelly murmured as Maria pushed back her chair, stepped over to the stove and lifted the lid off a large pot to stir its contents with a long-handled wooden spoon.  Her silent, rigid presence dominated the kitchen. Under the table, someone scraped boot heels across the tiled floor. Murdoch went over to the sink to retrieve a cup and carefully stepped around Maria to pour himself coffee.

“I thought I’d ride out to the south mesa quarter-section this morning,” he said, leaning against the far end of the stove. “Maybe look for that spring we lost last winter. See if it’s still flowing.” Swirling his coffee, he chanced a look at Cipriano. There was no response. He looked at Jelly.

“Long ride,” the handyman answered noncommittally. “Long day.”

Maria slammed the lid back on her oatmeal pot and went over to the sink. The hand-pump whined in complaint as she jerkily worked its long handle, pumping water into a white enameled basin that she set on the stove to heat. From a shelf she retrieved a loaf of bread and unwrapped its cheesecloth cover. With quick, sawing motions she cut the loaf into slices.

“Porridge smells, er, good, Maria,” Murdoch ventured. “Takes me back to my. . .” He let his voice trail off. José shifted uncomfortably in his chair and Murdoch looked up to find Cipriano watching him with yesterday’s same mournful look. As if he had suffered a great disappointment. Jelly coughed.

The back door squealed open and Teresa walked in with a basket and an extinguished but still-smoking lantern. “Good morning, everyone,” she called blithely. “Good thing you started oatmeal, Maria, because the hens just aren’t laying. I don’t know what we’re – oh!” she cried, catching sight of Murdoch. “Good morning. Anyway, Maria, we’re going to have to think of something because those hens just do not have their minds on their business. Is Johnny’s tray ready?”

“¡Un momento, no más!” Maria called over her shoulder from the stove where she was dishing up a large bowl of oatmeal.

Murdoch transferred his weight from one foot to another and felt like an errant schoolboy waiting to be assigned his hundred lines. “Teresa,” he began, “about yesterday . . .”

“Yes, Murdoch?” she answered with exaggerated civility, her eyebrows delicately arched.

But then Maria was before him, her expression boldly rebellious as she thrust a heavily laden tray into his hands. “This is ready to go upstairs, señor.”

Startled, Murdoch could only stare blankly at the tray. He slowly registered that Maria had set out two of everything. Two bowls of oatmeal topped with sugar, two small pitchers of cream. Two plates of buttered bread. Two servings of put-up wild berries. A sense of panic seized him. All eyes were on him now and he struggled to keep his face impassive.

“Oh, Maria—“ Teresa said, glancing from Murdoch to the cook and back. “I can do that,” she said hurriedly.

The ring of the cast-iron porridge pot lid dropping on the stovetop drew everyone’s attention. “Aiiiiyi!” Maria exclaimed, waving her hand vaguely in the air. “I have burned myself,” she said, her tone as deliberate and calm as if she were reciting her town shopping list. “Teresa, chica, I must ask you to help me. I am sure el patrón would not mind taking this food to his hijo.” 

Murdoch flushed. La cocinera had thrown down the gauntlet. The kitchen seemed small and over-warm, stuffy. A clock ticked loudly in the silence.

“Of course,” he said, the steadiness of his voice surprising even himself. With a cold nod to Maria and without even so much as a sidelong glance at the rest, he turned his back and walked out of the kitchen.

Pride propelled him as far as the top of the stairs, a kind of pompous bravado took him to Johnny’s door. But there he stopped, deflated, the tray heavy and unwieldy in his sweaty hands. He stared unseeingly at the small wooden panels. Remembering again that first day, that new start.

--You got something to say old, man, say it!

I can’t, son, I can’t.

He had a wild urge to knock, quickly set the tray on the floor and flee. But he had, one dark and very painful night, made a bargain with the gods. And he realized it was time to go about keeping it. He tapped at the door’s bottom panel with the side of his boot and waited until the latch lifted and Elena opened the door. He saw her swiftly rearrange her features to hide her surprise. But as she studied his face the warning in her eyes was potent and unmistakable. Then her hand was on his arm, drawing him across the threshold into the well-lit room.

In the deep easy chair by the window, Murdoch saw Johnny freeze. There were white traces of shaving soap on his face, and his hands still held to his chin the towel he had been using to wipe off the flecks. Slowly, his hands dropped to his lap as his eyes met his father’s.

No inquisitor’s instrument of torture could possibly inflict as much agony on a man as those eyes, Murdoch thought in sudden anguish. Those eyes that know too much, which have seen too much. Eyes that against all odds, all reason, still beg for answers – and, yes, forgiveness. As his son’s mother did, so long ago.

No one spoke. The silence grew and became deafening. Wariness rippled across Johnny’s face and Murdoch’s heart tightened. He knew that look. It was not unlike that of a stray dog greeting a stranger, uncertain whether he was about to be fed – or kicked. He had seen that look on his wife’s face, too. Then, as now, he was at a loss as to how to change it. Then, as now, it hurt.

Murdoch swallowed. His hands began to tremble and he was aware of Elena taking the tray from him. Setting it – somewhere. But he was incapable of moving or looking anywhere but at those eyes.  He felt Elena’s hand again touch him, a quick, light pressure on his arm.

--Oh God . . . please . . .

“John . . .” he began haltingly.

From behind him came the sound of hinges groaning, door meeting jamb, thumb-latch clicking into place.

Elena was gone and he was alone with his son.

And those eyes. Those very blue eyes.

* * *

 He needed to move.

The old restlessness was upon him now that he was alone and he needed to move, to let his body speak. He wanted to run. To ride. To pit his strength against a stubborn tree stump or a headstrong steer. But all he could manage was a shuffling hobble from his bed to his bureau to choose himself a shirt.

Earlier, after they had eaten, Murdoch had found his pants for him, and had clumsily helped him pull them on. They had both laughed a little at that. Just a little, but laughter nonetheless. It was more than Johnny had hoped for.

He planted his right hand on the bureau top and carefully bent down to pull open the drawer holding his shirts. He knew he’d been overly optimistic when his arm began to tremble under his weight. Grabbing at the first shirt he could see, he straightened and leaned against the bureau front just in time to prevent himself from stumbling. Victory!

--Things sure have come to a sorry state, boy, when you’re bustin’ with pride just ‘cause you can get yourself a clean shirt.

He could feel the foolish grin fade even before he caught sight of himself in his mirror. The thin face that stared back at him wasn’t Johnny Lancer’s or even Madrid’s. It belonged to the past. To the orphaned son of the woman the village gossips called La Puja. To the boy they called her bastardo.

“You look like your mother,” Murdoch had whispered at one point. But his father had been wrong. He looked like Azul, the kid who hid behind the cantina waiting for foul-tempered Martinez to throw out the slops. Azul, the half-breed, who slept in the streets, in doorways, barns and back alleys.

Don’t, he warned himself. Don’t think of that. Don’t think about any of it.

He pushed away from the bureau and made his way back to the window and his chair. It was light now and as he tugged at the window’s sash, opening it a crack, he could see the vaqueros at the corral, starting their day. The morning air was chilly, and he unfolded his clean shirt and managed to drape it around himself. There was no sense putting it on properly. Elena would be in soon to change the light bandages his wound still required.

He sat down on the edge of the chair cushion and rested his elbows on the windowsill, watching, and trying to ignore the gnawing need to be outside and active and whole.

A rap sounded at the door. “¡Pase!” he called off-handedly, thinking Elena had returned.

“Hey,” Scott said

“Hey.” Turning his head in surprise, Johnny rested his chin on his shoulder and gave his brother a searching look. Scott had taken to coming in to visit each morning just after Elena gave Johnny his shave. This morning he had been conspicuously absent.  “Sleep in, brother, or was ‘Lena standin’ guard duty at my door?”

Scott grinned. “Now would I sleep in, boy? That would have all my Puritan ancestors rolling over in their graves.”

“‘Lena, huh?”

“Yup. She wasn’t about to let anyone in – or out.”  Scott looked at him for a minute and then twirled his hat uneasily in his hands. “Er, thought I’d see if you needed anything. I’m going to ride out with Avante, show him a little more of Lancer.”

“With Avante?” Johnny raised his eyebrows.

“Yeah,” Scott shrugged. “Who would have thought?”

“Yeah.”

There was a silence. “So, anything I can get for you?” Scott repeated, playing absentmindedly with the feather in his hatband.

Their eyes met and held. Johnny shook his head.

“Are you okay?” Scott asked softly, still now.

Johnny looked out the window, watching as Murdoch walked across the stable yard to stand next to Cipriano. He saw the old segundo push his sombrero to the back of his head, grasp his father’s shoulder and then head off to the barn.  “I’m fine, Scott.”

“All right, then.” Scott gave a vague wave with his hat and headed for the door. “Checkers this afternoon?” he called.

“Yeah,” Johnny answered, turning to smile. “How much am I into yuh, anyway?”

“Prepare yourself, little brother. I’d say it might be as high as twenty, maybe twenty-five cents.”

“Two bits? Robbery!” Johnny snorted. “Oughta be ashamed of yourself, Scott, takin’ advantage of a sick man like that.”

“Now why do I get the feeling I’m being set up for a fall?” Scott laughed, pointing his gloved finger accusingly. “See you this afternoon.”

“Wait --!” Johnny called to the empty doorway as his brother disappeared. Scott poked his head back around the doorframe, eyebrows raised in mute question. “Would you . . . would you mind askin’ Francisco to check Barranca’s feet? Think they need a trim and maybe them shoes re-set.”

It wasn’t what he wanted to say and they both knew it. But Scott said, “Sure thing,” before stepping aside for Elena, who appeared with a white-enameled basin of water in her hands and a collection of rolled bandages tucked under her arm.

“Thanks, Scott,” Johnny shouted.

Elena set the basin down on the table by his bed and walked back to the window to look at him inquiringly. “Shall we do this now?”

“Yeah,” he said, inhaling deeply. “Might as well.” He cast a longing look at the scene outside then pushed himself out of the soft chair and walked slowly back to his bed, concentrating on standing straight and making his steps as close to normal as he could. Behind him he heard her sigh and knew he wasn’t fooling her.

When he had lowered himself onto the bed, pushed his pillows aside and was lying face down, he felt her sit beside him and begin to snip away the old bandage. A few quick tugs and the cloth was pulled free from under his belly. He heard water splash and knew she was wringing out the clean flannel cloth she would use to wash around the wound.

The water was warm, her touch gentle, and his thoughts drifted. Without meaning to, he found himself thinking of his father. How uncomfortable the old man had been at first, standing there with that tray of food, looking as if he wished he were anywhere but where he was. It was as if they were starting over, like the days after Pardee. The hard times. Johnny shivered.

“Are you cold, chico?” Elena asked. “I could close the window.”

“No, I’m good,” he said. “Please – could you leave it open?”

“Of course,” she said, returning to her task.

The ring of hammer striking anvil echoed through the open window. Awfully early for Francisco’s forge to be going, Johnny mused. Takes a while to get the fire hot enough to shape iron. He thought of the special shoe Francisco had fashioned to stop Barranca from striking his fetlock when they were hazing cattle. The herrero had spent hours on the shoe, heating it, shaping it, cooling it and then repeating each step when the “U” was first too wide, then too narrow. It had been a constant process of refinement. Testing and retesting until the fit was right.

Much as Johnny Madrid had done years ago, with his work gun.

What he and Murdoch were doing, as father and son.

“Almost done, Juanito,” Elena said, mistaking his heavy sigh for impatience. “You know, this really looks very good. It is closing nicely. Dr. Sam will be so pleased. Does this hurt?” She pressed lightly on the skin surrounding the wound.

“No, it’s fine.”

“This?”

He moved away from her fingers.

“A little,” he conceded.

“Ah, a little.” He could hear the smile in her voice and knew she was gently mocking him. She became businesslike again. “You are healing very quickly.”

“I’ve had a lot of practice.” He turned his face to the mattress. “Too much.”

“Yes.”

He felt her fingertips trace the long narrow scar that started near the small of his back and traveled diagonally upward toward his lowest rib. “They say that only a man of great skill knows how to use the bullwhip so that it causes the most pain but leaves no mark.”

Johnny tensed.

“The man who did this – he was skillful?”

He thought for a minute, not quite sure how to answer. The beat of his heart was loud in his own ears.  “Very,” he said finally.

“Sí, I thought so.” She began to dab the salve over his wound. “This one scar only from the whip. But there were many lashings?”

“Enough.”

“Perhaps the worst scars are the ones we cannot see. Because that makes it very hard to understand the pain of the injury and the damage that was done.”

Again he froze, not yet ready to hear what he instinctively knew she was about to say. She must have sensed his panic for she immediately began to talk of other things. Cipriano’s stomach was bothering him but he refused to give up his daily ration of much-loved chorizos or his secret nightly indulgence in foul-smelling cigarritos. Jelly had made Johnny’s horse his personal responsibility and had rubbed Emilio the wrong way in the process. Rosa was warring with Lupe over a borrowed-and-broken clay comal.

“And Placido’s sister, Luisa-Teresa, is beside herself with worry about her youngest, the girl Inez, who stayed out very late the other night with that friend of yours, Manuel. It is not funny, señor!” She slapped his shoulder lightly in reprimand as he struggled to smother a laugh. “There could be a child and then what would that tonta do? She is little more than a child herself. If only she would follow the example of Margarita.”

“Sorry,” he muttered. But the notion that the defiantly promiscuous Inez could be persuaded to imitate the decorum of her devout elder sister was too much for him and the snort escaped before he could stop it.

“Sí, sí, I know,” Elena laughed. “Sit up now, Juanito, and I will finish.”

Standing, she waited patiently as he slid his legs over the side of the bed and carefully pushed himself to a sitting position. Day by day she was stepping back, allowing him to do more for himself, restoring to him the rights of the well. He knew that if he stumbled, if he attempted too much, her hand would be there to steady him. She was, he had come to recognize, fiercely protective of him. And he was grateful.

She sat back down on the bed beside him and reached around his waist to begin unwinding the ribbon of bandage. He held his arms out from his sides slightly to make her task easier. A current of air slipped into the room carrying the sound of Murdoch’s deep voice calling for someone, for Frank.

“Your father, he spoke with you?”

Startled, Johnny looked over his left shoulder at the top of her head. Elena was intent on adjusting a strip of bandage over the small square pad covering his injury and she did not look up. But this time, he knew, she was not going to back off.

“Yeah,” he said uncertainly. “We . . . had a talk.”

“Good,” Elena pronounced matter-of-factly as she continued winding the bandage around his waist, checking the edges to make sure they didn’t curl, straightening the strips so they covered the areas she wanted covered. “It is hard for him, chico. It has always been thus. You cannot see the scars, but they are there. They make it hard.”

Johnny nodded, his breath catching in his throat. The past had left its mark on his father as it had on him. Who or what had wielded the whip so skillfully that its sting bothered the old man still? They had been ill at ease with each other that morning. Guarded. Much had been left unsaid.  In the end, Johnny thought, their talk had been like a dose of laudanum. Not a cure. Just something to ease pain.

But at least Murdoch was no longer avoiding him.

The desire to ask Elena about his mother, about his mother with his father, about her own coolness toward Murdoch  – the urge to ask about all these things and more was very strong. But he knew that were he to ask, she would not answer. Doña Elena would tell him in her own time. In her own way.

“He is a good man,” Elena continued. “We have—we have had our differences,” she said. “But I know he is a good man. And a haunted one.”

Her eyes were on him now and he sat very still, unwilling to meet her gaze.

“¿Entiendes tú ?” she asked anxiously.

“Sí,” he whispered.

--I understand. All too well, that is something I understand.

* * *

Scott reined in at the top of the rise and waited for Avante to catch up. His stomach rumbled and he looked up at the sun. It was past noon.

“There’s a creek running through that gully,” he said as the Ranger pulled up beside him. He pointed to a winding strip of trees ahead and to the south of them. “Thought we might stop there -- give the horses a little breather and eat something.” When Avante nodded, Scott nudged his gelding into an easy lope and rode on through the tall grasses. The horses, he thought, were fine. It was the Ranger who was looking a little rocky.

They had been riding for several hours now, following an itinerary Scott had come to think of as The Grand Tour. Visiting friends of his father’s, prospective cattle buyers, and, not that long ago, rediscovered sons were all given a taste of Lancer’s vastness and diversity when guided along this route. It wasn’t an arduous ride; even that portly little man from Sacramento, the one who said he’d just been appointed to some sort of state agricultural committee, even he had had little difficulty sticking in the saddle until the end.

But the Ranger was still feeling the effects of his wound and the days spent on the trail with Johnny. Obstinately, he had ignored Sam Jenkins’s advice, rejecting the sling, using his injured arm, climbing on a horse long before the doctor thought prudent. Scott sympathized. He hated being incapacitated in any way and had done his share of turning a deaf ear to Sam’s prescriptions. Johnny was even worse. But Avante had stunned him that morning by announcing he intended to leave Lancer in two days’ time.

“Gotta,” the Ranger had replied when Scott questioned his plan. “Imposed on you folks too long. And there’s business I gotta take care of.”

Scott headed for the little stand of trees where he knew the creek was diverted by an outcropping of rock. This was the traditional lunch stop on the Lancer Grand Tour, and his saddlebags bulged with the food Teresa had packed. Reaching the spot before Avante, he dismounted, loosened his cinch and let the gelding drink. The Ranger rode up just as he was lashing his reins around a small sapling. Moving slowly, the Texan slid off his horse and stood for a moment, hands gripping his saddlehorn, head against his saddle.

“You’re all in, Avante,” Scott said matter-of-factly as he reached for his saddlebags. “Let’s eat and then head on back to the house.” Without waiting for an answer, he strode over to the rocks and found himself a comfortable perch.  By the time he’d unloaded the provisions from both bags and set the food out on a relatively level rock, Avante had come over and taken a seat across from him.

“Teresa seems to think we’ll be gone a week,” Scott chuckled, shaking his head. “There’s enough food here to feed a branding crew.”

The Ranger dragged a weary hand across his face. Then he looked at Scott and a slow smile grew. “Between your sister and Señora Maria it’s a sure bet no one’s gonna go away hungry from Lancer. I don’t think I’ve ate so good since my mama died.”

“They treat us pretty well,” Scott agreed, passing Avante a thick slab of cheese and his pocketknife. “There’s bread,” he said, pointing to a cloth-wrapped mound. “And some slices of beef.”

They ate in silence for a while and Scott found himself thinking of his visit with Johnny. His brother had given no indication of what had gone on with Murdoch earlier that morning. Whether their father had apologized for his behavior. Whether the two had made peace or were merely observing a truce. They had been together for more than an hour. And the entire household had gone absolutely quiet. Waiting.

--You’ll get no apologies from me.

That was the gruff man of their first meeting. The father he had never known. Has anything really changed in all these months, Scott wondered. And after all we have just been through? Only a week ago he would have bet good money it had. Now he wasn’t so sure. Maybe he’d just been fooling himself – and Johnny.

“That was some good,” Avante observed, shifting his weight to the ground so he could lean back against the rock.

His thoughts still back at Lancer, Scott merely nodded.

“This is a pretty impressive spread,” the Ranger continued conversationally. “Shows what a man can do if he’s willin’ to work and sweat, don’t it?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Your father told me he had a gray hair for every good blade of grass on this place.”

Scott looked up, his attention now engaged. “Yeah,” he said with a quick grin, “he told Johnny and me the same thing, the day we arrived.” He felt the smile die as he remembered what else Murdoch had said, about his love for the land. Sometimes, Scott thought, it seemed that land was the only thing Murdoch knew how to love. Or maybe could.

Land didn’t ask embarrassing questions. It didn’t talk back. And it sure as hell didn’t come with an inconvenient past that might cause you shame.

Irritably, Scott wiped his pocketknife on his pant leg and grabbed the small glass jar of pickles Teresa had packed carefully wrapped in several layers of tea towels. Prying open the metal bale he used his knife to spear several slices and passed the jar to Avante.

“Means a lot to your old man to be able to hand Lancer on to his boys,” the Ranger said as he held the pickle jar up and examined its contents.

Scott gave him a sharp glance but Avante seemed intent on harpooning an elusive pickle slice.

“My father seems to have told you more than he’s told us, Ranger.”

“Gotcha,” Avante said with delight as he pulled his prize from the jar. “Yup,” he answered, his mouth full, “we’ve had some talks.” His eyes met Scott’s and held them. “Does that eat at you, son?”

In confusion, Scott turned away, his gaze finding the horizon at the top of the gully. “No,” he replied carefully. “But I find it odd that he can say things to you that he can’t say to his own sons.”

“It’s because I ain’t one of his sons,” Avante said. “Just another old sinner who’s done things he ain’t proud of.” When Scott made no reply, he continued, “It’s not easy to step into the role of being a father, Scott. Maybe some men got the talent for it, like some’s just naturally good with horses or book-learnin’ or growin’ things.”

“You’re saying we should cut Murdoch some slack,” Scott said flatly.

“No, I’m just telling you what is.” Avante brought his arm up, working his injured shoulder. “When my pa died, I had to step in and try to be a father to my kid brother. It was hard. And I didn’t do a very good job of it. Woulda been better off if I’d just tried to be a brother.”

He paused for a moment and said softly, “I would have liked to have something like what you and your brother got. Friends. Compañeros, I guess. Somethin’ like that.” Scott looked at him quickly and saw Avante’s face redden before he turned away. “Never had that. Think I might’ve—might’ve liked it.”

They sat in silence for a few minutes, each alone with his thoughts.

“No,” Avante said after a bit. “Between me and Chris it was kinda like what happens between Murdoch and Johnny.  ‘Cept worse, I reckon. I was always pushin’ at him so much I just pushed him plumb away.”

“I don’t know,” Scott said, exhaling noisily. “Sometimes those two have butted heads so hard it’s sounded like cannon fire.” Absently he dragged his boot heel through the dirt, digging a narrow trench. “I thought . . . I thought things were getting better between them. That they were beginning to understand each other just a little. Before all this,” he explained with a vague wave toward the Ranger. “Before you -- well, before. And then on the trail . . . when things were so bad and it looked like  . . . ”

“When it looked like your brother wasn’t going to make it,” Avante supplied, his tone flat.

“Yes,” Scott said. “Something happened between Murdoch and Johnny then. Like they – I don’t know, had made a separate peace or something.” Embarrassed now, he lifted his hat and ran his fingers through his hair. This entire conversation was getting out of hand. He’d wondered about Murdoch spilling his guts to a stranger. Now he was doing the same thing. Prattling on like a foolishly sentimental young girl. He began to reach for the lunch things still spread out on the rock.

“Want anything more to eat?” he asked brusquely.

“That bother you, Scott?”

“Excuse me?” he answered, knowing full well what Avante was asking.

“That bother you, what happened with your father and brother? Them promises they made each other?”

“No.” Scott snapped the bale back on the pickle jar and deftly rewrapped the glass container in the towels. The leftover cheese had fallen unnoticed on the ground and was, he decided, unsalvageable. He hucked it forcefully toward the creek. Avante was watching him closely, waiting for him to say more. He shrugged, feigning nonchalance. “I just thought it might have carried over or something – whatever it was.”

“C’mon, boy,” Avante drawled. “Don’t pull that on me. You know what they was talkin’ about. Maybe not all of it, but enough. And it sticks in your craw for some reason. Why?”

“All right!” Scott stood up, his anger and confusion coming to a head. He waited, trying to rein in his feelings, trying to find words for what he couldn’t explain even to himself.

“You feel left out? Jealous?” the Ranger prodded, his tone sardonic, insinuating.

“No! God no!” Scott said in amazement. The absurdity of the Ranger’s suggestion made him feel like laughing. Instead, he just shook his head and grinned. To his surprise, Avante grinned back.

“Didn’t think so,” the Ranger admitted. “But, well, I bin known to be wrong once or twice before. No more’n that, of course.”

At that, Scott laughed outright. “Yeah,” he said, grinning again. “No more than that.” He sat back down on the rocks and leaned forward, elbows on his knees. Avante was studying him now, an expression of compassion on his seamed, weather-beaten face.

“What I thought,” Scott began. He hesitated. “No,” he amended. “What I felt was – oh, I guess something like anger. Anger that my brother was trying to protect me  . . . as if I maybe I couldn’t pull my own weight, or . . . No! I don’t know.” He shook his head in annoyance. “Forget it,” he said tersely. “Let’s just forget it.”

“Your brother told your father he was worried about letting you down,” Avante said calmly. “Did you know that?”

“What?”

“He said –”

“I heard you.” The muscles in his jaw contracted as he bit back his conflicting emotions.

“Scott,” the Ranger said slowly. “Murdoch says Johnny didn’t want to see his death reflected in the eyes of the one person he figures has always believed in him. The one man he never wants to let down. He was pretty close to dyin’ out there, son. Let’s face it. He shoulda. I’ve seen men half as bad off as him die, fightin’ all the way.  No, I figure he knew. And if he was afraid, he was afraid for you. He didn’t want to see that hope die in you, boy. Didn’t want to disappoint your faith in him.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” Scott whispered.

“Well, mebbe not. Love often don’t, son. And I reckon that’s the word ya hafta put on it, that brother thing you and the kid got goin’ for ya. What my brother and I never had.”

Scott rose and stumbled his way over to the creek He kept his back to Avante, waiting until his pulse returned to something close to normal and the iron band that had suddenly clamped down on his chest fell away. Avante’s words had the ring of truth to them, but they were hard to hear. The thing was they did make an odd sort of sense. Knowing Johnny, knowing the shadows that darkened his eyes some days, the memories, the hardship, it made sense.

Bounty hunters placed a higher value on Johnny Madrid Lancer than Johnny did himself.

As for the rest, well, Scott did have a good idea what Johnny and Murdoch had talked about. What Johnny had wanted. Hoped for. If he was going to die, he wanted to do it at Lancer. At the only place he’d ever come close to calling home. Once, a lifetime ago, at the end of a shared bottle of tequila, Johnny had admitted that during his gunhawk years he’d grown to accept his own mortality. “La muerte and me, we know each other, Scott. I took its measure and it’s got mine.”

“So you’re not afraid of it, Johnny?” Scott had asked blearily, the alcohol loosening his tongue even as it made his head spin. “Better man than me, then, brother. The thought of being nothing, well, that’s frightening.”

“Didn’t say I wasn’t afraid, Scott,” Johnny had corrected softly. “Just that there’s worse things than the dying part of it.”

Johnny hadn’t let himself be pressed, and wouldn’t explain. Instead, he’d changed the subject and ordered a new bottle of tequila, insisting the Scott still hadn’t perfected the ritual of lemon, salt and shot. But days later, something had happened which helped Scott understand. Maria had caught him in the kitchen late one evening, when everyone else had gone to bed. She had found Johnny’s medal in the bathhouse, she said, the gold medallion which had seemed to Scott as much a part of his new brother’s persona as his gunbelt. Would he mind taking it to Juanito, she asked, folding it into his hand.

“Which saint is this, Maria?” Scott had asked with curiosity. “I don’t know the saints very well.”

“Ah, señor, this is el santo Francisco, St. Francis. The saint who protects us from dying alone.”

Immediately Scott had understood what Johnny had been talking about that tequila-drowned night. He understood, and it made his blood run cold. When, months later, Scott had become aware that Johnny no longer wore the medal, he had counted it as a hopeful sign, maybe even a victory of sorts.

A soft oath broke up his reverie. Behind him, Scott heard Avante snort with disgust.

“What?” he asked curiously, turning.

“I was jus’ thinking,” Avante said. “Ain’t it a funny ole world.”

Confused, Scott shook his head. “I don’t understand.”

“I was thinking about what Crawford told us. About McCrae. You know, I had a lot of admiration for Major Frank McCrae, Scott. All those years of being a lawman, Brazos was about the closest thing I had to a hero. Looked up to him. Maybe even tried to be like him.”

Scott stared at the creek, watching the clear water rush over the gravel bed and whirlpool around small rocks. “It sounds as if you weren’t the only one, Avante,” he said. “From what you and Val have both said, McCrae was pretty highly regarded.”

“Pretty much,” the Ranger agreed. “Guess he bamboozled at least half of Texas into thinkin’ he was somethin’ close to a saint.”

“‘Be not too hasty to trust or admire the teachers of morality. They discourse like angels, but they live like men.’”

“Fancy words,” Avante said, raising an eyebrow.

“Not mine. A man named Samuel Johnson wrote them more than a hundred years ago.”

The Ranger thought for a minute. “Well, reckon they’re just as true now as back then, huh?”

Scott nodded.

“Shoot,” Avante mused, “I would have bet my life Brazos McCrae was on the side of the angels. And that Johnny Madrid was Lucifer’s right-hand man. Ain’t that a kick, Scott?”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, I give my brother hell for idolizing a gunhawk named Madrid. For wantin’ to be like him. But I got it all wrong, didn’t I? Turned all backwards an’ upside down and inside out. Hell!” Avante spat on the ground and grimaced. “There I was, taken in by a bad man, thinkin’ he was good. And my brother, he was singin’ the praises of a good man, thinkin’ he was bad.” The Ranger squinted up at Scott. “See what I mean?”

Scott nodded, a ragged smile spreading across his face.

 “Funny old world.

* * *

It was late afternoon when Avante awoke, heavy-lidded and disgruntled. He’d never been very good at napping, no matter how much his body might need rest. Afterwards his head always felt hung-over, as if he’d been on a three-day drunk.

But Scott Lancer had been right. The morning’s ride had done him in. After the stop for lunch, they had ridden directly back to the house, Avante dozing off in the saddle before the great white hacienda was even within sight. When they had finally pulled up, Jelly had appeared out of nowhere to take his horse, and he had stumbled into the house and up to his room to stretch gratefully across the bed.

Must be five or somewhere close to, he thought, casting a glance at his window as he sat up. He gave himself a few moments to chase away the remaining cobwebs, then rose and walked over to the spindly-legged washstand that stood against the far wall. The water had been refilled in the large flowered pitcher and he poured most of it into the matching china basin.  Closing his gritty eyes he splashed his face repeatedly and, blinking furiously, fumbled for his towel.

He was suddenly aware that he was in his sock-feet but couldn’t remember pulling off his boots earlier. Must have done, he thought, looking around the room. But when he spied the boots, now spur-less and clean and paired neatly by the door, he realized someone had checked in on him and removed them while he slept. Grabbing them by their tops, he leaned against the door and pulled on first one and then the other.

The hallway was quiet when he stepped out of his room, the doors to the other bedrooms all closed. He thought briefly about paying a visit to the kid, but decided to put it off until later. No doubt he’d already broken one house rule by climbing into bed with his boots on; he didn’t want to offend Miss Teresa by breaking another and being late for dinner.

At the bottom of the stairs he hesitated. His still-heavy head craved coffee but he suspected that at this hour the kitchen would be a-bustle with activity. This last week had seen a truce emerge between Maria and himself. Without words they had reached a tenuous understanding and he was loath to jeopardize that by invading her domain while she was busy. And truce or not, the memory of their tussle over his undergarments, not to mention her smug victory, still made him blush in humiliation. He headed for the Great Room.

A fire had been lit in the large fireplace; the crackle of flames and the ticking of a tall grandfather’s clock were the only sounds in the otherwise quiet room. Murdoch Lancer sat at one end of the long sofa, engrossed in a book. At the other end, Teresa perched on the edge of her seat, studying the checkerboard set up on a small table before her. Relaxed and smiling, Scott was sprawled on the floor, awaiting Teresa’s next move.  And in the deep leather chair by the fire slept Johnny.

Pillows surrounded him, and a colorful woven throw had been spread over his legs and tucked halfway up his chest. He looked, Avante thought with a pang, like an invalid child. No more than fifteen. A young boy with a lifetime ahead of him.

And maybe that was true, the Ranger told himself. Maybe Johnny Lancer was starting fresh. Maybe, just maybe, Madrid would stop dogging his tracks. Trouble followed Madrid no matter what he did to cover his trail. And that, the Ranger knew, was Murdoch Lancer’s recurring nightmare, that the past would deny his son, his entire family, the chance to start fresh.

Avante had almost done the job himself. That single, instinctive move at the river, when he had drawn his gun and shot to kill, had almost robbed these people of that chance. He had thought a lot about that recently, and wondered how it had come to be that any of them could bear to have him under their roof, much less make him feel welcome. He had gone so far as to mention it to Murdoch during one of their discussions. The tall rancher had looked at him, his face ragged with misery, and said, “You know your Bible? Then there’s your answer. How can I cast any stones?”

The sound of Scott’s voice softly greeting him by name reminded him of where he was. Across the room he saw Murdoch turn in his seat and wave a beckoning hand.

“Sit down, sit down,” Murdoch urged as Avante approached. “There’s a seat just waiting for you,” he smiled, indicating the small velvet settee on the far side of the fireplace. “You can watch Teresa outwit Scott at checkers.”

“Now that is teasing and unkind, Murdoch Lancer!” Teresa’s mouth formed a pout even as her eyes danced. “Anyway, Scott cheats.”

“Not true, young lady,” Scott protested. He peered at Avante. “Get some rest?”

Avante nodded, and glanced over at Johnny. He shot Murdoch a questioning look.

“He’s fine,” Murdoch said reassuringly, and the Ranger noticed a new ease in the older man’s voice and manner. In fact, Avante thought, there was now a calm, an air of quiet contentment about this family that he had not seen before. Whatever had happened between father and son that morning, whether peace or temporary cease-fire, the ugly tension that had gripped the entire household for two days was gone.

“Cipriano and Jelly did most of the work getting him here,” Murdoch was saying. “But I think he’ll sleep a while. How he managed to persuade Elena he was strong enough to be allowed downstairs is beyond me,” the rancher added with a light chuckle. “But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about my younger son, it’s that when he puts his mind to it he can charm the scales off a snake. Mortal women haven’t a chance.”

“I don’t know, “ Scott grinned. “Let me remind you . . .”

“This isn’t fair,” Teresa scolded. “Johnny’s not even awake to defend himself.”

“That’s what I’m counting on, Teresa,” Scott quipped. Reaching under the table he tugged at her shoe. “Are you ever going to move, missy?”

“Would you care for something, Jason?” Murdoch asked as the Ranger settled himself on the settee. “There’s sherry, if you like that sort of thing. Or coffee? We’ve a pot here – it might even be warm.”

“Er, coffee, thank you.”

With a nod, Murdoch shut his book and rose. “Teresa? Scott?” he asked as he walked over to the tray on his desk.

“No, thanks.” “No, thank you, Murdoch.”

“So, Jason, Scott tells me you’re talking about leaving,” Murdoch said, pouring coffee into a cup. “Sugar? Cream?”

“Black, please.”

“Sam Jenkins is going to have something to say about that plan, you know,” Murdoch said as he handed the cup to Avante and resumed his seat. “He’s not very happy with you as it is.”

Avante laughed and took a long sip of the rich, black brew. “Doc Jenkins is a good man,” he said. “A good doctor. But he’s cautious, like all good docs.”

Murdoch leaned forward, giving him a searching look. “Why now, Jason? Why leave before you’re ready, before you’re healed?”

Setting his coffee cup on the table by the settee, Avante turned in his seat and returned Murdoch’s gaze. He was moved by the concern he saw there. But it didn’t change his mind.

“I got some healin’ to do,” he said firmly. “But it ain’t my shoulder. And I can’t do it here, Murdoch. I’ve imposed on you enough already, and I’m grateful.”

Murdoch shook his head and sank back against the sofa cushions. “We’ve already talked about this. You know what I think – and I think the boys would agree.” He glanced at Scott who slowly nodded his head.

“I got business to tend to,” Avante insisted.

“It can wait.”

“No, Murdoch, it can’t.” The Ranger ducked his head, studying the carpet under his feet. “I’m goin’ to take it slow, but I’m leavin’. Gonna ride my back trail a while, do what I can about that bounty. Spread the word to a few ears. Count on a few big mouths I know.”

“Do you think it will help?” Scott asked, his expression grave.

Avante shrugged and felt his shoulder complain. Gingerly, he leaned against the settee’s back, seeking support for his tired muscles. “Dunno,” he admitted. “I was pretty free with them posters. And bad news travels faster than good. All creation wants to know who’s wicked. Ain’t much interest in findin’ out who’s good.”

Murdoch rose and walked over to the fireplace, staring into the fire with his back toward the rest of the room. “And Cesar?” he asked softly. “What about him?”

“I don’t know, Murdoch,” the Ranger replied honestly. “Never heard of him before this. Don’t know what his game is neither. I don’t know whether he’ll keep on playing at being Madrid or if he’ll crawl back to his own hole.” Avante looked at Johnny. In sleep the thin, pale face was smooth and untroubled. He hadn’t stirred since Avante had first walked in, there was only the steady, natural, even rise and fall of his chest as he breathed. “That’s one of the things I’m gonna have to find out.”

No one said anything for a while. And no one moved. Until the peace was shattered by the sounds of angry Spanish, hurrying feet and an odd but frantic thwat-thwat noise that quickly proved to be the sound of Maria’s broom striking at something. There was an angry yowl and a large fluffy tabby cat shot out from the anteroom beside the dining area with Maria in hot pursuit.

“No, Maria!” Teresa cried, struggling to her feet. “Wait – don’t hit her!”

Out of the corner of his eye, Avante saw Johnny startle and wake, his eyes jerking open and his hand going swiftly, fluidly to his hip. In that brief instant, merely the flutter of an eye, the young boy was gone and the gun fighter had returned. From the floor, Scott turned quickly and reached out a comforting hand, reassuring his brother, settling him with a quiet word. But not before Avante had a sense of the sheer power, the grace, the dangerous presence of Madrid. And in a heartbeat it disappeared.

“I warned you, chica!” the cocinera puffed as she hurried across the room toward where the cat was taking refuge under Murdoch’s desk. “I will not have that animal in my kitchen.” Groaning heavily, Maria got down on her hands and knees to poke with her broom under the desk.

“Teresa,” Murdoch said, his voice a choked mixture of warning and laughter. “Get him out of here – he’ll spray.”

“No he won’t,” Teresa retorted. “He’s a she.”

“Well,” Scott observed with a laugh, “‘She’ sprayed last time she got in here.”

“No, she didn’t,” Teresa said, joining Maria on the floor. “That was the other one – her brother. Maria, go away, you’re frightening her! Here, Lewie, Lewie. Good kitty!”

“Lewie?” From the chair by the fire Johnny’s soft drawl floated across the room, amused and disbelieving. “I thought you said that was a girl cat.”

“She is,” Teresa insisted as she rose from the floor, the unhappy cat tucked firmly under her arm. Puffing, Maria used Murdoch’s desk to pull herself to a standing position. With a dark look at Teresa, she stalked from the room muttering about the filthy gata that belonged in the barn instead of leaving nasty surprises in la cocina.

“Let me see, honey,” Johnny smiled, resting his head back against his pillows. “Last time, you told me you had a tom and then that ole tom upped and had babies. Give her here, T’resa.” He stretched out his hands and took the tabby, settling it into his lap and rubbing around its ears and under its chin. “He’s purrin.’”

“She.”

With a mischievous glance at his sister, Johnny flipped up the cat’s tail, did a quick assessment and grinned back at Teresa. “Yup. He’s a she. You’re learnin’.”

“Johnny!” Teresa cried in mock outrage. “Give me that cat.” Folding the now-docile cat into her arms, Teresa bent over and pressed her lips to the top of Johnny’s head. Avante saw Johnny’s hand reach out and catch the young woman’s elbow. Unexpectedly touched by the tenderness of the gesture, the Ranger looked away.

“I have to make amends to Maria, Johnny,” he heard Teresa whisper. “I’ll see you in a little bit.”

Murdoch cleared his throat. “All right, please take the cat out, Teresa. He or she. The last time a cat was in this room it left something I do not want to have to clean up again. I’m with Maria – Lewie goes to the barn.”

“You wait until you find mice in your wardrobe again,” Teresa called gaily as she left the room.  “You just see if Lewie obliges.”

“She has a point, Murdoch,” Scott said. He crabbed across the floor and sat with his back against Johnny’s chair, his left arm slung casually over his brother’s blanket-covered knee.

“Hmm, well, I’ll take mice over, er, well I’ll take my chances with the mice,” Murdoch smiled. He looked at Johnny, and Avante saw the smile fade as Murdoch thoughtfully studied his tired son. “Ready to go back upstairs, John?”

“No, I’m good,” Johnny said. “I-I guess I fell asleep for a bit, huh?”

“A bit,” Murdoch agreed.

“You have a good ride, Ranger Man?” Johnny asked, turning his gaze toward Avante. “Scott take you on the tour?”

“A good part of it,” Avante answered. “It’s – impressive.”

“Yeah, we like it.” A boyish grin spread over Johnny’s face. “Don’t think you’ll find a prettier piece of land anywhere.”

Murdoch dipped his head. Trying to hide his pleasure, Avante thought, but pleased as all get out by his younger son’s pride in this place. He studied his coffee cup and wondered, not for the first time, why men like Murdoch and himself could be so scrupulously honest and straightforward about most things but avoid and dissemble when it came to others. Knowing it was one thing, Avante told himself, but doing something about it is quite another.

“Ranger says he’s going to ride out in a couple of days, Johnny,” Scott said, twisting slightly to look over his shoulder at his brother.

“Yeah?” Johnny raised his eyebrows. “True?” he asked and Avante found himself under close scrutiny.

“True,” the Ranger said. “It’s time.” Their eyes met and locked.

Johnny nodded his head slowly and closed his lids. “Doc Jenkins ain’t gonna be pleased with you,” he said after a minute.

“Oh, in another couple of days I expect he’ll be too busy cussin’ you out to worry much about me,” Avante laughed.

“Trail callin’ ya?” Johnny’s hands found the fringe at the edges of the woven throw and began playing idly with the knots.

“Business.”

“But not Cesar.”

“No, I told ya. Not him. At least, not that way.”

“Let that fella, that McNelly character, take care of it,” Johnny said quietly, opening his eyes. He stared at Avante steadily.

“No. I got another debt to pay. I’m going to pay it.”

Abruptly, Murdoch left his post by the fire and returned to the sofa. He sat heavily and stretched one arm along the sofa’s back. Rubbing his face thoughtfully with his other hand, he stared at the checkerboard Scott and Teresa had abandoned, seemingly oblivious to everyone else in the room.

 “Murdoch?” Scott questioned, his voice low and concerned.

“I’m fine, Scott,” the rancher replied impatiently, waving his hand in dismissal. “But I was just thinking about what you’ve said, Jason. About having a debt to pay.”

“What about it?” Avante set his empty coffee cup on the floor by his feet and crossed his arms over his chest.

“You don’t have any debts outstanding with this house, Ranger,” Murdoch said firmly. “Whatever else you’ve done, you’ve nothing owing here. It’s been paid several times over.”

“What if I don’t figure it the same way?”

“Maybe your sums are wrong,” Johnny said idly, a smile beginning. “Ask Boston here, he’s a regular boy wonder with ‘rithmetic, aren’t you, brother?”

“That’s right,” Scott agreed. “And last I looked, the columns balanced. Took me a while to figure, mind you,” he flashed a grin. “But in the end, I think I got it right.”

Avante shook his head. “I don’t see it that way.”

“Well, I do,” Murdoch said, pushing himself to the front edge of the sofa cushion. “I didn’t at first, either,” he admitted wryly. “But the way I see it, the books began to balance the morning you let Scott start out on his own for help. As a lawman, you must have found that a hard decision to make – to let a suspect go free. I’m still not sure why, if you were so convinced the boys were guilty, you let Scott leave.”

Uncomfortable now, Avante turned away from Murdoch Lancer’s intensity and stared at the fire. “I don’t know – maybe I was having trouble making the pieces fit by then.”

“The pieces?” Murdoch questioned.

“Yeah.”  Seeing the older man was perplexed, Avante explained. “The pieces of the picture. Figurin’ out a robbery or a murder or any kind of crime is like trying to stick together the pieces of a broken plate. You look for all the bits, all the shards and chunks you can find, and you try to make ‘em fit together so you can see the picture on the plate. Maybe it’s a bunch of flowers or maybe it’s something else. Ya don’t know for sure until you got all them pieces.”

“And you hadn’t found all the pieces,” Scott said flatly.

“I hadn’t even tried,” Avante corrected. He stood up and went over to the hearth. The fire needed tending so he lifted two small rounds from the neat stack against the stone facing and placed them carefully on the coals. Squatting, he watched as flames began to lick at the loose pieces of bark and then caught. “See, I thought I knew the picture on the plate already.”

“Johnny.” Murdoch exhaled heavily.

“Yup.” The Ranger rocked back on his heels, thinking. “Broke my own rules. All my life I’ve tried to live by those rules  . . .  to do what’s right, follow the code. I’ve seen lawmen bend it, good men who’ve had enough and think, ‘Mebbe jus’ this once.’ Swore I would never let that happen.” He took a deep, uneven breath. “But I did. Set myself up as judge, jury and hangman.  ‘Cause I was so sure, so damn sure.” To his left he heard Johnny murmur something to his brother, but when he glanced up he saw the kid was staring at the ceiling, his expression unreadable.

“What changed your mind?” Scott asked. “You seemed deaf to everything we said.”

“Not deaf. Just didn’t want to hear. There’s a difference. Chris was my only livin’ kin. Good or bad, it’s hard to lose your own blood. He was all I had and that made it easy to justify bending the rules and hard to see what I was losin’ by doing it.”

He fell silent again, watching the flames.

 “And?” Murdoch prodded.

“And, well, I’d got to thinking about somethin’ I’d read, somethin’ that just kinda yanked on the reins and set me back on my hocks.” He paused, thinking. “Think I got it right – never was much of a scholar.” Screwing up his face, he closed his eyes and saw again the penciled words on a rain-splattered page. “‘Mine honor is my life, both grow in one. Take honor from me, and my life is done.’”

“One of my favorites,” Murdoch exclaimed with enthusiasm. “Shakespeare. Richard II.”

“I don’t know about that,” Avante said, scratching his jaw. “Don’t read much but I read that somewhere and it stuck with me. Made me think.” To his left, Johnny was moving restlessly in his chair and Scott, alert to his brother’s sounds of distress, was twisting around to see whether he needed help. The Ranger let his gaze fall on Johnny’s flushed face, seeing in those vivid blue eyes both confusion and embarrassment.

--Don’t worry, boy. I won’t tell on ya. What was that Miss Teresa wrote in that book? “Blank pages for a new beginning.” You’ve got that new beginning, son. And maybe you can even finish that drawin’ of Murdoch you keep tryin’ to get right.

Avante looked away, back at the fire. “It made me think,” he repeated. “It was like looking in a mirror. I didn’t like what I saw. I’ve never had much in life – haven’t needed it. But I’d had my good name. And I’d gone and swapped it for a chance to let loose a belly full of hate.” He drew in a deep breath and let it out. “I guess I realized that even if Madrid was guilty as sin, I’d made a bad deal. The hate weren’t worth the price.” A chunk of coal sparked out onto the hearth and Avante kicked it back with his boot as he glanced at Scott.  “Maybe I figured if I let you try to save your brother’s life, I could look in that mirror and see the man I used to know.”

“You hoped for redemption?” Scott raised an eyebrow. “Bartering for your soul?”

“I ‘spose,” Avante agreed. “I ain’t a saint, Scott. It seemed a fair trade.”

“Johnny?”  Teresa was standing behind the sofa, her weight pressed against its back as she traced the fabric’s pattern with her fingertip. “Excuse me,” she apologized sweetly, glancing from face to face. “But Elena has asked me to remind Johnny of his promise. She’s sent for Cipriano and Jelly.”

Johnny groaned. Slouching back against the mound of pillows, he shakily brought up one foot and gave Scott a gentle shove. “Save me, brother, huh?”

“Promise?” Murdoch raised an eyebrow, looking from Teresa to Johnny.

“Yeah,” Johnny sighed. “We made a bargain. I get to come down here. ‘Lena gets to say how long.”

Scott chortled. “The scales off a snake, hmm, Murdoch?”

“Scott,” Murdoch chided, fighting a laugh. He looked at Johnny. “I don’t know, son. Sounds like a pretty fair trade-off to me.”

“Maybe.” Ducking his head, Johnny looked down at his lap where his hands were once again playing with the fringe of the colorful throw. Then he glanced up at Avante, a smile playing at the corner of his mouth.

“But seems to me I’ve had better.”

 

 

~end~
March 2003

 

 

Diana’s Notes and Credits

Chapter 7: The quote about honour in Johnny’s journal is from William Shakespeare’s Richard II (Act I, Scene 1). 

Chapter 22:  Cat’s December 2002 Christmas gift to me was the penultimate sentence of the first scene in this chapter.

Chapter 23: This chapter very briefly touches on the “What did Murdoch know and when did he know it” theme. Several writers have explored the idea that Murdoch might have known about Johnny’s past, or his whereabouts, sometime before he actually summoned his sons to Lancer. I think I first read it in one of Buttercup’s stories and thought it made eminent sense. Credit where credit is due: Thanks, Buttercup.

Chapter 24: “Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritu Sancto. Sicut erat in principio. . .”  Translating from the Latin, this phrase is: “Glory be to the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. As it was in the beginning . . .”

Chapter 29: The passage Scott reads to Johnny in the first scene appears in Chapter III of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick; or The White Whale.

In the second scene there is a fleeting reference to a small carved horse. This is Cat fanon from her story Starlight. 

Chapter 30: Very special thanks to Buttercup, who generously allowed me to borrow St. Francis, surely one of the most inspired and wonderful bits of fanon in Lancer Land. Talk about being blessed!!

Please credit Mr. Shakespeare again for the quote about honour that here makes its second appearance in this story.

Scott’s comment about the teachers of morality is taken from Chapter 18 of The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssina by Samuel Johnson.

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