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Lacy

 

 

Resurrection

Disclaimer: I originally began this story with a partner, but after the first 7 chapters she chose not to continue writing it. I decided to continue on, to see the story finished. I have since gained a new partner who has co-written the first 7 chapters with me, which are new and original. Chapters 8 to the end are as originally written and posted by me.

I want to thank Geraldine for co-authoring these new and original chapters 1-7 and Winnie for doing an awesome job of beta-ing this fanfic. Without them I could not have fulfilled my vision for this story. The complete, original version is posted in other forums. Please email me for details.

Lacy

 

Chapter 1

George Bridges stood on the porch of his modest home, his thumbs hooked casually in his suspenders as he witnessed the rising of the sun. Slowly the shadows of night retreated to the east, fleeing before the brightness of day. He inhaled deeply, testing the air for the smells he loved: fresh coffee, green grass, the cattle on the hill. The wide-open spaces unfolding before him stirred a joy within his heart. He loved this view, the beauty of the land unspoiled by mankind.

A door opened tentatively behind him, as if someone was hesitant to spoil the atmosphere that surrounded the man. The sound of soft footsteps accompanied the bearer of his morning coffee. Hazel Bridges came to her husband’s side and offered him the first cup of the morning’s brew. Her eyes on the horizon, she admired the land just as her husband had.

“Thank you, Mama,” George whispered as he lifted the cup to his mouth. “See that there? Gonna be a glorious day.”

“Aw George, why do you always call me Mama?” Hazel chided gently.

With a laugh he wrapped a grizzled arm about her wide waist and pulled her to his side. “Ain’t it grand?”

“Yes, George, it’s grand, all right. You was right to bring us here to settle all those years ago.”

They stood, husband and wife, clinging to each other with their cups of coffee in hand, their faces raised to greet the sun. Long moments passed before a gentle rumble in George’s stomach broke the spell.

“You hungry?” Hazel asked the obvious question, a knowing expression crossing her lined face. She was reluctant to break the morning routine. For six years they had started the day in this manner, greeting the world with a cup of fresh coffee. And for six years George’s rumbling stomach had announced the end of their sunrise ritual. But on this day, Hazel was uncomfortable. Though the vista before them was as glorious as the day before, she smelled a change in the air. As if in warning, Mother Nature’s wind shifted direction. ‘I’m an old fool,’ she gently chided herself.

An unexpected puff of dust on the horizon was unusual enough for George to frown at its presence. It disturbed the serenity of the moment, intruding on this very private, much cherished moment. The contact between the husband and wife was broken as George stood taller, moving his hand from Hazel’s waist to shield his eyes. “Riders coming.”

“Who ya reckon would come this way?” Hazel’s curiosity was overwhelmed by a pressing feeling of dread. With apprehension, she eyed the steadily growing cloud of dust as the riders drew closer.

“Git my rifle then git inside, Hazel.”

George’s use of her given name only served to unnerve her and she fumbled with the doorknob in her haste to do her husband’s bidding. Hazel retrieved the rifle then returned to her husband’s side. The riders were close enough to make out their features. They were rough, dangerous men, their clothes soiled with the dirt of the trail. There were six of them, their guns tied low. She trembled as various reasons for their approach flashed through her mind. She had seen men like these before, and she knew their kind. Without a doubt she knew their visit was not a social one. The memory of a dark-haired boy wearing a low-slung gun, with flashing blue eyes and a ready smile, drifted across her mind. But even though that young man had been dangerous, he had never presented the ominous threat she perceived in the riders who now drew rein mere feet from where she stood with George.

“I said git inside. Now go!” George hissed at his wife. He shoved her behind him and raised the rifle. Without any further hesitation, she did his bidding and slipped into the house.

“Morning,” the leader of the group greeted. “What kind of way is this to greet strangers? With a rifle yet. You’re gonna make me think you aren’t friendly.”

“State your business.” George’s voice was stronger than his appearance would suggest. The rifle never wavered; his eyes remained firmly focused on the man sitting so nonchalantly in the center of the group of the six riders. “I don’t like strangers.”

“Now, now, that just isn’t hospitable,” the leader of the group of rough-looking men declared. “Tell you what. I’ll even introduce myself as we’re gonna be such good friends. My name is McKenzie Walden, but everyone calls me Mac. We were back in Stillwater looking for the gunsmith. Got directed out here. You are the gunsmith, aren’t you?”

“I ain’t open on a Sunday,” George said gruffly, “and I sure ain’t open on any day of the week for saddle tramps like you.”

“You best be careful, old timer,” Mac sneered. “You keep talking like that and you might hurt my feelings.”

“Get on with it, Mac.” This came from a thin man, whose weasel-like features seemed to be twisted into a permanent scowl.

“Git it said and get on your way,” George demanded, shifting the rifle imperceptibly to line up in the center of Mac’s chest.

“Fine then.” Mac’s voice hardened as he leaned forward, his elbows resting on the pommel of his saddle. “You’re going to have to do something for me, old man.”

“I don’t believe I will.” George spoke with more confidence than he felt. A weighty sense of dread had fallen onto his head and neck, landing hard and threatening to stoop his shoulders.

“I hear tell you once knew a man named Madrid. Johnny Madrid.” Mac’s eyes narrowed. “Everyone knows Johnny Madrid won’t buy his guns from anyone else in the territory except you. What you’re going to do is send for him,” he ordered.

“Nope, cain’t do it.” George shook his head in denial. “Don’t know the man.”

“I think you do. I heard Madrid even stayed with you a spell, a few years back. Sounds like he thought you were his Pa or something. You’re gonna wire him…unless you would prefer I ask your missus to come to town with me.” Mac rubbed his thigh suggestively and straightened in the saddle. He grinned as the expression on George Bridges’ face indicated his understanding of Mac’s intended course of action.

***** 

The early morning sun streamed in through the open window, its golden fingers of light gently prodding the sleeping couple until the man opened shocking blue eyes. He blinked against the brilliant light as his senses slowly came fully alert. Johnny snuggled deeper into the comfort of the bed, sighing contentedly. The warmth of the woman in his arms contributed to his feeling of pleasure. This was his favorite time of day, when all the world was still and calm, worshiping the rising sun, basking in the serenity of Mother Nature’s full glory. He smiled at this romantic notion and once more marveled at the change the love of his wife had wrought in him.

The sun’s beams fell softly upon Teresa’s dark hair, the resulting glow lending an angelic aura to her beautiful features. Lightly he stroked her gleaming locks and lifted them to his nose. He breathed in deeply, relishing the scent of her, a heady mixture of lavender and musk. Suddenly aware of the fire burning within him, he pulled Teresa closer to his bare chest.

She snuggled deeper into the crook of his shoulder, a gentle sigh escaping between her parted lips as her naked curves molded into his.

Johnny lowered his head to lightly brush his lips across her forehead. She turned toward him, offering her mouth. With a hunger he knew he would never fully satisfy he claimed her mouth. “I love you querida. I think I’ll never get enough of you.”

“I know.” Even the briefest period apart from you is like a lifetime.” Her eyes were open now, staring earnestly into his. She searched his face, suddenly uneasy and seeking reassurance. “Johnny, promise me you’ll never leave me. Promise!” The fear that overwhelmed her was irrational, she knew, but still she felt compelled to voice her concern.

“What is it? What’s wrong?” Johnny understood her fear, and indeed he had felt the same dread of loneliness. He had been raised alone and scared, and had even turned to . . . Abruptly Johnny reined in his thoughts, refusing to look down the old path of darkness that had been his life prior to discovering the family he now cherished.

“I’m being silly, I guess. It’s just…” She paused then, her eyes lowering as she drew a breath to steady herself.

“What is it, querida?”

She heard his concern though he made every effort to sound nonchalant. “I saw Sam yesterday,” she whispered.

“Are you sick?” Sudden fear rose within his heart to rival the fear she had conveyed moments before. As if contagious, the emotion ebbed between them, fear for the safety of their loved one eclipsing the joy of the beautiful morning. Nature’s song grew quiet as if even the world outside their windows was holding its breath.

“Johnny, I’m pregnant.” She lifted her eyes, holding her breath as she awaited his reaction to her confession.

“We’re gonna have a baby?” He tightened his hold on her, pulling her even closer against his muscled length. “I hope it’s a girl!” His smile broke like the dawn on a summer day, infectious in its warmth and sincerity.

She returned his smile, her heart beating in rhythm with her husband’s. “Please don’t leave us. You be careful out there.” She cupped his cheek and searched his beloved features for reassurance.

“Its okay, Teresa. We’re gonna grow old together.”

“Please Johnny, humor me. Make the promise.”

“Okay, I promise,” Johnny intoned solemnly. Then, with a twinkle in his eye, he gently cupped one of her full breasts, his thumb massaging the tender nipple. “You think I want to leave this?” he teased.

“Oh, you are incorrigible.” Though she sought to properly chastise him, her tone belied the harshness of her words. She suddenly smiled, her fear vanishing as his tender touch lit a flame deep within her.

Moaning softly, he covered her mouth once more, pressing his tongue between her lips, teasing her with his kisses. She responded and pressed closer, throwing one leg across his hips.

In the next room, the child began to stir, hunger awaking him from the safety of childhood slumber. Seeing no one in the room to tend to his needs, he wailed to gain the attention of his parents.

“Johnny?” she whispered softly. “Our son is awake.”

Groaning, he removed his hands from her bosom, and rolled over. Throwing back the bedclothes, he rolled to sit on the edge of their bed. With a last look of longing he raked his gaze hungrily over her exposed body. Johnny left the bed, quickly pulling on his pants. “Paul’s timing is real bad.”

Teresa giggled. “There’s always tonight.”

“I’ll hold you to that.” He winked conspiratorially and leaned over to slap her firmly on her derriere. “Don’t plan on getting too much sleep.”  He ducked his head, grinning wickedly when the pillow struck the door as he made a quick exit.

 

CHAPTER 2

Murdoch lifted his eyes from the papers he was perusing as Johnny entered the dining room, Paul tossed over his shoulder as if he were but a sack of potatoes. Smiling, he greeted, “Good morning, son. What do you have there?”

“Not much. Just an old lumpy bag I found in the room next to mine.” Johnny lifted the child to peer intently into eyes the color of his own. “Whatcha think, Paul? You a lumpy sack or what?” The child giggled and squirmed in his father’s arms. Johnny placed the child carefully in the small high chair and sat down beside him. He reached for a mug of milk and offered it to his son. “So, what’s on the agenda for today?” He offered Maria a quick smile as she placed a plate laden with the morning’s meal in front of him.

“The herd has to be moved to the east pasture. We’ve over-grazed the north end of the range. It’s just been too dry this year.” Murdoch laid the paper to the side and started eating his breakfast of ham and eggs. Between mouthfuls, he added, “You need to check out the watering holes and the streams to see what their levels are. We’ll have to rethink our grazing plan if we don’t get rain soon.”

Johnny felt pressure building within him and struggled to overcome the feeling. It was like a noose around his neck, and every so often his father would give a jerk on it, as if he was testing him. For the past three years, Johnny had broached the subject of raising an enhanced breed of horses, every now and then, hoping for the best, yet preparing for the worst.

“We could keep them in the lower graze, near the lake,” Johnny suggested.

Murdoch fiddled with his newspaper, his lips set in a tight line. “I told you I don’t want them down there. It takes more time and man-hours to get them out of the shallows every time they get stuck in the mud. Just do what I say, Johnny.”

“What about Scott? He hasn’t been doing any riding herd lately.” Johnny called in the direction of the kitchen, “Hey Scott, haven’t you got that gal’s daddy to agree to the engagement yet?” Johnny laughed. “Bet you never thought in a million years I’d be the one to settle down with a wife and little one.” Johnny leaned over to wipe dribbles of milk from little Paul’s chin. “Just you wait,” he said to his son, “’til you’re old enough to ride, and hold a gun. Then your Pa will show you how it’s really done.” Paul gurgled at his father’s words, but when Johnny glanced up, Murdoch was frowning at him. “What?” Johnny asked defensively. “I’m not gonna teach him how to be a gunhawk, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

“Good,” Murdoch said sternly, “because around this ranch, it’s cattle that pays the bills, and that’s the way it’s going to stay.”

Since Johnny and his brother had returned to Lancer, they’d seen their father slowly change in his attitude towards them. The old man had transitioned from merely reminding the younger men that he called the tune to becoming an impassable, unmoving source of control. He no longer seemed to regard Johnny or Scott as equals, but rather as sons who were in constant need of supervision and direction. He now chose instead to govern with an iron fist, which he wielded heavily more often than not on his younger son.

Johnny had a feeling that his father didn’t even know how hard he came down on them, or that his attitude was strangling the joy out of their lives at the ranch. Scott, too, was aware of the wall that Murdoch had built against his sons, but the Bostonian seemed more able to live with it. Johnny figured this was because Scott’s grandfather, Harlan Garrett, had been a strict, harsh taskmaster who had controlled, or had tried to control, his grandson.

Instead of growing in his eyes and gaining his respect, Johnny had been relegated to the role of a child. Why did Murdoch feel it necessary to dictate his every waking moment? And now that Johnny was married and had his own family living within the Lancer walls, he expected a modicum of respect from his father. Yet things seemed to have gone backwards in their relationship, and it had reached a point where Johnny had endured just about enough.

Johnny had often pondered why things had digressed so much, but had yet to figure out what was causing his father’s attitude towards his sons. Johnny wondered if there was something in his character that his father feared - and he knew that Murdoch was afraid. He’d seen a look in Murdoch’s eyes on occasion. It was fear, and it was fleeting, but it had been there, no doubt about it. It was as if the old man couldn’t face him. Or maybe time had run out for Johnny to live up to whatever expectation Murdoch had of him. Johnny was no longer sure it was possible to ferret out the reason.

There is a place in every man where the need to know becomes inconsequential, where the truth is seemingly insignificant, where all that remains is the basest need for action. And Johnny had long since come to the end of his tether. His unrest, his discontent, was overwhelming, tantamount to a volcano awaking from a century of slumber.

But now sitting at the breakfast table, with his child by his side, Johnny struggled to present a casual façade. Although he was burning to shout, he spoke softly. “I can’t move the herd today. Get Cipriano to supervise the men. I’m going to take that mare I bought last week over to the breeding shed.”

Fatigue washed over Murdoch, a weariness that penetrated to the bone. Long had he and his son engaged in the quarrel pertaining to Johnny’s unrelenting ambition to advance the Lancer remuda. And here was the boy telling him what he was going to do. Challenging him outright him, albeit with a soft voice, Murdoch thought.

“John,” Murdoch warned, “can we just get through one day without a discussion about those horses?” Many tedious and exhausting arguments had begun with the same soft words, the same hopeful light gleaming in the blue eyes. Yet Murdoch could not endorse his son’s dream. Or would not? Of late he had struggled with the question and sought the truth behind his objections. But the truth was fleeting and left him further frustrated. He knew his unease was irrational. The boy worked hard to perform the tasks allotted him, with enthusiasm and dedication, and he only asked one thing in return. Yet try as he might, Murdoch could not consent.

Sighing wearily he rubbed a hand across his forehead and prepared to do battle. “I need you to herd those cattle. No water, no graze, and our investment will be in trouble. Will you do what I ask of you, just this once without any back-talk?”

“Is that a request, or are you calling the tune?” Johnny sneered. His patience had long since evaporated. He had endured enough of his father’s unreasonable aversion to his dreams. Johnny quickly came to a monumental decision: he would pursue his dream at Lancer…or somewhere else. The proverbial last straw had fallen on this camel’s back and Johnny accepted the finality of the conflict. It ended today, one way or the other. “I need to do this,” Johnny said.

“I do not want to have this discussion this morning--” Murdoch began, but Johnny spoke over him.

“Yeah, well I do.” Johnny dropped his fork with a clatter on his plate. “Now, I bought those mares and I intend to breed them. The time is now.”

Scott stood quietly in the doorway, aware of the tension in the room pulsing in waves around the two men who sat staring each other down. As usual, to begin with, his younger brother lowered his eyes first, but Scott sensed the frustration emanating from him. Today was not going to be a normal day. Johnny wasn’t about to back down – that was plain to see. And Murdoch wasn’t giving an inch. It almost seemed as if the Old Man was oblivious of his sons’ ambitions. The survival of the ranch, at all costs. Scott almost laughed, thinking that should be their motto, carved above the arched gateway over the road.

Scott recognized the warning signs in Johnny even if Murdoch appeared to be oblivious to them. Scott’s instincts served him well, as Johnny’s head suddenly came up, his steely gaze pinned his father. Scott gave Murdoch his due. Many a man had cowered at the gunfighter’s cold stare in the past, but the stern old Scot didn’t flinch.

“On your own time,” Murdoch growled, his voice rising despite his obvious efforts to remain calm.

“You’re so predictable.” Johnny leaned forward on his elbows, one hand raised to point an accusing finger at his father. “You have any idea how many times I have heard those words, old man?”

“If you were to show a little of the patience you were so famous for as a gunfighter, this conversation wouldn’t be necessary.”

“Patience?” Johnny laughed without any humor coloring his voice. “I’ve been patient for three years, hoping you’d come around and see that I can do this. I’ve put all my hopes and dreams aside, done everything you asked of me. You can’t deny that. But you won’t even let me take the chance to fail, if that’s what you’re so afraid of. So what if I don’t succeed at this breeding project? It won’t be the end of the world. It’ll be on my head. No reflection on you at all. Your friends won’t be laughing at you over it.”

Murdoch rose from his chair without conscious thought. “It’s a waste of time, Johnny! You know this is futile.” But Murdoch’s attempt at persuasion fell on deaf ears. He was aware of the undercurrent of determination pulsing through his youngest son. Something unknown was rising up in the younger man, challenging his sire’s authority and for the first time in the three years since his sons had returned home, Murdoch was hesitant to support his right to call the tune. He lowered his voice, attempting to calm his volatile son. More gently, he urged, “Johnny there will be time for horses later.”

“I’ve had three years of later! Three years of fixing fences, clearing streams, pulling your damn cattle out of mud-holes. Three years, Old Man,” he snarled. Beside him, Paul whimpered.

Scott took that moment to move from his position in the doorway. He moved to Johnny’s side and laid a hand on his brother’s arm in a gesture that he hoped demonstrated he was on his side. “Johnny, you’re upsetting the baby. Let’s sit down and discuss this reasonably.”

“Reasonably? You try talking to him. Hard-headed, unyielding, old...” Johnny paused to take a cleansing breath, struggling to maintain control of his temper. In his years of gun fighting no one had broken his self-control, penetrated his icy-calm, but one moment in the room with Murdoch Lancer was enough to destroy any semblance of Johnny Madrid Lancer’s resolve.

“What’s going on in here?” Teresa asked from the doorway. She had heard the raised voices. The irrational fear she’d experienced earlier returned unbidden, its icy hands clutching around her throat. Although the men’s words had escaped her, she knew exactly what was happening between her husband and her father-in-law. The arguments were becoming more commonplace, almost a daily routine in the life of the Lancer household. She had often intervened during the squabbles, and worked with Scott as he attempted to ease the tension between the other two men. She feared a major explosion was soon to be upon them.

Teresa had long recognized the growing discontent within Johnny. Her husband had let it slip once that he was considering moving her and their son out of the house, and that was something she was adamantly against. “There shouldn’t be quarreling among family members,” she admonished. “Enough of these squabbles under our roof.”

“You can tend to your horses tomorrow,” Murdoch continued as if Teresa had not spoken. “Today we have to--.”

Johnny cut into his father’s words, saying sarcastically, “Today we have to do what we always do? You mean do what you want? Well, not me. Not me!” He quickly rose, his chair falling to the floor behind him from the violence of his motion. “Damn you, Murdoch.” He angrily left the dining area, one hand making a motion of dismissal as he stalked into the great room.

“John, don’t you walk out on me,” Murdoch shouted after him. “How dare you talk to me like that? If I hadn’t brought you here, you’d still be--” It was Scott who intervened, an arm across his father’s chest, striving to calm him down before unforgivable words were exchanged.

But his father’s words failed to penetrate Johnny’s rage. He strode out the French doors, slapping his palm against a massive stone pillar as he passed it. He walked up and down for a few minutes, working off some of his temper. Abruptly he turned on his heel and returned to the great room, then sat on the edge of the massive desk that commanded attention before the large picture window.

Teresa stood by Scott and waited, knowing that Johnny had to come to his senses on his own. There was no forcing him, and just as he had many times before, Johnny would come around. But even she knew that they must all face whatever was tearing them apart and reach some sort of understanding - or else she and her husband would have to strike out on their own, just for the sake of their sanity.

She hooked her arm in Scott’s and watched as Johnny struck an all-too familiar pose, wrapping his arms tightly about his body while his dark head bowed.

Johnny closed his eyes and concentrated on his breathing, seeking to regain the control that had been so violently wrenched from his grasp. He didn’t know why he hadn’t kept on walking, but maybe the presence of his wife and child were enough to remind him that he couldn’t act impulsively, not with them relying on him. Here he was preaching that he wanted to be treated like an adult, yet he knew he was his own worse enemy. He had to, at all costs, work this out, and now.

Teresa reached out and picked up her son, jiggling him up and down to keep him quiet as she looked from Murdoch to Johnny. Scott motioned for her to take a seat but she shook her head, declining wordlessly. She wanted to support Johnny, but she had a feeling that he’d do better confronting his father without any witnesses. “Scott,” she whispered, but the blond man didn’t hear her. His eyes were fixed on Johnny, worry creasing his brow as he took a tentative step forward.

Murdoch leaned his weight on the dining room table, wretchedly watching Johnny from a distance. His son’s posture was a reminder of the vulnerability Johnny rarely exhibited. But his fear for his son’s safety, though irrational and unwelcome, pushed Murdoch to enforce his wishes on the uncooperative man. He cleared his throat and called out, “John?”

Slowly the dark head lifted and the eyes of midnight blue looked his way, piercing his father’s resistance. Murdoch said in a softer tone, “Son, come back and talk to me.”

“You got something to say? The past is not dead and you know it. And I’m losing patience with the dancing around.”

 

CHAPTER 3

“I’m trying to spare you, Johnny.” Murdoch extended a hand, pleading.

“Spare me what? From the happiness of pursuing my dream?” Johnny stood away from his father’s desk, his hands dropping loosely to his sides.

Murdoch took a deep breath, then slowly walked across the room, past Teresa and Scott, his eyes fixed on his troubled son. He stopped only feet from Johnny and met him head-on. “Johnny, you have no guarantee his foals will be worth the time or effort it will take. You know I believe that the evidence has proven that your idea to breed a new, finer strain of horses, using Barranca as the seed, won’t be successful. Not with this idea to cross-breed them with wild horses as well.”

He did believe that, but in addition, he was loathe to put into words the true reason he would never agree to Johnny’s plan to bring in select wild horses, mix them with Arab mares, and cross-breed with Barranca. Johnny said he was going to break every wild horse himself, so he’d be able to judge each animal for himself. He wanted to test their stamina and character.

Murdoch wondered how he could possibly voice his all too vivid objections to his son’s dream. How could he tell Johnny about the dread that consumed him every time he saw his youngest son mount one of those wild horses?

Gone for the moment was the tension, the anger that had tightened Johnny’s jaw, colored his words. His countenance was flushed with curiosity and he was aware of the heat creeping up his neck. “How can raising and selling horses be such a threat? I’m good with horses. You know that.”

“You’ve seen the money and study that goes into animal husbandry,” Murdoch argued gently, “and our herd is what it is because of years of perfecting our animal’s bloodlines. These are good stock, Johnny. Working horses, not showy animals. You can’t breed horses, least of all Barranca.”

“What do you know about Barranca’s line?” The anger was beginning to simmer once more, a flow of molten flame beneath the icy exterior.

“It’s unstable, it’s…”

Scott wasn’t sure if his presence would help or hinder the situation, but he wasn’t going to let the two men come to blows if he could help it. “You know Barranca’s not the best choice for stud, Johnny,” he said cautiously, but his brother narrowed his eyes at the intrusion.

“I know my horses by bein’ with them. Not by reading up in old books written by men on the other side of the sea, old men who have no idea what these horses are like. Neither them or you know what a horse is capable of until you’ve ridden him wild. That’s the only way you can really understand them.”

Scott shook his head. “Like Murdoch said, there’s evidence that Barranca isn’t a good choice for breeding. You just won’t face it.”

Johnny let out a snort of derision. “I can’t believe you’re my brother sometimes.”

That hurt Scott more than he could say, and he knew he must have appeared to be stricken because he saw a flicker of regret pass across Johnny’s eyes. Scott understood his father’s point of view, and had indeed helped with the study of the best and most efficient ways to enhance their breeding stock. But Murdoch had never quite trusted his younger son, and in the past two years, since Johnny had been married, it had seemed as if Murdoch was unwilling to let Johnny become his own man. Maybe this was the only way the old man felt that he could hold on to his son. If Johnny could thrive on his own, he wouldn’t need them any more, and that was enough to cause fear and great unease in their father. Not that he’d admit any of this, Scott was certain.

A knock on the massive front door interrupted the men’s discussion. Grateful for the reprieve, however temporary, Murdoch strode to the door and admitted the newcomer.

“Murdoch,” Val offered by way of greeting. He removed his hat and waited patiently for the older man to lead the way to the great room. “Johnny around?”

“We’re all in here. Would you care for some coffee, sheriff?” Murdoch tossed over his shoulder. Relief barely concealed flowed through the Lancer patriarch’s heart. The disaster had been averted once more, at least temporarily.

“Depends who made it. If it’s Maria’s, sure.” Val tossed his hat into the nearest chair. His gaze found Johnny, still standing tensely before the massive desk. One look at his friend confirmed he had indeed interrupted a heated discourse. “Johnny.”

Johnny barely nodded in response.

Teresa was grateful for the reprieve that Val’s presence would afford them, and she indicated to the sheriff he could sit by the fire when the coffee arrived. “You really think we’d let men brew the coffee around here, do you?” Teresa asked lightly over her shoulder as she moved toward the kitchen. She chucked Paul under his chubby chin. “Come on, buster,” she said. “There’ll be plenty of time later on in your life for you to talk man-talk. For now, you can stay with Mama. Val, I’ll see you get something hot for breakfast. I’ll only be a few minutes.” She looked Johnny’s way, and although fear struck her again, she shook it off as being irrational, and left for the kitchen.

Johnny attempted to hide his displeasure that the discussion about his horse-breeding project had been set aside once more. He’d been a fool to think that digging his heels in would get him what he wanted around here, he thought. He asked the sheriff with irreverence, “So Val, you just come all the way out here for breakfast and some lively conversation?”

“Don’t mean to interrupt or nothin’, but I got a wire for you, Johnny. I was headed this way and thought I would deliver it.” Val removed the missive from his pocket and handed it to Johnny, even as he craned his neck to see if Teresa was getting his breakfast ready.

“Who’s it from?” Murdoch asked curiously. For long moments Johnny didn’t reply. He studied the wire, his eyes darkening with an unknown emotion. “Johnny?” Murdoch repeated, concerned his son would shut him out.

“George Bridges. An old friend.” Johnny rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “I haven’t heard from old George in. . . maybe six years.”

Scott asked, “An old friend? You never mentioned him.” His brother seldom revealed details of his past, although Val was obviously privy to the history of Johnny Madrid, a fact that sorely tested Scott’s patience.

“Yeah, he’s the best gunsmith north of the border.” Johnny’s hand fell to his hip, his fingers almost lovingly touching the odd looking Colt that rested in his custom-made rig. “He’s the only one I would ever trust with my hardware. He guided me when I modified my rig.” As if aware of the displeasure his confession about his gunfighter’s weapon would illicit, Johnny returned to the wire and studiously refused to face his father and brother. They never understood why he still honed his skill, and that even if he never again shot a living target, he would always continue to practice.

A strange sense of foreboding washed over Scott. It had been a year since Johnny’s past had interfered with life at Lancer, since the last gunhawk had made his way to Morro Coyo and forced Johnny into a gunfight. A year of peace and security, love and hope - save the conflicts between father and son. Now, when lady luck had deemed them worthy of her favor, a specter from the past reared its head.

Yet this gunsmith friend of Johnny’s did not seem to be anything more than a fond memory to him. Scott studied his brother, but Johnny’s reaction appeared only to express a casual concern of friend for a friend. Nothing more. When Johnny didn’t add anything to his brief explanation, Scott pressed him. “What does he want?”

“He says I need to see some new guns that just came in. Something real special in a Smith & Wesson, he says.” Johnny stared at the paper in his hand for a few moments, a frown on his face. Instinctively, he heard the cry for help in his friend’s words. The terminology was somehow foreign, not in keeping with George Bridges’ customary phrasing. And George knew that Johnny wasn’t likely to be looking for a Smith & Wesson. Johnny was a Colt man all the way, and so dedicated to his particular brand of weaponry, that George, who was a Smith &Wesson man, had engaged in many a discussion with him about the guns. They’d even had a bout of fisticuffs over their differing opinions once, although it had been a friendly scuffle. Johnny read, “A real deal not to be missed.”

“Something wrong?” Murdoch asked. His heart lurched at the shadow that flitted across his son’s countenance. Curiously, he found himself wishing he had submitted and agreed to support Johnny’s dream this morning. He should have given his consent. Johnny had a look about him, as if something distant was calling to him. Murdoch was sure that if Johnny had been given the chance to work on his pet project, he wouldn’t be enticed to leave by this man George. The fear he was losing his son, not to a dangerous stallion, but rather to a voice from the past, settled heavily on Murdoch’s conscience. “Johnny?” he prompted.

“I don’t know. There’s something not right about this. I’m not sure, but I have this feeling.” Johnny turned abruptly, shoving the telegram deep into his pocket. “I have to go.”

Val raised his eyebrows. “If I’da known this was bad news, I’d have waited ‘til after breakfast.”

Scott moved toward his brother, laying a restraining hand on his arm. “You’re kidding. You don’t mean you’re going off right away, do you?” He looked toward his father for support, then back to his tense brother. “Johnny?”

“Now hold on,” Murdoch objected loudly. “You can’t just take off to parts unknown at the drop of a hat…on the weight of this telegram. This man commands you to come to heel and you go?”

“It isn’t a command,” Johnny ground out. “I owe George Bridges. More than you’ll ever know. I told him if ever he needed me to just let me know, and this . .  this is all I need.”

“You mean this man is asking you for help and so just like that,” Murdoch asked, “you strap on your gun and leave?”

“I never took off my gun, Old Man. Don’t you get that?” Johnny whirled to face his father, anger blazing in his sapphire eyes. “Once a gunfighter, always a gunfighter. You can’t just quit being one inside.”

Val stepped between the two antagonists. “Hey now. Why we don’t all take a seat and discuss this.” The realization there was more happening here than a simple missive drove him to intervene. “Nothing’s that serious this early in the day,” he said with an attempt at lightness.

Johnny pointedly ignored him, rather he stood glaring at his father, and Val experienced an ominous sinking feeling in the pit of his empty stomach.

“Well, you can quit and you will!” Murdoch thundered, ignoring the sheriff’s attempts at calming the combatants. “You have a family, a wife, a child. You don’t abandon them and sell your gun.”

Johnny surged forward, but Scott put a hand out and stopped his brother from getting within striking distance of their father. “Calm down, brother,” he said under his breath.

”I never said anything about selling my gun!” Johnny snarled icily, his eyes never wavering from his father’s dark gray ones. “You don’t give me much credit, do you? I’m capable of making my own decisions. I’m not a child,” he said adamantly.

“But Johnny, you’re my child!” Murdoch drew in a ragged breath, anger and desperation marbling his face. “Johnny, let’s calm down and talk about this.” He lifted a hand to silence Johnny’s protest. “Please?”

Teresa came from the kitchen, the tray in her hands all but forgotten when she saw the way Johnny and Murdoch were confronting each other. She stood frozen in place, fear wrapping a cloak about her slender shoulders.

Teresa dropped her tray on the table with a clatter. She hurried to Johnny’s side, and despite knowing that he would prefer her not to be there, she knew it was her place as his wife to interfere. She stood close to him and raised one hand to cup his cheek. “Johnny, listen to me.” Teresa took his arm and turned him towards her, forcing his attention from the other occupants of the room. One quick and piercing look from her in their direction made Murdoch, Val and Scott move away. She waited a few moments, until they had gone back to the dining table and had taken their seats.

“Johnny,” she said with a calm she didn’t know she possessed. “I heard what you said, about going off--now, don’t interrupt me, please. I know you think you have a responsibility to this man, but your first responsibility is to us.” She touched her belly, and was gratified to see his eyes follow the direction of her hand. She didn’t regret doing whatever it took to keep him safe by her side. “I don’t want you to go.” Her voice quavered a bit as she said, “I have a bad feeling about all this.”

“You don’t have to tell me where my responsibility or my heart lies.” Johnny angled his head to one side, taking in the warmth of her palm, then took hold of her hand and kissed it. “Shh, querida. I won’t be gone long, just a few days.” His attempt to reassure her was difficult. His voice had to press through the sudden lump that lodged in his throat. If she was aware of the hitch in his voice, she gave no sign.

The fact of the matter was, he doubted the outcome of this journey, but the cryptic wire had left him no choice. His friend’s wellbeing was at stake. Thrusting the unease that threatened to overwhelm him back, deep into the inner most reaches of his mind, Johnny hugged her tightly, and sought every comfort her warm body afforded him. “I know what I’m doing. You have to understand that I have to do this. It won’t take long, honey. I’ll be back before you know it.”
 

*****

Mac tossed back his tequila, blowing out his breath as the liquid seared his throat. “Grimsley! Round up the men. It’s time to ride.”

“’Bout time. I’m sick of sitting around this empty hellhole,” Grimsley groused as he shoved his hat on his head. With barely a nod in his boss’s direction he strode purposely from the saloon. The batwing doors swung to and fro in the wake of the gunfighter.

Mac studied his now empty glass. It was about time. They had been well paid and the telegrams from his employer were becoming more and more insistent. Madrid would be on his way by now, he was sure. The gunman was so predictable, so easily manipulated, he thought with amusement. Even had Madrid experienced any doubt of the validity of the wire, he would feel compelled to verify its contents for himself. Johnny Madrid was thorough, he’d heard, and wasn’t likely to risk annoying an old friend such as George Bridges.

Mac had it on good authority that Bridges had once been known quite well in another territory. Not as a gunsmith, mind you, but as Gatling George, a gunfighter whose draw and rate of fire was so rapid he’d earned such a nickname.

But that was some years ago, and Gatling George had lost his talent with the onset of age and arthritis. He’d settled down in anonymity, with his wife, and they had befriended the young Johnny Madrid. As the story was told, the couple had taken the youth in when he was near-mortally wounded. They’d nursed him back to health and the healed gunfighter had stayed on for a while before returning to Mexico. Madrid was, by all accounts, abnormally faithful to those who helped him. This was all good for Mac and just plain bad luck for George.

Mac smiled grimly as he recalled the raid on the Bridges’ small ranch. The woman had been less than satisfying, yet after months in the saddle he found any release was better than the alternative. He snickered softly as he recalled her screams, her pleas, and how they’d both repulsed and excited him. Ramsey had enjoyed the encounter far more than he or the others had. Then again, Ramsey was not as particular as the rest of the small band.

George, tied spread-eagled to the barn door, had yelled in anguish as he witnessed the recreation of Mac’s men. They’d taken their time about violating the woman, each man returning for another round of their twisted version of pleasure. The woman had screamed until she was hoarse, and George had cried out along with her pain, straining against the ropes that bound him. Then the gunsmith screamed anew when Ramsey used his sharp knife blade to slowly flay the skin off the older man’s body. The wife watched helplessly as her husband bled to death, and then Mac had pulled out his own knife and used it on her.

“Poor dog just didn’t appreciate the need of men who’ve been on the trail for weeks,” Mac mused. “If old George had lived longer he may have learned a trick or two from us.” With a barely suppressed grin he rose to his feet and hitched his rig around his hips.

 

CHAPTER 4

They took turns on watch, each man sitting on his mount just below the rise that overlooked the grassy valley. Safely hidden from view by the grove of tall oaks, the men kept a steady eye on the road that led to the small ranch house. Their vigilance was eventually rewarded by the sight of a golden stallion heading for the old Bridges’ place. Even at such a distance, there was no mistaking the identity of the rider. He fit the description they’d been given. Slim, wearing charro pants and a brightly colored shirt, with the bearing and holster of a professional gunman.

***** 

Johnny studied the ranch house for any sign of movement as he trotted his horse along the wagon path towards the small home. He hadn’t been out this way in some time, but it hadn’t changed much since his first visit, back when he was quite a bit younger.

 

The spread was disturbingly quiet. There was the expected sight of chickens scratching in the yard, and a couple of draft horses stood quietly in the corral, but something was distinctly absent. This late in the day, with the shadows stretching across the pale grassy valley, there should have been some human activity. There was no smoke coming from the chimney of the familiar house. There should have been clattering of pans in the kitchen, or the sight of Hazel tossing feed out for the hens.

With his heart in his throat, Johnny pulled back on Barranca’s reins to give himself time to scrutinize the place for anything that would allay his fears. An oppressive feeling of dread hung over him. Caution and experience governed his actions, renewing the defensive mode that had served him well many a time over the years. He automatically checked the Colt on his hip and slowly walked Barranca into the yard. Tossing a quick glance around, he dismounted and approached the house, gun drawn.

The front door of the neat home was standing ajar, and the buzzing of flies filled the eerie quiet with the macabre sound of death. Alarmed, Johnny held his gun at the ready and entered the darkened house.

He paused just inside the door, slipping to the left to place the wall at his back. He took in a sharp breath when he saw the two bodies in the middle of the kitchen floor, just ten paces ahead of him. His eyes didn’t even have to adjust to the gloom for him to recognize that the bodies were those of George and Hazel Bridges.

The couple lay side-by-side, their mouths and eyes wide open, frozen in terror. Even in death their fear was palpable. Like a live creature, it snaked around Johnny’s ankles and crept up his limbs to his throat, chilling his entire being. He stifled a sob as he took in the grizzly details of the two bodies, the two dear people who had been tortured, their lives violently eradicated from the earth. “Oh God,” he moaned before sinking to his knees.

How long he remained in the kneeling position he didn’t know. The flies and odor of decaying flesh finally succeeded in piercing his shocked daze. Johnny lifted his head slowly, and if the men, if such evil beings could even be called men, had seen the look in his eyes, they might have died on the spot from sheer terror. “I’ll make them pay for this, I swear,” Johnny vowed to his friends in a low, shaking voice.

*****

Small dust devils swirled over the newly covered graves as Johnny stood with head bowed, silently mourning his friend and his wife. The icy veneer that was Madrid seeped into Johnny’s very pores, sinking into the essence of his being, darkening his soul.

Unaccustomed to such darkness, such overpowering might, the goodness that was Johnny Lancer fled before the terrible strength of Madrid. Empowered, deadly calm, the man standing over the final resting place of the older couple lifted his head. His eyes scanned the horizon as he determined the most plausible route the murderers would have taken. Finally set on a course of action, he strode to the hitching post and lithely mounted Barranca. The palomino shifted nervously beneath the rider whose scent confirmed the identity of his master, yet whose aura was deathly unfamiliar. With a snort, the horse obeyed the near-vicious kick on his flank and turned toward the road east.

*****

Rico raised his rifle, his sights fixed firmly on the chest of the man riding the golden stallion. He wiped his right hand on his leather pants, then slowly pulled back on the trigger.

“What’re you doing?” Mac hissed. “We need him alive.” He gripped the barrel of the rifle thrusting it skyward as Rico’s finger pulled the trigger. The report of the rifle temporarily stunned both men into immobility. In horror they watched as the palomino reared up, his hooves rising high in the air, kicking out in the throes of death when the bullet found its mark.

*****

“Barranca!” Johnny cried as his beloved horse collapsed in a tangle of legs, reins and flying mane. With no time to think, no time to prepare, Johnny went down, still in the saddle, but he rolled away to avoid the thrashing hooves. It was as if time slowed down: the great palomino grunted; the white of his eyes showed as his head came around; the ground came up to meet them with an enormous crash.

Johnny panicked and made a monumental effort to fall clear of the great weight that threatened to crush him. With luck, he managed to hit the ground and roll away from the dying horse. Winded, Johnny staggered to his feet, wondering what had happened to cause Barranca to go down, but one of the animal’s powerful legs struck his temple, and he knew no more.

*****

“You damn fool!” Mac growled as his fist caught the other man squarely on the jaw.

Rico fell back before the onslaught, staggering as yet another blow landed forcefully on the side of his head. He dropped as the third blow struck his chest and drove the air from his lungs.

Mac shouted in exasperation, “I told you we needed him alive! What the hell is wrong with you?”

Unable to catch his breath, retching, Rico shook his head, his dark hair falling across his eyes. Finally between gasps, he grunted. “Was only trying to take out the horse. Keep him from getting away.”

“If Madrid’s dead when we get down there, so are you. You got that?” Mac walked away and very slowly calmed down. He clenched his fingers into fists and made sharp jabbing motions into the empty air before him, releasing some of his fury. As he did so, the heat of his anger was washed away and replaced by a deadly coolness.

*****

The dark-haired young man was not moving. He lay deathly still, a steady stream of blood oozing down the side of his head. Carefully, Mac rolled him over, his hands searching for signs of any further injuries. Lightly he laid his fingers on Johnny’s throat and found a weak but steady pulse. “He’s alive,” Mac said with relief. “Grimsley, get him back to the camp. Joe will tend him.” They’d made camp in a safe and relatively remote location. It was a box canyon, with a river flowing through it and good grass for their horses. There was even a ramshackle cabin with enough room for a few men to sleep in, if the weather turned bad. Mostly the men camped out around a central campfire and played cards in between the robberies they carried out to keep the cash flow high. Boredom had been their worst enemy, but soon things would be heating up.

“Mac, his horse is dead,” Grimsley said, reminding his boss of the obvious.

Mac looked at the dead palomino and then at the unconscious man. He could feel his face flooding with color as his anger rushed to the surface again. The sight of Madrid lying next to the dead body of the horse made him realize how close they’d come to losing everything. One bullet away from disaster, he thought. His hands clenched in fists and he trembled with suppressed rage. Slowly he turned around to fix his eyes on the man who had taken down the stallion.

Rico stood to the side, relieved they had found Madrid alive. But at Grimsley’s mention of the dead palomino, Rico was overcome by a feeling of dread that Mac’s threat had planted within his mind. Though not forgiven for his error in judgment, he had believed upon finding the young gunfighter alive that he would be granted a reprieve. His relief was fleeting as Mac rose to his feet and swung around to face him.

“Put Madrid on Rico’s horse, Grim,” Mac commanded slowly, between clenched teeth. His steely gaze challenged Rico to dare disagree. “And make sure he doesn’t fall off,” he added with sarcasm.

“You’re putting him on my horse? And what am I supposed to do?” Rico objected cautiously. The pardon from Mac’s anger, though brief, appeared now to have been no more than fantasy. Rico inwardly cowered before the anger that marred his boss’ face, but he stood his ground. Hoping against hope, he prayed for Mac’s mercy to be extended toward him, but when Mac’s hand reached for his Colt, Rico feared the worst. He said defensively, “Mac, it’s five damn miles to camp!” He pointed up the trail towards their hideout in the small box canyon, his finger shaking with unconcealed fear.

“You don’t need to concern yourself with that.” Mac had no patience left for anyone, much less this man who had almost ruined their plans with one stupid move. “Besides, you shoulda thought about that before you killed his horse. Now get to it. If you start walking now, you ought to make it to camp before nightfall.” Mac grinned, his expression no more than a sneer in the low light of the early evening, his face cast in shadows.

Nervously Rico turned and began to walk slowly toward the canyon, his fancy Mexican spurs jingling with every step. Shivers raced up and down his spine as he forced himself to resist the urge to run. The sound of a gun being cocked was Rico’s final warning of the danger to come. Too late, he took off in a run, but had only sprinted a few feet when the  report of a Colt discharging reached his ears. A mighty fist struck him between the shoulder blades as the bullet spun him around to face his assailant. The second bullet ploughed through Rico’s cheek, stripping him of any identifying features.

“Damn, Mac,” Grimsley snarled. He tightened his hold on the bridle of Rico’s horse, steadying the animal as it shied away from the scent of blood. Normally, he would have searched a fallen comrade’s pockets for silver, taken his boots and bits of jewelry, but, with Madrid’s weight in his arms, it was impossible. He knew that Mac would just leave the Mexican kid lying there for the vultures to pick over. Grimsley gripped Madrid’s shoulders firmly, ensuring the boy remained in the saddle. “Was it a good idea to kill him? We may need his gun.”

Mac wiped the barrel of his gun across his sleeve before securing the weapon in his holster. “Rico was reckless.” He pointed a finger at the body of Madrid tied across Rico’s horse. “Besides, we have the kid’s gun now.”

***** 

Fragments of light attempted to pierce the swirling shadows that surrounded the young gunman. Like waves, the memories flickered and taunted his subconscious, near yet ever so far away. He moaned in his sleep. Tossing his head from side to side, he sought to capture his elusive past, yet try as he might he was unable to wrap his mind around the fleeting thoughts. Anything solid about the past eluded his grasp; shadows smothered his ability to recollect even the most trivial detail.

Exhausted, he gave up on the attempt to remember whatever his life had been. He blinked and rubbed at his eyes until he was able to keep them open. Eventually, he realized that it was night and he could see stars twinkling in the heavens above.

Slowly the sounds of the night became recognizable as the fog that enveloped his mind receded. He lay on his back wrapped in a cocoon of blankets, the thick fabric effective in warding off the chill of the night. In the distance an owl hooted as it sought its prey. Nearer still, the sounds of men talking came to him, their droning voices nondescript and unfamiliar to him. Horses moved restlessly nearby in the small makeshift corral.

A small fire lit the darkness nearby, offering both brightness and warmth. He tentatively moved his head to get a better look at the small circle of light. The movement elicited a groan as pain exploded in his head. Gingerly he touched the bandage wrapped around his skull, the sticky warmth indicating the source of the injury.

“Here ya go, son. Drink this,” ordered a voice that was gentle, yet gruff.

Before his eyes appeared the lined face of an old man with aged eyes full of concern as well as some unknown emotion. The man leaned forward and lifted his head. “Gotta watch out for this wound on yer head,” the man said in explanation. “Sure made a good sized canyon in your hair. Here, drink some o’ this and you’ll feel better. Maybe I can get you something hot to drink later.”

He opened his mouth to speak, to ask questions, but only a croak came out.

A cup was pressed to his lips. It was water. He drank it greedily, grateful for the cool liquid that dissolved the grit in his throat. All too quickly the cup was removed and the old man gently lowered him back down onto his bedding. It seemed as though he was lying on a bedroll, but there were plenty of blankets over his chest and legs, and he was warm enough.

“Cain’t drink too much too soon,” said the man. “Won’t do any good at all but to make ya sick on your stomach.” The old man touched his forehead and appeared to be relieved by the results. A toothless smile lit up the old face. “’Bout time ya woke up. Been kinda worried ya was gonna sleep forever.”

“Who are you?” He searched the face hovering over him, trying hard to pin down the man’s identity, seeking anything that he could grab onto, something solid. But there was nothing to anchor upon. Again the whispers of the past taunted him. Thunder rolled in his head, and the pain that issued from his struggle to remember both nauseated and frightened him. A few deep breaths and the world righted itself, the pain behind his eyes receded. He reached out and grasped the old man’s shirt, asking plaintively, “You know me? You know who I am?”

“Aw, never you mind all that, Sam. One good night’s sleep will likely bring it back. You had quite a fall and hit your head purty hard. Cain’t be expecting too much so soon.”

“Sam? That’s my name? Who are you? Where am I?” Panic sought to overcome him but he thrust it down, breathing hard with the effort. He concentrated on maintaining a semblance of calm, somehow knowing that it was important that he didn’t show any weakness. The darkness of the night closed in on him and whatever past he might have had flickered like a candle in a wind, then went out. With hands raised to his face, he drew in a ragged breath. It was so overwhelming, and he didn’t have any idea of what to do. A comforting hand patted his shoulder.

“It’s gonna be fine, son. Old Joe’s been taking care of ya. I ain’t gonna leave ya neither, so relax and sleep. Things will be better in the morning.”

A warm hand stroked his brow, somehow soothing in spite of the fear of nothingness that was draining whatever speck of humanity he had left. Relaxing under the old man’s care, his eyelids closed and sleep overtook him.

//I’m not a child!//

//You’re my child!//

I know that voice. Who are you? Who are you? Who are you? Other voices mocked him, nameless faces circled him as the world tilted crazily. Dizzy, fearful, he staggered toward the voice he knew he should recognize, unable to discern even the gender of the figure before him. Leering, the face swam silently as an eerie grin split its features.

//I don’t know what to think of you!//

//Once a gunfighter, always a gunfighter.//

“No,” he screamed. He jerked awake, panting, covered in perspiration, the dream clinging to him, refusing to release its grip.

Yet again, Joe was beside him, wiping his brow with a cool cloth, lifting his head to offer him small sips of water. “Shhh,” he consoled. “Just a dream.”

 

CHAPTER 5

The sun gently caressed his cheek as the morning breeze cooled the sweat off his brow. His eyes flickered open, hesitantly facing the dawn. The smell of coffee brewing, bacon frying wafted on the gentle wind, the aromas teasing a grumble in his belly. Suddenly aware of hunger, the wounded man lifted himself on one elbow, sighing in relief at the marked absence of the excruciating pain that had struck him the previous night.

“Hungry?” a gruff voice asked.

He shifted his eyes to meet those of a man who came forward to kneel by his side. Again he was unduly frustrated as he failed to recognize the speaker.

“Joe will be here with your breakfast in a minute.” The man, fair and thin, tilted his head as he raked his gaze across the face of the younger man. “You look a bit peaked,” he said in an attempt to sound concerned, “but considerable better than you did last night.”

“I don’t know you,” he intoned flatly. “It seems I don’t know much of anything.” As soon as the words escaped his mouth, he regretted them. For some reason, he instinctively knew that he had to be cautious. To make up for it, he scowled at the fellow who was inspecting him as if he was weighing him up.

The man’s smile faded for a second, then returned unconvincingly. “Well, you had quite a fall. Me and the boys figured you could rest up some before we got back on the trail. Don’t worry. You can have all the time you need.”

The man patted his shoulder, but his attempt at reassurance was lost on the young gunfighter. “Time? For what? What boys?” He fought the rising panic as the emptiness in his mind reasserted itself. Again the past was a blank, the world void and dark, his only memory that of waking to find Joe beside him. That was the old guy’s name, wasn’t it, he wondered? And what had old Joe called him? Sam. Sam - that was it. Relief flooded his being and he clung to that name as a man overboard clings to a raft. “I’m Sam,” he said tentatively.

“Don’t remember, huh?” Mac seemed unconcerned by the lack of recognition. Instead he rubbed his chin thoughtfully, assessing the wounded man. “Well, your name is Johnny Madrid, my boy. Joe’s been callin’ you Sam for some unknown reason. Don’t let it bother you. I’m Mac, and so long as you do what I say, there won’t be no trouble. You can remember that much, can’t you?” Mac suddenly looked concerned. “I hope you haven’t forgotten everything else.”

“What do you mean?” So his name was Johnny Madrid, or that’s what this man called him. He mulled it over and felt that the name was right. He accepted it as his own. His curiosity was piqued by the other man’s studious gaze, which was now focused on his right hand.

“Well, Johnny boy, you still have to be good with your gun. You couldn’t forget that now, could you?” Mac’s gaze lingered another moment before he stood abruptly, his lips pursed tightly. “Here’s Joe. Eat up and if you feel up to it, we can check out how much of it you do remember, in a while.”

Joe waited patiently while Johnny pulled himself into a sitting position. He then pressed the cup of coffee into the younger man’s hand. He nodded with satisfaction as Johnny took a long swallow of the energizing brew, then he offered him a plate of bacon and beans. “Glad to see you have an appetite.”

He did have an appetite and just knowing that he had a name offered Johnny some hope. During the night, when he was troubled and lost, there had been a darkness that had threatened to overwhelm him. There was something about that blackness that sent a chill deep into his soul. He had a feeling that his struggle with it wasn’t over, but as he ate his breakfast, he felt better.

Joe helped him rise and, taking small steps, he quickly regained his balance then his strength. He could tell he had a long way to go, but the other men, those who had only been shadows the night before, now looked at him with curiosity and, if he wasn’t mistaken, fear. He intuitively knew that men often looked at him in such a manner, but far from upsetting him, he accepted it as being his due, and took strength from it. Fear meant power.

By the time the sun had risen to its noontime position, Johnny’s confidence had been restored. He still felt a bit weak, but he kept it to himself. He knew instinctively that any sign of weakness meant death, and as the day wore on, he hardened his spirit and drew strength from it.

Joe kept an eye on him, but he kept his distance. Soon enough, the old man’s look of concern had changed to one of satisfaction.

******

Johnny turned the Colt over in his hand, studying the weapon with interest. The sight had been shaved off, the barrel shorter than the average weapon and the holster modified to allow a faster draw. Though strikingly unusual in appearance, there was nothing strange about the feel of the weapon in his hand. As if an extension of his fingers, the Colt became one with his hand. Well balanced, the gun rested easily in his grip. Curious, he returned the weapon to its holster and strapped on the rig. His fingers worked the buckles with familiar ease. Again the sense of déja vu overcame him. He withdrew the weapon once more, comforted by the ease of his draw.

Repeatedly, Johnny drew the Colt and re-holstered it. Each successive movement inspired confidence in him. During the past few days, he had become increasingly aware of the emptiness in his heart and soul where memory should have been securely housed. Instead of a lifetime of pictures, faces and events, his mind was dark and cold. The dreams had begun to subside, as if abandoning their efforts to stimulate his subconscious.

But he found the days spent in practice reuniting him with the extension of himself - his Colt - rather comforting. He knew nothing but the gun, and as the speed of his draw increased his ability, so his soul found a renewed sense of security in what appeared to be an innate skill. Drawing and firing in rapid succession, the realization that his lightning-fast draw was unusually remarkable lent itself to a feeling of contentment.

Despite the enjoyment he got from his ability with his gun, every now and then darkness seeped into his daytime thoughts. It spilled over the boundaries of consciousness and enveloped his waking moments more and more each day. Both the dreams and the fear grew more distant daily. The Colt was consuming him, its power and promise invading his soul like a disease.

In the past two weeks since awaking in the canyon camp, Johnny had gradually acquired a lack of concern for those around him. At first he’d felt left out, and wondered what made him such a pariah. The men had walked around him, eyeing him with looks that clearly spoke of their distrust and fear. Not a healthy fear, either, but the kind that suggested that somewhere down the line they’d witnessed him doing something so despicable that they’d do anything to avoid being touched by it.

Johnny had no idea what he’d done to cause this fear, but after a couple of days he accepted it, and eventually expected it. The men barely talked to him, except for Joe, of course, and Mac. Mac watched him like he was some kind of specimen, as if he was biding his time, just laying in wait for something to happen.

Each day spent honing his skill drew Johnny further away from his pursuit of his past. He hadn’t given up on it, but he knew it to be fruitless and so found it a waste of his energy. As his past retreated, surrendering to the finality of the death of a life once known, he found himself settling more deeply into his future. He was a gunfighter and a damn good one. There was no doubt about that part of his identity and he didn’t need anyone to tell him that. His future lay ahead, not behind - and the thought was freeing. It was time to accept the truth. Whoever he had been was dead, had died with the loss of his memory.

The old man, Joe, called out, “Sam? You gonna spend all day out here?”

The grizzled old man was never far from him, the bond between them growing deeper with each passing day. Joe had tended him, seen to his care and comfort. Now he warded off any of the men in the camp who intruded in his space. Joe shooed off those who wanted to catch a sneak peek of the gunfighter at work. Johnny didn’t mind, but Joe felt it was his duty to ensure that Johnny’s practice time was sacrosanct.

Johnny was sure about two things: the old man’s devotion and the Colt in his hand. He weighed it in his hand, then reloaded it once more. Joe called out to him again, tentatively, and Johnny’s reply was brusque. “Leave me be, you old coot. I’ll be done when I’m done.”

Joe shook his head sadly and turned back toward camp, his shoulders hunched with disappointment.

“Joe?” Johnny’s quiet but icy tone closed the distance between the two men. He had become used to having the old guy around, even if he wasn’t sure what caused such commitment in the man.

Joe turned to look at Johnny. Gone was the wounded creature, the unsure boy whose loss of memory had at first rendered him helpless. Joe had seen Johnny pull himself up out of some pit and step by step create a new man, a dangerous and skilled man who seemed to have absolutely no rapport with any other living creature. Joe wondered if the boy’s soul had been lost along with his memory.

A sudden chill raced up and down the old man’s spine at the realization the boy was changing to an uncontrollable force.  Gone was the fearful, lost young man he had tended, in his place a frightening specter of death now arose. With the discovery of his skill with the handgun had come a startling transformation. The boy had grown darker, any goodness and light in his soul evaporating as his speed increased.

“Joe, you listening to me? I need something to wear.” Johnny looked down at the colorful shirt he still wore. An expression of distaste crossed his handsome features.

“What’s wrong with your clothes?” Joe rubbed his chin, his head tilted as he eyed the young man.

“They don’t suit me, Joe,” Johnny stated with certainty, his tone leaving no room for argument. “Get me something better.”

“Sure, Sam, sure. I have something ya might like.” With a shake of his head, Joe turned toward camp. “Damn, Mac. I hope to hell you know what you’re doin’,” he muttered harshly.

*****  

Sheriff Val Crawford reined his gelding in before the hitching post outside the Lancer hacienda. Overwhelmed by sorrow, he sat for long moments staring blankly at the reins in his hands. Pain wracked his soul, rendering him emotionally destitute. Bitterly he touched the shirt pocket where he had stuffed the telegraph. A sob choked him and he struggled with the basic act of simply breathing. With a supreme effort he inhaled deeply, focusing on regaining his self-control.

In his years as a lawman he had been required to inform many families of tragedy but never before had the requirements of his occupation led him to the home of a friend. With a tremulous sigh, he straightened his shoulders and braced himself for the dreaded conversation to come. Slowly he dismounted and approached the door. With a firm rein on his emotions he raised a fist and knocked on the massive oak door.

Maria came to the door with a smile on her pleasant face. “Sheriff Crawford. What brings you here again?” She stepped back to allow Val to pass her. A frown creased her brow as she became aware of his hesitation. A small knot of fear settled in the pit of her stomach when she took in the anguished look in his eyes. “Señor? Is something wrong?

Val stepped into the foyer, his hands worrying the brim of his hat. “I need to see Teresa, ma’am. Mr. Lancer and Scott, too, I’m afraid.” His voice was soft and controlled, but something in his tone immediately put Maria on full alert.

“Señor? What is it?” She knew it was bad news. She suspected what he’d come to say. Tears welled up in the kindly housekeeper’s eyes, threatening to spill down her cheeks.

“Please, Maria. Just tell them I’m here.” Aware he could no longer prolong the inevitable, Val patted Maria’s shoulder then strode resolutely past her into the great room.

Within moments, Murdoch entered the room, followed closely by Teresa and Scott. Nervously they eyed the sheriff, instantly aware that he was bearing bad news. They sought to discern the reason from his visit from the expression on his whiskered face.

Swallowing hard, Scott moved toward the liquor cabinet. “Would you care for a drink?” He hadn’t meant to sound so formal, but in times of stress he reverted to the kind of formalities he’d grown up with in Boston. Now it served as a shield.

“Maybe after we talk.” Val lowered his eyes, seeking to regain his faltering grip on his control. “I received a wire from the sheriff in Stillwater today.”

“You mean where Johnny went?” Teresa gripped the back of a chair, the color draining from her face. “What’s happened, Sheriff Crawford? I know something’s wrong.”

Murdoch moved to stand beside her, wrapping his arm around her shoulders and pulling her close, for his own sake as much as for that of Johnny’s wife. He, too, knew that whatever news Val was about to impart was bad. He could feel his knees growing weak, but he remained stoic for the sake of his family.

“There was shooting, an ambush.” Val gulped hard, the lump in his throat obstructing his voice. “Johnny…”

Scott turned his back on the tray of drinks, an empty glass in one hand. “Get it said, Val,” he commanded. “Enough of this waiting.”

Val blurted, against his better judgment, “He’s gone! I can’t say it any better than that. All the way here I tried to figure out how to soften the blow. . . but I can’t.”

”Gone? What do you mean gone?” Teresa asked, her voice a whisper. “Gone back to Mexico?” Even as she asked, she knew Johnny had traveled farther than the border, to a place she would not be able to follow.

“No ma’am,” Val replied sorrowfully. “He didn’t go to Mexico. He’s de…dead.”

 

CHAPTER 6

“No, no, it can’t be true!” Teresa wailed, “It can’t be so! He promised! He promised!” An agonizing pain coursed through her heart as the dreaded and half-expected death knell was rung. What would become of her and little Paul, and their unborn child with no father to guide them, she wondered despairingly. She leaned against Murdoch, and even though his arm was around her supporting her weakening body, she could feel him trembling, too.

Scott took a step forward, the glass falling from his nerveless fingers and crashing to the wood floor unheeded. At first he stared at Val, denial falling from his lips in a whisper. “No. . . no. . .”  But then he lashed out angrily. “No! You don’t know he’s dead! My brother’s survived everything that life has thrown at him, been in plenty of trouble spots and come out fine on the other side. If anyone knows how to cheat death, it’s Johnny!”

“I got a telegram from Sheriff Petroff over in Stillwater. He said that a gang of outlaws shot Barranca and Johnny, bushwacked them, for no reason.” Val’s features screwed up as he strove to get the story out without letting his voice crack with emotion. “There weren’t nothing to identify Johnny so they buried him where he fell, but later they stumbled on his saddlebag. That’s why it took them some days to telegram me, you understand. The bag had the Lancer brand stamped on it and Johnny’s stuff inside. Seems when they stole the horse’s saddle and gear, it fell off.”

Teresa’s hand went to her mouth and she half turned away, tears welling up in her eyes. The thought of her Johnny being buried out in the middle of nowhere was better than his bones being picked over by vultures, but the cold hand that clutched at her heart was difficult to bear at the image of her love dying alone.

“I wired the sheriff back, Mr. Lancer,” Val explained, “just to verify it all. I didn’t believe it at first and he musta thought I was being some hard case, but it’s my job to make sure of the facts before I tell the family, you see.”

“I understand, sheriff,” Murdoch replied as evenly as he could.

“You have to understand there wasn’t much for them to give me in the way of a description,” Val said, wincing.

Murdoch took hold of Teresa, who turned to bury her face in his broad chest. “Get on with it, man,” he said in a shaky voice.

Scott stood still, rigid as he waited for the sheriff to finish what he had to say. It took all of his training to remain stoic, even as his mind raced trying to figure out what had happened to his brother from the scraps of information Val was attempting to get out. He could see how hard it was for the sheriff to speak in a businesslike manner, but he had no sympathy for anyone at that moment. The only thing on his mind was revenge, a deep, fiery wish for revenge and the desire to strike out at anyone- just anyone.

“It seems,” Val said, “there weren’t. . .  any. . . any face left. He got shot in the head.” His last words came out in a rush, as if he was trying to expel the horrific words and be done with them. His hand gripped the hilt of his gun, holding onto it like it was a talisman.

Scott stalked forward and took hold of Val’s shirtfront. He spat, “How dare you come here and tell us this lie? What are the facts you’ve based this on? Have you actually seen his body? This was probably some drifter. You small town lawmen are all the same, full of gloom and doom with nothing to substantiate your claims! And who pays the price? The family, people like them,” he said, pointing at Murdoch and Teresa, both visibly stricken.

Val accepted the abuse, his hands raised in defense, then cried out, “Scott! You know I’d never say such a thing if it weren’t true! The last thing I’d ever want to do is bring you news like this. You know how I feel about Johnny. . .about all of you. Why, you’re the family I never had.” Then, angrily, “I told him not to go! That boy never listened to anything anyone ever said to him! He never had a lick of sense when it came to danger and look what it’s got him. . .” Val dragged himself away, out of Scott’s grasp, and as he made for the door, he wiped his face with his forearm.

Murdoch reached out to prevent Scott from following the sheriff, and watched as his oldest son’s face took on a hard, unforgiving facade. “Son,” he pleaded.

Scott shook his father’s hand off his arm. “I won’t believe it unless I see the body,” he said between clenched teeth.

Teresa broke away from Murdoch’s comforting support and rushed to the sheriff’s side before he got to the door. “Sheriff. . .Val,” she said with sympathy. “Come back here. Nobody’s casting any blame. You know we’re just upset. . . Oh God, just tell us how to bring him home.”

Val turned to her and they clung to each other, but surprisingly it was Teresa who had dry eyes and loaned her shoulder with support she direly needed herself. Her legs felt like lead, and she almost collapsed into Val’s strong arms as a roaring consumed her ears, deafening her to all else but the cry of her heart. But he extricated himself from her and wiped his eyes, embarrassed, forcing her to stand on her own.

“Sorry, ma’am.” He stood with his head lowered as he was consumed by his grief. He said to Murdoch and Scott, who stood only a few feet away, “There weren’t nothing we could do. Johnny was always his own man, and if that’s the way he was we hafta live with it, I guess.”

Scott walked over to the coat tree, removed his gun belt and buckled it around his slim hips with sure, precise motions. Without even looking up, he spoke to Val with a deadly calm that rivaled the attitude his own brother had exhibited in times of danger. “Who killed my brother and how do I find them?”

***

Murdoch agreed to allow Scott to go to Stillwater in the company of Sheriff Crawford and two of the Lancer vaqueros. Scott promised to act with caution, but until he returned, Murdoch lived with fear that he’d lose another son.

By the time Val, Scott and his men had arrived in Stillwater, Johnny’s body had been exhumed and sealed in a lead-lined mahogany coffin. Scott, against all advice from the undertaker, demanded to view the remains that very night. Afterwards, he wished he had not, for the decomposition and the horrific head wound had rendered the body unrecognizable, and the flickering flames of the lamp only served to add to the macabre feeling.

The undertaker, a skilled and honest man, had done his best. He had found a coffin suitable for the son of Murdoch Lancer, and had tried to provide words of consolation to Scott. He had cleaned up the body as best he could, and covered the face with a cloth. The clothing, a fancy, embroidered shirt and studded Mexican pants were not his idea of funeral garb, but Murdoch Lancer’s instructions, from the lengthy telegram, had been succinct.

In the end, it was not the viewing of the remains that convinced Scott that the dead man was his brother, but the sight of the St. Christopher medal that the undertaker solemnly placed in his palm. It was as if that small token of jewelry was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Scott clutched it in his hand. He managed to give further instructions to the man about loading the coffin onto a wagon, before he left. He mounted his horse and rode out of the small town alone, away from its oasis of lamplight, halting only when he couldn’t see any more through his blinding tears. He dropped off his horse and fell on the grassy bank by the side of the road, and wept as he hadn’t done since he was a child.

The sobs that wracked Scott’s body finally ended, and he staggered to his feet. He walked most of the way back to town in the pitch black, taking his time to recover. The vaqueros and Val were waiting patiently for him at the hotel’s saloon, but he walked wordlessly past them and went straight to his room. It was only when sleep finally came, around dawn, that his fist finally relaxed enough for the St. Christopher medal to fall from his hand. The imprint remained long afterwards.

*****

The small group returned with the body of Johnny Lancer sealed in his casket.

They had been unable to track down the killers, whose identity remained unknown. Even the Stillwater lawman, Sheriff Petroff, couldn’t readily point his finger at any suspect. Due to the passage of time and a rainstorm, there was no discernable trail and no clue as to where the criminals had gone. The sheriff informed Scott of the horrible murder of the town’s gunsmith, old George Bridges and his wife, in their own home around the time Johnny had been killed.

Although Petroff could see no connection, Scott could. He and Val told Sheriff Petroff the little they knew, and explained about the telegram that had summoned Johnny out to visit his old friend. None of the shared information led them to any conclusion other than the killings had been random and they’d never know the truth of the matter.

Scott and Val had exchanged glances when it became apparent that Sheriff Petroff wasn’t likely to go further with the case, even if there had been three unsolved murders within his territory.

“That sheriff ain’t got much get up and go,” griped Val Crawford to the blond Lancer.

Even though Scott and the men were reluctant to return to Lancer without the murderers in custody, duty to the living family came first, and they had to bury Johnny on the land he’d been born upon. “We’ll go back to Lancer,” said Scott. “But mark my words, this is not the end of this. My brother’s death shall be avenged if it’s the last thing I ever do.”

Sensibly, Val didn’t say what he’d been thinking - that Scott should not take the law into his own hands, and that he, Val, felt exactly the same way.

***

The Lancers sat around the fireplace in the great room. With their bodies slumped on the comfortable couches, and feet up on the ottomans, they would have looked like a normal family relaxing after their dinner, had it not been for the deeply sad looks on their faces.

After the funeral the guests had taken their time parting company with the Lancer family. But eventually they all left. Maria served coffee and placed some of the food left over from the wake on the low table in front of the large couch. Once she had gone home, Teresa, Scott and Murdoch were left alone with each other and their memories of Johnny.

Scott had been able to push his grief back, away in the recesses of his mind, but every now and then it crept back out. He just wanted to get on with life, despite the deep loss of his brother’s passing, but during the three years they’d spent together, they’d grown as close as any two brothers could become; they had developed into friends of the truest kind. How was he ever to move on without Johnny?

At first, he’d been angry with Johnny for going off on his mysterious mission. They’d probably never know what George Bridges’ reason for summoning Johnny to his side was, but Scott knew exactly what had driven Johnny to rush away from Lancer: Murdoch. There was no doubt that if Murdoch had been more tolerant, more understanding and perhaps more giving to his younger son, Johnny would still be here with his family.

Scott wasn’t about to say this to his father’s face, but he knew just from looking at the old man, who seemed a decade older since they’d learned that Johnny was dead, that Murdoch felt guilty right down to his bones.

In retrospect, Scott wondered if he should have encouraged his brother to leave Lancer and to strike out on his own. Johnny could have easily taken his vision for raising horses to a ranch of his own and run his business and his life his own way. But maybe his little brother had dug his heels in because he had every right to be a part of Lancer. After all, he was the only member of the entire family to have been born here, right upstairs in the back room that was now reserved for guests.

It wasn’t easy to think about what might have been, or what the future could have held, if only. . . if only. . .

Scott inhaled deeply and let out a sigh. Teresa moved over to sit at his side, her hand creeping over to intertwine with his. She leaned against him, her head resting on his shoulder. At first, Scott felt awkward. He hadn’t the strength to give support to anyone, much less his brother’s grieving widow. How odd to think of Teresa as a widow when she’d seemed only a girl to him, and so recently. Marrying Johnny hadn’t made any great changes in her, not any that he’d been able to discern. But now, suddenly, dressed in black, with her silken skirts rustling whenever she moved, the girl became a woman. How sad that death had brought this out in her.

“Scott?” She spoke so softly that he thought he’d imagined hearing her. “Scott, I wrote to Hannah and told her the sad news. I knew she’d never make it back here for the funeral, but I had to inform her. I forgot to ask you if you’d been corresponding with her.” She looked up and waited for his response with her cheek resting on his shoulder.

“I didn’t write to her,” he admitted. “I couldn’t, even though I tried.” Scott looked down at Teresa’s face. Her eyes were swollen from crying, but at that moment she only showed concern for him. He realized that it was she who was providing the strength, not him, but selfishly he sorely needed any she could give him. “Thank you for doing that,” he said as he gave her hand a squeeze.

“It will do you good to see her again.” He started to shake his head but Teresa continued, saying, “Hannah is exactly what you need, Scott. You should take whatever she has to give you because, Lord knows, you never know how long you will have together.”

Murdoch, who had been sitting silently, just staring at the fire, turned at Teresa’s words. “True words, Teresa. Scott’s mother and I were sure we had our whole lives together. She planned everything, right down to all of our children’s names.” He smiled sadly.

Scott asked, “All of them?”

“Oh yes, all eight. She wanted a house full of children.” Murdoch’s voice faded away as his gaze returned to the dancing flames in the hearth.

Teresa, apparently glad to talk about something that didn’t revolve around Johnny’s death, asked, “Do you remember their names?” It was so sad to talk about plans that never came to fruition and of children whose lives had never even begun. She thought about her own children, little Paul upstairs asleep and the unborn child she was carrying. They were a reality, but they would now never know their father. A tear dropped from her eye and rolled down her cheek, and although Scott saw it, he didn’t comment.

Murdoch took his time in replying, and eventually said absently, “No. No, I don’t recall their names.”

Scott suggested they all get ready for bed, as it was obvious they needed to make up for several nights of lost sleep. Teresa rose alongside him, but Murdoch said he was going to sit in front of the fire for a little while longer. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll be up soon.”

After his remaining children had gone to bed and the fire had nearly burned itself out, the old man sat in the great room, all alone, thinking, “James, Stewart, Margaret, Paul, Elizabeth, Ann . . .”

 

CHAPTER 7

Johnny leaned on the top rail of the makeshift corral, studying the small remuda. He was aware of a great need for some kind of action. The weeks of inactivity had begun to grate on his nerves. God knew his temper was short enough of late, as the energy required to maintain the struggle to recapture his memory was exhausting. He yearned for freedom, the freedom of the trail and wide-open spaces, and in his anxiety had ended up here studying a nondescript herd of horses.

He wasn’t sure what he was seeking but he knew it was not in this corral. While they were suitable mounts, a tickle of memory convinced him there was more to horseflesh than he now observed. A flash of gold, a horse the color of the sun, fiery, courageous, danced through his mind only to disappear as he attempted to seize it.

Irritably, his hand caressed the Colt on his hip; the movement had become an unconscious habit. Without turning around, he called over his shoulder, “Mac? Is this all you got?”

“They’re good horses, sure-footed, steady. Why the hell you being so picky?” Mac struggled to hide his annoyance. The boy was well, and primed. Due to Johnny’s innate skill with the six-gun, which appeared to be undiminished by his lack of memory, Mac was well aware that he could not afford to anger him.  Mac realized he would have to tread lightly in order to remain in control. Damn the kid anyway, he thought. If they didn’t need him, Mac would gladly have put a bullet in the dark-haired gunfighter’s back. “You can have Rico’s horse. He sure won’t be needing him,” Mac sneered.

“He don’t suit me. Any others?” Johnny spoke softly, but his eyes narrowed as he noticed the shadow that crossed Mac’s face. “What aren’t you telling me?”

Mac rubbed a hand across his forehead, oddly reluctant to answer the younger man’s question. Yet, as if fate had conspired with the gunhawk, a shrill whinny resounded throughout the small canyon. Challenging, angry, the sound reverberated in the air between the two men. They turned toward the sound, one overcome by a feeling of dread, the other’s heart racing with excitement.

“Mac, you know, I think there’s something you ain’t telling me,” Johnny drawled casually.

The benign tone of Johnny’s voice hid the danger that Mac instinctively knew was present. Reluctant to relinquish control of the situation to the younger man, yet recognizing the wisdom in avoiding a confrontation with him, Mac gestured toward a small thicket of trees that shielded the east end of the canyon from the men’s line of vision. “He’s back there. But trust me, boy; you should stay clear of Hellion.”

“Don’t ever call me boy again!” The command, though uttered softly, was reinforced by the Colt that appeared out of nowhere to point directly at Mac’s chest. “The name is Madrid, Johnny Madrid. You got that?”

In answer Mac merely nodded, his eyes fixed on the gun that, as miraculously as it had appeared, was replaced in its holster with equal speed and precision. Johnny turned on his heel, presenting his back to the older man, the act offhandedly defiant. Mac stared mutely after Madrid until he disappeared behind the thicket.

Johnny’s blood was pounding through his veins, although he knew that the excitement building within him groundless, without reason. It was only a horse, he told himself. Yet he knew the animal hidden from view in the back of the small box canyon was the one for whom he had been searching. How he knew, he couldn’t say. Licking his lips in anticipation, he found himself in a small clearing facing a corral. Whereas the corral that confined the gang’s mounts had been makeshift and weak, this corral was built strong and high. And the reason for the reinforcement was startlingly obvious.

The stallion confined behind the heavy, rough-hewn logs was large - larger than most cow ponies by at least one and a half hands. Tall, long-limbed, the animal, a blood bay, moved gracefully. His muscles and sinews rippled beneath a coat of the color of blood.  A long black forelock fell almost to his nostrils, while his mane, of the same ebony hue, hung well beneath his neck. His thick black tail flowed like silk, touching the ground behind him.

Deep chested and powerfully built, the stallion promised strength and speed. A fine, delicate head indicating perfect breeding was mounted on a high, arched neck. Eyes, intelligent and angry, studied the human who had dared enter his domain. With a snort of derision the stallion shook his crimson head, his heavy black mane slapping his neck.

Johnny hungrily drank in the appearance of the majestic animal standing in the center of the corral. The epitome of perfection, the stallion that Mac had called Hellion glared back at Johnny, as if he, too, was appraising the human.

Johnny was suddenly aware of Mac standing beside him. He’d been concentrating on the horse and hadn’t noticed the man’s approach. It bothered Johnny that he’d let down his guard, but he didn’t reveal his concern. There was something about Mac, apart from his sneering attitude, that Johnny just didn’t like. It was as if the man was always saying what he thought Johnny wanted to hear, and never the truth. Turning to glance towards Mac, Johnny asked abruptly, “Whose is he?”

“Whose?” Mac repeated. “Hell, he ain’t nobody’s.”

“You care to explain that?”

“Hellion has no owner, unless it’s the Devil. No master neither.” Mac glanced at the stallion. “He’s never been ridden. I don’t know why we keep him around. More trouble than he’s worth, but nobody’ll pay a plugged nickel for him. We shoulda put a bullet in his head a long time ago.”

Johnny pushed his hat off his head and put his hands on his hips. “That makes no sense. No man worth his salt would pass up the chance to ride him. He’s perfect. I’ve never seen a finer piece of horseflesh.”

“Hellion has one major flaw, Johnny, my boy. . . er. . .Johnny.”

“His name, Hellion sure matches his color. What’s his flaw?”

“He’s a killer. No one can ride him.” Mac stabbed a finger in the direction of the blood bay. “That’s his flaw. Believe me, he isn’t perfect. He hates men, all men.”

Johnny slowly smiled. “Sounds exactly like the horse I’m looking for.”

“You forget you saw him.” Panic welled up in Mac’s chest when he imagined the consequences if Johnny tried to ride the wild horse. They had been too well paid to do the job for it to be ruined by this crazy kid taking on the notion that he, somehow, could better the horse from Hell. Rico had come close to ruining their employer’s plans with his poorly taken shot, and now a damn horse threatened to negate the power of their one weapon. Mac took hold of Johnny’s sleeve. “Johnny, listen to me. Hellion is not for you.”

”If I break him, he’s mine. Understand.” The gleam in the young gunman’s eyes effectively conveyed his meaning. “And get your paw offa me.”

As if he had been burned, Mac jerked his hand back. With a sigh he nodded, sensing the battle had already been lost, yet knowing the war between man and beast had only begun.

*****

Two weeks. Two long, hard weeks. Man and beast warred, each carrying the scars of battle on their flesh and in their souls. Johnny’s body ached from head to toe, his bruises were extensive, and he was pretty sure he’d cracked a rib.

Nightly, Joe would rub Johnny’s shoulders and limbs with one of his mysterious concoctions, all the while clucking in disapproval. Yet morning found Johnny once more in the corral engaged in the next fight with the stallion who seemed determined to kill his opponent.

Johnny became addicted to the pursuit of conquering the beast. Every morning he walked past the campfire and felt the stares of the men following him. He heard their whispers hovering in the air when they thought he was out of earshot.

He didn’t care anything for those men, nor their furtive activities. From his bed, situated apart from the others, he was aware that small groups of them would sneak off in the early hours. Mostly they wouldn’t return for several days, but they always brought back some kind of loot, which they’d deliver to Mac’s feet. It seemed that they were preparing for something, but he cared about as much for their doings as he did for their company. For Johnny, life was not about the past or even the future. At that moment, life was all about the horse.

***

On a sunny, hot morning, Johnny thoughtfully studied the terrain, trying to come up with another way to attack the problem. His skills were nearly exhausted. He had tried all the tactics he somehow knew, but there had to be more, another ploy available in his limited arsenal. He quietly observed the small river beyond the corral, becoming fascinated by the flow as the water level lowered over an hour’s time.

The water cut through the canyon, flowing from a deep crevasse at the far end, and becoming quite wide once it left the confines of the canyon’s walls. It must have been fifty feet across when it was at its height, and deep enough that the gang’s riders let their horses carefully pick their way across a gravel bed down near the entrance of their hideout.

“Tide’s going out, boy,” he whispered casually to the mighty stallion who snorted in anger. He wasn’t sure exactly where the canyon was located, and he laughed to himself when he thought he probably wouldn’t have known the names of any towns, or even the name of this river, if he’d been informed of them. But he understood the concept of tides and sometimes in the morning, when the mist was still hovering over the grassy slopes within the canyon walls, he thought the air carried a salty scent.

The idea came suddenly, blossoming into full strategy. Johnny smiled at the simplicity of the plan. He moved then, uncoiling the lasso and following the stallion’s movement as Hellion began circling the corral. Skillfully he released the lasso and grunted with satisfaction as the noose settled around the powerful neck of the stallion. He braced himself, preparing for the impact as the blood bay took the slack and pulled hard against the restraint. Deftly Johnny wrapped the rope around the post in the center of the corral and waited.

Hellion charged him, his eyes rolling, ears flattened. He circled the post, seeking the man who seemingly retreated before him, not realizing that each of his steps drew him closer to the post. Angrily Hellion attempted to rear once he realized what was happening to him, but the now-short length of rope held him fast.

Moving quickly, Johnny secured a hackamore onto the stallion’s head. He’d been able to get this far with the animal and had even placed a saddle blanket on him and eventually secured a saddle on his broad back. But actually getting on his back had been impossible. Every time he’d attempted to put his weight on Hellion’s back, Johnny had been bitten, stomped on, or just plain thrown before he’d even had a chance to settle in the saddle.

This time, Johnny was willing to bet he’d come out the winner. Once the halter was secured, he picked up a spare shirt Joe had found for him and blindfolded the stallion. He tucked it under the straps, then jumped back out of the way of the snapping teeth. Outraged, Hellion struck out with his hind legs, seeking to pummel his unseen foe.

Johnny smoothly saddled Hellion, taking care to avoid the powerful legs that continually struck out. Once finished, he stood out of the reach of the stallion’s deadly legs, breathing hard. The first step in his plan had unfolded well enough, but the hard part of the task was yet to come.

Johnny retrieved a smaller rope and cautiously approached the stallion. With a flick of his wrist the rope snaked out and encircled one of the horse’s front legs. As Hellion blindly kicked out, Johnny pulled the black-stockinged leg up and securely tied the length of rope to the pommel of the saddle, rendering the leg useless. Now standing on three legs, Hellion screamed in rage, his nostrils flaring.

Alternately enraged and terrified, the stallion lurched on three legs, blindly following the hand on his halter. The trek from the corral to the river, though only a matter of fifty feet took the struggling man and the equally struggling animal over an hour to traverse.

Finally, they stood at the edge of the rushing water, their breathing labored, sweat covering both their bodies. Determined to conquer the magnificent beast, Johnny pulled again on the bridle, insisting the stallion follow - and follow Hellion did.

The horse threw himself forward, spurred on by his fury and frustration, then suddenly staggered to a halt as the running water of the river rose to his chest. Hellion stood frozen in place, struggling to maintain his precarious footing while still only afforded the security of three legs. As he pondered his dilemma, Johnny leapt lithely onto his broad back.

For long moments, the stallion remained motionless then he exploded into action. Fighting the rushing water, the blindfold that covered his eyes and the weight on his back, Hellion made a supreme effort to unseat his rider. But Johnny’s strategy had been well thought out and well implemented, and in less than an hour exhaustion had rendered the mighty animal unable to fight. He stood blowing hard, defeat stilling his great body even as hatred and rage blackened his heart.

Elated, experiencing the heady sensation of victory, as if it was the first time he had ever won anything, Johnny nonetheless exercised extreme caution as he leaned forward and removed the blindfold. He sat still in the saddle, and braced himself for the powerful stallion to erupt beneath him.

Hellion shook his head, snorting as he was freed from the blindness to which he had been subjected. His ears flattened as he turned his fine muzzle toward his rider’s booted foot. He bared his teeth, his head snaking toward its intended target but Johnny swiftly kicked out. The toe of Johnny’s boot met the stallion’s muzzle with a resounding slap. Hellion shook his head in protest but, for once, made no aggressive movement in retaliation.

Johnny guided the horse toward dry land and balanced carefully as Hellion struggled on three legs to get up the riverbank. Once he’d attained solid ground, Hellion lowered his head and bucked in an effort to rid himself of the hated human. With the weight of his massive body on one front leg, the stallion was thrown off balance and he crashed to the ground.

Johnny rolled to the right and barely escaped the flailing hooves. As the stallion righted himself and rose to his feet, Johnny sprang into the saddle once more. He released the stallion’s leg from the rope binding and spurred him viciously.

Remembering his painful fall of moments ago, Hellion opted against further efforts at bucking and instead exploded into a full gallop.

Grimsley and Mac stood shoulder to shoulder, watching. They had witnessed the weeks-long battle between horse and rider and now watched as Hellion went down hard, then rose again with Johnny still clinging like a burr to his back.

As the stallion erupted into a race against his rider, Grimsley slapped Mac’s shoulder. “Well, I’ll be God-damned. Did you see that!”

“If I hadn’t seen it I would never have believed it. Damn clever trick.” Mac sighed deeply. The kid had recovered, he now had a mount, and the time had come to do the job for which they had been paid. Finally.

“Looks like Hellion belongs to Madrid,” Grimsley was saying.

“Yeah, guess so. Tell the boys to get ready. We hit the trail in the morning.” With a strange feeling of dread, Mac stood staring down the path the young gunhawk and Hellion had taken.

*****

Scott waited nervously for the stage to arrive in Green River. When it finally came around the bend and down the main street in a cloud of dust, it brought with it the woman he intended to ask to marry him along with a feeling that there was still some hope in the world.

She stepped down from the coach, looked around, seeking only him. Their eyes met, and the joy in hers, tempered by her sympathy for Johnny’s death, was a sight to behold. At that moment Scott knew that he had to live again and that to create a family and to continue the Lancer line was of paramount importance. As soon as she was on solid ground, Scott took hold of Hannah’s waist and lifted her into his arms. He kissed her on the mouth, right there in the street, in front of amused and gawking people, and for once, he didn’t care.

“Welcome home,” he said. “Welcome home.”

 

Chapter 8

The heavy black mane slapped Johnny’s cheeks, tears blurred his vision and still he allowed the powerful beast full rein. Hellion ran as if leading the demons of hell into combat, his body stretched low to the ground, crimson ears flattened against his head. Occasionally he snorted, angrily, defiantly. At long last the man on his back sat up, tightening his grip on the reins, checking the mighty stallion. Tossing his head in frustration, Hellion reluctantly slowed, his strides coming slower and slower until at the top of an unfamiliar rise he paused, prancing in place.

The small valley spread before them, a humble cabin nestled in the distance. There was no sign of life, no movement, yet something moved in his mind. A spectre from his past tickled his memory as the man in black studied the homestead. With a vicious shake of his head he accepted defeat as the memory continued to evade his determined attempt to capture it. His mood darkened as he forgot the previous sense of freedom that had vanished when confronted by the scene in the valley below. Agitated, he turned the blood bay back toward camp.

*****

Johnny pulled Hellion to a stop, the stallion now furious with the continued pressure on his mouth. A grin crossed Mac's face as he watched the young man dismount, noting the cautious manner in which Johnny eyed the stallion's mouth and legs.

"He'd kill ya if'n he could," Mac remarked.

"Yeah, well, Hellion and me have an agreement. We understand each other."

Johnny deftly avoided a vicious thrust from the stallion's black-stockinged leg. He quickly moved to the bay's head, taking a firm grip on the horse's bridle before leading him toward the corral."

"I'll put that on your headstone," Mac called to the retreating back.

"You do that," Johnny tossed over his shoulder before disappearing into the trees.

Once sure that Johnny was out of range, Mac growled softly, "Damn fool. He's gonna get himself killed before the job is done."

*****

The young man led the blood bay into the corral, securing the animal to the top rail. Hellion eyed the rail as if expecting an attack and stood trembling in dread.

"Yeah, you remember, don't you? Well, take it easy, fella," Johnny drawled softly as he unsaddled the stallion and rubbed him down, all the while keeping a watchful eye on the powerful legs.

Hellion tolerated the grooming; his flattened ears and flared nostrils effectively conveying his annoyance with the man daring to handle him. He pawed the ground, his eyes cutting a sideways look at the hated human. Johnny chuckled softly, before patting the muscled neck. The tension under his hand was palpable, an explosion barely concealed.

As he reached for the reins to free the blood bay, Johnny made ready to leap out of the way. Sensing the absence of the snake about his head, Hellion exploded, rearing and kicking out in an effort to rid himself once and for all of the man who had dared invade his domain.

Johnny watched appreciatively. Even in fury the stallion was spectacular, his movements precise and deadly. At long last the stallion stood blowing, his foreleg pawing the ground as he eyed the black-clad figure standing out of his reach. He held his head high before turning to walk toward the water trough, his bearing regal and full of disdain.

Sighing heavily, Johnny leaned on the top rail, admiring the beauty of the lethal animal. A vision of another stallion, this one gold as the sun, flitted through his mind. But this memory was as elusive as that which he had experienced at the homestead. He had to admit the dreams were coming with less frequency, as if his subconscious had given up its struggle to remember. He knew somewhere in the past was goodness and light, yet now he felt the past sliding away from him.

Something was dying; something he had once held dear. Even more disturbing was the acute sense that darkness was overshadowing him, replacing the goodness of a life long ago. His soul was dying, giving birth to an evil that both empowered, and terrified him. He was changing, had changed. He had forsaken the colorful clothing he had awakened in with clothing of black, an outward testimony to the blackness filling his inner being. His rig was worn lower still and he had spent the first few weeks out of bed practicing until his draw was lightning and his marksmanship perfection.

Now, he studied the blood bay. Sensing the terrible hatred within the stallion, he was aware that the animal's hatred was eclipsed by his own. He hated the loss of his life, his lack of memory. Someone had robbed him, killed him and now he hungered for their blood. He vowed he would find the man, or men, responsible for the hole in his heart, his soul, and they would die. He had told Mac he understood the stallion and he did. They were two of a kind, full of rage, seeking an opportunity to exact revenge on those responsible.

"Yeah, boy, we'll bide our time," Johnny whispered to the stallion. Hellion grunted menacingly.

Reaching a decision, Johnny bid farewell to the life he instinctively knew he had once experienced. He embraced the darkness, allowing it to strengthen him, calm him, and equip him for the days to come. He would find the truth; he would destroy those who had destroyed his life. They would die as he had.

Powerful and confident now, he turned toward the campfire and the group of men spread around it. He stood quietly at the edge of the circle of light, waiting patiently until his presence was acknowledged by Mac and his men. Uneasily, they endured his scrutiny until one by one they lowered their heads, unable to face him.

Mac stepped toward him, his stride nervous and unsure. "Kid, you alright?"

Johnny moved then, his arm a blur. The gun appeared, its cold steel pressed firmly against Mac's throat.

"The name is Madrid, Johnny Madrid." The voice was soft, full of the promise of death.

"Sure, Johnny, sure." Mac swallowed nervously, his throat tight.

Slowly the gun was removed and reholstered. "You said you knew who shot me. You're gonna take me to him."

"Yeah, I'll take ya. First thing in the morning, ok?" Mac attempted to grin, only succeeding in an eerie grimace. He would have to proceed with caution. He had wanted this instrument of death and now he had him. Revenge was eminent but the thought Madrid was too much for him was running icy fingers along his spine. Well, once the job was over, he would no longer need the kid. Madrid was expendable.

Still, the man in black stood as stone, his face hard and expressionless. "I don’t care for the thoughts you're having right now."

Again the cold digits prodded Mac’s back, eliciting an involuntary shiver. Dammit, it was as if the boy could read his mind. Cautiously he ventured, "It's a long ride and you look like hell."

The darkness swelled within, the transformation was complete, and as evil encompassed his soul, Johnny Madrid revelled in the unadulterated power now coursing through every facet of his being. He smiled then, the mask of pure evil claiming his countenance.

"Don't worry about me, Mac,” he whispered. “I already died and went to hell.”

 

Chapter 9

Ominous grey clouds, heavy like a thick woollen blanket covered the earth, pressing down upon her. Whatever sun there may have been had long forsaken its attempt to pierce the gloom, instead resigning itself to merely casting a pale beacon through the darkness of the night before.  A silent group of men, their souls as dull as the morning, prepared to break camp. The men performed their duties as a well-trained group of soldiers long accustomed to the routine.

But this morning the routine was different, the atmosphere laden with dread. The dark young man's aura hovered over the small band, causing the dreary dawn to bear a close resemblance to a bright, light hearted sunny day by comparison.  Excruciatingly aware of his smouldering stare, the men moved quickly, seeking relief from the weighty presence.

At long last the men were mounted, their horses shifting nervously as the red stallion reared under his deadly rider. Hellion's whistle of challenge was ignored by the other mounts, their nervous energy growing in proportion to that of their riders.  As the feverish anxiety grew, the men turned hopeful eyes to their leader. Mac raised his hand, silently offering them the command to proceed. Their destination was known to all but one man, a man who sat stonily upon a demonic beast. Though unfamiliar with the path, Johnny shifted his weight imperceptibly, the stallion surged ahead and five men drew rapid breaths of relief.

Grim kicked his gelding into motion, as he eyed the rigid back of his compadre. Unable to withhold his thoughts any longer, Grim forged ahead and reined his chestnut into step with Mac’s sorrel.

"Mac, the boy ain't right in the head. Ya do know what you’re doin', now don't ya?" Grim’s voice, though soft and guarded, still betrayed the fear pricking his heart. "The kid is a devil, like that damn stallion. Why don't we off 'em both and be done with it?”

"Now Grim, you sound scared," Mac scoffed.

"I ain't playing, Mac. Something happened to that kid when he hit his head. Maybe the palomino kicked him or something. Maybe he’s, gone round the bend. Yeah, that's it. He ain't all there."

"I can handle Madrid."

"Yeah, we saw how you handled him last night. Suddenest man I ever did see."

"I said I'll take care of him and I will. Now you just ride and leave him to me. Once the job is done, Madrid is done. You hear me?"

"Yeah, yeah, ok." Grim's eyes were fixed on his comrade. They had ridden together for years, both sides of the border, and never had Mac's judgment erred. Mac had led them on many daring escapades and had always known how to pull them out of any predicament they found themselves in.

But this was different. Madrid was different, like the devil himself. For the first time in his life, Grim was scared. And he hated his fear. If Mac couldn't handle things, one way or the other Grim would. Feeling more sure of himself, he pulled up, allowing Ramsey to overtake him and fall into stride.

Ahead, they could see the man they had plans for: a dark demon from Hell sitting stock-still on the back of his blood-red horse, skillfully handling the animal as it fought for its head, demanding freedom. The stallion's eerie snorting pulsed through the gloom, taunting the men following him.

An unwelcome chill swept through Grim, and he snuggled deeper into his collar. Ramsey turned to stare at his compadre, understanding shadowing his weasel-like features.

"I know how you feel, Grim. I surely do," he agreed.

***************

It was going to rain. She could smell it, feel it. Holding her head outside the window as she leaned on the sill, she closed her eyes and welcomed the wind as it whipped her cheeks.  Eagerly, she accepted the coolness of the dawn as the moisture-laden gusts coated her face.

The early sky was brooding, expectant, its dark melancholy mirroring the despair in her heart. It had been six weeks since Johnny's death, six long torturous weeks. The gut-wrenching pain had given no ground, refusing to surrender its hold. Constantly, the anguish ripped her heart from her body, her tears falling heavily upon the weakly pulsing organ, as she struggled daily to drown the pain. Yet there was no relief, no easing of the all consuming feeling of loss. She had found no joy, no reason, and no purpose on which to focus.

No, that wasn't true. Shaking her head she corrected her errant thoughts. There were two reasons, little Paul and the baby growing in her belly. The anticipation of the child's birth filled her with a mother's joy, and a new, even more excruciating pain. The child would never know its father. For the umpteenth time since Johnny's funeral, that revelation struck her with a new pain. And her tears began anew.

"Johnny would not be pleased, Teresa," she chided herself, angrily wiping the tears. She knew he would want her to go on, to find a new life, a new love. "I can't, Johnny. I will always be married to you. I'll always be Mrs. Johnny Lancer," she vowed, stroking the simple gold band she knew she would forever after wear.

She closed her eyes as she imagined his arms around her waist, his lips nuzzling her neck. The scent of his soap wafted on the breeze, pulling her back to a cosy cabin, a warm bed and the man she would always love. In the next room she heard Paul waking and the spell was broken, but she knew Johnny would be there with her, protecting her, guiding her. With determination held firmly in her grasp, she turned to answer her child's cry.

She paused only briefly as another familiar, yet disturbing, spasm coursed through her mid-section before turning toward her child’s room.

********

Breakfast was only slightly less depressing than the previous morning’s meal. Hannah's arrival had brought light to an otherwise dark house. Scott and Hannah entered the dining room hand in hand. Ever the gentleman, he pulled Hannah's chair out, bowing and graciously the young beauty accepted the seat, grinning coyly at the blond Lancer.

In spite of the fierce ache in her chest, Teresa studied the couple. It pleased her immensely to see Scott smiling. Rather than envying the joy that the young couple was experiencing, she felt only hope. Perhaps one of them would find happiness again.

With a pang she levelled her gaze on Murdoch. The old rancher had aged ten years in the past six weeks, his shoulders now stooped as if under a tremendous burden. She knew what that burden was...guilt. Try as she might she had been unable to ease the old man's self-induced torment. He blamed himself, would always blame himself.

Yet she knew Johnny would not hold him responsible for the past. Johnny would want him to smile again, to laugh again. Perhaps little Paul and the birth of this child would ease Murdoch’s pain. She desperately prayed it would. His very health was suffering and she feared for him. She knew she and the Lancers could not bear another shock, their hold on life was too fragile, too tremulous. Sighing, she tore her gaze from her guardian and observed as Hannah pulled Scott more into the land of the living.

*********

The knock was timid, cautious. A moment later Hannah hesitantly turned the knob, her hand shaking as she shyly stole a glance into the room. Teresa was standing by the window, the gauzy lace curtains wrapping silken fingers about her head.  A ghostly apparition, Teresa slowly turned tear-filled eyes towards the newcomer.

"Hannah. Come in, please." Teresa waved a hand toward one of the overstuffed chairs, indicating her welcome, as she extricated herself from the tangle of curtains.  She viciously swiped a hand across her cheeks, drying persistent tears as she struggled with composure.

Hannah swept her gaze over the young woman, noting the sunken cheeks, the pallor of Teresa's skin. "You really shouldn't leave the window open while it's raining, honey. You wouldn't want to catch cold."

"I like the wind and rain. It suits my mood, you know."

“Yes, but dear, you must think of the children. You have to keep your strength up and this weather could make you ill."

"I know, Hannah. But I feel so empty, so cold. It's like Mother Nature is grieving with me. Does that make sense? Oh God, I’m babbling. I'm so sorry."

In an instant Hannah was on her feet, her arm encircling Teresa's waist, guiding her toward the bed.

Teresa accepted the support, her head leaning on the slender shoulder. “Hannah, I don't know how to go on. I don't know how to stop hurting, stop crying. I’m useless.""

"No, don’t say that. Don’t ever think that. You have loved deeply and been loved, and you’ve been through a horrible ordeal.”

"Yes, yes, we all have," Teresa whispered. Eyes hidden beneath the flow of tears searched the other woman’s, seeking reassurance, and strength.

"Teresa, you’re a very brave woman. Not many women could hold up as well as you have."

“I don’t feel strong.”

“But you are, and you’ll get through this. We all will. We have to.” Hannah squeezed the other woman’s shoulders, offering silent comfort.

“I’m glad you came, Hannah. I...”  Teresa gasped as pain wracking her dainty features as she gripped her stomach.

“What is it, Teresa? What’s wrong?” Hannah cried.

“Oh God, the baby!”

 

Chapter 10

“And when he had opened the second seal, I heard the second beast say, Come and see.

And there went out another horse that was red: and power was given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth, and that they should kill one another: and there was given unto him a great sword.” Rev. 6:3-4

They had ridden hard, pressing their mounts to the pinnacle of exhaustion. Even Hellion was blowing, his strides no longer coming without effort, foam coating his crimson body. The mighty red stallion had rigorously fought the hand on his mouth, his anger mounting throughout the long daylight hours. Yet even his strength had been sorely tested.

Nightfall’s approach had gone unnoticed, so stealthily had it crept up on the small band of men. With its fall, the ebony cloak was only slightly deeper than that of the grey clouds that had hovered over the riders through their trek. Finally, as if enraged by night’s interference, the man in black had called a halt.

Five weary men dismounted, their faces and clothing masked by a thick layer of dust. Five winded horses lowered their heads, breathing heavily. As Madrid dismounted the crimson head snaked out, large teeth seeking a stronghold on the man’s tender flesh.

Motion in the periphery of his vision had Madrid twisting to his left, barely avoiding the snapping teeth as they sought a hold on his shoulder. With no thought, he raised his fist, bringing it down on the offending muzzle with a resounding smack.

The assault on his tender nose had the blood red stallion shaking his head in frustration and anger. Yet he calmed beneath the hands on his neck and body, prepared to wait for his opportunity to exact revenge. With flattened ears, Hellion endured the grooming, only once lifting a foreleg to strike.

“We’re two of a kind, Hellion. Might as well get used to it,” Madrid whispered. Despite of the viciousness of the animal, Madrid found himself smiling. At least they understood each other.

Seemingly oblivious to the scrutiny of his fellow travellers, the young gun fighter continued to tend to his mount, taking care to observe the stallion’s every move.

The men paused, momentarily caught off-guard by the violence of the encounter between man and beast before begrudgingly they set about in silence, making camp, tending the animals, performing their respective duties.

Now they sat in stony silence huddled around the meagre light of the campfire, the oppressive cover of night weighing heavily on their shoulders, smothering even the effort of thought. As one, the men looked upon the solitary dark clothed figure just outside the small circle of light thrown by the fire.

He was their salvation and their doom; their vengeance. And they hated him. Still, their dependence grew in accord with their loathing.

Their evening meal had been unfulfilling, a reminder of their bleak existence. They hungered for more satisfying fare and impatience preyed upon their nerves.  Impatiently, they settled down for the night, seeking the comforting oblivion of sleep.

*****  

Four members of the household gathered in silent dread in the great room. Murdoch had made haste to offer the warmth of brandy while Scott had quickly stoked the fire, seeking to rid the room of the encroaching chill. But the chill was not merely of nature’s bidding, rather a deep seated dread in the hearts of the room’s occupants.

Hannah sat quietly on the sofa, her hands twisting the folds of her skirt. Her lips reddened as she unconsciously bit into their tender flesh. She cast haunted eyes first at Scott, then Murdoch, as she sought stability in this world gone mad. But Scott had retreated to a place within himself, somewhere she knew she could never follow. A place where he secreted the horrors of his life.

Stiff-backed, Scott stood before the fireplace. He knew Hannah was watching him, knew she was fearful but he could not yet move to embrace her, calm her fears. He had withdrawn, struggling to come to terms with this latest threat to the stability of his shrinking family. As he had since the war, he sought to gain control of his rampaging emotions, shoving them into the deepest recesses of his mind. Grasping his composure tightly, he closed the door on the scattered thoughts pounding at his consciousness, and watched his father’s anxious pacing.

Back and forth, much like a caged animal, Murdoch strode, his lips moving as he counted each step, diverting his attention from the long pause between the minutes being measured by the clock in the corner. He refused to think of the significance of the delay in the doctor’s appearance, seeking to maintain his thin grasp on hope. He would not, could not lose another member of his family. So he focused on Teresa’s recovery and the survival of the child she carried. He would not consider any other alternative.

Jelly stood helplessly in the corner of the room, feeling useless, as he prayed for a means to provide comfort to his family. Alone with his thoughts, he crumpled under the burden that there was no solace to be obtained. Nothing he could offer, nothing but his support. So he stood, ready to aid his employer and friend.

The beloved grandfather clock began a rhythmic march toward destiny. Its resonant chords once welcome and comforting, now crescendoed with agony, as if while its own strength grew, the beating of the life upstairs ebbed.

Time, while rarely a comrade, was now a declared enemy and its steady plodding toward the end of a life quickened in tempo. As the speed of its forward momentum grew, the elements in the heavens kept pace. Outside the hacienda, nature raged as wind whistled shrilly against the windows demanding entrance. At the sound of approaching footsteps in the hallway, thunder exploded overhead.

Dr. Sam Jenkins paused in the doorway to the great room, the weight of four pairs of eyes further burdening his stooped shoulders. With a sigh of anguish, he stepped into the room.

“Sam? How is she?” Murdoch made no effort to hide his fear, his voice trembling as he forced out each word.

“I won’t lie, Murdoch. It’s not good.” He paused to accept the snifter of brandy, which Scott thrust into his hand. Sam tossed it back in one gulp before hesitantly releasing his concern.  “The last few weeks have been such a strain. Johnny’s death...” he swallowed the sudden lump in his throat, “has taken such a toll. I’m afraid she is just too weak for this pregnancy.”

“Too weak?” Scott stepped forward, coming to a halt beside his father, his left hand finding the older man’s shoulder as he sought support for legs that were betraying him. “What do you mean? Is she ill?”

“No, no, Scott. Teresa is not physically ‘ill’. But she has experienced such a trauma; she has been so emotionally devastated that I’m afraid she hasn’t the strength to carry the child.  Her heart can’t bear the strain.”

“There must be something we can do. Some way to help her. She can’t give up.” Murdoch pleaded for answers, answers the doctor could not give.

“Murdoch, I wish I knew what to say. I wish there was something. But Teresa has to stay calm, find a way to make peace and go forward. She needs hope that life is still worth living. ”

Four pairs of tear-filled eyes pinned Sam Jenkins beneath the weight of their urgency.  They fought the tide of despair that threatened to drown them then rose above it, and an unspoken alliance formed between them. They would not lose another battle, another life and as one they turned to each other. This time life would gain the victory.

Murdoch raised his eyes upward, his heart hearing his lost son’s mournful scream for help as the thunder crashed once more.

 

Chapter 11

Every night in my dreams, I see you, I feel you, that is how I know you go on,

Far across the distance and spaces between us, you have come to show you go on…..

Celine Deon, theme from Titanic

 

Teresa sighed softly as he dropped feather-soft kisses on her full mouth. His hands trailed a fiery path down her throat coming to rest on her breast. Lovingly, he caressed her tender flesh, his touch enticing and enflaming her, pulling her up from the depths of drugged sleep. Her body reacted fiercely, hungrily pressing into his hands, urging him on. As passion exploded, she moaned in ecstasy. She opened her mouth, welcoming his tongue and she reached for him, pulling him closer, seeking to meld her body into his.

Abruptly he released her and stood, gazing silently at her as she lay with her hands out-stretched to him in silent pleading. Sorrow filled his eyes as he stepped back, drawing further away.

Despair flared where once passion’s flames had burned her, the hot tears escaping in a rush. “Johnny, please! Don’t leave me!”

But he merely shook his head, his own eyes now full of sorrow. He opened his mouth to speak but no sound crossed his lips. In agony she watched as he disappeared.

Overcome by the sense of abandonment, she fell back on the bed, burying her face in the thick pillow, her own sobs of despair painfully loud in her ears.

The moon finally conquered the clouds that had kept its light captive. In victory she extended silver fingers that pierced the thick woollen blanket and kissed the earth. As the beams of light, now freed of their heavy prison escaped, they explored the hacienda, mischievously dancing over the large home. The open window beckoned and the shafts of light slipped inside, waltzing with the night’s shadows until curiously they came to rest on the woman’s brow. Dark eyes fluttered opened as the light touched her delicate features.

“Johnny,” she moaned as she struggled against the mantle of slumber. Once awake, anguish overwhelmed her anew. A dream, it had been but a dream. As pain of the vision of her lost love invaded her consciousness, she felt the now- familiar tightening sensation in her womb. She sought to calm her breathing, slow her racing pulse as a new fear consumed her. She couldn’t lose this child, she wouldn’t. But she was all too aware of the dark spectre that had stolen her husband hovering over her with longing.

*****  

Madrid paced uneasily, flames stinging his nerve endings, his limbs twitching in response to the eerie sensation. He had not slept, had been unable to lie prone for more than moments. Finally, restlessly, he had risen, taking care not to awaken the five men now snoring softly around the flickering fire.

*****

The great house was silent, as yet undisturbed by the dawn as Hannah slipped into the kitchen. She embraced the warmth of the room and its tempting smells, breathing deeply of the scent of bacon and coffee. It was, she thought, the only room in the great house still filled with love and comfort.

Maria turned to her, a smile of welcome crossing her features.  “You are up early, senorita.”

“I couldn’t sleep. May I help with breakfast?”

“Oh, no ma’am, have a seat. I’ll get you some coffee.”

“Please, Maria. I am not a guest. Well, not really. And I think I’ll go crazy if I don’t have something to do.”

“Bien, Senorita. You can help me make the biscuits.”

The two women exchanged smiles as understanding, and a new bond of friendship passed between them.

****** 

“Ladies, that was wonderful.” Scott leaned back in his chair, his hands patting his belly appreciatively. “It’s the best I’ve had since Teresa…” His voice trailed off as the realization of Teresa’s plight flooded through him.  “Oh God, I can’t believe…”

“Its fine, son. We know what you meant. No harm done.”

“How is she? I stopped at her door but thought I shouldn’t disturb her if she was resting.” Scott shook his head sadly.

Hannah gently touched Scott’s arm. “I looked in. She was sleeping peacefully. Though we can never be sure of how much peace she finds even in sleep.” Hannah paused, her eyes going from one man to the other. “I mean, how could she? First Johnny, now this child. It’s like a nightmare we can’t escape.”

“Well, we all heard Sam. We have to find something to…”

“Ta what? What’d I miss?” Jelly had come unnoticed into the dining room and now slid into his chair. Slowly, he reached for the platter of pancakes, stacking a number of the tender cakes on his plate before reaching for the bacon

“We’re discussing how to help Teresa.” Murdoch took a sip of his coffee, scowling as the hot liquid burned his lips. “She needs some incentive. A reason to fight for this child. Damn, that sounds terrible.” He looked apologetically at Hannah. “Sorry.”

”Ah don’t understand at all. She has his baby. How could she be givin’ up?”

“Oh, Jelly, she isn’t giving up on the child. But the child is a part of Johnny, and she knows the child will go through life without knowing his father. No fishing trips, no lessons on horses, no midnight ghost stories curled in his father’s arms. She-” Hannah gasped, her throat constricting at the turn her thoughts had taken.

As she struggled to regain her composure, Scott moved his chair closer, his left arm encircling her shoulders.

*****

The man strode to the window, tugging impatiently at the greasy curtains and gazing quickly at the street below before pacing the floor once more. With a grimace he ran his hand through his thinning hair. Once thick and black, it now lay sparsely upon his head, its grey strands surrendering to the inevitable march of time. His once firm and muscled body was now stooped, his paunchy stomach lapping his belt.  His hazel eyes that once danced and teased now glared malevolently at those within their perimeter. Many a man had opened his mouth in jest only to close it firmly once pinned by the stabbing rage that emanated from their depths.

He had given them a month. One month to do his bidding. It had been two and a half weeks with no word. Daily, he had visited the telegraph office anxious for an update on their progress. And daily he had been sorely disappointed as the boy behind the counter had fearfully shaken his head negatively.

Each night he went to sleep, visions of his vengeance tormenting his slumber and each morning he awoke renewed, filled with a new hate, a new burning fury. He would have his revenge.

“Mac, where the hell are you?” he growled.

 

Chapter 12

Each night I go to bed, I pray the Lord my soul to keep,

No, I ain’t looking for forgiveness but before I’m set so deep,

Lord, I gotta ask a favor and I hope you’ll understand.

Well, I’ve lived life to the fullest; let this boy die like a man.

Staring down a bullet let me make my final stand.

Bon Jovi

 

The sun and wind engaged in battle, the heat from the celestial body attempting to coerce the men into shedding their outer garments while the wind buffeted their bodies with a vengeance. Coats were pulled closely about their already overheated bodies, the bandanas tied tightly across the men’s noses and mouths. In spite of their best efforts the dust invaded every orifice, depositing a thick layer of film on dry throats and already soiled clothing.

Heads down, shoulders hunched against the screaming wind, the men rode slowly into Purgatory. Even in the best weather on its best days the town was hardly more than a line of pitiful shacks thrown haphazardly together, each one leaning heavily against the other as if teetering on the verge of collapse. But it was the name of the town that lent fear to the bravest man. Few men ventured here, most preferring to avoid any contact with the town’s inhabitants. Even the most stalwart of lawmen would steadfastly refuse to enter the jurisdiction of this most remote town. 

The town’s reputation for violence left no man in wonder of its name. Indeed the town had more than earned its moniker. Lawless and violent the men, and women who resided here did so out of desperation. Purgatory was by reputation the gateway to Hell, its residents incognito, most hiding from death sentences for various heinous crimes. Purgatory was beyond the law, an island unto itself. 

Grim and Ramsey rode closely behind Mac, their faces still hidden behind bandanas, their eyes narrow slits. Anxiety prickled their spines- they had heard the whispered references to the town they had entered- and each offered up fervent prayers that they would ride out as they were riding in, alive.

Only Madrid, his hat pulled low, sat relaxed deep in the saddle, his gaze moving rapidly, memorizing the position of each building, each alley. He knew Purgatory, he had died here and he eagerly embraced the place where he had been reborn. Under his mask, an eerie grin began to form. He had come home. 

As the small group of men passed, the inhabitants paused in their activities, studiously observing the group now drawing to a halt outside the saloon. All but one man quickly dismounted, anxious to withdraw from the assault of the elements and to wash their mouths of the thick coating of dust. 

Grim followed Mac into the saloon, his thirst overcoming his previous dread. He strode rapidly to the bar, coming to a stop before the barkeeper. “Give me a bottle,” he barked. 

The young gunfighter leaned against the post outside the town’s general store. He had witnessed the arrival of the newcomers and now stared intently at the man in black.  A slight smile creased his countenance as he measured the new arrival. He had searched for a worthy opponent who would aid him in his quest for power and a reputation. Yet, true men of the gun, talented men were a rare breed, an oddity among gunslingers. Most gunhawks bandied the name about but the kid had met few who could equal the title. This stranger wore his gun tied low, the customary mark of a gunfighter yet the kid recognized something more threatening, and deadly. The dark man bore an attitude of calm finality. As if he was at peace with his fate. As eager for a worthy opponent as the kid had been, now studying the mysterious stranger filled him with dread. 

The snarling scream of the blood red stallion interrupted the kid’s morbid thoughts. The animal had risen high in the air, his front legs pawing at a nearby sorrel scrambling to escape them. The dark man on the stallion’s back brought him down, his skill equalling the stallion’s anger. Reluctantly, the black-stockinged legs hit the earth. With flattened ears, the crimson head snaked to his left seeking a hold on the booted foot in the stirrup. As fast as lightning the foot struck the horse’s muzzle. Shaking his head the stallion eyed the man on his back, defiance shaking his huge body, defining his posture, a challenge the man in black declined to accept, at least for now. 

The kid whistled appreciatively as he studied he crimson stallion, his gloved hands raking his unruly blond hair. Now there was a horse a man could be proud of, a steed like none he had ever seen and as his appreciation for the fine specimen of horseflesh grew, his nerve returned. Perhaps he could acquire a reputation and a magnificent horse in one moment. He stood taller, checked the position of his rig, and stepped confidently into the street. 

Madrid dismounted, carefully watching his horse’s head. A slight grin tugged his lips as he secured the reins to the hitching post. The stallion and he were well suited, and a grudging respect was being birthed between them. They would both fight to the death, he was certain; the daily battle of wills would have worn down a weaker man but Madrid found himself enjoying it more with each passing day. Brazenly slapping the muscled neck, Madrid withdrew his hand seconds before the large teeth snapped closed. His grin became a smile.

Nonchalantly, Madrid stepped up on the boardwalk before the saloon. At the sound of a slight shuffle behind him, he turned to face the deep green eyes of the blond gunfighter. 

“Nice horse, mister. How much do you want for him?” The kid eyed the stallion then turned his gaze fully on Madrid.

“Interesting question, kid. How much do you think he would take?”

“You laughing at me, stranger? I asked a legit question.” The kid drew himself to his full height and took a step backward, his hand hovering ominously over his gun.

“I don’t think you could handle Hellion, kid. Takes a real man to manage a horse like him.”

“You have a disrespectful mouth, mister.”

“Now you suggesting, Kid, you could teach me some manners?” Madrid’s voice was like velvet, cold yet soft. Something in its timbre reached out and stroked the kid’s cheek. The wind seemed to quiet, the sun grew hotter and in spite of his confidence the kid felt a shift in fate.

“I think ya could use some learning.”

Madrid smiled, the formality and arrogance of the kid had slipped and though the younger man had recovered well, they both knew the dark man had heard the tremor.

“Well, boy, any time you’re ready.” Madrid slouched catlike, his appearance deceptively relaxed and seemingly off balance. Energy radiated from his being, his aura pulsed a macabre red. Like blood on the moon, the world around the man in black grew crimson, and the boy looked into the eyes of the devil.

The boy’s edge was rounded, less pronounced now, but a quick look at the crowd of gathering observers prodded the kid into further action. He could not, would not, back down now. “You do know where we are? In Purgatory.” 

“Purgatory, huh?” Madrid purred his voice silken. 

The kid’s confidence wavered momentarily before shuddering back into place. The stranger was hardly human now, a grotesque misrepresentation of a man. The kid lifted his chin in defiance. “Only the worst, or should I say, the best come here.”

“I’m the worst you’ll ever encounter boy and the best at what I do.”

“Mister, I’ve never seen anyone so anxious to die. I’m gonna enjoy sending you to Hell.”

“I don’t need any help. I prefer to keep my fate in my own hands.” 

Again the tremor in the boy’s universe, a burden of lead settled deep in the core of his being. “I promise to make it quick and easy on you since you are so anxious to meet your maker.”

 “I’ve met my maker and now I’ve come home.”  The man in black moved then, his hand a blur. 

The kid blinked rapidly; had he actually made his play? The kid had heard a Colt’s report; saw the man in black stand tall, a smile now marring his dark features. But the kid was unaware of the reason for the stranger’s mirth. He glanced down at his hand, his gun nestled securely in its holster, and in horror he saw the blood, his blood, a stain spreading rapidly across his chest. ‘Oh God oh God,’ he thought as he fell to the ground. Even before his lips tasted the earth he breathed his last.

Mac stood at the entrance to the saloon, his elbows resting casually across the batwing doors. He shook his head in disbelief. 

“Damn, I didn’t know anyone could be that fast,” Grim breathed from beside him.

As if he had heard the whispered declaration, Madrid stared at his two comrades, an eerie glow lighting his eyes.

 

Chapter 13

Oh I can’t forget tomorrow when I think of all my sorrow, when I had you there but then I let you go. And now it’s only fair that I should let you know, what you should know. I can’t live if living is without you. Neilsen

 

The cheerful chirping of the small bird roused Teresa from her slumber. As inviting as was the thought to retreat into the darkness once more, she realized she could no longer hide. Life went on and she had no choice but to follow as it beckoned her onward. With a groan she turned her head, her eyes finally focusing on the small, feathered visitor. Perched securely on her open windowsill, the yellow bird welcomed the dawn of another day, oblivious to the human now regarding it blankly.

With a sigh she rolled onto her back, staring numbly at the familiar ceiling. How long had she slept? She mentally turned back the pages of time as she sought a marker, a distinction in the blur of many nights of desperate sleep. Unable to grasp the elusive measurement of the hours, Teresa cautiously struggled to a sitting position, grateful for the momentary absence of pain in her belly. Or so she prayed. As she rose, the yellow bird chirped angrily at her before taking flight to parts unknown.

Feeling stronger now, Teresa slowly stood, taking shallow breaths as she tested for the familiar ache. It seemed as if sleep had been a medicine for her and she lifted thankful eyes heavenward. At least for now, the child was safe.

At a timid knock on the door, she called out softly, “Come in.”

Murdoch stood framed in the doorway, his bulk blocking her view of the hallway behind him. “Hi, honey. How are you feeling?” he asked gently, though she could hear the tremor of concern in his voice.

”I’m better.” At her father-in law’s raised eyebrows, she hurriedly plunged ahead, seeking to calm his fear, while silently battling her own. “Really, Murdoch. I feel better. No pain. And I got some much-needed sleep.”

”The pain is gone?” he asked again.

A slight upward twist of Teresa’s lips barely passed as a smile.

But her attempt had not gone unnoticed, and the older Lancer once more admired his ward’s courage. No, he mentally corrected himself; she was his son’s wife, his daughter now. “Maria and Hannah have quite a feast planned for breakfast. Sam said you could join us if you feel up to it.”

”I think I would like that very much, Murdoch. Just give me a few minutes to freshen up.”

”Sure, honey. Take your time. We’ll wait.” He stood a long moment studying her, as if to reassure himself of her well being before backing out of the door and slowly pulling it closed.

Alone once more, Teresa drew a deep breath, pushing grief into a recess deep within. She knew it would lurk inside, straining to escape her control, but she vowed that she would make every effort to hold it captive today. At least until he came to her in her dreams once more.

***

“She was up. Looked more rested than I have seen her in weeks,” Murdoch explained. He blew into his steaming cup of coffee before hesitantly tasting it.

“She’s strong, Murdoch. I’m sure given time she will find a way to cope.” Scott’s attempt at reassuring his father sounded thin even to his own ears but Murdoch nonetheless smiled his gratitude at the effort.

The exchange fell on deaf ears as Hannah struggled with her own thoughts. She sat between Murdoch and Scott, absently leveling one spoonful of sugar after the other into her coffee. As her spoon dipped into the sugar bowl for the fifth time, she became aware of the silence in the room. She lifted gray eyes to find the two men staring at her cup.

“You want a little coffee with your sugar, Hannah?” Murdoch asked.

 “I was thinking, I mean, I wasn’t thinking. I just don’ know,” she stammered. At long last, she put the spoon on her saucer and reached for her napkin. Patting the corners of her eyes, she smiled bravely at the two men.

The slight step in the hallway halted any further conversation as Teresa entered the dining room.

***

The wind alternately screamed, as if a medieval banshee stalked the streets of Purgatory, and moaned as if in pain. The wind, while grating and nerve-wracking to the other occupants of the saloon, was welcome to the gunfighter. He was soothed by the harmony of the elements, and reveled in the uninhibited opera of nature. The sound of the wind, with its banging of shutters and creaking of the old tin roof pleased the dark-haired young man as he sat still in the corner of the saloon. Chair tilted back on its legs, hat pulled low over his eyes, he gave the appearance of one enjoying a mid-afternoon siesta.

The seemingly unfocused guise didn’t fool an old-timer as he trudged heavily to the table. He knew the man was all-seeing, all-knowing and all too aware of his approach. Still, he stood boldly before the table, waiting for an acknowledgment of his presence.

With no change in attitude or posture, the younger man whispered, “Ya might as well sit, Joe.”

The old man grinned, showing a gap-toothed smile. “How ya doin’, Sam?” Though the oldster knew the boy’s name, he felt more at ease with the nickname he had dubbed him with.

The reply was stern but not dangerous. “Sam isn’t my name. It’s Madrid.”

 “Yeah, yeah. Whatever you say, Sam.”

The gunhawk moved then, slowly and with lethal calm. He pushed his hat back on his head revealing narrowed eyes, then the chair was returned to its resting position on all four legs. “Ain’t ya scared, Joe?”

“Of what?”

The dark man laughed then, soft and easy. “I guess you figure you done lived a full life.”

 “Nope, just know ya ain’t gonna hurt me none.”

 “Don’t bet on it, old timer.” Madrid shifted in his seat and reached for the glass of tequila sitting before him. He downed the liquid and refilled the glass. “Something on your mind?”

 “Yeah, this place.”

 “I like it here. It’s sorta homey.” A low chuckle started slowly, then matured into a full laugh.  “I’m gonna check my horse. Have a drink.” With that, Madrid slid the bottle across the table and stood. “It’s on the house.”

He strode lightly to the door, his steps reminding Joe of a cat stalking its prey. Yet, he knew many a stout-hearted man would gladly face a big cat rather than this boy.

Madrid paused on the boardwalk outside the saloon, drinking in the crisp air. Nonchalantly, he took notice as Mac and Ramsey approached. A slight smile curved his lips as he considered their deliberate strides, the grim set to their jaw.

 “Madrid. Its time to go.”

 “You asking or telling?”

 “We got us a deadline. Ain’t no time to waste in this godforsaken hell hole.” Ramsey’s attempt to sound authoritative fell flat, his voice sounding more like the mouse his appearance resembled.

A low, rumbling growl interrupted further conversation, its ominous tones announcing its intent. The man in black turned with incredible speed towards the mongrel, his Colt barking only once before being securely returned to its resting place on the man’s hips. The mangy animal laid in the dust, no longer a threat to anyone.

 “No!” The bloodcurdling scream broke the stunned silence. The small boy, a mere blur of sobbing youth, dove past the two men and fell to his knees beside the still form of the dog. Desperately, the boy searched for any sign of life, but Madrid’s aim had been true and life had ceased in one jerk of the trigger.

Mac gaped from the furry lump in the street and the child holding it to the man standing casually on the wood boardwalk. “Damn, Madrid! Did ya have to shoot it?”

 “I don’t like dogs,” he said emotionlessly before turning toward the barn.

The men stared after him, but his retreating back denied them the opportunity to press their complaint. It looked like it was going to be another one of those dark days. Looking at each other, they shook their heads, silently acknowledging their concern.

 “I have a feeling I’m gonna regret taking this job,” Mac grumbled. “You and your damn fool ideas.”

 “Who’d a thought the kid would lose his memory? Or his mind? Besides ya said ya could handle him.” Ramsey eyed his boss accusingly. His beady eyes narrowed further as he considered the man now disappearing into the stable.

 “Well, maybe its time to let him in on the job. Should motivate him to know who he is gonna kill. And why!” A grin began to creep across Mac’s face, one which rivaled Madrid’s best leer. He licked his lips in anticipation. “Yeah, maybe its time.”

 

Chapter 14

Memories

May be beautiful and yet
What’s too painful to remember
We simply choose to forget

So it is the laughter
We will remember
Whenever we remember
The way we were

Barbra Streisand

The mare pranced around the corral; head high, tail billowing like a banner. Powerful, yet dainty legs lifted high with each stride, as if in dance. Aware of the studious gaze of the young woman standing quietly outside the corral, the black mare performed, strutting proudly for her audience.  Sleek muscles rippled under the glossy coat. She had been groomed to perfection, her body gleaming blue-black in the morning’s sun. Her thick mane slapped her arched neck as she shook her head. She snorted in pride as if aware of her striking figure.

Teresa smiled in spite of the familiar ache in her heart. It had been so long, so very long, since she had ridden the spirited black animal. Memories flashed across the table of her mind, memories of the last time she had been astride the mare.

*******

She had asked for an escort to accompany her on a morning ride. Innocently, demurely, she had regarded the three Lancer men seated at the breakfast table.

A moment of silence reigned over the group until Murdoch had heartedly agreed to her request. Her heart had pounded in her chest, hope and desire barely concealed at the imagined opportunity the ride had presented. Would he want her? Would he touch her? She scarcely dared to breathe, afraid the thought of their encounter would somehow rob her of her dream. She had sought just such a clandestine meeting with the dark-haired Lancer and now it was before her.

Casually, they had taken their leave of Murdoch and Scott and accepted the reins of their waiting mounts. Her body had throbbed at the nearness of Johnny Lancer as he offered her a hand up. Taking the reins with hands that shook, she had been unable to meet his eyes. She had been embarrassed by the wanton lust she knew he would find in their depths. But he had stood silently beside her stirrupped foot, until at last she raised her eyes to meet his. The expression in the sapphire orbs had shocked and pleased her. His gaze reflected the need she knew he could see in hers.

They had ridden sedately, passing beneath the white arch before urging their horses to a faster pace. As they left sight of the hacienda, Teresa had taken note of the display Mother Nature was providing them. Blossoms on the flowers and trees emitted a heady perfume, birds sang their best chorus, the effect intoxicating and increasing the exquisite pain in their bodies. Passion flamed, staining their cheeks crimson, as the sun had warmed them with a heat matched only by the fire in their lions.

She had answered the dare of the young man at her side and urged the mare to greater speed. Laughing, her hair streaming behind her, Teresa had reveled as the wind caressed her face. The mare raced across the pasture, a golden stallion in relentless pursuit even as its rider had pursued her heart. Long moments later, in the shelter of a copse of trees he had caught her, as she hoped he would. He had leaned over to grasp the mare’s bridle, nudging the palomino close to the mare’s side. Laughing, he had pulled her from her saddle onto his, his strong arms encircling her waist, his lips hot as they pressed against hers. With the boldness of one who knows his advances are welcome, he had slid his hand inside her blouse, possessively cupping her breast.

They had not consummated their love that day; Johnny insisting she would bear his name before she gave up her most treasured gift. But their resolve had faltered and in one night of first exquisite love and then heart-wrenching pain they had surrendered to their longing.

“You’ll be able to ride again, soon as the baby comes.”

The soft voice at her side startled her, its melodic rhythm breaking into her reverie, pulling her back into the present. Teresa spun to face her brother, the sudden movement throwing her off-balance.

Sinewy arms caught her shoulders, offering her support like an anchor in a storm. Scott gazed into her eyes, his studious observation searching and persistent.  “Steady there, Teresa. Not so fast,” he chuckled, the sound soothing, calming.

“I didn’t hear you come up,” she breathed, her voice husky, laced with emotion “I was remembering the last time I rode.”

“Well, you were a million miles away.”

“Dancer is in good condition. Have you been riding her?”

“Yes. Keeps her in form. And ready for you.”

“I’m looking forward to it.” Teresa’s head bowed, as if suddenly too heavy to hold upright. Slowly brown eyes lifted, eyes gleaming with unshed tears. “Scott, what happened to Barranca?” The tremor in her voice was unmistakable, undeniable.

“Honey, you know what happened to him.”

”No, I mean, where did you…” Her voice broke. She staggered painfully to a stop, as if the energy to continue had abandoned her.

“Oh.” Realization thundered into Scott’s consciousness, a flush heating his cheeks as he grasped her unspoken meaning. “We buried him beside, beside…”

“That’s good. Johnny would like that.” She gave him an understanding smile then, knowing he could not voice his thoughts, his feelings regarding the events of that day.  “Its odd the things one thinks about, you know? Of all the pain and trials life has to burden us with, we think about where an animal is laid to rest. Am I going crazy, Scott?”

“No, darling, you aren’t. At least not any more than the rest of us.” His arm encircled her shoulders and he gently led her toward the hacienda. “Breakfast is ready, and it’s getting cold. We should go in now.”

Teresa cast one last look at the black mare, and then nodded in agreement.

********

“I think that’s a brilliant idea, Murdoch. Absolutely brilliant.” Scott nodded thoughtfully.

Murdoch breathed a sigh of relief. He was unaware he had been holding his breath, waiting stoically for his son to express an opinion. The silence in the room had grated on his nerves and he had found himself wishing, no praying, for a response, any response. The relief that flooded his being was overwhelming and he felt the blood rush to his head. The pounding in his ears grew and then abated as Scott’s agreement was realized. Gratefully, he returned his son’s level gaze. ”You really think so? I wouldn’t want to do anything that would upset her. She has been through enough.”

“Really, I think it’s just the thing. It will give her back a piece of something precious. I think she will feel closer to him.”

His son’s blue gray eyes filled with compassion, longing. The fair head bowed in a posture that was all too familiar, so reminiscent of his missing loved one. Missing? No, Johnny wasn’t missing. Unlike a horse that had wandered away, Johnny was gone and could not be recovered. Silently, Murdoch resolved to face the truth each and every day. The mental stress of their loss was taking its toll. He knew he had to come to terms with the reality of Johnny’s death and put an end to the fantasy that it was a mistake. It was not. And he could never undo what had been done though perhaps he could help his family find closure. Starting with Teresa. And perhaps this was the way to at least achieve that goal.

“Well, I’ll have a talk with Jelly after breakfast tomorrow. He’ll be glad to have something to do.”

Murdoch threw back his brandy, welcoming the burning sensation that warmed him to the depth of his frozen heart. As welcome as the fiery liquid was, he determined to slow down. He was drinking more and more with each passing night, his dependence on the brandy becoming frightening. He had whispered resolutions, determined to capture the elusive promise of sleep without the need for a nightcap but the nightly promise of sleep was becoming more evasive and alcohol was too easy to fall back on. Too easy to embrace. Reluctantly he placed the glass on the liquor cabinet and walked away.

“Murdoch? Murdoch!”

“What?” Murdoch shook his head.

Scott was still talking, his voice laced with anticipation. “I said, Dunham isn’t far, a couple days ride. At least Jelly won’t have to go through Purgatory. I’ve heard that town is Hell on earth.”

“Yes, yes it is,” Murdoch replied absently.

“Sir, are you all right?”

“Yes, I’m fine. Just thinking about Teresa’s reaction. I hope we’re right about this. Oh and Scott, this is just between us, okay?”

*****

The ritualistic dance between the heavenly bodies had passed surprisingly quickly, the moon giving up its place of honor with little resistance. Relentless shafts of light pressed through the cloud cover, probing the darkness, heralding the arrival of dawn. As the sun rose ever higher, warmth replaced the damp chill that had prevailed.

The old man rose early, impatience filling him with uncustomary vigor. He performed his morning toiletries with an abruptness heretofore lacking and left the hotel room. A scowl marred his nondescript features as he jammed his hat firmly on his head and stalked to the telegraph office.

The door of the telegraph office opened with a crash as he barged through it. The young man behind the counter grimaced, annoyance plainly etched on his pimpled face. Unbidden, he thrust a hand into a drawer behind him and turned resignedly to face the new arrival.

“You have a wire for me?” the old man barked.

“Yes, sir.”

The man grasped the wire, then exited the office, before pausing on the boardwalk to read the paper in his hand.

//On the way. Stop. Going according to plan. Stop. Mac//

The grin on the old man’s face was little more than a sneer. Suddenly, his spirits revived and his stomach roiled in hunger. It would not be long. Not long at all.

“Mac. We are going to talk.” It was not a question, nor an option.

***** 

With dread and a terrible sense of finality, Mac turned to face Madrid. He had rehearsed his tale, reciting the facts over and over, mentally preparing for the day he would face the young gunhawk and set him on the road to meet his destiny with death. Each of the last four months had led up to this moment, each day a progression toward fate. He had held fate’s hand, waltzed with her, wooed her until he had taken her as his own. Now the moment was before him. The moment when so many lives would reach their climax, a crescendo of fury, as the Colt on the young man’s side made an end to the task Mac’s employer had set before him. Taking a deep breath, struggling to still his racing nerves, he eyed the man in black standing calmly before him.

“What’s on your mind, Madrid?” Mac asked. He was pleased when his voice appeared calm and steady but something in the younger man’s eyes tilted his confidence.

“Tell me who I’m going to kill, and why,” said Madrid as he stroked the holstered Colt on his hip.

The deadly question swirled around the two men, one an unpredictably dangerous enigma; the other a seasoned gunfighter who was losing his grip.

Mac felt the atmosphere prickle with electricity as the boy’s aura swelled. //Damn, what was it about this kid? It was as if he was truly the devil himself.// Mac took firm hold of his errant thoughts, took a deep breath and prepared to tell the tale of betrayal that sent them into this swirling vortex.

 

Chapter 15

. . . but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day . . .

2 Cor. 4:16

The gray gelding seemed content to follow the trail so Jelly allowed him his head. Confident the animal would not deviate from their intended path, the wizened old man closed his eyes and breathed deeply. Like a fine wine, aged and mellow, the crisp clear air penetrated his body, kindling a sense of well being in the old man. He relished its comfort, embracing the exhilarating effect. Reluctantly, he opened his eyes and studied his surroundings.

Spring loomed on the horizon, her earmarks speckling the landscape with touches of green. In spite of the coolness of the morning the air was full of the promise of the sun’s warmth. By noon, the day would be bright and comforting, as if nature herself was sighing in pleasure. The stifling atmosphere of Lancer was but a dim memory and with each mile his sense of freedom grew. Not that Jelly had forgotten the Lancers’ loss of mere months ago, far from it. But he had felt smothered, as if the stress the members of the great ranch had struggled under, was suffocating him, draining the life out of his very being.

Now in the brightness of the golden orb above him, he relished the opportunity his journey was affording him. It was for him a time for recovery, renewal, something the others would not have. Yet the journey was also a chance for meditation, a chance to heal, to renew his energy and to prepare for the return home.

He knew his journey was an important one, one that could bring a small measure of joy to those he had left behind. But he also recognized his escape from the overwhelming depression that was crippling Lancer. And crippled she was. Each day the members of the household, and many of the hands, went through their tasks mindlessly, detached and numb, hardly conscious of the world that surrounded them. One life had impacted all who had known him with an intensity they had not fully recognized. Yet now the loss of that life made them acutely aware of the void his passing had left behind.

Major snorted abruptly as if in sudden agreement with his rider’s thoughts. Shaking his head, Jelly returned his attention to the trail. He had traveled so far, so fast, yet it had been a blur, a moment in time that had swiftly passed and as swiftly ended. His destination loomed ahead and suddenly uncertain, he nervously reined in the gelding.

The Hanson ranch lay before him, her boundaries vast and imposing, the spread the largest in the area. Nestled between two small mountain ranges, a valley of lush, prematurely green grass burst forth from the rolling hills and crept forward covering many miles. A small river flowed lackadaisically through the center of the valley, dividing the vast expanse into equal parts. Here and there at carefully calculated intervals wooden bridges crossed the river, affording man and beast easy access to the acreage on either side.  In the distance a large house reminiscent of the southern plantation homes stood proud and serene. Welcoming and gleaming in the sun, the house seemed to beckon him toward her and irresistibly Jelly felt himself pulled forward.

Magnetic as the ranch was, Jelly knew her real charisma lay in the persona of her master. Tales of Douglas Hanson’s power, wealth, and generosity were as well known in the surrounding county as Murdoch Lancer was in the San Joaquin valley.

Douglas Hanson had settled in the area after the Civil War. His family’s antebellum home in Virginia lay in ruins, the members of the great plantation scattered, seeking sustenance elsewhere. Many had tried their hand at various forms of business but the crippled South could not patronize the vast number of displaced citizens as they sought to recoup their losses. As a result, many bid farewell to hearth and home and ventured forth to seek their fortune elsewhere.

Yet Hanson had known the end results of the War Between the States from the beginning, and had wisely set aside a vast fortune. He had first seen to the needs of his parents and surviving kin before heading west. Then, ever-gallantly, bestowing upon his mother and sister a regal bow, he had mounted his gelding and headed west. He recognized the potential for wealth and self-improvement in the still untamed land and was eager to immerse himself in the new world.

Upon reaching the crest of the small knoll, and witnessing first hand the glory of the morning as the sun kissed the moon a pale pink, he had known where his Garden of Eden lay.  Upon this ground he had built the foundation of the mighty spread, branching to the four corners as far as man’s eye could behold.  With toil and sweat he had raised the ranch’s main house, a monument to the old plantation homes of his beloved south. A small tribute to a grand yet dimming way of life.

He employed many of the community’s impoverished residents, aided their families and grew in stature and fame. His employees believed him a saint, the citizens in nearby towns idolized him and every mother wished her daughter was his mistress.

He was generous and wise, yet willing to fight to protect his own and fight he had. Indians and squatters alike. He was thorough, determined but still kind. An enigma to be sure, but one who those who knew him surely admired.

“Kinda a mix twixt ole Murdoch and the boys, ain’t he? Makes no matter though. Got me a job and the sooner the better we get this over with…” With a gentle kick, he pushed Major down the slight incline. “Ya ole lug, let’s git it done.”

******

A picnic. It was an odd idea, a foreign idea. Scott had enjoyed a passionate afternoon upon many a picnic blanket but somehow, here and now, it seemed alien to him. Yet it had been Teresa’s suggestion, and once made she had as much as thrown the couple out of the house, insisting they have some fun. So, as if in a dream, they had loaded the buggy with the needed foods, beverages and set off.

Sitting close beside him, Hannah’s warmth touched Scott’s arm through the fabric of their attire, eliciting a welcome heat, which penetrated to the core of his being. He was acutely aware of her nearness, her perfume and was suddenly anxious to escape the attention of the hands and remaining family members. The sound of his voice, as he urged the matched bays to a trot, seemed hoarse and loud. He ignored the knowing glances from Teresa and Murdoch as they stood side by side observing the departure of the young man and his girl.

The road stretched out ahead, each tiny stone a twinkling jewel dancing and leading them ever onward. The road marched endlessly forward, the end never closer, never further than now. Or so it appeared. Scott’s fevered brow and uncomfortably tight jeans made the tiniest rut unbearable. //Lord, how long has it been since we had something to smile about? This is ridiculous. I‘m behaving like I never knew a woman.//

But their destination was there, right before them, emerald grass swaying gently in time with Mother Nature. She offered the couple a glorious blue sky, clear turquoise water rippling in the breeze, and birds singing Heaven’s song from every branch of the cluster of oaks. Barely able to contain his mounting excitement, Scott leapt to the ground then turned to offer Hannah a hand down. He quickly clutched the quilt and the picnic basket, then made his way to the nearby oak and set about making their table.

Gingerly, so as not to crease the familiar fabric, Scott laid the blanket on the ground. He smoothed each wrinkle before pausing to survey his handiwork. As he took a step back, his elbow brushed something soft, something all too familiar. He turned, his cheeks reddening at the inappropriate contact. Hannah was close beside him, her full bosom straining against the fabric of her gown, and her body throbbing in protest at the instant dismissal. Or so he thought. //Get a grip, boy. One small bump wouldn’t cause all that. Must be the sun. Damn.//

Scott raised his head, embarrassment staining his features. “Hannah, I…”

She merely nodded, lowering her lashes secretively over the windows of her soul. One dainty hand covered her mouth as she softly coughed, her shoulders shaking, gently at first then ever harder.

Curious now, Scott lifted a hand toward her, mystified when she retreated. He stood as if paralyzed, shaking his head, seeking the answer to the age-old riddle. Had he offended her? Was she ill? Why wasn’t she speaking?  How was any man to understand the ways of women? Once more he stepped forward, succeeding in reaching her, gently placing his hands on her shoulders. He could feel the tremors, her muscles tightening and relaxing with each breath. The golden head rose, as the spasms shook her even harder. Laughter filled the gray eyes, laughter that bubbled unchecked past her full lips.

“Oh. You’re laughing!” he exclaimed.

“Of course, I am. What did you think I was doing?”

“I thought I had offended you. You know? Brushing you…well, touching…” It was his turn to struggle for words. Open-mouthed, he merely gaped at her as the reality of the humor finally penetrated the fog his mind had been engulfed in moments before. “The blanket??? You are laughing about the blanket?”

“You were so gentle, so tender. As if the thing would fall apart. We already initiated this one, remember? How fragile do you think it is?” Great peals of laughter bounced around them as the low guttural tones of the man mirrored the dulcet tones of the woman.

For the first time in many months, the couple felt lighthearted, alive, as if the cold shadow of home had all but evaporated. They threw their arms around each, seeking the other’s lips, and collapsed upon the same blanket that had been meant for their picnic, all thoughts of food now abandoned.

Lying in her arms, he watched a pair of eagles circling above, seeking food for their young. They glided effortlessly, their large circles becoming ever smaller as their interest was piqued by movement in the trees. As nonchalantly as they had floated on the breeze they now struck with deliberate suddenness, focused and intent on their prey. There was no fight, no screams of despair only disturbing calm as nature cushioned the death with another cleansing breath.

Disturbed by the fragility of life and death, Scott turned to Hannah. “Hannah, I don’t want to wait any longer.” Taking a deep breath, the young man followed his heart, his desire becoming a certainty. “I don’t want to waste any more time. We’re not guaranteed there will be a tomorrow.”

“Excuse me?”

“My brother’s death almost killed me. I thought I would never get over it. And in some ways I never will. But life is so, so, so fragile. Here today, gone tomorrow. I don’t want to risk anything, not time, not the future, not our very lives.”

“Scott, what are you saying?” Hannah’s heart pounded mercilessly. Though unaware of the reason behind the rapid shift in their world, she welcomed his passion, his zeal and she prayed to hear the words she had only dreamed of. “What are you talking about?”

“Let’s get married.” Jaws clenched against overwhelming emotion, Scott plunged ahead. “Hannah, will you marry me?”

For a heart-wrenching moment time stood still, nature held her breath. There was no bird song, no wind rustling in the trees, no crickets chirping, Only two hearts beating as one, thundering, exploding, as the beautiful woman whispered her answer.

“What did you say, honey?” Scott gingerly lifted Hannah’s chin, his heart bursting with joy at the love mirrored in her beautiful eyes.

“Yes,” softly at first, then louder until her voice was in harmony with his, “Yes, yes, yes, yes!”

 

Chapter 16

Not all things are as they appear . . .unknown

Despite the brightness of the late afternoon sun, darkness seemed to hover ominously, full of warning. It was suddenly silent, the wind still, even the occasional chirping of the birds eerily missing. Yet, in sharp comparison the gentle creaking of the rocking chair was disconcertingly loud, thunderous. The residents of Purgatory cast uneasy glances at the black-clad man sitting in stony stillness in the chair. Emanating from the young gunman, a dark aura now shadowed Purgatory. It swirled ethereally, like a vortex pulling the very life force from the evil town. And like a leach, the terrifying gunman seemed to thrive on the evil energy that embodied the people who sought refuge here. As the town’s pulse grew steadily weaker, the dark man grew in stature and power.

One man approached Madrid in apparent boldness. One man with no fear. At least none he was prepared to exhibit. Mac came to a halt mere feet from the younger man and stood patiently, calmly, until the dark head rose, the midnight eyes leveling coldly upon him.

“Whatcha want, Mac?” The voice barely a whisper was alarmingly clear to all within hearing distance. Madrid’s lips twisted into what had once been a smile, but now more closely resembled the twisted visage of a demon from Hades, a lost soul at home in the dark shadows.

“Madrid. You wanted to talk to me.”

“Yeah. We leave tomorrow morning if you still want to ride with me.” Again came the macabre twisting features that had once been so full of life and light.

“Sure. We’ll be ready at dawn.”

“You do that, Mac. Ya hear?” A soft chuckle grew slowly into a laugh. Mac stared for another long moment at the man in the rocker before turning toward the saloon.

Once out of sight of the hellish gaze of Madrid, Mac paused and ran a shaking hand through his hair. Despite his self-proclaimed ability to handle Madrid, he knew he was losing control. A tremor swept through him, the realization he was not going to maintain his grip on the situation for much longer rendering his limbs weak.

*****                              

A ranch hand materialized from the shadow cast by the porch that encompassed three sides of the large house. “You Mr. Hoskins?”

“Yep. Sure am.”

“I’m Gregory. Mr. Hanson has been expecting you. Harold there will show you inside.” Gregory waved a hand in the direction of the front door where another servant stood silently waiting. “I’ll tend to your horse.”

“Make sure ya take care o him proper like.” Jelly blew out his chest, enjoying the unaccustomed attention.  Feeling like royalty, he pompously allowed Harold to usher him into the cool interior of the grand house. Jelly was led to a formal drawing room where yet a third servant prepared him a brandy and took his hat before he silently disappeared through a door in the back of the room.

Left on his own, Jelly supped his drink, marveling at the aged brandy. He slowly explored the room that epitomized quiet splendor. Decorated with an array of diverse artifacts, the furnishings stood in silent testimony to the exquisite taste and breeding of the yet unseen master of the home. In one corner of the large room, a grand piano commanded attention; its dark mahogany wood gleaming in the setting sun streaming through the open window behind it.

Photographs were carefully displayed upon the fine lace spread across the piano and Jelly felt himself drawn to the faces reflected there. He sat his drink on a nearby table and picked up the photograph in the center of the collection. It depicted a dark haired man, his arms around an attractive young blonde woman. She laughingly faced the camera while her head leaned upon the man’s shoulder.

“She was beautiful, wasn’t she?” The soft voice echoed the thought in Jelly’s mind.

“My name is Douglas Hanson. You are Jellifer Hoskins, are you not?” The man’s tone was mesmerizing, soft and melodic, graced with an abundance of charm. He was tall, standing six feet, his head covered by a mass of gray hair. Broad shouldered, narrow through the hips, and wearing clothes custom made to fit his frame perfectly. Yet it was his eyes that pierced Jelly, pinning him with their fierce gaze. Something smoldered in their depths, something that belied his genteel manner and kind voice.

Suddenly aware he still held the photograph, Jelly placed the framed piece gently in its place of honor then turned to meet the owner of the voice.“Yeah, she sure was. Who was she?”

“I assume you had a good trip?” Hanson deftly evaded the question, instead extending his hand in welcome.

Jelly took the proffered hand, surprised by the abrupt manner in which the hand was withdrawn. “Yeah, it was good. Long enough though.”

“You must be tired from your journey. I’ll have Gregory show you to your room. Supper is promptly at eight o’ clock.”

“Sure thing. I think I could eat a horse!”

Douglas Hanson smiled at the older man’s exclamation before bowing and exiting the room. Again Gregory appeared, seemingly floating into the room, the soft swish of a closing door sounding from a darkened corner behind him that Jelly had not noticed in his study of the drawing room. A chill swept over him as the sudden thought that all was not as it seemed crowded his mind.

*****   

Hellion snorted in disgust, his left foreleg pawing the ground as the hated human approached him. He tossed his head, the muscles rippling, the heavy mane slapping his neck. Flattened ears made his opinion of the intrusion into his domain quite clear.

The man in black boldly drew near. One hand reached out to stroke the velvety nose only to be rapidly withdrawn as snapping teeth missed their mark by inches.

“You are gonna do that one time too many, boy.”

The red stallion half reared, powerful front legs pawing the air in his fury and frustration. The laugh from the man was soft, eerie, and despite his hatred of mankind, Hellion came down to earth, intrigued by the odd sound.

“Tomorrow, Hellion, we’re leaving. We’re gonna get our revenge. Then you and I are gonna come to some agreement.”

****** 

Madrid whirled around, the Colt materializing and holding steady, chest level. “Don’t sneak up on me, Mac. I’ll kill you next time you do.” The voice held promise, deadly and certain.

“Easy, John…uh, Madrid. I thought it was time we had that talk.”

Eyes of midnight stared unblinking and intense, their focus pointed and undeniable. “Yeah, you do?” Though formed as a question, the threat was unmistakable. “If’n you had waited much longer, I might’ve killed you anyway.”

“Well, tonight you find out who we’re going to kill.”

“And why!” Madrid snarled.

“Yeah, and why.” Mac took a deep breath and prepared to aim his human weapon at the desired target.

 

Chapter 17

The large picture window, once a study in life and light, now served as a dim reminder of the joys and beauty that had been Lancer. Where once the world as seen through the large pane had been weighty with hope and warmth, it now framed a panoramic view of emptiness and darkness. At least for her.  Tremulously she reached out a hand, trailing fingers across glass as cold as her heart, stark streaks lingering in the mist on the window.

Memories of a man assailed her, a man astride a palomino- the animal’s color as glorious as the risen sun- laughing as he and his brother trotted home. Bravely, she fought back the tide of emotions that threatened to pull her under, a vortex swirling about her, dragging her under as an ocean’s riptide. She shook her head fiercely, as she drew on strength she had never before known she possessed.

As her will dominated her mind, it was with a small sense of victory that she felt her soul line up in accord with her bidding. The door to the past swung tightly closed once more, freeing her of the cumbersome weight of yesterday. For this moment in time. With a gentle sigh, she released breath she had not realized she was holding. A sudden movement in her belly reminded her of the life growing within and she smiled. A hesitant, yet determined small gesture that gently curved her full lips.

“You look like you’re miles away.”

The gentle voice startled Teresa, and she turned, surprised to find Scott standing beside her. “I didn’t hear you come in.”

“I’m not surprised. It looked like you were someplace else.”

“I was thinking of Johnny and all the times Murdoch and I have stood here at this window, waiting for you and him to come home.” Her voice cracked, a small sob escaping her lips. Abruptly she withdrew, distancing herself from his close proximity, her self-control slipping momentarily. She turned her back to him, her shoulders shaking as a flood of grief assailed her.

Scott watched her from afar, his heart wrenching as she struggled with a new torrent of despair. He longed to comfort her, to hold her close, but he resolutely stood his ground. He refused to give in to the impulse. Her need to separate herself from him took priority over his own desire to offer solace. Long moments passed, the grandfather clock in the hall ticking out the seconds in tempo with his beating heart. Gradually the battle for control ceased and she regained the composure she had valiantly fought for.

With a shake of her head, she faced her brother. “Did you and Hannah have a good day?”

He studied her with concern, though he attempted to suppress it for her sake, as the voice of Sam Jenkins echoed in his mind. Scott understood the frailty of her condition. The daily ordeal of living without Johnny strained her ability to carry their unborn child to full term. Knowledge of his worry would serve no purpose, could possibly burden her even more. He sought to appear casual, nonchalant as he answered her, “Yes, we did. The ride was wonderful, rejuvenating.”

“That’s not what I was talking about.”

“Oh, the picnic. Yes, yes, we enjoyed it very much. Thank you for the suggestion. I wish I could offer you a respite from all this…well, you know,” he finished lamely.

“My chance at happiness is gone, Scott.” Her voice shook, her fragile grasp on her raging emotions defying her normally steady tone. After a long pause, as even the clock seemed to cease its march forward, she continued softly, “Any chance of enjoying life disappeared the day Johnny died.”

“Don’t say that. He would want you to be happy again. You know it would break his heart to see you walk through the rest of your life in such agony.”

“How can I ever get over this? Please tell me that?”

“I’m sorry, Teresa. I didn’t intend to upset you.” Scott took a faltering step toward her, but she shook her head, pleading with him to maintain his distance.

“Please don’t. Not now. I need a moment to gather…” She choked back a sob then drew a trembling breath. ”I know you didn’t want to upset me. You have been great, all of you, including Hannah. She is such a dear. I don’t know how I would manage without her friendship.”

“I’m glad you feel that way. I was hoping you would want her to stay a while.”

“That sounds mysterious. What do you mean?”  Her curiosity peaked; she sought to understand the meaning of his words. The distraction offered her was welcome and she seemed to regain her composure.

“Speaking of getting along without her how would you like some company of a more permanent nature?”

She tilted her head, the gesture making her appear oddly childlike. “I don’t understand.”

“Hannah and I, well, we...we had a talk, made some decisions.”

“Decisions? Scott Lancer, what are you hiding?”

The smile blossomed on the delicate features and for the first time in months Scott saw the merest hint of real joy. “Well, decisions about the future. But I wanted to talk to you alone first.”

“I see. I can only assume this is good news and Lord knows this family could use some. Out with it.”

“I asked Hannah to marry me.”  Scott suddenly seemed hesitant; his voice a mere whisper, gentle and shy. He studied Teresa, his obvious longing for a positive reaction softening his handsome features. His face eager, his body leaned toward her, as if straining for her approval.

She laughed then, a soft sound, a sound at once pleasing to his ears and shocking. With a jerk he stood straight, studying her as if she had lost her sense of reason.

Teresa’s face fell, disappointment shining clearly in the brown eyes. “What’s the matter, Scott? Did you think I wouldn’t be happy for you?” she accused solemnly. “Of course I am. We have to move on, all of us and this is a good first step. It gives me hope.”

“Are you certain? I mean, our loss is still so fresh, so raw…I...”

Quickly Teresa crossed the distance between them, her hands finding his and squeezing firmly. “Hannah is a splendid young woman and you two will be so happy together. I just know it. Of course I’m happy for you. Besides,” she paused as she released Scott’s hands to touch her swollen belly, “this child will need all the love all of us can give.”

His slate blue-gray eyes moist with unshed tears, Scott wrapped his arms around the slender shoulders and pulled her close.  “This child will never lack for love, honey.”

“I know. I really do.” With a sob, she pulled away, swiping angrily at the single tear that slid unbidden down her cheek. “Now, if you will excuse me, I have to find Hannah. We have wedding plans to make.”

******    

Jelly tugged at his collar, his discomfort with the formality of his surroundings obvious to the dignified gentleman sitting across from him. The grizzled handyman’s attempt at posturing long since abandoned, he nervously studied the array of cutlery and dishes spread before him.  Hesitantly, he fingered a large spoon, his gaze alternating between the bowl of steaming soup and the flatware.

“Use whichever spoon you are most comfortable with, Mr. Hoskins.” Douglas Hanson laughed, the timbre of his voice melodic and soothing.

“Well, I never did see why a body has to have so many pieces of silverware. Can’t ya just use one?” Jelly groused. Once more he concentrated on the offending flatware before reaching a decision. He grasped the largest spoon, more like a ladle he thought, and thrust it into the soup tureen. He eyed the strange liquid then, gingerly sipped the soup, his smile blossoming as the warmth of the delicious broth slipped down his throat. “Yessir, that’s mighty good. Mighty good indeed.”

“I’m pleased. I’m certain the cook went all out to offer you her best.” He supped his own soup, nodding his head in agreement.

“Well, give her my compliments. She done good, ya know.”

“I’m sure she will be pleased to know her meal is a success.”

Jelly glanced at his host, certain the man was mocking him but he found no trace of humor, no ridicule. Instead, Douglas Hanson’s expression was benign, no trace of laughter marring the distinguished features, his countenance revealing naught but genuine pleasure with his cook’s choices.

“Ya know, Mr. Hanson. Ya got good taste. Ain’t seen a fancier setup than this in a long time. Yer wife has a good hand fer dec’rating.”

“I have no wife, Mr. Hoskins.”

“No wife? Well, durn, I just figured a fancy feller like yourself would have plenty o’ women.”

Douglas Hanson smiled indulgently then, a gracious smile that lit his handsome features but failed to reach his eyes. Looking into those eyes, Jelly was once more acutely aware of the sensation something was not right.

***** 

“Cognac, Mr. Hoskins?”

”Well sir, ya got any brandy?”

“But of course.”

Jelly stalked restlessly around the parlor. He studied each artifact with care, marveling at its owner’s taste though admittedly repulsed by the more bizarre of the pieces. A carved wooden figure of a man and woman engaging in a passionate, yet strangely perverted embrace captioned his attention. Hesitantly he fingered the woman’s head.  “Now where did ya get this thing? Ain’t never seen nothing like it.”

“I’m not really sure where that came from. A friend from up,” Douglas caught himself abruptly, but was relieved that the old man seemingly had not noticed the hesitation in his explanation. “A friend gave that to me. Said it represented fertility and I should have many children.”

“And did ya?”

“Did I what, Mr. Hoskins?”

“Have lots of children?”

“As I indicated previously Mr. Hoskins, I never married.” Abruptly Douglas stalked to the liquor cabinet, where he poured another drink, then fiercely tossed it down.

Jelly eyed him with interest, his host’s sudden lack of grace and patience again eliciting the unbidden warning that all was not well with the man. As Douglas returned to his seat, his features once more relaxed and gracious, Jelly silently chided himself. //Must be in my fool imagination.//

As if to reassure himself, Jelly pressed, “Well, why didn’t ya ever get married? Fine feller like yerself musta had lots of ladies to choose from. Handsome feller, wealthy, charmin’ and all.” Jelly snorted disdainfully. “And I ain’t never heard of no lady could pass up a spread like this one. And the name’s Jelly, if’n ya don’t mind.”

“Well, Mr…Jelly, there was a woman once. Young, beautiful, smart. I had dreams of marriage but never had the chance.”

“Ya didn’t get the chance? Why, if ya don’t mind me asking? Did she marry someone else then?”

“No, Mr. Hoskins. She never married another.” Again the telltale tremor in the voice.

Jelly tossed a quick glance at his host but found nothing untoward in the man’s attitude or posture. “Well, what then?”

“She died,” Douglas ground out between clenched teeth, his knuckles white as he gripped his snifter.

***** 

He had eaten breakfast quickly, uninterrupted. The staff had long since abandoned any attempt at pleasantries, now merely serving him and retreating to the back of the restaurant. They watched him warily, ready to do his bidding with no word spoken.

He had accepted their aloof attitude, actually welcomed it. There was no time for small talk, idle verbal exchanges with people who could serve him no purpose. He had one obsession, one desire and it was all consuming. So it was with relief that he studiously ignored the waitress, merely allowing a grunt to indicate his needs.

His meal accomplished, he crossed determinedly to the telegraph office, extending an expectant hand when the boy behind the desk offered the wire. Once on the boardwalk, the gray haired man stood tall, his shoulders only slightly stooped.

The telegram still clutched in his hand, he grinned unabashedly, his features twisting into a grimace of untold pleasure. As if to remind himself of the reality he had long awaited, he re-read the missive…

//Making good time now. Stop. You ready? Stop. Have you contacted the other? Stop. Will need  help. Stop. Mac//

The smile was short-lived as he read between the lines and heard the fear in Mac’s voice. Something was wrong; the confidence of the previous telegram was disturbingly absent.

“Well, friend,” he whispered under his breath, “it’s time for you to put up or shut up. We’re going to need your help.”

 

Chapter 18

"Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive…"unknown

Mac settled himself in the chair; keenly aware of two midnight eyes that glowed with an expectant light, drilling into him. He gripped the glass of whiskey, willing his hands to relax, to appear casual. In spite of his best effort, he barely concealed the shock as the younger man's predatory gaze intensified. "Damn, Madrid, would you relax?"

"I'm not the one trying to hold his piss." Madrid's lips curled into a sneer.

Mac registered another jolt as the truth of the softly spoken words hit home. He shifted uncomfortably then tossed down his whiskey, gasping as the fiery liquid scorched his pallet. "You want to hear this or not?" he demanded angrily.

The dark eyes glowed brighter, pleased with the reaction his studious observation elicited from his companion. "You need to calm down. It isn't good for a man's health to get all fired up. Now Mac, you just take a deep breath and tell me all about it."

"Fine. We were riding the border, doing business. And business was pretty good." Mac took a steadying breath then allowed his mind to drift back to a time not so long ago, to a time when Madrid followed his orders.

 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

The sun rose high above, pounding unmercifully upon the earth, punishing all who dared venture forth into her dominion. Spears of heat pierced their clothing, burning covered skin and sucking precious life-giving fluids from their bodies. As sweat poured in streams down dust-covered cheeks, small chasms appeared in the silt that blanketed the men's faces. The horses fared no better, their breath coming in gasps as they strained to keep the blistering pace enforced upon them by their masters. Finally, Mac's raised hand signaled a halt to their forward progress, and the men pulled their winded horses to a staggering halt, allowing the laboring beasts a respite from the head-long gallop they had been forced to maintain.

The welcome sound of the trickling stream re-energized lagging spirits and bodies, and man and beast sought out the source of the liquid they desperately craved. In one accord, the small band sank into the cool brook and drank deeply. Their thirst sated, the men loosened the cinches on the saddles then turned to their leader.

"Ramsey, keep a sharp eye out for that posse. You'll be relieved in an hour or so. The rest of you men take a breather. We should be okay here until nightfall," Mac ordered.

As they welcomed the brief respite, the men sought shelter under the sparse tree line. They lowered themselves to the ground, stretching aching muscles and enjoying the faint breeze that stirred the leaves above them. Angered her quarry was attempting to elude her, the sun rose still higher, intensifying her efforts. In response to her prodding, the men groaned in protest at the retreating shade. The limbs of the trees were no match for the golden globe above them, and their covering all but disappeared. The once cool breath of the breeze ceased its exploration of their cheeks and their heads then withdrew into naught but their memories.

"Mac, this ain't no good," the old man bravely put voice to the thoughts of the small group of men. "And my horse done throwed a shoe. We need to find a town. I gotta get Mister here to a blacksmith."

"Stop your whining, Joe." Mac turned on his side, shading his eyes with one hand as he focused on the old man hovering over him.

"He's right, Mac." Johnny Madrid separated himself from the other three men lounging around him and came to a halt beside Joe. "If we don't get some supplies and tend to the animals, we'll never stay ahead of the posse."
 
"Don't ya think we done lost `em by now?" Joe turned a hopeful gaze on the younger man.

Madrid adjusted his gunbelt, his eyes thoughtful as he considered the question. He rubbed his chin, his answer directed to Mac rather than the old man. "We crossed the border some time ago. It's a fair bet the posse turned back. No jurisdiction here, you know."

Mac rose, studied the area around them and finally nodded in agreement. "You got a point there, Madrid. The Rurales wouldn't follow us into the States. What's here? You know where we are?"

"Morro Coyo is about ten miles from here. Not much there but they do have a saloon and a blacksmith."

"Okay then, Morro Coyo, it is. We give the horses another hour or so then we head in. Grim, get Ramsey, would ya? He can do with a rest, too."

 

*****

 

As the small band of men plodded into the sleepy town of Morro Coyo, the early evening sun slanted furious eyes over them. Her efforts to halt their forward progress had failed and she raged against the encroaching darkness. She nodded to the moon as he rose beside her, but refused his offer to dance. Angered, she returned to her place over the horizon, reluctantly agreeing to wait until the appointed time to rise again.

Small puffs of dust swirled under the feet of weary horses as they walked with heads lowered. With little or no guidance they came to a halt before the livery, patiently awaiting the grain and hay they instinctively knew would be forthcoming. It was commonplace, the headlong flight, the dusty barns, one day blurring into the next.

The men handed off their mounts to the wizened stableman who appeared in the doorway of the barn, then as one moved toward the saloon. The sound of the tinny piano guided them to their goal….

 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

"I'm not interested in a history lesson," Madrid interrupted. The twist of his lips could not be defined as a smile. He stared hungrily, expectantly at Mac, his gaze missing nothing, not the shiver running up and down Mac's spine, nor the tremor that coursed through the man's shoulders.

Mac paused in his recitation, suddenly all too aware of the smoldering gaze pinning him impatiently. He reached for the bottle of whiskey, intent on movement, any movement to disguise his thundering heart. ‘Damn, I hate the kid's eyes. Devil's spawn,’ he thought, his head lowered as if to hide his thoughts from the man who missed nothing.

Madrid sneered, "So cut to the chase."

"Well, I'm getting there." Mac grimaced, his senses on full alert, like prey, nervous, fearful. And Madrid was the predator, the worse kind, one who would kill without thought. Images of a dog, covered in blood and dust, his youthful owner weeping on hands and knees beside his pet, crossed through the shadows of Mac's mind. Hands less than steady pressed the glass to his mouth, tossing back the fiery liquid in one long swallow.

"I haven't got all day."

"Joe's horse threw a shoe so we stopped in Morro Coyo. It's a small town, nothing there. And that's when you met her." Mac paused. The predatory gaze had shifted, something softer rising to the surface of the other man's countenance.

"A woman?" Madrid asked softly, his voice a mixture of something indefinable, unexpected. "There was a woman?"

"Yes," Mac pressed his sudden advantage, noting the shifting of power. "A beautiful woman. She was dark-haired and fiery. I couldn't believe how fast you fell for her. I have to confess you surprised me, Johnny."

Madrid leaned back in his chair, his fingers drumming a soft cadence on the table top. He struggled to reclaim lost memories, yet failed in the attempt once more. "So, what happened?"

"You told us you weren't going to ride with us any more. Said you were ready to settle down. But we had to move on, get to Stillwater and collect our pay for the last job. She was supposed to wait for you."

"Supposed to wait?"

"Yeah, you know women. They can't be trusted. So we went to Stillwater, got our pay, and went back to Morro Coyo. And that's when you lost your woman and your memory."

"How?" Madrid demanded, the balance of power shifting once more. Barely concealed rage battled for release. The long weeks of quenching the flames of hatred had driven him, filling him with a hunger that could only be satisfied by death. He knew he had to kill, he thirsted to kill. Now his quarry was only a short story from destiny.

"She wasn't true to you, Johnny. She cheated on you. Damn bitch got herself in the family way and it isn't even your baby."

"And my memory?" Johnny leaned forward on his elbows, licking his lips in anticipation.

"Guess the man who bedded her wanted to make sure you weren't a threat. He ambushed you, shot you."

"He should have finished the job. Should've made sure I was dead. I won't make the same mistake." Madrid growled as a rabid wolf on the hunt. A macabre light gleamed in midnight eyes. Madrid all but drooled, anticipation driving him closer to the edge of insanity. He licked a small dot of spittle from his lower lip. "And does this man have a name?"

A violent tremor shook Mac, the transformation occurring before him in the other man shocking even his steadfast sensibilities. He felt the heat rising off Madrid, as if the fires of hell had settled blazing hands on the dark man's shoulders. "Yes, he has a name. It's Lancer, Scott Lancer."
 

 

Chapter 19

For with much wisdom, comes much sorrow, the more knowledge, the more grief . . .

Ecc. 1:18

The table groaned in protest, its timbers stressed by the abundant fare that covered it. Crystal glasses, delicate china, and fine porcelain overflowing with exotic dishes were laid with care across the gleaming surface. The mouth-watering aromas emitted by the contents of each bowl blended with the scent of the fresh flowers that had been lovingly spread throughout the dining room. In the center of the table, candles glowed softly, inviting the diners to partake of the feast that had been prepared especially for the occasion. Teresa circled the table, inspecting each setting, assuring herself that all was in readiness.

An unfamiliar, but welcome sense of well-being drifted on the breeze through the open windows, and filled the room.  As if the clouds hovering over the estancia had been forcibly pried open, light and goodness forced its way through the blanket of gloom that had long dominated the Lancer ranch.

Abruptly, Teresa paused in her preparations, as an unfamiliar melody pierced her concentration, staying her hand in the midst of straightening a cup. She turned, seeking the source of the sound that had ceased as if in concert with her forsaken actions. With a shake of her head, she chided herself for her foolish imagination.

The great room, masculine and functional, the heart of the great hacienda, now offered warmth and comfort wrapped in feminine ambience. The fire glowing brightly in the hearth added its light to the candles on the table, softening sharp angles of bulky furniture, gently chasing away shadows. Curtains billowed softly as the night sighed in relaxation. Gone was the heat of the day; the reassuring whisper of evening covered the room in quiet serenity. Like a beacon of light in the darkness, a port in the storm, the atmosphere she had created mimicked the cry of her heart.

The caress of the evening breath on her cheek was as a lover’s stolen kiss. Teresa touched her cheek gently, wonder in her heart welling up as tears filled her eyes. How was it possible that in the midst of such pain, such loss, hope could rise in her being? Yet hope was fleeting, and she knew with the dawn of the new day it would escape her. Tomorrow she would face her loneliness, tonight she would rejoice for the happy couple. At least she prayed she could.

As Teresa continued to slowly circle the table the sweet lilting song wafted into the room, halting her once more. Curiously, she focused on determining the source of the melody. As a piper, the song encircled her, drawing her into its hypnotic notes, filling her being with indescribable peace. Dazed, she found herself in the kitchen, her eyes staring without focus at the elderly woman who drifted from chore to chore. With a shock she realized it was Maria humming.

Sensing the presence of another, Maria turned to face the newcomer. She quickly took note of the pale face, the trembling limbs, and crossed the kitchen to lend support to the younger woman.

“Teresa?” Maria placed firm hands on the young woman’s shoulders. “Sit here. Is something wrong?”

“No, no. I…I heard singing. I thought, I …” She raised her eyes, embarrassment bringing a flush to her cheeks.

“I didn’t mean to interrupt you.”

“It was a lovely tune. What was it?” Teresa breathed. The rose of her cheeks slowly receded. As her breathing slowed, her body relaxed as comfort flowed through the motherly hands on her shoulders, spreading its warmth throughout her body.

“It’s an old lullaby,” Maria answered, her eyes misting over as memory returned of a time long ago. “I remember hearing Johnny’s mother singing it to him.”

“Could you teach it to me?” Teresa’s voice shook with emotion, her hands were clasped tightly in her lap. “I think Johnny would be pleased if I sang it to his children.”

Maria patted the young woman’s shoulders, compassion and understanding filing her eyes with unshed tears. “Yes, I think he would.”

Abruptly, the trembling in the shoulders under her hands ceased, Teresa sat tense and unmoving. She inhaled sharply as the pain of her loss thrust spears into her heart, twisting the knife and doubling her over as her body joined in the cry of her heart.

“Teresa!”

*****   

Jelly swirled the brandy in the glass, struggling to focus on the amber liquid. The heady alcohol, the warmth in the room, as well as his host’s droning intonation had conspired to lull him into a tranquil posture of sleepiness. His eyes felt heavy, his limbs numb, and with shame he acknowledged he had imbibed too much of the heady liquor. Long moments passed, a clock on the mantle ticking in time with the creaking of his host’s rocking chair. The sound was hypnotic, adding to the weight crushing his body against the chair in which he sat.

A sudden premonition, as if someone had slapped him across the face, brought Jelly instantly alert.  Acutely aware he was being studied, he forced his eyes to open. He sat up straight in the chair, shaking his head to ward off the ever encroaching fog.

Douglas Hanson was indeed observing him, an eerie light gleaming in the depths of his hazel eyes. Chilling and intense, the man’s eyes swam before Jelly’s face, disjointed and headless. Fear clutched Jelly’s heart, an unnamed, unwarranted fear. He blinked, struggled to focus, then searched the other man, seeking to reassure himself that his feeling of dread was no more than a figment of his ever wayward imagination. A dream perhaps, brought on by warmth, alcohol, and memories of a recent tragic loss.

The features of his host revealed no malice, no unspoken agenda, only the warm hospitality the man had extended throughout the evening. Burdened by an acute sense of foolishness, Jelly rose, surprisingly alert.

“Mr. Hoskins?” The man’s voice was silken, filled with concern for his guest. “You are quite pale.”

“Yeah, I’m..I’m ok. Musta fallen asleep. I apologize for my poor manners. Must be more tired than I thought,” Jelly offered, noting the genuine concern mirrored in the other man’s countenance.

Douglas nodded, graciously accepting the apology, his attention to the needs of his guest genuine and touching.

Jelly felt the flush of shame tingeing his whiskered cheeks, while he simultaneously experienced gratitude that his erratic behavior had gone unnoticed. His host was seemingly oblivious of the unkind thoughts that had invaded Jelly’s mind. The episode was quickly put aside as Jelly’s common sense conquered his superstitions.

“I’ll have Harold show you to your room. I am sure you will feel better after a good night’s sleep.” Douglas stood gracefully, one hand gesturing to the butler standing in the corner. “And tomorrow I will show you what your employer has purchased.”

“That would be right neighborly of ya,” Jelly agreed hurriedly, “Murdoch musta had a good reason for wanting the animal. We have plenty o’ fine horses of our own, but who am I to count. ‘sides it makes no never mind to me.”

Douglas grinned, the smile lighting his eyes with obvious humor. “You are a unique man, Mr. Hoskins. I am quite sure you will understand the desire of Mr. Lancer’s heart once you have seen this animal.”

“Well, I hope so.”

Harold crossed the room, paused before the handyman. He lifted a hand, indicating the door behind Jelly. “If you would follow me, sir.” With a bow, Harold led the way from the room.

“G’night, Mr. Hanson. Tell the cook thanks again. That was the finest meal I done had since dining with the Mayor in San Francisco.”

“Goodnight, Mr. Hoskins.” Douglas bowed. “The pleasure is all ours.”

Jelly trailed the butler through the brightly lit house, admiring the décor, the genteel grace and obviously expensive taste of the master of the house. As he drew further from his host, the tension in his shoulders eased, allowing the lethargy of the previous mood to reassert itself. Again the strange tickle in the back of his mind, as if a layer had been peeled away exposing a dark secret. ‘Damn superstitious fool,’ Jelly admonished himself.

***** 

Maria sat the younger woman in a chair, pressed a glass of water into her hand, while studying her worriedly. “You should lie down, Teresa. It’s too much strain.”

“I’m fine, Maria. I’m just a bit tired.” Teresa sighed heavily. “I just want everything to be perfect tonight for Scott and Hannah”

“But there is time for a nap. I can finish things here.”

“No, the meal is on the table. I won’t spoil Scott and Hannah’s evening. Now, I’m going to change. Not a word about this, ok?” Teresa pleaded earnestly, her eyes beseeching Maria to hold her silence. “I feel much better.”

Indeed the young woman appeared to have recovered. The tell-tale flush on her cheeks had all but disappeared; her breathing was now calm and casual. She stood, no sign of distress evident in her controlled movements.

Uncertain, but unwilling to cause the young woman any further stress, Maria reluctantly agreed. She stood looking at the staircase long after Teresa had escaped her watchful eyes. With a sigh, she turned to complete preparations for the evening feast.

***** 

Dinner was a pleasant affair, the conversation comfortable, peaceful. The Lancers had gasped in surprise when confronted by the transformation of the great room. The atmosphere so lovingly created by Teresa touched their hearts, the gesture powerful, speaking volumes about the character of the young widow. She had given of herself out of her own loss, her own love. The family members stood speechless, stunned yet eager to accept her gift.

Hannah wrapped her arms around Teresa, thanking her profusely before being ushered to the dining table by Scott. Seated, the foursome pointedly ignored the empty chair to Murdoch’s right, choosing instead to concentrate on the vast assortment of dishes laid before them. Appetites long suppressed rose within them, coaxed to the surface by the beautiful setting of the dining room. The serene, celebratory atmosphere spun her web around the foursome, settling heavily upon their shoulders. Soft murmurs of thanks for the many treasures that tempted their palates were heard as they complimented Maria.

The meal concluded, Scott reclined his chair on two legs, pressing his hands to his stomach with a groan of satisfaction. “I don’t think I’ve had such a wonderful meal in my whole life. Thank you so much Maria. And thank you too, Teresa, for the beautiful arrangements. The room looks great.”

Teresa lowered her head, the flush creeping up her cheeks lending her a vulnerable glow. “It’s my pleasure, Scott.”

“Is this some kind of special occasion?” Murdoch looked curiously from Scott to Teresa.

“I wanted tonight to be special. I have an announcement to make.” Scott cleared his throat, nervousness consuming him now that the moment had arrived. He stood, his hand shaking as he sipped his wine. “I’ve realized how fleeting life is, how fragile and…,” he gulped, then plunged ahead, “after talking to Hannah, and with Teresa’s blessing, I know the time has come to make a change.”

Four pairs of eyes stared at the remaining Lancer son expectantly, each heart pounded in unison as the unbearable silence seemed to strain the confines of time. Another sip of wine and Scott turned his attention to his father.

The impact of Scott’s stare pushed Murdoch into the back of his chair. But it wasn’t pain Murdoch found gleaming in his son’s eyes, rather excitement, joy. Murdoch released his pent-up breath with a rush, feeling his heart beating impatiently against his chest.  “What is it, son?” Murdoch’s throat was tight, a lump unexpectedly forming.

“I’ve asked Hannah to be my wife,” he declared. “And she has agreed!”

Murdoch rose quickly, shoving his chair back in his haste to offer his congratulations. He swept first Scott, then Hannah, into an embrace without hesitation, his joy for the young couple contagious.  They laughed, wondering at the silence of the fourth member of the family. As one they turned to face the young woman who sat so still, her face ashen.

“Teresa?” Murdoch was at her side in an instant, on his knees, cupping her face in one large hand. “Honey?” Fear replaced elation, as concern for his daughter-in-law wrapped icy fingers around his heart.

She turned slowly toward him, terror etching her dainty features into a mask of pain. “I’m bleeding.”

Chapter 20

Yet loathe the banquet which perforce
Must feed thy livid living corpse:
Thy victims, ere they yet expire,
Shall know the demon for their sire.
 Byron

It was the gentle whinny of the horse that woke him, not the sun streaming through the open window or the breeze blowing wide the fine lace curtains. Jelly stretched leisurely, reveling in the exquisite comfort of the fine bed. Soft down massaged his aging body, moving with him, forming to fit his contours. Unwilling to miss even the most finite moment he sank further still into the welcoming grasp of the mattress. Again, the whinny, more insistent this time, interrupted his efforts to return to the soft land of slumber.

With a resigned sigh, he mournfully left the embrace of his bed. He quickly performed his toiletries before tossing one last glance of longing at the still warm bed. "Been a long time since I had a bed like that," he groused.

There was no sign of his host when he entered the dining room. Although the master of the house was conspicuously absent, the servants had spared no effort in preparing the morning repast. "I could git used ta all this," he stated to the butler standing at attention beside the large buffet.

An hour later, Jelly grunted in satisfaction. Unashamedly he had eaten his fill, accepting two more helpings of the bounteous offering. The servants hovered, catering to his every whim, anticipating his every need, requiring but a glance from the guest now seated as royalty at the table.

With a vehement shake of his head, he waved the servant away. "I cain't eat another bite. You done outdid yourself."

"Thank you, Sir. It is our pleasure." The young woman nodded.

"Now, where can I find Mr. Hanson?"

"He said to see you had enough to eat, Sir. Then to show you to the corral."

"Aw, I can find my way. Thanks again." Jelly shoved his hat on his head, then allowed Harold to escort him to the front door. On the veranda, Jelly paused, scratching his whiskered face before proceeding toward the corral.

Mother Nature proudly displayed her glory, covering the earth with radiance and beauty. Pink tinged clouds reflected her kiss and the birds offered their gratitude through song. Jelly slowed his pace, unable to resist admiring her splendor. A brightly colored bird sang from the oak tree to the right of the mansion, its song joining the harmony of an unseen feathered choir. Amazed by his ability to enjoy life, Jelly felt a twinge of guilt. The pain of loss had disappeared before the onslaught of the serenity of the Hanson ranch, yet the reality of that loss pricked his heart, a reminder that all was not goodness and light. Behind him lay his home, its occupants mercilessly burdened by grief.

Ahead, his host leaned nonchalantly against the fence rails, his attention focused on the center of the corral. As Jelly drew near he heard the defiant snort of the corral's sole occupant.

A golden giant of a horse circled the corral, proud head held high, flaxen mane and tale billowing as banners behind him. The arched neck rose high from the stallion's withers, muscled and graceful, supporting an aristocratic, dainty head. Eyes bright and intelligent surveyed the world beyond the corral's confines. Long limbed, deep-chested, the animal promised speed, strength, stamina. The conformation of the stallion was the epitome of perfection, yet it wasn't the beauty of the animal that captured Jelly's attention. It was an overwhelming sense of familiarity. He knew this horse, or thought he did. Jelly released a breath he had not been aware of holding, with a sound like that of rushing water.

"He's a beauty, is he not?" Douglas Hanson spoke with admiration, raw pride.

"Yeah, he sure is. Where'd ya get him?" The questions assaulted Jelly's tongue, each warring for first askance.

"I bred him here on this ranch. He is the first and only foal of my prize mare, Desert Storm. She is sheer perfection and I searched for years until I found the right stallion. I knew she would be bred but once and the stud had to be her equal, in strength, beauty, conformation. I could not allow just any stallion to mount her." He paused, his eyes misting over, as he traveled to a place he alone could go. Lost in the unseen picture unfolding before his eyes, Hanson talked as if to himself. "Desert Storm reminds me of her… She would know only one man, and I was meant to be that man, but then she died…"

"Uh, Mr. Hanson, are we talking horses now, or something else?" Jelly asked in confusion. The sudden shift in Douglas Hanson's demeanor had surprised him, left the handyman feeling like an intruder into the room of two lovers.

"Did you ask something of me, Mr. Hoskins?" In an instant Hanson had recovered, his good manners quickly reasserting themselves.

"Yeah, I was askin' if'n the mare is dead…or did you mean a real lady?"

"No, she isn't dead. I mean the mare is fine. She just can not, be bred again. I apologize if you misunderstood me." Hanson's voice leveled, his mask of southern hospitality was firmly in place.

Jelly nodded in understanding, but the odd glimpse into the man's psyche was unnerving and the subconscious warning rang once more. "No, I ain't never seen another palomino like this one...'ceptin'…"

"Except what, Mr. Hoskins? You've seen my stallion before? How?"

"No, I ain't never. Murdoch Lancer has hundreds, hundreds of palominos on his ranch." Jelly boasted. Loyalty to his employer and friend rose in defense of the accusation.

"Perhaps we can discuss breeding one day then. Though I do not believe you will find his equal in all of California." Hanson waved his hand at the stallion now standing in the corral, his nose lifted high as he studied the scents wafting on the breeze. "You will ensure he has a safe journey to Lancer, will you not?"

"This is the animal Murdoch sent me ta fetch?" Jelly was incredulous, his mouth agape. "What's he want with another palomino stallion?"

"This isn't any just stallion, this is the first and last of a stallion who no longer lives. You will never see this bloodline again."

"That's what I thought too, back then."

*****

Lying on his bed above the saloon, Madrid couldn't sleep, as rage and thirst for blood boiled in his veins. As a virus creeps through the body, breaking down defenses, raising the temperature until weakened and unable to fight the body succumbs to death, so his hatred of Scott Lancer invaded the dark place that had once housed Madrid's soul. He had been transformed, evil reincarnate awakened, and now death claimed him. He fell over the precipice on which he had stood in the long weeks since his recovery. Plunging headlong into the fires of hell, he tumbled until he hit bottom.

"A fallen angel," the voice whispered.

Madrid whirled, Colt appearing in his grasp. "Who's there?" he demanded, before reacting to a sudden movement to his left.

The Colt was raised, steadily fixed on the man in the mirror. With a jerk, he looked into the face that had once been so familiar but now blended and merged into the countenance of Satan. Beady black eyes oozed evil, skin drew taught against thin features, and a macabre twist of lips pulled a full mouth into a sneer. The grin grew larger, a gaping cavity opened between lips that had once housed even white teeth, now decayed and filled with blood. He stood, not repulsed by the reflection, rather intrigued, sensing the promise of even power. He reached out and greedily accepted the proposal.

He laughed wildly. "I'm a fallen angel but soon he'll join me in Hell. He'll burn for eternity!" The cackle grew slowly, ominously, until the sound reverberated through the small room. Caught in the wind's grasp, the deadly sound rode into the street, swirling menacingly throughout the town of Purgatory.

In the saloon below, the men cast fearful eyes toward their leader.

"God help us," Mac whispered.

 

Chapter 21

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under
heaven... a time to weep and a time to laugh . . .

Ecc 3:1, 4

Sunlight streamed in through the open window, its fingers of light tracing the pattern of the walls, circling the furniture in curious exploration. Satisfied with her investigation, the sun turned her attention to the young woman in the rocking chair, baby held gently in her arms. The golden digits touched Teresa's cheek, warming the coolness of her brow.

With delicate prodding, the sun roused the woman and child, smiling upon them as bleary eyes responded to her coaxing. Blinking at the brightness of the morning, Teresa yawned, careful not to disturb the still drowsy child in her arms. She placed a tender kiss on her son's forehead, hugging him tightly as he came fully awake and studied her securely.

"Mama?" the little boy whispered.

"Paul? What did you say?" Teresa gasped, certain her imagination had found a voice. With trembling arms she lifted the eighteen month old child, holding him steady at eye level, surprised at how heavy he had become. She searched his face, seeking any indication he had spoken. Blue eyes twinkled in the child's face, a teasing gleam all too familiar now gazed innocently at her as his full lips curved into a smile. Visions of a lost man danced before her, his face merging and blending with the countenance of the child. At long last the faces parted, revealing the solemn gaze of her son.

"Oh, my goodness. Paul! You can speak." Teresa leaped to her feet, holding her son above her head as she twirled him around. "Your first words. Oh how wonderful!"

The dance between mother and son was interrupted as the bedroom door was abruptly shoved inward. She whirled to face the intruder, the spell broken.

"Honey, why aren't you in bed?" Murdoch took a step forward, noticing the presence of Paul for the first time. "Let me take him. You do need to rest."

"I know what Sam said, Murdoch. But I'm fine. In fact, I'm better than fine. You didn't hear it!" she exclaimed eagerly.

"Hear what?" Concern consumed him, but wonder stayed his chastising. Months had passed, long months under which the young woman had labored with the frailty of life, with the will to go on. Yet she stood before him now, radiant, happy, and Murdoch succumbed to the urging of her gaze. She looked askance, inviting him to join her celebration, and her enthusiasm was infectious. He could not refuse.

"Paul, Murdoch." she gushed, her breath coming in short gasps. "Paul said Mama. He spoke."

"Oh, darling, that's wonderful." A genuine laugh shook Murdoch, all previous concern now submitted to the joy of the moment.

"Mama." Paul giggled, patting his hands in glee.

Murdoch stared, his mouth agape, his mind attempting to make the connection between hope and fact. Paul had spoken. As if in answer to a prayer, darkness was pushed back and hope filled the room. Here at last was the reason for life, for enduring, no matter the test, no matter the trial. He had always believed life would find a way, now a mere babe in arms had turned a woman's heart from sorrow to joy. He threw back his head, his laughter soaring with the happy cries of mother and child.

Suddenly Teresa stood still, eyes wide as another unwelcome thought exploded in her heart. "God, Murdoch. Johnny never got the chance to hear him speak, to see him walk."

In horror Murdoch watched as his daughter-in-law deflated, all joy escaping her fragile hold, twisting and pulling back, until a shattered shell stood forlornly beside him. He swept her into his arms, encircling both woman and child in his tender embrace.

 

Never relinquishing her hold on her son, Teresa laid her head on Murdoch's shoulder, relying heavily on his strength. Long moments passed, the sun continuing her merry dance across the floor, expectantly increasing her efforts to gain the attention of the threesome still huddled together. Failing to interrupt their somber demeanor, the sun made a steady progression throughout the room, turning the coolness of the early morning into oppressive warmth.

Teresa gathered her emotions and stepped back to wipe her eyes. She stroked Paul's hair, but the child wriggled in her arms as he tired of his mother's grip.

"I think I'll clean up for breakfast. Would you mind taking Paul for a few minutes?” She released the child to his grandfather, and moved woodenly toward the bedroom door, her mind a tangled web of conflicting thoughts.

"Teresa?" Murdoch's enquiry halted her retreat and she turned wearily to face him. "You should be in bed. You know how delicate your condition is, how..." Murdoch's voice trailed off as he struggled with his emotions. He couldn't voice concern, couldn't add to her fear.

"I just have to take things slower."

"Please, Teresa. Sam said…"

She whirled on him then; anger at the precarious position life had thrust upon her breaking free and tumbling forth in a torrent of emotion. She had lost so much, was terrified she would lose even more and that fear now exploded in rage. "Sam is a doctor, a good doctor but he is just a man. He can not possibly know the way of things with such certainty!" She paused to draw a breath before wagging her fist above her head, conviction granting her strength. "I am not a child and I will not be sent to my room like one. Now stop treating me with kid gloves and let me be."

At Murdoch's grim expression, she continued, "I am well aware of what Sam said. Do you think I don't understand what this means?"

Sam had been precise, his words chosen carefully as he expressed his prognosis, his belief that she wouldn't carry the infant to term lacing his voice with excruciating pain. He had lowered his eyes to avoid the weight of the family's stares as he withheld nothing.

Suddenly her voice softened, imploring him to believe her. "Murdoch, I know you mean well but if you think I will overlook the needs of my child, you are sadly mistaken." She shook her head before squaring her shoulders. "I will not just give up. I only need a few more weeks, just a few weeks, and then this baby will be safe. I'm going to fight for this unborn child…and Paul, too."

******

Jelly mounted the gray, settling deeply into the saddle and securing the stallion's reins in one hand. One last look at the beauty of the house and stables and he urged the gelding into motion, at once reluctant to leave the peace and tranquility of Hanson's estate, yet exceedingly glad to be on his journey. Despite the reality of Johnny's death, Jelly's heart would accept no other home but Lancer.

Douglas Hanson waved hospitably, offering his guest well-wishes for a safe and speedy return home. With a sigh, Jelly returned Hanson's gesture, then turned the gray to the east, tugged gently on the lead reins of the palomino and began the long trek home.

Long after the dust of the Lancer ranch hand's passing had settled, Hanson stared thoughtfully down the road. Feelings of regret mingled with loyalty and pain, each emotion vying for supremacy, stooped the gentleman's shoulders. With a curt nod of acceptance, he silently returned to the shade of the veranda, taking a seat in his favorite rocking chair. Resolutely, he accepted his present course as surely as he accepted the glass of lemonade the butler pressed into his hand. With a deep sigh, he laid his head back before whispering solemnly, "It's over, and none too soon, either."

*****

The soothing sound of the grandfather clock counting the minutes failed to placate Murdoch. Unaware of the sounds of his beloved home, he stared into the empty hearth. Perhaps the despair of one man was less traumatic than the needs of an entire family, but selfishly he yearned for freedom from the responsibility that a family presented, if only for a moment. The struggle to maintain a semblance of normalcy, to remain a strong parent-figure for Scott and Teresa, and even Hannah, was sapping his strength, aging his body and soul more than his many chronological years. The loss of his son, and now the ominous loss of yet another child, was taxing all ready seriously depleted reserves of endurance. He could not remember another time, another place, when he had labored under such a burden.

With a shock, he realized even the loss of his wives and youngest child had been less of a struggle than the weight of shouldering the present needs of his family. He acknowledged his own fatigue, his need for solitude. His mind rebelliously traced the memories of the last months, relentless in its pursuit, tenacious in its determination to meditate each unwanted detail. Shadow and light blended in macabre twists of distorted thought, the effort of sorting the disjointed memories overwhelming his senses. Guilt screamed in his soul, condemning his selfishness, its grim finger prodding his heart, bending his shoulders. Exhausted, he strode purposely toward the liquor cabinet and poured a tall snifter of bourbon.
 

******

 

//It will be soon. Stop. Proceed with the next step. Stop.//

The old man grinned, satisfaction breaking the severity of his expression. "Not long now. Revenge will be mine and you'll pay!" he chortled. Pleased with the finally forward progress, he returned to the cantina, resuming the meal he had abandoned when summoned to the telegraph office.
 

 

Chapter 22

Oh, mama, mama, I’m in fear for my life

From the long arm of the law,

Hangman is coming down from the gallows

And I don’t have very long . .

Styx, The Renegade

 

The sun struggled to pierce the darkness, not the darkness of night but the evil covering the town.  Valiantly she fought the blanket of ominous foreboding, determined to overpower the blackness. Yet her efforts were wasted on the humans beneath her.

As the men went about their menial tasks their fear was palpable in the morning gloom.

They were strongly, frighteningly aware of the source of their distress. A lone man lounged against a beam supporting the awning of the boardwalk outside Purgatory’s only saloon, his deadly attitude threatening. Although he spoke not a word, nor offered a greeting, the citizens gave him a wide berth. He surveyed the street nonchalantly, reveling in the discomfort of the townsfolk, before crossing to the red stallion standing impatiently at the hitching post.

Cautiously he extended a gloved hand to stroke the beast’s neck, admiring the muscles tightly bunched beneath his touch. The stallion’s ears flattened, one foreleg pawed the ground but he made no aggressive move toward the human beside him. The man in black watched the frustrated animal with amusement. He chuckled when the already angry stallion shook his head, nostrils flaring. “That gets to you, don’t it? Well, none of us likes to be laughed at, I guess.” He continued to stroke the red neck, his hands drifting casually over the gleaming coat.

“You remember my fist, don’t you?” Madrid taunted Hellion, as his hand moved to stroke the crimson withers. In reply the stallion snorted, and Madrid recognized the base sound of loathing and disgust. ”Yep, boy, we make a good pair. Soon we will taste blood. We’ll have our vengeance, then you and I will reach an agreement once and for all.”

*****     

Joe sipped his coffee, unaware of the burning sensation as the brew slid down his throat. “Ya do know this is gonna git ugly, dontcha? Ya cain’t handle someone like Sam,” the oldster observed. His focus was on Ramsey sitting across from him, the man’s weasel-like features contorted in his version of a grin.

“His name’s Madrid, you old coot,” Ramsey snarled. His beady eyes narrowed as he studied the old man. One gloved hand gripped his glass of beer, the other caressed the Colt on his hip.  “Maybe you best stay out the way, if you’re scared then.”

“I ain’t scared. I jest know the boy is dangerous and ya shoulda left him to me. ‘Stead ya turned him into this…this…” The old man’s voice cracked, emotion getting the best of him. He took another swallow of his coffee, the moment affording him the necessary time to rein in his warring emotions. His ever-present hope battled with despair, fear.  Joe knew Madrid was evil. Any fool could plainly feel the boy’s hatred, his lust for blood. And Joe feared the man Madrid had become, or perhaps always had been.

Yet Joe had nursed the delirious man through his injury, and had observed firsthand the revelation of the boy’s dreams, his very soul. Feverish and vulnerable, the young man had cried out for lost love, lost life. It was only when unconsciousness had released its hold on Madrid’s mind, giving way to wakefulness that the boy’s essence had died. Joe had witnessed the inner death of the boy, and recognized that his struggle to recapture his lost memories had stripped him of his humanity, his goodness. At that moment Joe had vowed to save the inner soul he believed was still buried within the boy, even at the cost of Madrid’s life or his very own.

Mac, his back to the bar, observed the exchange between the saloon’s only other occupants. He leaned in their direction, straining to catch their words. Joe was obviously shaken, his affection for the young man he had tended was unexplained and somehow vaguely touching.  The old man’s concentration was now focused within, his eyes staring vacantly.  He sat as if under a heavy burden, his hands cupping the mug of now cold coffee, his lips moving silently, as if in…prayer?

The old man had ridden with Mac and his gang, for as long as anyone who cared enough to notice would remember. Gentle and loyal, he had provided the rougher members of the gang with much needed recreation, allowing them to amuse themselves at his expense.  Silently enduring their torment, Joe had never retaliated, choosing instead to immerse himself in preparing their meals, tending the wounded when an occasional injury occurred and serving as their voice of reason. An enigma of contradictions, he had followed their direction, though his standards rose high above their own.  It was Joe’s morality that incited the members of the gang to worse episodes of taunting.

Though a source of ridicule, he often shocked them with his intuitive approach to their plans. He often proclaimed the ache in his joints was a prediction of a disastrous ending to their next raid or that his lack of pain would indicate a successful outcome. Mac and the others, Ramsey included, had at first laughed at the old man, until the history of the gang’s successes and failures supported the old man’s claims. Through the years, as members had come and gone, Joe had been a constant, and eventually Mac had begun to listen to the oldster’s counsel, often postponing a robbery or other plot until Joe felt better as he would say.

Ramsey had never allowed himself to believe in Joe’s superstitions, instead choosing to regard the other man as just a ‘crazy old coot’.  Now he sat amused by the oldster’s concern, enjoying yet another opportunity to needle the old man. “You’re crazy, Joe. We did nothing of the sort. Madrid has always been evil. He was born trouble,” Ramsey snarled. “We just helped him find hisself. ‘Sides, he has a job to do.”

“Ya don’t know that for a certain.”

“I know the type. Gunmen are a step ahead of hell and Madrid is the best of the worst. He was born to die. We’re just getting a job done before he goes to meet his maker in the pit,” Ramsey sneered.

“Ya best be careful, Ramsey. Ya might jest git bit by the snake ya found…” Joe argued.

“No, old timer. You’re the one who should be careful,” Ramsey drawled softly. “The plans are set and if you get in the way, you could get hurt, or worse.”

“There’s good in the boy,” Joe insisted. He rose, shaking his head in pity before leaving the saloon to join Madrid. Silently he renewed his vow to save the soul of Johnny Madrid, or die trying.

Ramsey watched as the old man exited the saloon, the bat wing doors striking up a macabre cadence as the rusty hinges groaned in protest. “Old coot,” Ramsey ground out softly. A strange sensation of foreboding slid down Ramsey’s throat, taking up residence in the pit of his stomach.  He clamped his jaws firmly closed as the cold hand of fate encircled his neck, squeezing tightly in warning. Somehow his words echoed hollowly in his mind, mocking him, and for the first time since setting out on this trek, Ramsey believed the old man could be right.

Growling at his moment of weakness, he tossed down his remaining beer then joined Mac at the batwing doors, and watched as the old man came to a stop at Madrid’s side.

*****  

The old man paced as impatiently as a caged wolf. He had waited so long, planned so carefully, had been so confident in his ability to bring his quest for vengeance to fruition. But now he’d found the first glimpse of a tear in his well-orchestrated plans. A fissure had appeared, threatening the balance of power. Abruptly he stopped, retrieved the telegram from his breast pocket. He opened the crumpled missive, re-reading the words contained on the tattered page as if seeking something more. The words were commonplace, disguised for the benefit of innocent eyes, yet somehow he knew he had missed the truth.

The sender had been well paid; his pride in his trade had instilled the old man with a confidence in his ability to perform his assigned tasks. He was fearless, competitive, and surprisingly dependable, considering the deadly code he lived by.  The man had reported with confidence throughout the first weeks, reassuring his boss that all was progressing as planned. Yet now the old man discovered an underlying current that flowed beneath the benign words on the page. It was as if the sender was trying to convey more than a report of progress. It was a plea, but for what?

Suddenly, like a clap of thunder roaring in the old man’s mind, the unthinkable seared his soul like a white-hot torch. The hidden reality of the telegram astounded him and he raged inwardly against the possible threat to his carefully laid plans. Mac was afraid. And Mac’s fear was snaking its spineless body into his own heart. For the first time since he had begun this mission of vengeance he was uncertain of its outcome. And that simmering uncertainty now exploded into rage. He would not be denied. He would have his revenge or he would die in the attempt.

The old man grew still, as confidence reasserted itself, replacing doubt. Another, more vicious truth echoed in his innermost being, calming him. With a sneer, he put voice to the words pounding on the gate of his mind. “Well Mac, if you fail, there is another.”

***** 

“Ya know they’re gonna git ya killed.”

“No Joe, I’m gonna be the one doing the killing,” Madrid corrected the old man, his features softening with amusement.

“Ya jest cain’t see the way of things, can ya, Sam?” The old man shook his head sorrowfully. “I reckon I’ll be burying ya next ta the rest of them.”

Madrid stared, his countenance once more dark and deadly, any semblance of humor evaporating in the face of Joe’s despair. “Old man, you could be dead as easy as the rest of them. I don’t want to hear any more of your bullshit, you hear me?”

With one fluid motion, Madrid swung into the saddle and gathered the reins. Hellion moved beneath him, shaking his red head in an attempt to release the pressure on his mouth. The animal shifted, presenting the old man with powerful hindquarters, one black-stockinged leg raised to strike.  The old man gave ground, backing hurriedly away from the mighty stallion.

 

Chapter 23 

The road is long, with many a winding turn, that leads us to who knows where, who knows where. But I’m strong, strong enough to carry him, he ain’t heavy, he’s my brother...unknown

 

As the song drifted forlornly into the kitchen, soft and tender notes lovingly encircled the housekeeper. Maria paused in her chores, her hand hovering over the bowl of cake batter she was whipping. Had she imagined the melody? Maybe she was just seeing specters in the shadows, as her mother used to tell her.

Maria had been born into a superstitious family whose members lent themselves to the more pagan nature of their religion. She had nonetheless remained firmly grounded in reality, refusing to surrender to their beliefs. Her mother, Sophia, had been bold in expressing her displeasure when Maria had agreed to marry Cipriano and converted easily to Catholicism. The couple had eagerly embraced their future and a life of their own, even at the risk of alienation by their families.

Although secure and confident in her life, she had experienced moments of foreboding, as if her aunt’s curse was coming to fruition. A woman’s heart harbors a lifetime of secrets and Maria never expressed her superstitions to her husband, preferring to wage war against her demons privately. She shook her head, smiling at her own imagination gone astray. But there it was again. The haunting tune, both unexpected and familiar, coaxed her to join in the song. Maria lifted her head, then realized the sound was emanating from the room above. She softly harmonized, the tune escaping unbidden between her lips as she joined the unseen songstress

Maria wiped her hands on her apron, then silently approached the door to Teresa’s room, with no conscious thought of her odd need for secrecy. Feeling like a thief in the night, she came to a stop before the heavy oak door.  With a quick glance thrown down the hallway, she gingerly turned the knob, quietly pressing the door open.

Teresa stood at the dresser, her hands caressing a man’s shirt while she pressed the garment to her nose. She inhaled deeply, as she tenderly hummed Johnny’s lullaby. Regretting her intrusion, Maria softly closed the door then padded back to the kitchen.

*****

Scott grasped the handle of the axe, his knuckles gleaming white in the afternoon sun. He grimaced; his lips set in a thin line as he violently swung the axe, striking the intended target with a violence befitting his inner rage. The recoil of the impact reverberated fiercely throughout his body, almost toppling him but for the head of the axe deeply embedded in the stump. With a ferocious jerk he wrenched the axe free, pausing to gulp in copious amounts of air before striking the stump several more times. Finally, winded and exhausted, he sank into a heap beside the remains of the old oak tree.

He bowed his head, his heart thundering in his chest as his breath came in ragged gasps. The physical exertion was peaceful in comparison to the inner war still raging within his heart. A battle, not unlike the war in which he had participated so long ago now, broke through the wall of self-control as his tenuous grasp on his emotions crumbled. He had struggled valiantly in his attempt to convey strength and courage to his family but his grief could no longer be contained.

Life was moving on, as it is wont to do, as it should do. Even he himself was finally moving on, but he was aware of a deeper level of turmoil. A current boiled beneath the seemingly calm façade to which he was adapting. A surge of rage ripped through his body, demanding some kind of action. His body ached with need, with emotions so long suppressed that they now screamed for release but he was loathe to acknowledge the true depths of his despair. He wouldn’t, couldn’t admit to the course of action his mind continually pleaded for.

“Revenge,” he whispered. There, he had finally put voice to the thought. Rather than an acknowledgement that freed his soul, he now felt instead as if his entire body had been bound tighter, suffocating with the energy required to maintain such hatred. And he truly, deeply hated, and that hatred was like a decaying corpse tied to his back, its weight on his shoulders nearly unbearable. He would not bow his knee to it, not even if the sheer weight of such hatred crushed the core of his self-esteem.

“You look pretty,” Johnny’s voice whispered in the wind.

Like looking in a mirror darkly, shadow and light swirled in confusing grotesque ribbons. Scott surveyed his heart and found the beckoning finger of darkness looming on the horizon. “No, brother, I’m as ugly as a man can be,” he stated flatly.  He resisted the urge to submit to the darkness and held fast to the light. His resolve was crushed despite the fight he’d put up and he bowed his head as hot tears stung his cheeks.

Voices swirled around him, soft, demanding, full of laughter and anger mixing as one...voices in the wind, in his mind, in his heart. Taunting, teasing, comforting. Scott shook his head, covering his ears in an attempt to silence the words, and all of the memories.

// ’You saw they were trying to get rid of us?’//

//’Yes, I saw. ’//

//’I’m beginning to dislike this town enough to stay. ’//

Yet they persisted.

//’I’ll talk to Murdoch. Square things. ’//

//’No, Scott. You belong here. ’//

Anguish tore through his soul, searing, stabbing pain that took his breath, robbing him of the energy to think. Scott rose on limbs trembling from the exertion of the emotional war. Unsteadily, he paced to and fro as he searched deep within, seeking a place of calm.

He had been shocked to discover he had a brother when he had first arrived at Lancer, but it had felt so right, so natural. The two had quickly bonded, each drawing closer to the other as a long neglected need within their hearts had finally been fulfilled. Upon learning they were brothers, connected by the man who had summoned them, the men had studied each appraisingly, seeking a common ground and finding it.

//’I hate to see my property go up in flames. ’//

//’Our property. ’//

The walls in Scott’s heart collapsed as the flood of memories continued their trek across the pages of his mind. Each memory, burning into every fiber of his being, was as a brand that sears the flesh of the calf. Finally, as the young man emptied his heart of all the months of pain, the built up emotional load was freed of its bounds. Scott breathed deeply, feeling much like a man released from the chains of bondage.

Revenge screamed in disappointment before retreating before the goodness in the young man. Scott turned the corner and faced himself, silently offering thanks that he had endured the test of character and conquered the ugliness that lurks in the heart of man. He stood tall, strength and courage returning in the face of victory.

“You belong here.” Scott repeated, his heart finding and accepting the peace of the reality. He did belong on Lancer and he would make a home for himself here with Hannah and their children. He turned his eyes skyward, feeling a blanket of calm descending upon his shoulders as Johnny smiled down in approval.

***** 

Hannah stood at her window studying the majestic panorama of the vista spread before her. The open window allowed the cool morning breeze to flow soothingly through the room, the scent of wild flowers offered their fragrant aroma, and birds sang a tender chorus. She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply, savoring nature’s fragrance, welcoming the soft exploration of the wind as it stroked her heated cheeks.

Beyond her field of vision, cattle lowed softly providing the harmony to the lilting high-pitched song of the birds. A horse nickered in the distance, encouraging the choir to greater heights. Hannah smiled. “Lord, girl, you are a romantic,” she chided herself. With a giggle she crossed to the dresser, and retrieved her brush. She combed her long silken hair, enjoying the feel of the bristles against her scalp.

“Mrs. Lancer,” she voiced aloud, enjoying the feel of the words rolling off her tongue. “Mrs. Scott Lancer.” Sighing in contentment, she paused to study her reflection, the sight both pleasing and erotic. The soft blue of her gown lit her eyes, her full red lips were parted seductively, and a faint blush crept up her cheeks as she felt a stirring in her bosom.

Hannah jerked in shock as the sound of breaking glass shattered the serenity of the moment. She fled the room, then slid to stop outside Teresa’s room. Without knocking she grasped the handle and threw open the door.

Teresa whirled, her eyes flashing with anger at the intrusion. Tightly clenched in one fist she gripped a picture of Johnny, shards of broken glass covered the floor at her feet. The wardrobe door had been flung wide and the bureau drawers were open. Articles of Johnny’s clothing lay scattered throughout the room.

“Damn him!” Teresa shrieked in rage, her hand waving the picture in Hannah’s direction. “Damn him! How could he leave me!”  With a wail she tore the picture into a dozen little pieces and tossed them toward Hannah before throwing herself on the bed.

 

Chapter 24

Forgiveness is fine, but is it really feasible if you continue to carry the hurt within you?

Nick Arrizza, M.D.

Val paused to watch the young man as he labored, aggressively attacking the old tree stump as if engaged in a battle for life and death. The muscled shoulders bulged with the effort, while an uncharacteristic stream of curses flowed freely through Scott’s lips. Still unsure of the motives governing his present course of action, Val nonetheless resolved to proceed. An overwhelming urge to face Johnny Madrid Lancer’s brother had brought him here and he would not back up.

He had long admired Johnny’s brother. Scott possessed qualities he himself seriously lacked.   Beneath the Eastern grace and mannerisms Scott Lancer was not unlike his brother. It had taken Val months to recognize the truth that the brothers were cut from the same cloth.

As Scott paused to adjust his grip on the handle of the axe, Val coughed softly.

Scott whirled to face the intruder. “Don’t sneak up on me like that. What the hell is wrong with you?” he demanded.

Val attempted to suppress the grin that threatened to creep across his face, but confronted by Scott’s rage, he failed miserably. The grin became a heart - felt smile, as he took in Scott’s appearance. His shirt clung to him, adhered to Scott’s upper body by perspiration and a thick coating of grime. Once blond locks, now darkened with dirt, lay plastered to his head, while mud caked his trousers and boots.

“Why don’t you just shoot it?” Val asked, his eyes gleaming with mirth.

“What the hell does that mean?” Scott angrily swiped an arm across his forehead, smearing the dirt that dripped in tiny rivulets down his cheeks.

“Ya should see yourself. Did that stump call ya out or something?” Val dead - panned, as he raised his hands in mock surrender. The laughter held at bay burst forth slipping unbidden through Val’s customary stoicism.

As the laughter grew, Scott’s anger swelled with indignation at first, then slowly diminished, leaving in its wake a weary young man. He looked on in confusion, then took notice of his stance. He was standing, legs wide apart, the axe raised over his head as if to strike. “I was clearing the…” Slowly he lowered the weapon, embarrassment staining his cheeks as he acknowledged the humorous attitude of his posture.

“I see that. Mind if I step down?” Without waiting for a reply, Val dismounted. “Murdoch said I’d find ya out here. He didn’t tell me ya’d be trying to murder ole stumpy there.”

“That’s enough, Val.” Scott groused. “I’m glad I could offer you some amusement but is there a point to this visit?”  He stalked to his horse, removed a canteen and turned toward the nearby grove of trees. He gratefully sank down with his back to a tree and took a long swallow of water, relishing the cool refreshment as it cleared his throat of the layer of choking dust.

“Well, just wanted to check on ya.” Val had followed the young man to the stand of trees and now stood a few feet away. He pulled a piece of jerky from his pocket, shrugged his shoulders when Scott refused his offer, then took a bite. With a sideways glance, he lowered his lanky frame to a sitting position, chewing thoughtfully.

“Why?” Scott sighed. Fatigue of both body and soul descended upon his shoulders, slid down his extremities, and pinned him to the earth. Unable to fight the current of heaviness, the young man leaned his head against the tree, his vision blurring until, of their own accord, his eyes slid shut.

Val paused to clear his throat. “Johnny was my friend.”

“Yeah, I know.” Scott’s eyes remained closed, his breathing deepened as he relaxed. The silence stretched uncomfortably until exasperated Scott sat up abruptly to study the other man. Val sat against a tree, his head tilted back as he leisurely watched an eagle soaring high above. While to a casual observer Val appeared relaxed, Scott was aware of tension in the man.  His mouth was tightly closed, the muscles in his jaw clenched.

Scott knew Val was an excellent, if unorthodox peacekeeper, but he knew little else about the lawman.  Scott had never been close to the deceptively sloppy sheriff, while Johnny and Val had been almost brotherly in their regard for each other. They had enjoyed a competitive game of one-upmanship and shared a history that they both refused to disclose.

Scott couldn’t admit to liking the man, he neither understood him nor his past connection to Johnny.   And today, on his journey for self-exploration, he had to face the truth - he had always resented Val. Val had been allowed a place in Johnny’s confidence to which he had never been privy.

“Something on your mind, Val?” Scott broke the silence, his voice unusually loud in the stillness of the afternoon. “Get it said.”

“Ya know, I just figured I would ride out and see how you’re doin’ is all. Like I said Johnny was my friend.”

“Johnny had a lot of friends,” Scott agreed.

“Yeah, well, I don’t.”

At the soft spoken reply, Scott raised his head and studied the lawman more intently, as if he was seeing him for the first time. He rubbed his chin thoughtfully; the previous agony of the afternoon raised its head demanding attention. “You know Val; there is something I need to know.”

“What’s that?” Val was cautious, yet his demeanor indicated a begrudging willingness to assist a friend’s brother.

“You wouldn’t have the name of someone in Nevada, would you? Someone in authority?”

“What ya got in mind?” Val’s interest rose a couple of degrees, the unusual request inflaming his natural curiosity. “Sounds a lot like something your brother might have asked.”

“I need to make some inquiries and a lead to a reputable sheriff or marshal would be helpful.” Scott shrugged, refusing to reveal more than a casual interest in the democracy of Johnny’s home area.

“Yeah, I know someone. Why?”

“I can’t deny this feeling any longer.” Scott was on his feet, stalking restlessly back and forth, his earlier rage reasserting itself. “Does it strike you as odd that no one has asked the most obvious questions?”

“And what might that question be?” Val likewise rose; turning his head from side to side as he followed Scott’s every movement.

Abruptly, Scott paused, his jaw clenching as he struggled with overwhelming anger. “My brother was brutally shot down! No man deserves to die that way! And no one has asked who! Or why!”

“Just say it then,” Val urged, his own anger releasing in a heated flow that rivaled Scott Lancer’s.

“I damn well aim to find out. Are you in or what?”

***** 

The intense trek to Greeley had been hurried with the men laboring under the brisk pace. Their souls were inexplicably bound to the grim man riding at the fore of the group yet they feared the equally grim prospect his course of action was leading them to.

Hellion, under the skilled control of his rider, alternately fought his master or attacked the other mounts. His tiresome drive for blood would have overcome a lesser man, but Madrid reveled in the adrenaline the animal elicited in him. Two of a kind, they were base, animalistic.

The sudden tightening on Hellion’s mouth further angered the fiery stallion. He reared in protest as Madrid abruptly halted on the outskirts of Greeley. “Town ahead. We’ll stop for supplies,” Madrid announced as he indicated his empty canteen hanging from the pummel of his saddle. “Besides, I need a drink.”  Expecting no argument, and receiving none, he turned onto the trail leading into town, oblivious, or unconcerned, about the furtive looks the men behind him exchanged.

As a single force they rode into Greeley, Madrid leading, with his men flanking him. Onlookers paused in their menial tasks, but their curiosity turned to fear as the shadow of the approaching men crept over them. Like ripples in a pond, the swell of dread preceded the newcomers as they drew rein outside the saloon. Awed by the energy emitted by the young man in black, an eerie hush descended upon the residents who remained on the street.

Madrid sat nonchalantly in the saddle outside the saloon, his ominous attitude drawing the customary stares as residents suddenly moved to avoid his presence. He grinned smugly as he studied the anticipated response.

To his left, Grimsley wearily dismounted, stretching to relieve the tension in saddle-sore muscles. He secured the reins of his mount to the hitching post, then brushed dust from his chaps before loosening the cinch and removing his saddlebags. With a sigh, he moved between his gelding and the blood red stallion, his shoulder brushing Hellion’s off flank as he passed between the two horses.  Angrily the stallion lashed out, screaming a challenge to the human who had strayed too close. His hind leg found its mark, landing strategically on the offending gunman’s hip, the blow sending Grim sprawling face first in the dirt.

Angrily, Grimsley turned on Madrid. “Damn it, Madrid! I’ve had enough! I’m gonna put a bullet in his…”

The sound of the Colt being cocked was unmistakable, the metallic sound loud in the eerie stillness on the street. Small beads of sweat dotted Grimsley’s brow as he stared into the gaping barrel holding steady on target.

The human persona that was Madrid had all but disappeared, replaced by something unidentifiable, something evil. Narrowed eyes gleamed with hunger for the blood that one small flick of a finger offered. With an involuntary shiver Grimsley stared as Madrid greedily licked his lips, his finger tightening on the trigger.

Aware of the unease in the passersby, who now stood as if rooted in place, Mac took a step toward the two adversaries, his stride betraying none of the weakness enveloping his knees. His heart hammered as he considered the possibility of the deadly Colt being turned on him.

With relief, Mac came to a stop as the Colt was lowered, the man in black releasing pent up breath, his eagerness to end a life now firmly controlled. Words soft and still floated on the breeze, their message clear. “He doesn’t like anyone behind him, Grim…and neither do I. You get my meaning?”

Mac found himself nodding in agreement as Grimsley acknowledged the warning.

*****

“I had an interesting conversation with Val this afternoon.” Scott swirled the brandy in his snifter, studying the motion of the liquid as it coated the glass.

“What did he have to say?” Murdoch barely suppressed his curiosity, striving for patience as he waited for his son to fill him in. He stood expectantly, willing Scott to continue.

“Not a lot, really. He’s missing Johnny as much as we are.” Scott lifted his head from his observation of the contents of his glass, and tossed down the drink. “You know, Murdoch, it never occurred to me that the sheriff would be so torn up.”

“He and Johnny were close, even if we didn’t understand the basis for the friendship,” Murdoch mused, his brow furrowed thoughtfully. “Johnny never confided in me. Whatever happened in the past, both he and Val chose to leave it there.”

”They say a man can never have enough friends,” Scott conceded. “Anyway, we came up with a course of action. Apparently I haven’t been alone in thinking we have to do something.”

“Go on.” Murdoch felt the cold hand of fate grasping his inner most consciousness, bearing down until he squirmed to free himself from the weight.

“We’re going to Nevada. We have to find out why this happened.”

“It was a random act of violence, you know that.” The clutch of the hand bore down harder. The sinking feeling now threatened to smother him as Murdoch stared reality in the face. He had lost one son and now feared he would lose the second one. ”Leave it alone.”

“Leave it alone! My brother was murdered; his wife is now a widow. How can you suggest I leave it alone? I wonder that you haven’t been out looking for the man or men who killed Johnny before now.”

“Scott, there are too many others to consider. Like Teresa, and Hannah. A man can’t go off chasing down some shadows, not when there are a lot of people here at Lancer who rely on him.”  Murdoch thundered.

“I have to do this. For all of us. I have to see justice done, and it can’t wait.” Scott’s resolve was as unyielding as his father’s anger as he met his father’s intense gaze, his own emotion withstanding the older man’s influence.

Murdoch knew he wasn’t going to dissuade his son. The light in the younger man’s eyes was that of a man bent on pursuing revenge, as much as finding out the facts surrounding the death of their loved one, but still he could not allow his son to set out on a trek of vengeance. Rage would dominate common sense, caution. And a man engaged in such a mind set was easily a dead man. “Son, you have nothing to prove. At least wait a few weeks, just until the baby is born. Teresa can’t handle any more strain right now.”

It was, Murdoch knew, an unfair tactic to use Teresa’s unborn child as leverage to sway his son, but it was effective. Murdoch heaved a sigh of relief as he observed the anger in son receding.

Scott’s stiff posture wilted as his father’s plea struck a nerve, landing hard on his conscious. He pursed his lips, his mind racing as he searched for an appropriate response. “All right,” he ground out, his head rising defiantly. “But just until the baby is born. Then, damn it! I am going to find the bastards who killed my brother!”

 

Chapter 25

Music has the power to soothe the savage beast . . .or does it?unknown

The tinny chords of the piano were grating on Madrid's nerves. He pinned his gaze on the back of the piano player who was earnestly pounding on the keys, with a saloon girl hanging around his neck, laughing at his efforts. Madrid's gaze hardened and one finger tightened on the butt of his Colt. His nerve endings screamed in protest at each note the drunken musician played, his on-edge body demanding some kind of action.

Exasperated, Madrid rose in one fluid movement as he leveled his colt on the offending instrument. Despite the raucous atmosphere in the saloon, the smoke hanging over the heads of its occupants and the dimly lit interior, his aim was straight and true. One of the piano legs supporting the bench exploded into finite splinters as his bullet ploughed through its target. 

The piano player and his companion fell hard to the floor, landing in a tangled heap. In an instant the man was on his feet, cursing the gunman who had interrupted his song. As his focus took in the dark man in the corner, he swallowed hard, sobering as he recognized the identity of the shooter. With tightened jaw, he reconsidered his intended course of action. Attempting to convey an attitude of nonchalance, he turned to the bar and ordered a drink.

With a sigh of satisfaction, Madrid downed his tequila in a single gulp then left the noisy cantina. He threw his head back to observe the new moon, drinking in the fresh air. Funny, he had always loved smoky, crowded saloons in the past. Now they were a constant source of unease. He vigorously shook off the foreign thought patterns and took a deep breath.

The stillness of the moment was broken by a woman's smothered scream. His curiosity piqued, Madrid checked his rig then stepped off the boardwalk, allowing the sound of running feet to guide him to the source of the cry.

A woman struggled against the hand restraining her as she fought to free herself from the other hand that covered her mouth. "Stand still, you bitch!" Ramsey snarled viciously. She shook her head violently back and forth as she attempted another scream.

Ramsey leered in satisfaction. He preferred his women spirited, enjoyed the fight as well as the release that she would later provide him. Eagerly he pinned her against the wall, using his superior weight to hold her firmly in place, and with his free hand jerked at the fabric of her gown. Overpowered and weakened by the struggle she wilted, her sudden submission pleasing Ramsey, heightening his arousal. He craved dominance and the thrill of conquest incited him; her surrender fuelled his lust and he clawed frantically at the buttons of his pants. 

"Hell, I love the foreplay almost as much as I'll enjoy taking you. Come on you whore, fight me," he sneered as he tore the fabric of her gown from her shoulders and brutally grasped her breast. "Now, we're gonna have some fun."

"Whatcha doing, Ramsey?"  Madrid's voice came from just behind Ramsey's shoulder. 

Ramsey whirled to face the intruder without relinquishing his hold on his captive.  "This one's mine. Go find your own bitch," he growled. 

Madrid shouldered past him, grabbed the woman's other arm and turned her viciously to face him. Ramsey glared at the intruder but gave ground, his anger stayed by the sight of the gunhawk's hand on the butt of his lethal Colt. He stifled his urge to challenge the interloper, his curiosity rising as Madrid shoved the woman against the wall of the building.

Madrid inspected the young creature in his grasp, admiring her beauty as one would a fine piece of horseflesh. She was young and beautiful, her green eyes revealing her shattered innocence. The bodice of her gown was torn, exposing creamy white swells, one marred by a purpling mark, evidence of Ramsey's violence. Her full lips were bruised and swollen, her hair hung in ribbons across her flushed cheeks. She was breathing heavily, the effect mesmerizing as her full breasts rose and fell with each gasp.

Fascinated, Madrid reached out to cup one tantalizing symbol of womanhood, squeezing the fullness once clothed by the fine gown in wonder. 

She grew still as his hand slid up her chest to grasp her throat. Resolutely, she accepted the inevitable while she silently determined to fight the assault on her person and mind. A thin smile twisted his lips as Madrid begrudgingly admired her courage.

 

"Hey, Madrid, that's my whore!" Ramsey growled. His patience snapped as Madrid caressed the young woman's flesh. 

"Shut up, Ramsey." Madrid turned to eye the other man, his voice like lethal velvet, as he said, "Or I'll send you to Hell where you belong."

Ramsey's mouth closed with a snap, but he dared not press the matter. The gleam in Madrid's eyes was obvious even in the darkened alley. Angrily he stalked to the boxes stacked against the wall where he sat heavily, his stare boring holes in the other man's back as he vowed to send Madrid to the grave.

Satisfied that he had made his displeasure with the interruption known, Madrid returned his attention to the woman in his grip. He tilted the girl's face higher, hunger lighting his darkened eyes despite the feeling of hatred that churned to the surface. Like a cat playing with a field mouse, his grip loosened, and then as she moved seeking escape, he brutally grabbed her shoulder and thrust her back against the wall. With a sneer of disgust he pulled her close. 

"Please don't," she whispered as she sought anything good or pure in the young man who held her in his grip. But goodness was absent in the deadly stranger; his features devoid of any semblance of humanity. "Let me go, please," she implored him desperately. 

"You're so sweet I should let you go," he whispered in her ear. In amusement, Madrid watched as hope blossomed in the youthful features, only to be crushed by the cruelty of his words that followed. "But then why should I? You're just a whore."

******

Scott hadn't needed to question or reason, he just knew he would find Hannah under the oak tree. It was a special place for the couple, where they'd spent many an evening under its aged branches. The tree bore silent witness to their conversations, their exploration of each other, and like a valued ally it hid their secrets. Now the huge tree stood in mute dismay as the young couple, so overjoyed mere days ago, sat together in mournful silence. As if shading them from watchful eyes, the tree spread its massive limbs over them, enveloping them in security.

"I missed you at lunch, honey." Scott sat beside her, stretching his long legs in front of him before wrapping his arms around her. She spoke not a word, merely reaching for him, turning her face into his shoulder. She had been crying, her still moist cheeks stained his shirt with her pain.

He held her tightly, felt the trembling in the slender shoulders, the quaking of her body expressing the depth of her sorrow more eloquently than words. 

Gradually, her tears slowed, the trembling eased and she sat back to look into his eyes as she wiped her cheeks. "I was thinking about Teresa and the baby, Scott. It's so unfair," she moaned. 

He nodded his understanding, one hand finding a strand of her silken hair and gently stroking it. "I know. But there is always hope."

"Sam didn't seem to have any the other day. He was so sure," she intoned flatly.

"He's a doctor, honey, not God. Besides, he has to prepare us. You know he's seen a lot of tragedy in his practice, but he's done a lot of good in this world. Sam's as wise they come.  If he gives little hope, then he's trying to prepare us. You know the old saying." 

Hannah shook her head in confusion. "What old saying?"

"Hope for the best but prepare for the worst," Scott offered.  "Sam was being logical. He has to be."

"I suppose. But it is so hard to hope…for the best, I mean. I just don't know how much more any of us can take." She twisted her skirt in her hands. "And I didn't want to upset Teresa this morning by crying in front of her."

"Sometimes knowing others are hurting too makes it easier to bear," Scott soothed. 

"But you didn't see her. She was so angry. I didn't know what to say to her. I just, just left…" Her voice broke, a sob catching in her throat. "I should have done something, said something."

"Don't be so hard on yourself, Hannah. Just being there helped."

"I hope so, Scott." She lowered her head, seeking to stem the flow of tears threatening to overwhelm her. "Do you really think the baby will be fine?"

"Teresa is determined to prove that Sam is wrong. She's one tough young lady when she gets an idea in her head."

A hesitant smile graced Hannah's lips. "You're right. And doctors are too cautious at times." She nodded as hope took root. "Sam must be wrong. I refuse to believe otherwise. Teresa is going to have a healthy baby!"

"Of course she is. And we'll have plenty of our own, too." He touched her cheek, his hand drifting toward her shoulder suggestively. 

"You think so?" Hannah turned smoldering eyes toward him, her lips trembling with passion. She lifted her face to meet his lips as he dropped a gentle kiss on her full mouth. With a sigh, she lowered her head once more as yet another question was poised on her lips, a question that had haunted her since Johnny's death. "Do you think Teresa will ever find love again?"

"I think she could," Scott replied hesitantly. "She has a lot to offer and time does heal all wounds. So, why not? Maybe as she gets on and the seasons change she will see what she had with Johnny was a wonderful thing. Maybe then she'll be ready to face the world with more forgiving eyes. I think when she's ready she'll realize there are other people who bear pain of their own. Maybe she'll want to join them in life's journey."

"Would you and Murdoch mind? I mean, if she ever loved another?"

Scott ran his hand through his hair, suddenly tense and uneasy. He was no stranger to the question, having wrestled with it many nights himself. How would he feel? But it wasn't about him or Murdoch, was it? Teresa was young, vibrant. How could their loyalty to Johnny's memory possibly come between the young woman and the chance at happiness if the opportunity ever presented itself? They couldn't, and suddenly he was powerfully aware that Johnny would want her to live and love again. Finally at peace with himself he sighed with relief, then faced his fiancé. 

"Hannah, if Teresa found another, we would support her, and welcome him. But I think it will be a long time before she even considers such a thing."

"I know." Hannah smiled with renewed confidence. "But I admire her so. She is so strong."

"Yes, she is. And don't you forget it."  Scott offered a smile of his own, then rose. He wiped the grass from his trousers before extending his hand to her. She accepted the proffered hand, allowing him to guide her to her feet. He turned her to face him, his hands gentle on her shoulders. He lifted her chin, raising her head as his mouth came down on her lips, claiming her. 

"Not now, Scott," she chastised, pulling back. "It's not right to be so happy when Teresa is…."

"Teresa is what?" he replied huskily, his eyes flaming with passion. He groaned as he pressed closer to her, his need throbbing against her thighs. With a grunt of hunger he captured her lips firmly, demanding a response. All his anger had receded, been pushed back to where his love could rise and overcome it. In his heart, Scott knew that once he was alone again that intense anger would reassert itself. But he wasn't alone in his accepted course of action, Val had understood.

"Yes, but…" Hannah's voice was choked off as the heat of Scott's touch seared her flesh through the fabric of her gown. With a moan she relented, hungrily responding as he kissed her again, his tongue separating her lips. 

*****    

Val Crawford kicked the stove, grimacing when the pain in his big toe reminded him of the idiocy of such behavior. Gripping his cup, he stalked to his desk and fell into his chair. He stretched his legs out before him and took a tentative sip of the brew that Johnny laughingly accused him of attempting to pass off as coffee. The thought brought a smile to his mouth as he remembered Johnny's skepticism when told that coffee could be brewed in a frying pan. A familiar tug in his chest reminded him of exactly how badly he missed his friend.

He sighed deeply then laid his head back to study the ceiling. It had been months since Johnny had passed away yet somehow the ache in his heart was more acute than yesterday. If it was so difficult for him, he wondered how Teresa managed to cope.

His mind drifted back over his discovery of the afternoon. Scott Lancer was not his brother but Johnny had loved him and that was good enough for Val. He had never doubted Johnny; not his skill, his loyalty or his judgment. He had not been surprised by Scott Lancer's plans of revenge. In fact, he himself had considered making a trip east to find answers. He owed it to his friend to seek justice. 

With a sigh, he reached for the disorganized pile of messages he had received in the last few days. While he sipped his coffee, he perused the incoming telegrams from neighboring lawmen. A particular missive from the sheriff in Greeley arrested his attention in the midst of swallowing the last of the dark brew in his cup. He fought the sensation to cough, barely able to contain the liquid in his mouth.

/SHERIFF GREEN RIVER STOP WALDEN GANG HEADING WEST STOP NEW BLOOD STOP PREPARE FOR THE WORST STOP/

 

Chapter 26  

Where do we go when we just don't know and
how do we relight the flame when it's cold?
Why do we dream when our thoughts mean
nothing.
Serenity by Godsmack

Scott gulped down the tequila, swallowing hard as the fiery liquid burned a path to his stomach. The alcohol, while not his beverage of choice, was comforting as if a small legacy from his brother had saturated his soul as surely as the liquor was overpowering his senses. With a trembling hand he poured another shot, his customary good graces disturbingly absent. He tossed down the second drink then stood panting as the liquid flame seared his throat. Finally, with a small measure of control held tentatively in his grasp, he crossed to the window behind his father’s desk and sat down his now empty glass. He placed his hands on the cool pane of glass, his head dropping between his extended arms  and concentrated on steadying his breathing and slowing his rapid heart beat. /’What the hell is wrong with me, anyway,’/ he wondered.

The afternoon with Hannah had been blissful as they enjoyed private moments of tender intimacy. She had welcomed his advances, shy yet flush with desire, responding with a passion as great as his own, while yet reluctant to engage in the less than honorable physical pursuit their passion had taken them to. He had resisted the urge to take her. In the face of her reluctance he had convinced himself that he wanted to consummate their marriage in the traditional manner. But in his heart he had been forced to face the truth… he felt guilty. Was he to be happy while others suffered?

The idea was both ludicrous yet grounded in undeniable fact. While he knew the words he had spoken to Hannah had been in earnest, he couldn’t reconcile his heart with his conscience. He was planning a future with a beautiful woman but his happiness was overshadowed by sorrow.  He yearned for the joy that comes with such a union to encompass all who resided in the great hacienda, but he knew doubt and fear were ugly emotions, tenacious and unwilling to release their hold.

“Son?” Murdoch spoke gently from behind him, interrupting his son’s wayward thoughts. “You look like a man with something on his mind.”

“Many things, Murdoch. So many things.” Scott tossed a disturbed glance at his father then crossed the room, coming to a stop before the empty hearth. His back still toward his father, he jammed his hands in his pockets, then shrugged his shoulders.

“I once told you and your brother that the past was past, but I’m finding out how wrong I was.” Murdoch paused, his expression pensive and troubled. “The past is always with us and you have to air your grievances in order to deal with them.”

“It’s my problem,” Scott objected. Realizing the abruptness of his words, he swallowed hard and turned to face the older man. “It would seem I’m my father’s son,” he offered by way of apology. He pulled his hands from his pockets and took a step closer. “Would you like something to drink before supper, sir?” Scott’s tone softened as he deftly changed the conversation to a safer, less intrusive topic.

“Yes, you are,” Murdoch agreed with a grin, then sobered, as he sensed his son’s inner turmoil.

Aware that Scott had asked a question and stood awaiting a response, Murdoch nodded his head. “A scotch.”

He studied his son as Scott poured the requested beverage, noting the careful movements, the steady hand. Scott had been a closed book since the death of his brother, refusing to acknowledge his own needs. His collapse during their trip to Johnny’s small ranch and later display of anger and grief at the torturous funeral had been his sole release. While the burden under which he labored had been at times obvious, he had remained passive and stoic.

Seeking to ease his son’s affliction, if only a little, Murdoch nonchalantly reported, “Paul spoke his first word.”

Scott’s head came up with a jerk, his heart leaping. “What?” he asked, his eyes gleaming expectantly, a slight upward twist to his lips indicating an easing of the yoke about his spirit.

“Little Paul said his first word. ‘Mama’.” As the joy of witnessing his grandchild’s growth momentarily eclipsed his concern for his son, Murdoch’s face split into a wide grin. His enthusiasm was infectious, the smile successfully pulling Scott out of his inner turmoil. Murdoch said quietly, “Teresa was laughing when I found her in Paul’s room the other morning. I haven’t heard her laugh like that in so long.” The wonder at the sight he had witnessed was still etched indelibly in his mind.

“Why didn’t you tell me sooner?” Scott asked accusatorily. He quickly recovered, then returned his father’s smile, his own grin crinkling the corners of his eyes as joy briefly covered his countenance. “I mean that’s wonderful.”

“I thought Teresa might want to tell you herself,” Murdoch explained.

A shadow flickered across Scott’s handsome features, dimming the light in the slate blue eyes.

“Son?” Murdoch’s smile slid off his face, the corners of his mouth pulled down into the frown he had worn of late. “What is it?”

Still aware of the absurdity of his thoughts, and unwilling to lower his defenses, Scott managed a weak grin. “I was just thinking things over.”

“What things?”

“I was talking to Hannah today. Well, she asked…” Scott paused, the conversation with Hannah replaying as if he were reliving the afternoon. “She asked a pretty tough question. It just made me think, that’s all.”

“What question?” Murdoch urged. His grasp on his patience slipped as he pressed his son for an explanation.

“She wanted to know if we’d have any objections if Teresa ever chose to remarry. I have to admit I never even considered the possibility. I mean, I want to see Teresa happy but I never thought about her finding someone else.”

Murdoch studied his son, seeking to decipher Scott’s flat expression. Convinced he would find no answer in the chiseled features, Murdoch leaned against his desk, crossed his arms over his chest, and searched within. Teresa was Johnny’s wife, she had said she always would be, but the fact remained she was a young widow, as well as a very passionate, vibrant woman.

How could anyone destine her to loneliness and subject her children to a world without a father figure? How could they place expectations on her that they themselves would be unwilling to live under? In fact, he himself had married twice. He looked upward, certain he could feel his son peering down through the despair that covered the hacienda, pressing his will into their consciousness. And as sure as he was of Johnny’s presence, he also knew his son’s wishes.

Uncertain of his son’s opinion on the matter and unwilling to anger him, he carefully chose his words, “I understand her loss, Scott, and the prospect of spending life alone. So if,” he hesitated, raking his eyes over Scott’s face as he sought a reaction, “if she decides to move on, even like that, then I think we will have to give her our blessing.”

Scott sighed in relief. “I agree, sir. It is her life.” Again the fair head bowed, as yet another pressure descended on the young man’s shoulders. “I’m trying to understand why I’m so certain Johnny would want Teresa to move on, while I feel guilty for doing so,” Scott said softly.

Pain sliced through Murdoch’s heart as he, too, experienced his son’s anguish. “Johnny loved you, son. He would want you to be happy.”

Murdoch crossed to his son’s side, placed his large hands on Scott’s shoulders, relieved when Scott accepted the comfort. “It’s time we all learn to move on. We have to.”

“You’re right. We have to let Johnny go.”

***** 

Jelly shook his head in exasperation. He had made such good time, his desire to reach Lancer a living force, pushing him to still greater effort, urging him to make all haste. And he had - until the gelding had thrown a shoe. As the gelding’s limp became more pronounced Jelly cursed the unexpected twist fate had dealt him.

As the sun reached its peak, Jelly acknowledged the inevitable.  He reluctantly slowed then and dismounted, and now led both horses. Adding insult to injury, the golden stallion, a picture of health and strength, pranced beside the lame gelding. The palomino met Jelly’s eye, and snorted, as if to say, ‘What the hell are you looking at?’

Jelly studied the stallion, as the feeling of familiarity swept over him, stronger this time, persistently urging him to remember. He eyed the stallion intensely, searching for an answer to the riddle. He had told Hanson that Lancer had hundreds of palominos, each and every one handsome and powerful, yet this stallion was not of Lancer stock as far as he knew. Or was he? Jelly had not been at Lancer long, arriving mere months after the homecoming of the two Lancer sons.

In the first year of life on the ranch, Murdoch Lancer had declined to discuss the breeding of horses or the origin of any of the animals that ranged along the spread’s many acres. He had steadfastly refused to grant his youngest son permission to expand the stock of palominos. Many nights Jelly had heard raised voices as the Lancer patriarch and Johnny had engaged in battle over the young man’s dreams to build the Lancer herds. And now those dreams had been extinguished. In the briefest moment, when a finger squeezed a trigger, Johnny’s life had been taken, his dreams and vision for the Lancer remuda dying with him.

Jelly removed his hat and wiped his brow as he attempted to drag himself out of the morbid mire his thoughts had sunk into. An impatient snort drew his attention back to the golden stallion. “I reckon the boss’ll tell me ‘bout ya sooner or later.”

The stallion shook his head arrogantly, as if aware of the man’s questions yet unwilling to reveal the truth. With a snort, he pawed the ground, impatient with the forced inactivity.

Jelly extended a cautious hand, seeking to stroke the golden head, but the stallion sidestepped the unwelcome touch. He was willing to allow the man to lead him on the unfamiliar trek, yet determined to avoid any direct contact.

“Ya blamed worthless piece of horseflesh. Ya may be purty but ya ain’t no good atall,” Jelly groused as he prepared himself mentally for the long trek on foot. “Leastways there’s a town ahead, and it ain’t as bad as Purgatory neither.” He tugged on the lead rope, backing away when the stallion’s ears flattened in annoyance.

***** 

The bartender offered no objection to Madrid’s choice of beverage even given the early hour of the day. One look at the gunfighter’s taunt expression quickly convinced him of the foolishness of arguing. Instead he placed a glass on the bar before his intimidating customer and started to pour the drink. The gloved hand on his wrist halted his movement. “I’ll take the bottle,” Madrid sneered icily.

Snatching the bottle from the wary man, Madrid stalked to the table at the back of the saloon and dropped lithely into a chair, his back to the wall, as was his custom. He leaned back in the chair, his hat tilted over his eyes. Despite his casual exterior he was anything but calm. His head throbbed, and irate nerves marched an incessant cadence through his limbs as rampant thoughts pounded on the doors of his mind.

“Lack of sleep, no doubt,” he growled to no one in particular. In annoyance he tossed down another shot of tequila, savoring the liquor even as its flames seared his throat.

The events of the previous evening had interrupted his sleep. As emotions raged within him, unfamiliar and disconcerting, he had tossed and turned before finally rising to pace his room in anger and confusion. Unknown faces stalked his darkened room. Visions of a young woman, her mouth moving soundlessly as she pleaded for help, had haunted his attempt at slumber. The memory of the previous evening flooded back, washing away the moment as he relived last night’s events….

******** 

“No mister, please. I don’t work in the saloon!” Though this man was more dreadful than the one who had accosted her, she held her head high in the face of his hatred. “I’m not a whore!” Still as hope abandoned her, tears spilled down the young woman’s cheeks. “Please. Please, let me go.”

“You’re a whore all right. I know your kind,” Madrid snarled.

“What kind?” she cried, as fear lent her renewed courage.

“You’re a woman, aren’t you,” he whispered smoothly in her ear. “That makes you a whore.”

He stepped back then signaled Ramsey who stood waiting less than patiently, his jaw tightly clenched in frustration. As Madrid relinquished his grip on the young woman a sneer marred his features. He stood silent, a strange sensation whispering inaudibly in his mind as Ramsey hungrily took control of the captive again, one knee pressing the girl’s legs apart. As the lustful man lifted her skirt, his hand invaded her secret place, pressing painfully deeper in lustful exploration. She shuddered as her body was violated, then turned pleading eyes to the gunman watching silently. She whimpered softly, anguish choking her ability for speech.

Strangely disgusted, Madrid turned away. ”Just don’t kill her,” he ordered. His own voice startled him, the order uncharacteristically lenient, but without a backward glance in their direction, he left the alley, and strode to the boardwalk.

Behind him the muffled sounds of a struggle grew louder then were suddenly silenced. In its stead came small whimpers, animalistic and fearful. Madrid couldn’t help smiling as the sound of footsteps running down the alley was followed by muffled curses.

“What’s the matter, Ramsey? Can’t you control your women?” he tossed over his shoulder. In his dark heart a flicker of relief flared, knowledge the woman had escaped lending fuel to the dim spark. The unfamiliar sensation of sympathy disturbed him. He couldn’t afford to extend any semblance of mercy to anyone, much less a woman of questionable character. He quickly smothered the flame. “Fire is plenty hot in hell,” he whispered to the night sky.

****** 

With a jerk, Madrid’s thoughts returned to the present. His uncharacteristic lack of attention to his surroundings added to his sense of unease. Something was happening within him, something unknown, disrupting his awareness of self. An iron splinter had embedded itself into his stony heart and he wondered if there had been any goodness within him, even for the smallest period of time. Could he have been as evil as Mac had led him to believe? The swirling tide of uncertainty consumed him, barraging him with questions he believed had been laid to rest.  The chink in his consciousness now threatened to fracture his self-confidence as doubt washed over him.

Disturbed by the direction his thoughts had taken, Madrid downed still another shot of tequila. He closed his eyes briefly only to be haunted by the face of the young woman Ramsey had assaulted the night before. In his mind she pointed accusing fingers, her demeanor condemning his lack of interference in the plan of the one who had meant her harm. Her face contorted violently as the features were transformed into those of a dark–haired woman. She was vaguely familiar, a beautiful woman who turned tear-stained eyes on him, a woman whose delicate features were twisted in grief. Her pain stabbed at him, deep thrusts that tore the fabric of his consciousness, and pierced the growing fissure in his soul.  

Violently Madrid slammed the door of his mind closed, his actions rivaling the intensity of his emotions as he surged to his feet. The chair crashed loudly to the floor behind him. “Damn it! I’m Johnny Madrid! The bitch is gonna cry over your grave, Scott Lancer.”

 

Chapter 27

And you could have it all, my empire of dirt. I will let you down, I will make you hurt.

Hurt by Johnny Cash

It was a weary Jellifer B. Hoskins who stumbled into the town of Greeley. Sweat poured down his face, cutting through the caked on dust as a river slices through a valley. He had long since ceased berating the golden giant prancing beside him, instead choosing to commiserate with the gelding that plodded with lowered head.

At the top of the town’s main street he came to a halt, aware of an ominous depression hanging over the otherwise glorious summer day. Dark and foreboding, the sensation clawed its way down his spine, embedding its icy grip in his stomach and taking root. He studied the layout of Greeley, relieved when the nearest building bore a sign announcing the presence of the town farrier. “We’re almost there, old man.” Jelly patted the gelding’s neck. “We’ll git yer shoe fixed and then be on our way home. And fast, too!”

Outside the livery, Jelly paused. A stable boy met him at the door. “Take yer horses, Mister?” Seemingly oblivious of the shadow hovering over the town, the boy waited casually for Jelly to acknowledge his enquiry.

“Ya got a blacksmith here, boy?” Jelly struggled to remain nonchalant, but an overwhelming dread had settled hard in his heart, and the trail home beckoned enticingly.

“Yessir. My dad’s the smithy. Ya need some shoes or somethin’?” the boy inquired importantly.

“Well o’ course my horse needs a shoe. What’ya think I need?” Jelly groused, “Fetch yer pa, would ya?”

The boy studied the old man and the gelding then his eyes lingered appreciatively on the stallion before he disappeared into the dark recesses of the barn. Within moments the boy had returned, his father following. Arrangements were made for the care of the gelding and a fee agreed upon. Jelly released the reins of the gelding to the boy, but waved him off as he approached the palomino, choosing to stable the stallion personally. Whatever Murdoch had planned for the stallion, Jelly was taking no chances with the care of the animal.

A hot breeze was stirring up small whirlwinds, adding yet another layer of grime to the already filthy town. Small particles of dust pelted Jelly’s cheeks as he crossed to the saloon from which emanated an ever-increasing sense of foreboding. The aura of evil into which Jelly had unwittingly entered as surely as he had entered the town, seemed to have a center on the street right outside the saloon. The raw energy pulsed, swelling as Jelly drew closer to the crowd surrounding the activity in the street.

Curiosity gained the upper hand and Jelly pushed against the resistance of the throng milling about. Abruptly the crowd parted when a red stallion rose high on its rear legs, screaming in rage. A man clad in black was seated on the red giant. He skillfully brought the animal down, his spurs raking cruelly across the stallion’s flanks. Again the red beast rose, his screams chilling as he twisted his head, teeth bared and fixed on the black boot of his rider.

The crimson horse came back to earth once more and his rider pressed him toward the door at the front of the saloon, holding a tight rein to control his mount. His right hand rested casually on his thigh ominously close to the Colt tied low on his hip. 

“Coming, Mac?” Despite the softness of the voice, it ripped the silence asunder as surely as lightning splits the night sky. It carried easily across the span of distance, and encircled those within the saloon, urging them to comply.

In response to his quiet command, five men strode from the saloon, heading for their horses and mounting quickly. But when faced with the enraged stallion, they fell back. The furious animal shook his head fiercely to rid himself of the cruel grip on the reins. The rider clung to his mount and prodded his flanks repeatedly, inciting the stallion to greater violence. The battle raged for long moments, the crowd gasping with each intense movement of the mighty animal.

The stallion fought the hand on his mouth, challenging the authority of his rider, yet the men quietly awaiting his command did neither. They sat astride their mounts, warily watching the battle between horse and rider. Suddenly, as if the combatants had negotiated an unspoken truce, the red stallion came to a halt, his ears flicking back and forth, his great body trembling with hatred as he heeded unheard words from the man on his back.

The man in black settled victoriously in the saddle, his demeanor oozing confidence and control over the beast beneath him, as well as over the world around him. He surveyed those before him, and with a shock Jelly recognized that this man was the epicenter of the evil that covered the town. The hellish aura throbbed in time with the stranger’s heartbeat, empowering the man while doing his bidding.

Even though Jelly had never encountered a sinister force such as this man before him, he was drawn by an uncanny sense of familiarity that arose from the shadows of his memory. He sought to gain even a glimpse of the man’s face, morbid curiosity overwhelming his repulsion, while that nagging sense of awareness hammered vigorously on the gate of his mind. But all such attempts failed. The man’s features remained obscured by the brim of his hat, succeeding in denying Jelly an insight into the man’s identity.

 

Just as the rider on his back was evil personified, the red stallion was the demonic creature best suited to carry him. The animal was deadly perfection, the man astride him equally dangerous, as raw power pulsed from the core of their beings.

In wonder, Jelly tore his gaze from the sight of the formidable stranger and drank in the extraordinary coat of the red stallion that gleamed brightly in the setting sun. Beautiful, powerful and intense, the blood bay was the picture of magnificence, flawed only by his intense hatred of humanity. Jelly drank in the sight of the mighty animal, studying the perfect conformation, the graceful movements, the raw energy awaiting release.

The thought struck Jelly like a thunderbolt...just like the stallion in the livery. How could two such magnificent animals exist? A man could search the wild lands of the western territory and not find a single specimen of this quality and yet here in one place, at one time there were two.  Two perfect stallions, one gold as the sun, the other the color of blood. In confusion Jelly took another step closer to seek a better position from which to determine the identity of the unknown man in black.

Suddenly the red giant shifted, his teeth snapped angrily as he struck out in frustration at Jelly’s close proximity. Realizing his mistake in straying to close, Jelly took a hurried step backward. He realized in horror, that the animal was willing and eager to draw blood. Once again the man on his back moved and stilled the restless motion of the crimson stallion.

But from under the brim of his hat, the dark man fixed his attention on Jelly. His stare sent the sensation of a fiery spear that thrust into the older man’s bowels. An involuntary shiver racked Jelly’s body as the weight of the stranger’s influence pushed him backward. “God in heaven,” Jelly whispered. Awkwardly, he stepped back, and stumbled into the woman standing close beside him.

If she was aware of the brusque contact, she made no comment. “If God is in heaven, then this man is the devil from hell,” she whispered.

With a barely perceptible shift in his weight, the man in black urged the stallion into a gallop with the five men spurring to keep pace.

Jelly stared down Main Street even after the dust of the men’s passing had settled.

*****

Teresa stood at the open French door, her hands crossed over her swollen belly, humming the lullaby softly to the child within. Almost in accord with the lilting tune, the unborn infant began a series of kicks and jabs, as if keeping time with the rhythm of her song.  The mother-to-be smiled faintly as she experienced the joy of the growing child. “You love your father’s lullaby, too, don’t you?  Your daddy would be pleased, you know. I plan to tell you all about him, about how wonderful he was.”

Her eyes misted over as tears threatened to fall once more but the bittersweet moment was interrupted by the sounds of a group of horses approaching. The stillness of the afternoon was broken by a large band of ranch hands returning from their assigned tasks. They entered the corrals, some too weary to entertain the effort of speech, a few of the younger ranch hands boisterous at the prospect of the following day of leisure. Teresa half–heartedly observed their movements, remembering times when Johnny had come home from a day in the pastures. He had been unlike the older, more solemn hands who moved slowly, tiredly entering the bunkhouse. Johnny’s return was often rambunctious, a display of his zest for life.

Teresa opened the door and stepped outside into the rosy hues of the sun. Fighting the depression the men’s lack of energy inspired, she turned her attention to the horizon, seeking comfort in the setting afternoon sun.  Its welcome warmth thawed the ice in her soul, buoyed her lagging spirits.

“Teresa?” Hannah’s softly spoken enquiry served to further dispel the cloud of depression that had settled over the young widow.

Wearily, Teresa turned to face her future sister-in-law. She managed a frail smile but the effort failed to extend to her dark eyes. “I was watching the sunset. It was one of Johnny’s and my favorite times of the day. We’d take a cool drink and sit on the porch and just watch. Sometimes we didn’t even have to talk. We were happy to just sit together.”

“That’s a beautiful memory. It’s good that you had fine times together and that you can hold onto them for the future.” Hannah moved closer, her arm encircling the other woman’s shoulders. “May I watch with you?”

Mutely, Teresa nodded her agreement. Side by side, the two women stood as one, one fair, one dark, one with hope for the future, one full of fear and loneliness. So different and yet so similar, they allowed their love of Lancer and her men to bond their hearts, one offering comfort and support, the other giving her love and strength. As the last thread of pink unraveled over the horizon eclipsed by the silver of the moon, the two women returned to the great room. They exchanged knowing glances, each accepting the gift she had received.

“I’m happy for you and Scott.” Teresa broke the silence, her well-wishes sincere and spoken in earnest. “I hope you are as happy as Johnny and I were.”

“That means so much to me, Teresa. And to Scott. But you must know that you and the children will always be an important part of our lives.”

“I know. In spite of what’s happened, our family is growing and becoming stronger, as it should.” Teresa paused, catching her breath before plunging ahead. “We just have to focus on happier things and right now I’d like to talk about your wedding.”

“Are you sure? I mean, if it’s too difficult now, Scott and I can wait a little longer.” Hannah searched Teresa’s countenance, seeking any sign of distress.

“No. You two need to get on with your lives. We all do. Scott is so…so…alive when he’s with you. I hear him laughing and see his smile and it’s such a wonderful sight. It’s even beginning to affect Murdoch.” Teresa smiled then, a genuine display of emotion, the effect easing the lines of stress around her eyes and mouth.

“Well, if you’re sure,” Hannah hesitated.

“I am!”

“Then would you like to go to town Monday with Scott and me? I haven’t picked out a wedding gown and I thought maybe you could help me?”  Hannah’s joy was infectious and Teresa found herself laughing at the other woman’s enthusiasm.

As one who is drowning reaches for a lifeline, Teresa eagerly accepted the invitation. Her spirits were lifted out of the quagmire in which she had been slowly sinking, slowly suffocating, and she drank in a deep breath full of life and hope. “Perhaps we could have lunch, too?”

Hannah nodded. “Sounds like fun. And personally I think we could all use a little fun, don’t you?”

 

Chapter 28

Nothing is greater; nothing is of more importance, than to

find amid the errors and darkness of this life, a shining truth.

Bank of Wisdom

The grandfather clock struck seven, its melodic tones waltzing through the great house, the sound soothing and comforting. In the long months past, the old timepiece had announced tragedy and despair; now it signaled new life, new joy. For the two women sitting at the dining room table excitedly making list upon list, it was a welcome friend. Hannah lowered her eyes to the slip of paper Teresa thrust under her chin, her smile growing as she studied the notes written thereon.

As the flood of life overcame the veil of anguish, the morning’s breakfast had been a cheerful gathering. Murdoch and Scott exchanged amused smiles as the women’s chatter grew more animated.

“Do you two ladies need any help with any decisions?” Scott asked, a mischievous twinkle giving light to his soft blue eyes.

“Scott Lancer, this is women’s work,” Hannah mocked, “unless you wish to pick out the lace for my veil.”

“I could, you know. I’ve got good taste. I’ve helped choose many gifts for ladies in the past.”

Murdoch looked up from the newspaper he was perusing. Although he made no comment, his attempt at smothering a smile was not lost on the people in the room.

“Scott!” Hannah stood up, her hands on her hips, indignantly glaring at her betrothed. “Be serious. We have a lot to do here and you’re keeping us from it. Don’t you have some cows to rope, or stalls to clean …or something?”

“No, I’ve finished all my chores Milady…before you were even awake.” He valiantly attempted to hold back the flood of laughter, but the sound of his father’s deep chuckle rendered the task impossible. “I really do want to help.”

Soon the laughter of the two men filled the room, the unfamiliar sound, and while long absent, was now welcomed and embraced. Hannah and Teresa exchanged knowing stares before joining the men in their expression of joy.

As the hilarity of the moment abated, the four members of the Lancer household struggled to regain a semblance of control. Wide grins remained evidence of the joy that for a brief period of time reigned in the great room.

Teresa rose, one hand smoothing her hair from her forehead. “Excuse me. I’m going to get some air.”

“Something wrong?” Hannah’s concern for her friend was unmistakable.

“No, nothing. All this mirth made me feel a little hot.”

“Hot, Teresa?” Scott grinned disarmingly.

“Yes, Scott Lancer. I’m hot, as in heat, sun, you know? Lordy, Murdoch, can’t you make him behave?” Teresa turned her attention to Hannah, “You are going to have your hands full with this one.”

“It must run in the family.” Hannah looked knowingly between Murdoch and Scott.

“It must.” Teresa moved to the French doors, welcoming the cool morning breeze that greeted her as she pushed the doors open wide. She closed her eyes and tilted her face, relishing the silky softness of the refreshing air. She reveled in the serenity of Lancer, the sounds of the ranch that were like an old hymn to her weary soul.

A horse in the far corral whinnied a welcome, its gentle call quickly answered by an approaching animal. Teresa’s eyes flew open as she sought the source of the disturbance. A movement to her left caught her attention and she laid a hand on her brow to shield her eyes. Two horses, one trudging wearily, the other prancing behind, were approaching from the east. The slouching, easy seat of the rider gave her no pause; in an instant she recognized the trail-worn traveler.

Teresa announced, “Murdoch! Jelly’s home.”

*****

Val sat in the chair outside the town jail brushing crumbs from his breakfast off his shirt- front.  As he lowered his head to inspect for any remaining signs of his meal, the sudden motion sent coffee spilling over the rim of his cup and into his lap. He cursed as he sat the cup on the nearby windowsill and wiped his wet pants with a handy cloth.

His gaze swept the street, relieved that his mishap had apparently gone unnoticed. The only other citizen visible at this early hour was an older gentleman asleep in a rocking chair outside the hotel. Val studied the old man, the twinge of a lawman’s interest slightly piqued yet again. He had often smothered his ingrained curiosity about the oldster, who seemed to be an unpleasant yet harmless soul. The wizened old man had remained aloof, alternately spending his time in the café for meals and in his hotel room. His only other activity was his constant trips to the telegraph office. While Val was interested in the man’s purpose for lingering in town, their casual conversations had not provided sufficient cause to suspect the old man of malicious intent. Still, the nagging sensation that an underlying agenda existed refused to submit to Val’s attempts to silence its voice.

“Who knows? Maybe he’s a railroad scout or somethin’. No matter.” Val realized he had spoken the words aloud and grinned sadly. “Val, ya talk too much. And to your own self, no less.” He paused as memory renewed its presence. “Dang it, Johnny. Ain’t got no-one else to talk to.”

The sound of approaching riders drew his attention from his brooding melancholy. He squinted against the bright sunlight that obscured his ability to identify the men. As his eyes adjusted to the conflicting sun and shadows, the mass of misshapen figures were transformed into five mounted men. They approached slowly, confidently, with a sense of foreboding preceding them. In spite of the warmth of the morning sun, a slight shiver coursed through Val’s body.

*****  

"Barranca?” Teresa took a step closer, her mouth open in disbelief. She lifted a hand to touch the golden neck, then her fingers lightly trailed through the flaxen mane.

“Ornery bag o’ bones,” Jelly grumbled. “All this time, he ain’t let me touch him none.”

“Teresa, be careful.” Scott took a step closer. Although the stallion appeared at ease, Scott knew any horse could be volatile when crowded by strangers.

Murdoch laid a protective hand on the young woman’s shoulders, gently pulling her away from the stallion.

“It’s all right,” Teresa insisted as she shrugged out of her father-in-law’s grasp. “I thought Barranca was dead? Wherever did you find him, Jelly?”

Murdoch shook his head sadly. “This isn’t Barranca.” Sorrowfully, he looked around at the four pairs of eyes studying him intently as they sought comprehension. “Jelly,” Murdoch ordered, “stable the stallion and join us in the house.” With that, the tall rancher abruptly marched into the hacienda.

*****    

Murdoch stood facing the hearth, arms clasped behind his back. In unbearable silence, Scott and the women waited, their patience close to the breaking point. The stifling stillness was broken only by the sounds of Jelly entering the hacienda and the incessant march of the grandfather clock.

When at last Murdoch turned to face the small family gathered before him, his lips pressed tightly with regret. “I sent Jelly to the Hanson spread east of here to buy the stallion. I’ve known Hanson had him but up until now I couldn’t get the stubborn fool to sell him to me.” He paused while distant memories pulled him back in time.

“Why the sudden interest in horses?” Scott pressed, his impatience with Murdoch’s continued delays obvious to the other members of the great room who shared his irritation. The emotional strain of the last months had taken their toll and the proverbial last straw had now dropped forcefully onto the camel’s back. “He’s magnificent and valuable. Any fool can clearly see that,” Scott agreed sharply. “But what’s so important about this stallion?”

“I had my reasons then. I have them now,” Murdoch ground out as he faced his son’s challenge.

“When you said you were going to buy a horse you never mentioned it would be a palomino like Barranca. Why?” Scott stood slowly, deliberately controlling each movement as he approached his father and squared his shoulders to look him in the eye. “Why did you want this stallion? Why now?”

Teresa and Hannah sat frozen on the sofa, their eyes darting back and forth between the two men as they absorbed each word. Though both women were anxious to learn of the events leading to the purchase of the golden stallion, the intensity of the hostility swirling between the two men had shocked their precarious sensibilities. Scott trembled with ill-concealed anger, his hands compressed into tight fists while Murdoch breathed heavily, the muscles in his jaw bulging as he clenched his teeth.

As the silence stretched painfully throughout the room, Teresa turned questioning eyes to Jelly. He met her stare, reluctantly shaking his head at her unspoken enquiry before he, too, refocused his attention on father and son now standing mere inches apart.

Murdoch took a step backwards, the movement disturbingly uncharacteristic of the older man’s usually aggressive posture. “I thought Teresa might enjoy seeing Barranca’s line continued. Perhaps she and little Paul could fulfill Johnny’s dream.”

Teresa rose then. Indignation colored her cheeks at the reference to Johnny’s passion, then her own temper broke through the walls of her self-imposed restraint. “You mean,” she asked in a tight voice, “you want to breed horses?”

Murdoch relaxed, mistakenly assuming she approved of his plan. “Well, in a word, yes.” One glance into her flashing dark eyes dispelled his assumption.

After months of denial, her fury was irrevocably unleashed to strike him with the force of a gale wind. “You mean,” she asked, “you spent all those months arguing with Johnny, tearing his dreams apart and now…” She choked, the suffocating rage swelling in her throat silencing her voice.

Quickly Jelly moved to stand beside the distraught woman, his arm moving to encircle her shoulders in support. At his touch, she whirled to face him. “And what do you know about this? Were you in on it, too?”

“No, T’resa. I didn’t know why I was even goin’,” Jelly stammered as he fell back before the unexpected onslaught. “In fact, Hanson gave me the willies. ‘Sides, you know Johnny was like a son to me.”

Teresa leveled her ire on all in the room, her gaze falling heavily on each of the room’s occupants as she sought to gauge their reaction to the conversation thus far. Hannah sat as though stricken in shock; Jelly twirled his hat, nervously avoiding her eyes while Murdoch turned to pour a shot of brandy. He threw the liquor down hastily then turned back, his face a mask of control.

Yet her wrath was experienced by another, one who shared her intense anger for the ostensible betrayal of a loved one now gone. ”You son of a bitch! You want to breed horses now?” Scott surged forward, coming to a halt mere inches from his father. “All Johnny wanted was to build a herd of horses and you couldn’t see past your damned cattle. Now he’s dead and you want to fulfill his dream. Isn’t this a bit late? How very big of you!”

Murdoch held up his hands in surrender, his expression one of regret. “Scott, Teresa, wait. Let me explain!”

Scott swallowed hard, the lump in his throat slowly settled in the pit of his stomach, landed hard and smothered him in a thick blanket of despair. He strode to the nearest chair and fell wearily into it, his head in his hands. Hannah reached across the space between them to grasp his wrist.

Hopelessly, Murdoch sought the eyes of each of the younger people before settling on Jelly. “I didn’t want to see Johnny hurt,” Murdoch offered. “Or worse. I was suspicious of Barranca’s line and knew Johnny would want to use him as the foundation for his herd,” he finished lamely. But it wasn’t Jelly who responded to Murdoch’s plea.

“So?” Scott sneered. “Were you afraid Johnny would prove you wrong? Prove that Barranca was a great sire?”

“Barranca should never have been bred. His bloodline is unstable,” Murdoch insisted.

“I don’t understand.” Teresa seethed, swallowing a sob, her emotions overwhelming her attempt at control. All previous joy forgotten, she felt the quagmire of despair opening beneath her, pulling her down into its beckoning pit.

“Barranca was bred once, before Scott and Johnny came home,” Murdoch explained. “The result was disastrous.” But his words failed to hammer through the defenses raised by those listening. “He had one colt, a perfect specimen but for one flaw, the animal was vicious, dangerous. He was a killer. No man was ever able to ride him.”

Teresa found her voice then, her words striking the older Lancer accusingly. “So you believed all Barranca’s offspring would be that way?” she challenged. “How could you know that? Why couldn’t you trust Johnny’s judgment?” Teresa’s words struck the older man, each blow chiseling away pieces of his all ready battered and broken heart. “You had to be right; you always had to be right. You chased him away and that’s why he’s dead! Because you made him leave his home! God have mercy on you, Murdoch.”

Jelly remained silent, knowing he had little to offer, nothing but his presence. He knew that alone was not sufficient to calm the torrent of raging emotions now flooding the great room. He had been the catalyst on the journey to self-cleansing that the small gathering had required in their pursuit of the truth. Now, as the truth unfolded, he was witness to the collapse of the fragile grip they all had on their chance of recovery.

Teresa fled, her sobs marking her ascent to her room upstairs. Jelly watched her with sorrow, then he stepped forward, determined to be of some use. “She didn’t mean it, Murdoch. She’s jest upset.”

“You’re wrong, Jelly. Teresa meant every word… and it’s nothing I haven’t said to myself every single day. Johnny is dead because of me and I’ll live with that knowledge for the rest of my life.”

*****

The old man forced himself to relax deeper into the rocking chair, though his pulse thundered in his temples. His impatience had been growing steadily with each passing week and now it threatened to explode into action. But what could he do? Begrudgingly admitting his need for assistance, he accepted the futility of allowing his thoughts to meander down that path. No, he would have to wait, wait just a little longer. Any day now, any minute, he would shield his eyes against the fierce sun and see the sinister instruments of his vengeance approach from the east. With that thought firmly embedded in his mind, he focused on relaxing, slowing his agitated rocking.

The sun rose higher still, its warmth fingering the old man’s brow, sliding gently down his face and over his throat. He succumbed to its calming heat, closed his eyes, and tipped his head back against the wooden chair. He accepted the sun’s hypnotic, deceptively peaceful embrace and sighed deeply as his body relaxed into slumber…

//“You can’t mean it! You can’t,” she shrieked, her voice rising with each word.//

//“I can and I do, you little slut. You have disgraced me!”//

//“No, Papa! Please don’t say that.”//

//“You are just like your mother!” he bellowed. “You are both dead to me, do you understand?”//

With a jerk, the old man awoke. The girl’s cries still surrounded him, tearful and pleading. “Damn you!” he snarled. “You will pay for this!”

In the distance a horse screamed, its challenge heralding the approach of the men he had long awaited. A smile crept over his wizened features. “Yes,” he whispered. “Yes, it has begun.”

 

Chapter 29

I’m tired of fighting, fighting for a lost cause . . .

Beck

Hannah entered the room hesitantly, unsure of the occupants remaining therein or their current attitude. She was ashamed of her relief at finding Scott alone in the great room. She knew the entire family had suffered in the explosive confrontation of earlier this afternoon.

She had even experienced a twinge of pity for Murdoch. The burden of guilt on the older man’s shoulders must be crushing indeed. She had often wondered how he managed to maintain the façade of insouciance when directing the hands in the performance of their chores during the last few months. Surely he had noticed the veiled stares, the secretive conversations that mysteriously halted when he entered a room. Still, his detached manner in the face of such observation and judgment in the daily administration of the ranch was admirable.

With a sigh she crossed to her intended and laid a reassuring hand on his forearm. Scott made no move to acknowledge her presence, no gesture of greeting but his steady breathing indicated his acceptance of her offer of comfort. He leaned against her, his weight easy to support as she placed her head on his shoulder. Side by side they stood gazing out the large picture window, their positions reminding her of a similar stance shared earlier with Teresa.

As if aware of the thoughts of comparison drifting through Hannah’s mind, Scott leant down and placed his lips against the nape of her neck. He breathed in her scent, relishing the lingering aroma of lilacs. “How’s Teresa?” he asked softly.

“She cried herself to sleep. Just when it looks like things are settling down and we’re moving forward we have an afternoon like this.” Hannah pressed closer to him, seeking the warming comfort of his touch. “Murdoch didn’t realize that everyone would react so badly when he bought the stallion.”

“He should have told her,” Scott growled. Abruptly he broke the emotional bond between them as surely as he removed himself from physical contact. “I need a drink.”  He stalked toward the liquor cabinet.

“You’ve been doing that a lot,” Hannah accused. Her words arrested him, impeding his forward movement. As he came to a stop, an unexplained fear gripped her. It was as if something, or someone, were slipping away. She knew she was being foolish. Scott loved her and they had a future together but the day’s events had left her sorely shaken.

“What?” His eyes narrowed yet he made no further move toward the decanter.

“Drinking. Every time…” She broke off unsure how to present her opinion, her concern.

“Hannah, leave it be.” As the forlorn expression on Hannah’s face finally registered, he moved to her side, concern for his future bride relaxing the angry furrow of his brow. “Hannah, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to take it out on you.” Scott dropped a gentle kiss on her forehead, his heart-felt love and devotion clearly defined as he lightly squeezed her shoulders.

Emboldened by the softening of his mood, Hannah bravely resumed her train of thought. “Scott? Look at me,” she whispered. “Murdoch meant no harm. He was trying to be helpful.”

“Helpful? Helpful!” Scott’s sarcasm was unexpected, though understandable.  “He damn near admitted he knew Barranca was a horse of some quality.”

“He said the offspring was dangerous.” Hannah pressed her point, determined to prevent any further decay of the family’s foundation.

“One colt! This is all because of just one colt! How could he possibly know the line would be compromised?” Scott raged.

“My dearest Scott, he meant well. He’s hurting too. Do you have any idea of the guilt he must be feeling, knowing his part in Johnny’s death?” Hannah’s gentle plea resounded throughout the still room, crossed the divide between Scott’s soul and heart as he warred against the violence of reality.

Hannah was right; Scott knew she spoke the truth. It was in Murdoch’s eyes, eyes once vibrant with life that were now darkened as the specter of death slowly stole his very breath. He had aged ten years since Johnny had been lost; his soul had died as surely as had his son. Compassion flared in Scott’s heart. As grievous as was his own loss, he knew it was tenfold for the man who believed himself responsible.

With a resigned breath Scott sought Hannah’s eyes, in which the concern for his well-being shone as brightly as a beacon in a storm. As a man tossed at sea drowning, he once again reached out for her, grasped her hand and allowed her to pull him into the safe haven of her love. “Hannah, are we having our first argument?” Scott murmured.

She met his question with silence but her hand worried the gentle folds of her skirt. A long pause elapsed before she mutely nodded. Her lower lip trembled as her eyes filled with unshed tears.

Scott laughed softly, his eyes twinkled with mirth. Caught off guard, Hannah entertained the idea her fiancé had suddenly and completely gone mad. “What’s so funny?” Bewildered, she could only stare as he finally regained control.

“You, my dear, are the voice of reason. And I love you, Hannah.” He swept her into his arms, embracing her as her love pulled him out of the storm to land safely on shore.

*****    

The old man rose from the rocking chair and walked to the end of the porch. His first impulse was to engage the newcomers, demand an explanation for the tardiness of their arrival but caution reared its head, bidding him wait. The enforced need to remain anonymous thwarted the urge to reveal his identity to the men now riding past his stationary position. He knew Mac would seek him out at the appointed time so with a great sense of irritation he pushed away his impatience.

Seeking a distraction, he allowed his attention to settle on the blood red stallion prancing under its rider’s tight rein.  The beast was the epitome of perfection, its striking red coat a sharp contrast to the black mane and tail which billowed proudly in the afternoon breeze. /‘Still the flashy one, aren’t you?’/ he mused grimly.

The old man’s eyes narrowed as they centered on the man in black who led the small group. He felt the small finger of destiny crawl over his shoulder and walk down his spine as he studied the deadly gunfighter. And he had no doubt the man was deadly. His dark clothing, his darker attitude, the grim set of his jaw and the Colt resting low on his thigh all conspired to send a shiver of apprehension through the old man’s body.

As if aware of the inspection, Madrid turned his head and eyed the oldster. Instinctively he knew this man would figure strongly in the events of the coming days. With no more than a secondary glance he had taken in the man’s appearance, the hunger in the pale eyes, as well as the anticipation in the wizened countenance. But the most prepossessing feature of the man was a blood-thirst as powerful as his own. As the contact was broken, Madrid smiled. The old man was eager, and fearful. His unease was tangible yet the man’s willingness to face him had overshadowed his fear. Of that Madrid had no doubt.

*****  

Madrid quickly examined the small hotel room, memorizing the position of furniture, windows and doors. In his turn around the room he plotted escape routes and positions of defense. Familiarity with one’s surroundings was essential in his line of business. He had lived by his assessment of the geography of a room, even of whole towns. This hotel room was passable, serviceable, not as clean as some, yet somehow not filthy as most were along the border.

Disconcerted by the direction his thoughts had taken, Madrid wondered how he knew about the conditions along the border. A small tickle of memory teased him, drifting to the fore of his mind only to hastily withdraw from his grasp. As he concentrated on the elusive recollection, a small drum began a dismal pounding in his head. Madrid winced as the throbbing grew louder with each beat becoming more excruciating than the one before. He grasped his head between his hands, squeezing his eyes tightly closed as he attempted to drown out the pulsating cadence.

/’You’ll be dead before you’re thirty.’/

/’That comes to us all.’/

/’But you won’t even leave a ripple…’/

In agony, Madrid moaned softly before he staggered to the bed and fell onto the weak mattress. He settled deeply into the worn bedding, his breathing shallow as he willed the attack to pass. Long minutes passed before the throbbing became but a distant sensation.  Not for the first time in many days, he wondered what was happening to him.

***** 

“You? I wasn’t expecting you,” the old man growled. “No matter, but you’re late getting here! What the hell took you so long?”

“Madrid wanted…”

“I don’t give a damn what Madrid wanted,” he roared.

“You have no idea what the kid really is capable of.”

“Are you afraid?” the old man mocked. His outward appearance of control belied the terror he had experienced as he laid his eyes on the young gunhawk for the first time this morning. He understood the emotion now displayed in his counterpart. “You looked like you were going to urinate in your pants when I said the man’s name.”

“Don’t go there, old man.

“I’m the one holding the purse here. Or have you forgotten?” the old man sneered, relishing his subordinate’s discomfort.

“No, I haven’t forgotten.”

“Really? Maybe you think you could deal with Scott Lancer. Maybe not. But it is not in my plans for it to go down that way.

“You know, I’m fast getting to the point where I don’t give a shit for your plans.”

“Don’t fool yourself. You are no Madrid.”

“It’s not Madrid I’m worried about. You realize I could just kill you and take your money and be done with this whole mess.”

“And what’s stopping you, huh?”

“Just one thing.”

“What?”

“The chance to take down Johnny Madrid Lancer.”

 

Chapter 30

They say no man is an island and good things come to those who wait

But the things I hear are there just to remind me every dog will have his day.

The spirits, they intoxicate me, I watched them infiltrate my soul,

They try to say it’s too late for me; tell my guns I’m coming home.
Santa Fe,  Bon Jovi

Douglas Hanson paced impatiently across the wide veranda. His fingers beat a steady rhythm upon thighs clad in his best leather chaps. Impeccably attired, with sophisticated bearing, he presented an imposing figure while remaining cool and collected despite the mid-morning sun.  The oppressive heat of the day was rivaled only by the smoldering sense of urgency that seared through Hanson’s mind, into the very core of his being.

He was acutely aware of the thunder of imminent danger that pounded in his heart as surely as the blood raced through his veins. A voice screamed in his ears under the undue pressure to make haste. ‘Hurry, hurry.’ the voice prodded.

As if united in an unheard cry, nature stood at attention to await Hanson’s departure. The shallow breeze slipped through the leaves of the trees and shrubs virtually undetected.  Birds, normally united in chorus, now were absent, their voices silent in the oppressive heat. The solitude of the landscape before him was heavy with silent dread, in sharp contrast to the thunder coursing through his body. A small dust devil swirled in the shimmering expanse of turf surrounding Hanson’s majestic antebellum home.

Muffled footsteps heralded the arrival of the butler, Harold, as he led the sorrel mare up to the hitching post outside the front door. The butler offered an impromptu bow, then stretched forth his hand to relinquish the mare’s reins to her waiting owner. “You sure you want to take her, sir?” he questioned his employer as he respectfully lowered his head.

Douglas Hanson paused, his sense of urgency temporarily overruled as he studied the animal before him. Desert Storm returned his stare, her eyes conveying intelligence and understanding. She was large for a mare, deep-chested, with powerful hind-quarters, and a gracefully bowed neck. Her delicate head testified to her noble breeding. Her coat of burnished copper gleamed under the morning sun as the gentle breeze lifted the long silken strands of her flaxen mane and tail. Beautiful and striking, she commanded respect and attention.

Harold repeated his question, unsure if his employer had heard him, “Sir? The mare?”

As Hanson admired the animal before him, a calliope of colors danced before his eyes, eyes that now swam with tears of sorrow. Memories of another horse merged into shadows of red and gold that throbbed behind his closed eyelids. He gathered his errant emotions, returned to the present and the flame-colored mare patiently awaiting him. “Of course, I am quite certain. Desert Storm is the best horse in our stable, is she not?”

With great effort Hanson reined in his temper as he explained for the third time this morning, “I must get to Lancer with all haste and she is the only horse with the speed and stamina the trek will require. Do not question me. Is that understood?”

“I apologize, sir. It won’t happen again.”

“As well it should not.” Hanson struggled to maintain his veneer of civility and patience as he wrestled with his composure. With rigid self-control, he moved to the mare’s side and mounted. As he settled deeply into the saddle, he eyed his butler. “I trust you can handle things for a few days, Harold. However, should you require guidance, please send a wire to me care of Murdoch Lancer in Morro Coyo.”

“Yes sir, I’ll see to it. Have a safe trip.”

***** 

Desert Storm raised her delicate nose, snorting in joy at her long-denied freedom. It was not often Hanson rode, not often he allowed the mare to extend herself when he rode her out. He was possessed of an irrational fear, which bordered on obsession, of injury to the beloved animal. Cherished, loved, and regarded as royalty, she was the most valuable of Hanson’s horses. He guarded her, protected her, doted on her. Like a man in love for the first time, he gently tended to her, refusing the aid of his many stable hands. The man’s devotion to the mare was unspoken yet could not be denied.

This time, however, he pushed aside his concern and allowed the sorrel mare to run freely. As she settled into her rhythm, her breathing remained easy, her stride unforced. She galloped gracefully, with great strength, covering the miles with little effort. The man on her back offered little resistance to the animal beneath him. He realized the necessity of pacing the mare; her endurance was the only tool at his disposal and she would be sorely tested on this journey. But his overwhelming sense of foreboding grew with each stride of the powerful animal beneath him, and demanded all haste.

Time, or more to the point, the lack of time, was the enemy. It was to be a race with an unseen foe, a race that he could not afford to lose, an undeniable fact that lay before him as did the road to destiny. At the end of his journey, someone would live or die. With ever-increasing sorrow, he silently willed Desert Storm to greater speed.

***** 

In the end it wasn’t the heat that woke him, nor the boisterous noise on the street below as the town came to life. It was hunger. Madrid was ravenous; his last meal had been yesterday morning before he and the Walden gang had taken to the trail. His stomach growled in protest of the enforced fast and as his body demanded sustenance, the rumbling became more insistent.

//Well, Murdoch. I guess you have a prodigal son…if you still want one.//

The voice from the past mocked him, its condemnation loud in the still room.

Cautiously, Madrid opened his eyes and turned his head, relieved to find the blinding headache of the night before was but a memory. Still, he rose slowly, gingerly testing each movement for fear he would suffer a relapse.

Tentatively, he made his way to the bureau where he performed his morning’s toiletries. He pulled on his clothing with the same precision with which he did everything else then settled his gun firmly about his hips and left the room in search of a meal.

******

“Good morning, chica,” Maria greeted softly as Teresa entered the kitchen. “Would you like something to drink while I finish breakfast?” Lovingly, the Mexican woman embraced the young widow before leading her to a chair at the table and pressing a glass of milk into her hand. “You drink this while I get you some coffee.” At Teresa’s refusal, Maria added, “It will do the baby good.”

Teresa stared blankly at the glass cradled in her hand before lifting it to her lips. With no conscious thought she emptied the contents of the glass and sat it on the table before her. She hugged her arms around herself, mimicking a gesture so like that of Johnny’s.

With a pot of coffee and two cups in hand, Maria slid into the chair across from Teresa. “Did you get any sleep?”

“Some. I dreamed.” Teresa’s words were faint, her voice laced with weariness and fear.

“About Johnny?” Maria leaned forward in her chair, her pulse quickening as she took in the lines around the eyes and mouth of the young woman.

“No. Not at first. It was a strange dream about a man on a palomino horse chasing us.” Teresa lowered her head, as the terror of the previous night returned. “I was running, trying to save Paul from being trampled. And then the horse reared, and I saw it was Barranca and Johnny was on him.” Teresa stammered to a halt, her voice a whisper. “Then Johnny smiled.”

“See? Johnny will protect the niño even in your dreams.” Maria reached across the table to pat the younger woman’s hand. She nodded knowingly, then attempted a weak grin that quickly faded as she took in Teresa’s stricken features.

“No, Maria, it wasn’t a pleasant smile. And it wasn’t really Johnny.” Teresa shuddered. Her lovely face was a ghastly shade of white when finally she raised tortured eyes to her friend. “He resembled Johnny but this horse and man were evil. I think he meant to kill us.”

*****

Standing in the doorway to the great room, Jelly was struck by the tension that ebbed between the two men who faced each other in uncomfortable silence. Quickly coming to a decision, he strode through the door, loudly stamping his booted feet to herald his approach. “Mornin’. Breakfast ready yet? I’m starving.”

Scott Lancer turned to face the handyman as whatever conflict had existed seemingly evaporated. “Maria says it will be ready in a few minutes,” he intoned flatly.

Murdoch sighed deeply before crossing to his customary position in front of the picture window. He stood staring through the clear pane, with unseeing eyes, at the panorama spread before him. The view that had once warmed his heart now left him cold and painfully empty. Tearing his gaze from the bleak scene outside the window he turned to listen to the conversation taking place behind him.

“I was wonderin’ if’n ya knew about the Walden gang? Heard they was seen in the area.” Jelly eagerly filled Scott’s ears with the latest gossip, finally giving voice to the thoughts that had besieged him since leaving Hanson’s ranch.

“Who?” Scott asked absently. Rather than focusing on Jelly’s mundane rambling, Scott’s attention had been on his father as he sought to explore the secret pain in the older man’s soul. Seemingly for the first time, he perceived the deadness of Murdoch’s eyes. ‘Just like Hannah said,’ he thought with a shock.

“Walden Gang,” Jelly continued as if unaware of his lack of audience. “Saw ‘em up in Greeley. Nasty looking bunch. Good thing Johnny never had ta face ‘em down.”

“Why do you say that?” Murdoch’s attention was piqued at the mention of Johnny’s name and he swung fiercely in Jelly’s direction. “Were they Johnny’s enemies?”

“Cain’t say for sure, but their leader was trouble, pure and simple trouble. Gunfighter.”

“So?” Scott replied cautiously, “Johnny knew, and fought, many gunfighters.”

“Yeah, but this one…” Jelly shivered in spite of the warmth of the room, a reaction not lost on the two Lancer men.

“Come on, Jelly. Out with it!” Murdoch demanded. “This is worse than pulling a steer out of the mud. You going to tell us or not?”

“Okay, ya don’t have to get so tetchy.” Jelly puffed out his chest, adopting his most impressive stance, that of the bearer of news that only he could convey. “This man was scary.”

 “Scary?” The Lancers exchanged confused glances.

“Yeah. He was worse’n Weir. He was all in black and he was on a horse from Hell. A demon if ever I saw one.” Jelly shuddered at the memory of the narrow miss of bared teeth and a powerful black-stockinged leg. “Ain’t never seen a man or horse like that one. Looked like he wanted blood.”

“Who wanted blood? The horse or the man?” Scott was exasperated, his temper frayed like the ends of a worn rope.

“Well, the man, o’ course. Thought you went to Harvard! O’ course horses don’t like blood. Geez.” Again Jelly shivered. “But this one…”

“Jellifer B. Hoskins, you are a superstitious fool,” Scott exclaimed “All this talk about blood and demons.” He dismissed the old wrangler with a wave of his hand.

Jelly snorted indignantly at the dismissal. “Well, I bet you wouldn’t say that if ya saw him. He shor did look some familiar, though, I know I seen him somewheres before. But I ain’t never seen a blood-colored horse.”

“What did you say?” Murdoch blanched, the color drained from his face as he took a step toward the handyman. “What color was this horse?”

Jelly eyed his employer in bewilderment, “He was red with black mane and tail and legs. Blood red.”

Murdoch sat heavily on the sofa, the sturdy furniture groaning as it accepted the man’s full weight. “Oh my God,” he whispered. “Hellion.”

 

Chapter 31

Company, always on the run, destiny is the rising sun,
Oh, I was born 6-gun in my hand, behind a gun I'll make my final stand.

That's why they call me Bad Company, and I can't deny

Bad Company until the day we die…

Rebel souls, deserters we are called, chose a gun and threw away the sun.
Now these towns, they all know our name, 6-gun sound is our claim to fame
 

Bad Company by Bad Company

Val had never seen a red horse. Oh, bays and sorrels, but not a truly blood red horse, he mused. The animal was more superb than any he’d had the opportunity to encounter. In some obscure way, the stallion reminded him of …He shook his head at the direction his thoughts had taken. But the idea persisted, and fascinated he ventured closer to the blood bay, only to suddenly jump back when the stallion lashed out with a powerful hind leg.

Hellion snorted menacingly, his nostrils flared angrily as he studied the human before him. He half-reared, his head snaking in Val’s direction with bared teeth.

“You may be pretty, but you’re plain worthless.” Val stepped back, just out of reach of the deadly teeth and legs.

“He suits my purposes.”  The soft drawl that came from behind him dripped with an ill-concealed threat.

Val whirled around, his hand on his gun, to face the owner of the voice. A man in black stood before him, his hat tipped low across his face, shielding his features from direct scrutiny. Still, the build and the height of the gunman were distinctly familiar.

Val moved closer, circling in order to get a better look at the face of the gunhawk. An inexplicable shiver coursed across his back as the aura of evil surrounding the man snaked out to envelope him. Still, he struggled through his premonition of foreboding, as recognition fought to surface in his mind. Determined to penetrate the man’s evil persona, Val pressed forward. “I know you from somewhere?”

“You’d remember if we’d met,” he drawled. His tone though laced with amusement did nothing to alleviate the threat of harm.

Val struggled to place a name to the lethal gunman standing still as death before him. Mentally he rifled through the stack of Wanted posters in his office on his desk, rejecting each in succession, but the sense of déjà vu persisted. The man’s catlike grace, his easy slouch, the rig worn low on the slim hips, all conspired to put Val more on his guard. Yet against hope, he sought to deny the truth that his mind wouldn’t accept. The man in black pushed his hat back on his head to reveal a handsome, deeply tanned face and startling blue eyes; eyes that gleamed with the fires of hell.

Val’s heart hammered painfully in his chest as the full impact of the man’s identity broke through his disbelief.  “Johnny!” Val stepped forward, as overwhelming joy swept over him.

Madrid’s hand went to his hip, ominously stroking the Colt he wore. The threat was real, the intent obvious. “The name’s Madrid, Sheriff, and you would do well to remember it.”

“Damn, am I glad to see you!” Val continued, ignoring the man’s warning.  “We thought you was dead. Where the hell have you been?”

Madrid’s hand snaked downward in an unmistakable gesture. His movement was impossibly fast, as if a mere blink of the eye had transpired, yet he had moved and his Colt was leveled on Val’s chest, mere feet away. It was held steady, the muzzle unwavering with the promise of death.

The shock of Johnny’s re-appearance was overwhelming, in and of itself, but this was not the Johnny that Val had known. This man was not even Johnny Madrid, the legend. This man was evil incarnate. Baffled and alarmed, Val stood stock still, disbelief registering in his eyes as Madrid’s Colt remained steady on target.

Before the revelation of the gunman’s identity, Val had easily disregarded the danger of life and death, his own skill lending him confidence to meet the conflict. But now the threat had become reality, an unfathomable, incomprehensible reality. His friend, whom he loved as a brother, whom he had mourned, now stood before him, alive and seemingly well, but holding a gun on him.

“Listen, lawman, you don’t know me and I don’t know you. But you keep pushing me and you’re gonna find yourself dead.” The voice was unfamiliar, soft and deadly. Then the Colt was magically gone, settled in its holster as if never withdrawn.

Bewildered by Johnny’s lack of recognition, Val studied the man he had known as his friend. “What’s wrong with you?” Val’s voice was harsh as his anger rose in response to the challenge of the man before him.

“I’ve never been better, Sheriff, and you just saw for yourself how right I am.” Madrid’s lips twisted into a deceptively nonchalant grin. //“So, as much as I’ve enjoyed this little conversation…”// The echo of the elusive voice from days past taunted Madrid as the unwelcome drum resumed its rhythmic beating from afar. He blinked rapidly and shook his head to fight off the distant sound of thunder, and was sorely relieved when the drummer abandoned his instrument. “By the way,” he asked smoothly, “You know Scott Lancer?”

Madrid’s moment of unease had not escaped Val’s attention. Thoughtfully, the lawman rubbed the stubble on his chin as he struggled to understand the situation he now found himself facing; a friend in a stranger’s clothing stood before him. “Scott Lancer? Yeah, I know him. Why?”

“Tell him I’m looking for him.” Madrid’s lips curved into a menacing sneer.

The thinly veiled threat, while unexplained, was blatantly obvious to the lawman. This was not Johnny Lancer. Indeed this man was but a mirror image of one once familiar and now unknown. As if death were stealing his friend for a second time, a moment of paralyzing grief washed over the lawman.

“Scott’s gonna be glad to see you, Johnny,” Val offered sorrowfully. Even as he said that, Val knew any joy Scott experienced in discovering his dead brother was miraculously alive would be an emotion at war with the horror of seeing the man Johnny had become. Even so, hope knocked on the door of his mind. If ever two men shared a bond, it was the Lancer brothers. If anyone could break through the walls of Johnny’s evil persona it was Scott Lancer.

“Lancer will be glad to see me? I don’t think so, Sheriff. He’ll be dead.” He chuckled, the sound the epitome of pure evil. Madrid turned on his heel, dismissing the sheriff, his arrogance denying any possibility of retaliation by the lawman.

Val watched him make his way to the saloon, agonizing over the terrible turn of events as the creaking of the batwing doors marked the passage of a man he had once called friend.

*****

“You’re coming with us?” Teresa’s tone was carefully guarded. She gazed thoughtfully at the corral where the palomino stallion restlessly paced.

”Yes,” Murdoch answered. “Scott and I have some errands then we’ll get a drink in the saloon while we wait on you and Hannah.” With a quick glance in the direction of Scott and Hannah, he paused. “Do you mind? I thought we could all have lunch together after you ladies do your shopping.” Cautiously optimistic, he scarcely dared to breathe as the young woman weighed his proposal.

During the long dark hours of midnight, he had come to understand the fragility of life, the consequences of each and every action. His life was not his own, any more than the life of his dead son had belonged solely to Johnny. No, the lives of a family are inexplicably intertwined, and the actions of each family member impact all.

Murdoch Lancer had paid the ultimate price for his prior lack of knowledge. By allowing his pride to rule his relationship with his younger son, he had lost him. Daily he sought to come to terms with the fact he could not change the past, but he could govern his actions each and every day in accord with a lesson hard learned. And today was the first day of the rest of his life, a life dedicated to making amends.

Again, Murdoch cast a furtive glance at Scott, whose chiseled features revealed none of the young man’s thoughts. But the blue eyes were filled with longing, as if he too were anxious for reconciliation.

Hope swelled within the Lancer patriarch’s chest. Hope is a stubborn foe in the face of despair and she does not easily bend her knee to defeat. With tenacious ambition she drives forward, demanding attention, commanding respect even as she clamors for an audience. She would not be denied.

The family had suffered through so much, lost so much, and the whole truth lay open before them. Perhaps now they could make progress toward total healing. Hope pressed on tenaciously, with love as her most powerful weapon and ally. Slowly but surely the Lancers could begin the trek toward the future.

The pause, as Murdoch waited for Teresa to choose to join them was interminable, stretching across vast distances and spaces in time. But he would not coax or cajole; he would not call the tune. Not now, not again. He had learned his lesson, and learned it well. Instead he waited, allowing Teresa to make the decision without duress.

“Lunch would be fine, Murdoch.” Teresa’s tone was neutral, yet from the expression in her dark eyes Murdoch knew their close relationship would almost certainly survive yesterday’s rift. He resisted the urge to pull her into his arms, knowing the healing process would take time. Instead, he took her outstretched gloved hand, and assisted her into the buggy before joining her on the front seat.

Scott studied the pair seated in the buggy, a wealth of emotion flitting across his attractive features, before sighing with relief. Feeling a lightness of spirit that had heretofore been sorely lacking, he aided Hannah in boarding the buggy before striding to his sorrel and mounting. “You sure you don’t want to come, Jelly?”

“I’m more than sure. Been in the saddle too long for my liking. ‘Sides, I got me some chores ta do.” Jelly raised a hand in farewell, dismissing the Lancers before heading for the barn. “Someone has to hold down the fort,” the handyman muttered.

*****

Val pushed his mount faster, desperation driving him to breakneck speed as he headed for the Lancer ranch. Fear lent him wings, though his gelding was hard-pressed to keep pace with the flight of its rider’s emotional distress. The miles to Lancer seemed to pass as slowly as if time stood still, making Val sure that nature was aligned against him. Finally, relief swelled within the lawman’s heart as the white arch marking the grand estancia came into view on the horizon. The shortcut through the pass had paid off.

He pulled the laboring gelding to a sliding stop at the front door, dismounting before the animal had come to a complete halt. “Murdoch! Scott!” he bellowed as he ran to the door and banged ruthlessly on the heavy oak with both fists.

Maria pulled the door open, one look at the sheriff’s distressed countenance filling her with dread. Her hand went to her throat as she took a step backward. “What is it, Senor Sheriff? What is wrong?”

“Where are Murdoch and Scott?” Vaguely aware of the callousness of his tone, he pushed his way past her, refusing to explain his rude behavior. There would be time enough for that later. “I need ta see Murdoch or Scott. Where are they?”

From right behind Maria, Jelly said brusquely, “They went ta town, Sheriff. What’s goin’ on here?” Jelly’s disapproval of Val’s treatment of the kindly housekeeper was quite evident.

“Town?” Val’s jaw clenched as his stomach lurched in fear, his teeth compressing tightly. “You ain’t gonna believe this!”

The cold hand of foreboding, Jelly’s newly-found friend, had been a constant companion since his first night in Hanson’s home. Now it came crashing through the front door of the handyman’s mind, screaming a warning. “What in tarnation’s goin’ on? What’re you talking about?”

“Johnny’s alive! He’s in Green River.”

 “Madre Dios, my nino is alive?” Maria gasped.

“Maria, hold on.” Val cautioned. “There’s more…He ain’t the Johnny we know,” He was hesitant to continue but the dire situation denied him the luxury of time. “He’s changed.”

“Is he ridin’ a great big, bloody horse?” Jelly interrupted, his heart hammering wildly in his chest.

The breeze became still, and time ceased her forward movement as Mother Nature held her breath. Val’s voice came from afar, muffled and dim as if a vast divide had been chiseled in the space between them. “Yes,” he said.

Numbly Jelly nodded, his memory of the man he had encountered in Greeley fresh in his mind. “Are ya sure it’s Johnny?”

“Damned right!” Val read the shock in Jelly’s eyes, the utter disbelief that washed Maria’s face of all color. He understood their horror, and he too, felt their pain. A loved one had miraculously returned to them from the grave but had been lost, as surely as when the bullet had seemingly claimed his life.  This death was infinitely worse, undeniably more tragic, yet he knew the worst was still to come.

Val’s patience was not his greatest attribute, and now had quickly evaporated. “Jelly, we have to get to town. Find Murdoch and Scott.”

”Hell, yeah.” Jelly agreed flatly, his soul heavy with the prospect of breaking the Lancers’ hearts once more. Shattered dreams, shattered lives, would the suffering of the family never cease? “Can things git any worse,” he lamented.

“It’s worse.” Val paused as his shoulders were crushed by the full weight of Jelly and Maria’s stares. “He’s gunnin’ for Scott.”

 

Chapter 32

You're looking for salvation
You thought that it'd be shining like an angel's light,

Yeah well, the angels left this nation
And salvation caught the last train out tonight
He lost a hell of a fight

Miracle by Bon Jovi

The old man studied the gunman before him. As Mac kneaded the brim of the hat in his hands, the old man sneered in disgust. “You sure aren’t the man I hired.”

“Look, I’m just not sure this is going to work out. Maybe we should come up with another plan.” As the expression on the old man’s face finally registered, the hands turning the hat ceased their movement. “You laughing at me, old man?”

“Oh no, Mac, I would never do that. Fearless gunmen like you deserve respect, right?” Again the sneer, the disparaging tone.

“Look, I should…”

”Should what? Shoot me? Don’t you men ever get tired of making these idle threats?”

The old man was mocking him now, making no attempt to disguise the ridicule. Mac quickly absorbed the insult, his own temper leveling out to leave him deadly calm. “You know, old man, I’m gonna overlook your attitude, for now. But when Scott Lancer is dead I’m gonna come back here and blow your damn brains all over this room.”

The old man blanched momentarily then his self-assurance righted itself. “If you say so, Mac, if you say so. Now, let’s get to the point, shall we? Is Madrid ready?”

After briefly considering the other man’s intended slight to his character, Mac satisfied himself with the knowledge his threat had pierced the old man’s arrogance. He could wait, at least for now. “Yeah, he’s ready. He’s in the saloon, waiting.”

“Good, if they hold true to form, the Lancers will be coming into town any day now.” The aged eyes took on a faraway gleam. “Any moment now…”

***** 

//’We’d about given up on you, brother.’//

Suddenly, ferociously, the headache crashed into his consciousness, its oppression was excruciating as it pressed the limits of his resistance. Madrid’s hands gripped the table as he squeezed his eyes tightly closed against the pain. Thunder roared in his ears as the pain throbbed in his temples. Every breath was sheer agony as the elusive memories pressed harder, attempting to shatter the walls of his subconscious. Valiantly, Madrid fought back, calling on all his reserves of strength, willing the pain to cease, the thunder to recede.

//’Well, you had your plan, I had mine…’//

At long last he had overcome the assault, forced the mental enemy to surrender its stronghold. Yet the words echoed throughout his consciousness, relentlessly circling, awaiting an opportunity to pierce the thick layers of his memory.

Cautiously, Madrid breathed in and out until his racing pulse had slowed and memory conceded defeat, then he once more closed the door on the past. There had been a time when he had longed for the memory of his previous life, had clung to the need to regain his identity, but that time had past. Now he knew his own mind, who and what he was. He had embraced the strength and confidence Madrid offered him so tenaciously he refused to relinquish his grip on the present.

Yet a small voice in the furthest reaches of his darkened heart screamed for acknowledgement. Madrid rallied against the voice, choking the sound until peace reigned within him once more.  He lifted his head; his relief that the moment had passed unnoticed strengthening him even further. With a determined sigh, he tossed down the tequila, then sat back in his chair prepared to wait.

A frightening sneer marred the once handsome countenance as he snarled, “Soon, Lancer will be dead and then I’ll deal with that unfaithful bitch.” A slight tremor coursed through his limbs as the persistent voice again whispered in his ear.

From his position at the bar, Mac tossed a cursory glance at his brooding counterpart, who sat lazily in his chair at the rear of the saloon. Madrid looked sleepy, his nonchalance eerily deceptive. But under the calm surface, Mac knew a raging inferno was burning, anger simmered just beneath the cool exterior. Madrid was volatile, icy flames filled his veins. Mac had learned that much about the man since their first meeting. It was the gunhawk’s cold exterior that had unnerved many a man and led him to his death under the deadly gun. And it was that same impenetrable veneer that threatened to push Mac to the edge of fear.

Mac felt the strain of inactivity as the waiting grated on nerves already exhausted by delays. He paced to the front of saloon, pausing to peer intently over the batwing doors, rapidly surveying the street. The sleepy town was awaking; a man swept the boardwalk outside the General Sore, the banker was raising the window shades. A woman called irritably to her children, hastening them on their way. Irritated, Mac returned to the bar.

*****

Scott dismounted, throwing his reins loosely over the hitching post before assisting Hannah and then Teresa from the buggy. As Murdoch secured the team, Scott offered an arm to both women and escorted them to the boardwalk. They stood in comfortable silence until Murdoch joined them.

“Scott and I will take care of our business and then come back for you.” Murdoch took his watch from his pocket, his brow furrowing momentarily as Johnny’s face smiled at him from its position in the lid of the timepiece. Resolutely he closed the watch, a small smile forced into place. “How long do you two need?”

“Oh, all day,” Teresa quipped. “You know women; we can spend all day shopping.”

Teresa’s cheerful voice reinforced Murdoch’s belief that she had forgiven him. His family was indeed on the road to recovery. He patted her lightly on the shoulder, more than pleased when Teresa allowed the overture of affection. Within his heart hope raised her head; her determination to lift him from the depths of despair was undaunted as she pressed deeper into the tall rancher’s heart.

Murdoch offered his daughter-in-law a heart-felt smile, than clasped his son on the back.

“Well, Scott, perhaps we should get a loan while we’re at the bank.”

Scott grinned broadly, “Yes. Perhaps we should. These two will buy out the whole store and we wouldn’t want it said the Lancers were misers. Besides, I plan to be repaid with interest. Perhaps I’ll take the payment out in trade.” A wicked twinkle danced in the blue eyes as he winked at his future bride.

“Scott Lancer!” Hannah laughed. A rosy flush crept across Hannah’s beautiful face as she felt the heat of Scott’s suggestive gaze.

“I always behave myself. You should know that.” Again the rakish grin as Scott observed the flush on his bride’s cheeks.

Noticing the intimacy sparking between the two young people, Murdoch was filled with a joy he had not experienced in months. Scott and Hannah’s love was a healing balm; their happiness was washing over the other members of the Lancer hacienda, infecting the entire family.

“Hannah. Let’s go. You’re going to spoil Scott’s appetite.”  Teresa took Hannah’s arm and steered her toward the dressmaker’s shop. “We’ll see you two in an hour.”  Their heads together, laughing, the women disappeared into the store’s interior.

Murdoch grasped his son’s arm and pointed him in the direction of the bank. “Come on, Son. Let’s get out of the sun, find some place cooler,” he laughed.

“It isn’t the sun, Murdoch.”

“I know, Scott, I know.”

***** 

The old man assumed his customary position in the rocking chair. The sun was reaching her zenith but paused as if to acknowledge the old man below her. She kissed his brow, then trailed tender fingers across his cheeks as he lifted his face to her warmth. With a heavy sigh he welcomed her embrace. Though seemingly at peace, he recognized the calm before the storm.

In mere minutes, peace and quiet would be no more. He had seen Mac peering over the batwing doors of the saloon, knew his hired man was ever watchful, diligent in his attentiveness. The Lancers would not escape his keen eye, nor would they escape the wrath of Madrid’s gun. Soon the report of the gunhawk’s deadly Colt would fill the serenity of Green River. Soon his intended victim would die in the dirt, his life blood spilling in a pool around his body.

As his thoughts meandered down the path of revenge, a grin to rival Madrid’s best sneer formed on the old man’s lips. He opened his eyes at the sound of laughter from across the street and the grin became a full smile.

*****

“All your shopping finished?” Scott took the packages from Hannah’s arms and secured them in the back of the buggy. He turned to accept the parcels Teresa now thrust into his waiting hands. Quizzically, he eyed the numerous bags and boxes. “Did you buy out the entire store?”

“We did leave a few things behind for other shoppers.” Hannah’s laughter, like ice tinkling in a crystal glass surrounded him and he felt himself pulled into the sweet sea of her love. In amazement he studied his bride. She was a salve to his wounded heart, a light in the darkness, and not for the first time, he paused to thank heaven he had found her. He offered her his elbow, and invited Teresa to take his other arm before leading the way to the café.

Murdoch had remained quiet, observing the interaction of the young people. His heart swelled with love and peace as he was overwhelmed with the revelation that complete healing had begun. Even Teresa appeared radiant, her face glowing with serenity. Yes, the love between Scott and Hannah was heaven sent. He raised his eyes heavenward as he sent up a silent prayer of thanks. Suddenly, in his heart he felt Johnny smiling down on his family. As warmth flooded his soul, he turned to follow the threesome.

*****  

Mac stalked to the door of the saloon once again. He anxiously ran his gaze up and down the street before his attention was captured by the buggy outside the General Store. His interest piqued, he studied the rig and the matched pair of bay geldings. The luxury of the rig, the quality of the horses testified to the wealth of their owner. A surge of adrenaline pounded through his veins as he waited for conformation of the identity of the unseen man. In mere moments his expectations were realized as Murdoch Lancer stepped out of the store. He was followed by Scott Lancer who turned to hold the door open for two young women laden with parcels, then placed their packages securely in the buggy.  

“Madrid?” Mac called over his shoulder, his eyes never leaving the foursome across the street. “I think you better see this.” A shiver of anticipation surged through him as adrenaline began pulsing though his veins. It was time, destiny was upon them. The beginning of the end. “Madrid?”

“I heard you.” Madrid’s voice came from beside him. Like a cat stalking its prey, stealthily, silently the man had moved to stand beside him.

Mac swung toward the speaker, disconcerted at the ease with which Madrid had caught him off-guard. He choked off the bitter retort that had formed on his lips as he took in the man’s appearance.

Madrid was focused; deliberate as he adjusted the hat on his head, then checked the position of his rig with calculated determination.  Satisfied, he stared over the door, his eyes following Mac’s hand to fall squarely on the four people standing beside a fancy rig.

Madrid’s eyes narrowed as his gaze landed on Scott Lancer. “Is that him?” Madrid asked sternly. The gunman’s fingers flexed then closed on the butt of his Colt.

Mac shuddered at the malevolent timbre of Madrid’s voice. A quick glance in the gunman’s direction confirmed Mac’s suspicions. A fallen angel stood where a man had once been. Any semblance of humanity had disappeared as hell oozed from the realm of the spirit into reality.

Madrid’s body trembled with ill-concealed rage as he absorbed every detail of the four Lancers. As his eye fell on the dark-haired beauty holding Scott Lancer’s arm, he noted her swollen belly.

//’Teresa, you gonna shed a tear for me?’//

A faint light flickered briefly in Madrid’s blue eyes as the memory found a chink in the façade of granite in the young man’s consciousness, and barreled through. Sensing the disturbance in Madrid’s otherwise perfect control, the memory pressed harder and the now all too familiar drummer struck his instrument.

Mac noted the pallor creeping over Madrid’s face, the rapid breathing. Instinctively he witnessed the change washing over the gunhawk. Rage welled up within him. They had come so far and the appointed time was now. He wouldn’t allow the gunman to falter. Not now, not before the job was finished. “See? Told you she was carrying Lancer’s bastard. Looks like she’s gonna drop the kid at any moment. Look at them! Acting like they own the whole world.”

In the heat of his discourse, Mac struck Madrid’s shoulder, the blow breaking off the mental attack under which the young man labored. His attention captured by Mac’s violent tirade, Madrid quickly regained control and with tremendous effort silenced the unseen drummer.

//’The only thing that has ever been wrong around here is you.’//

The voice grounded him, fuelling the anger that had begun to wane. Refocused now, he pushed the past aside, determined to embrace the present and possibly his last act in this life. He would not be swayed, he would not yield. Revenge was eminent, standing mere yards from his position. His destiny now lay before him embodied in the person of Scott Lancer. With the all too familiar gleam of evil lighting his dark eyes, he strode purposely through the door, coming to a stop on the boardwalk just outside the saloon.

“Lancer!  The voice was electrifying, its negative energy pulsing across the distance between the small group and the man in black. Arrested in mid-stride the foursome turned as one to face the challenger.  Scott Lancer!”

 

Chapter 33

7. And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see.

8. And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.

Rev. 6:7-8

Val and Jelly raced headlong for Green River, relentlessly spurring their lagging mounts. While they silently regretted their harsh abuse of the straining animals, they were also strongly aware that time was not their ally. Indeed, time was an unseen enemy mocking them as they struggled to reach their friends and loved ones. With each beat of their hearts, each minute of time, death drew nearer to Scott Lancer. They raged against the futility of their efforts, determined to overcome time and distance in their flight toward fate.

Relieved, the two men focused on the outline of the buildings marking Green River that rose starkly against the dark clouds on the horizon. Their determination renewed, they urged their laboring mounts to greater speed.

*****

It wasn’t the sudden cooling of the heated air that roused the old man from his melancholy, rather the lack of light. Curiously, he raised his eyes to study the black cloud, a blanket of thick wool now hovering between the earth and the sun. As if the elements conspired to participate in the confrontation of good versus evil, the heavens darkened, setting the stage.

When Madrid appeared in the saloon doorway, a heavy flow of adrenaline was released through the old man’s aged body. As impressive as the gunman had appeared on horseback, he was more so now as he moved to face his enemy. Cat-like, graceful, the lethal gunfighter stopped on the edge of the boardwalk, where he issued a challenge to Scott Lancer, now positioned directly across the street from him.

The old man leaned forward, holding the rail of the boardwalk and peered hungrily at the tall blond man who stood at attention, his disbelieving stare firmly cemented on the gunhawk. From his position the old man could see the blond and the dark man’s lips moving but was unable to discern their words. It wasn’t enough to see Madrid kill his enemy, he had to hear the confusion, smell the fear. Eagerly, he moved closer.

*****

Aware of the foreboding promise of gunplay, innocent bystanders hastened to find shelter. In the beat of a heart the street of Green River was deserted but for the buggy in front of the general store and the red stallion tied at the hitching post to the right of Madrid.

Grimsley crept toward the street, coming to a stop behind a stack of barrels at the mouth of the alley. He removed his hat before stealthily peering around the corner. Intently, Grimsley studied the street, mentally mapping the location of each of the players in the drama now unfolding.  Madrid stood on the boardwalk outside the saloon to his left, his attention fixed on a group of four people standing across the street. Behind Madrid, but still within relative cover of the saloon, Mac was also poised to lend his gun should anyone dare interfere in the confrontation. Further down the street, a lone old man had risen from his chair to stand clutching the railing, his attention trained on the two combatants.

Raising his eyes, Grimsley noted that Ramsey had taken cover on the balcony over the general store, the sights of his rifle firmly fixed on the dark gunfighter. Ill at ease, Grimsley noted the two remaining members of the Walden gang were nowhere to be seen. “Cowards,” he muttered.

Foreboding gripped him as he returned his focus to Madrid. A sneer covered Grimsley’s features as he slid his gun from its holster and carefully trained it on the man in black.

*****

“So, we meet at last,” Madrid growled.

Hauntingly familiar, the timbre of the man’s voice fell on Murdoch’s ear. Murdoch shook his head, refusing to allow any reverie to distract him from the threat directly in front of him. Instead he turned toward Scott, his heart pounding painfully as he took in the pallor spreading across his son’s features. Murdoch placed a steadying hand on his son’s arm.

Scott felt the pull of the evil vortex as it swirled menacingly around the man in black across the street. Time slowed; the street seemed to narrow as a tunnel of reality opened between him and the stranger who had challenged him. The darkness surrounding the man was mirrored by the thick cloud drifting across the sun, dimming the sunlight as surely as the light of goodness had vacated the heart of the man challenging him. Scott rasped, “Do we know you?”

The voice was unlike any Scott had ever heard. Deep, icy, resonating with Hell’s fury, it lashed his consciousness. Like a tangible force the weight of the man’s words, and the aura throbbing around him assaulted the blond Lancer’s senses.

Electricity leaped across the distance separating the two men, pummeling Scott with its sheer hatred. “You’re Lancer,” the dark man, Hell’s agent, confirmed with a snarl.

“Who’s asking?” Scott replied steadily, his voice failing to betray his tremulous grip on his emotions.

“It doesn’t matter what my name is.” The man in black took another step forward as his hand dropped ominously closer to the Colt resting in his holster. “All you should concern yourself with is making peace with your maker.”

******

The old man stepped off the boardwalk, his thirst for blood driving him to seek a position as close as he dared to Madrid. He noted the shock on the Lancers’ faces, then the disbelief and finally horror. He could see Madrid’s lips moving but could not hear the words, though the expressions of the Lancers told him all he needed to know. Nevertheless, he wanted more. He wanted to hear the terror in Scott Lancer’s voice, wanted the young rancher to understand who had unleashed this monster of death upon him.

Adrenaline flowed through his old body, rejuvenating him, energizing weakened limbs. His eyes narrowed to mere slits as the energy pulsed through him. Like a snake in the garden he slithered closer to the saloon, his eyes firmly fixed on Scott Lancer’s dazed features.

*****

Mac’s attention was diverted from Madrid and Lancer by a stealthy movement to his right. His interest piqued, he observed Grimsley’s surreptitious motion toward him. The Colt in Grimsley’s hand, the furtive glances he tossed in Madrid’s direction, left Mac with little doubt of his partner’s intentions. Amused by Grimsley’s bold play, Mac made no attempt to warn the dark gunhawk of the impending threat.

Grimsley had always overestimated his ability with a gun. His arrogance and pride had been a constant source of tension among the members of the gang.  Mac had long since tired of the constant posturing of the man. After years of dissension within the ranks, Mac would not interfere if Grimsley chose to tempt fate.

*****

An enraged snort exploded in the silent whirlwind menacing the now deserted street. Scott’s attention was captured by the terrifying stallion fighting the reins that tied him to the hitching post. Instantly he recognized Jelly’s ‘bloody horse’ and knew the stranger was the gunman of whom the handyman had warned them.

Scott attempted to discern the stranger’s face, yet in the gloom of the afternoon, the brim of the dark man’s hat effectively hid his features. Still, the build, the rig tied low on the man’s hip, conspired to suggest the impossible. Incredulously, Scott recoiled, resisting the truth as it plunged into his mind, piercing his disbelief.

Scott threw a quick glance at his father, stunned at the similar expression of disbelief mirrored in the older man’s eyes.  It couldn’t be! While the physical similarities existed, there was no recognizable trace of the man they had once known. While life may have been revived in the body of their loved one, there was no doubt from where they stood that the soul of the man standing before them remained dead, barren.

Scott gaped at the gunman. “Johnny?”

*****

Grimsley inched along the boardwalk, seeking a position behind the gunman. He licked his lips in anticipation. Finally, the moment had arrived. He would wait until Scott Lancer died then he would kill Madrid. Oh, he wasn’t particularly concerned that Madrid’s back was to him. The rare opportunity of gaining the advantage over the deadly gunslinger was one he simply could not pass up. He had hungered for respect; thirsted for power and now the chance for his just desserts had presented itself. Lust for the power of Madrid’s reputation gleamed in his pale eyes. He was going to kill Johnny Madrid Lancer.

His eyes glued to the gunman’s back, he ducked under the hitching post in front of the saloon. So intent was he on the man in black, he failed to register that the blood bay was fighting against the reins securing him to the hitching rail, nor his close proximity to the struggling stallion.

Hellion reared violently, his powerful body pulling against the leather anchoring him. Unable to withstand the animal’s brute strength, the slipknot suddenly gave way, freeing the enraged beast. The red stallion snorted triumphantly then lashed out at the man who had dared to venture too close.

***** 

Teresa stared intently at the stranger as the man she considered a brother turned to face his challenger. As she raked her gaze over the lean form of the gunman recognition flared within her. A woman knows the embrace of her lover; she memorizes his movement, his tender touch, his stance. As she studied the slender gunfighter, she celebrated in the truth- Johnny - her husband, her heart’s desire was alive!

Fighting off the voice that screamed in her heart, she struggled against the despair she had lived with for so many months. The impossible had become reality and now stood before them. Yet as quickly as she received the truth another, more terrifying revelation bombarded her senses. Johnny was not the man she had known and loved, instead he was evil personified in the deadly gunhawk threatening her family.

Hannah turned to her friend, her eyes growing wide as she saw the lack of color in Teresa’s face. Reacting quickly, she threw her arms around the young widow’s shoulders, supporting her when she appeared faint. Teresa shrugged off her grasp and staggered off the boardwalk, her eyes fixed firmly on the stranger.

The pain in Teresa's abdomen paralleled the agony in her heart. As the stranger’s intentions became brutally clear, she released the pent-up anguish that had been her constant companion for months. After enduring all the nights of despair, the absence of hope, she clutched her stomach and forsook all restraint, pouring her whole heart out in one anguished cry. “Johnny!”

**** 

Madrid heard her cry, and saw her stumble before collapsing into the arms of the woman by her side. As he turned his attention back to Scott, his lips parted with a satisfied smile. “Well, well, Mr. Lancer. Looks like your bitch can’t stand the shock.”

Murdoch was frozen by the revelation that the dark man standing before them, so cruelly taunting them, was his son, Johnny.  As he struggled to register the nightmare that was unfolding before him as his lost son threatened his oldest, he cried out, “Johnny, my God, Johnny, is it really you?”

Madrid’s malevolent tone left no opportunity for misunderstanding. “Stay out of this old man, or you’re the next to die.”

 

Chapter 34

Once I was promised absolution, There's only one solution for my sins
You gotta face your ghosts and know with no illusions
That only one of you is going home again

And I blame this world for making a good man evil, It's this world that can drive a good man mad And it's this world that turns a killer into a hero. Well I blame this world for making a good man bad

Santa Fe by Jon Bon Jovi

Val and Jelly ground tied their winded horses, hastily darting furtive glances at their surroundings before making their way to the mouth of the alley beside the saloon. The eerie stillness in the normally boisterous town was a distinct contrast to the moaning of the wind and the distance rumble of thunder. A storm was brewing, its impending onslaught of wind and rain marching steadily toward Green River.

Yet the ferocity of the storm seemed pale in comparison to the mounting sense of foreboding that now encircled Jelly’s chest, constricting his lungs in its vice like grip. He swallowed, seeking to rid himself of the obstruction in his throat that choked his ability to speak. Shivering in spite of the remaining heat of the noonday sun, Jelly paused when Val grasped his arm to halt his forward motion. The foreign timbre of the handyman’s own voice only served to add to Jelly’s apprehension. “What?” With great effort he pushed aside his trepidation.

The tension in the lawman emulated that of his companion as Val clenched his teeth and lowered his head to whisper harshly in Jelly’s ear. “Wait here for a minute. I’m gonna have a look see.”

Mutely, Jelly nodded in agreement.

Val cautiously approached the saloon, taking full advantage of any available cover. The tension on the street was tangible, alive, all coiled up and hissing like a serpent. It choked a man’s mind much as dust suffocated his lungs. His nerves taut, Val sought to discern the location of each member of the Walden gang in relation to the Lancers. Horrified, he spied Johnny Madrid in the center of the street, his right hand hovering over his Colt while he spoke angrily to someone out of Val’s line of vision.

Seeking a better vantage point, Val inched closer to the saloon, pausing only to motion for Jelly to join him.  The handyman crept up to stand beside him, his eyes following Val’s finger pointing at the man in black in the center of the street. Even from his position, Jelly was painfully aware of the evil that oozed from the lethal gunhawk as he stood focused on the four people outside the general store.

Jelly drew in a sharp breath as he recognized Scott, Madrid’s intended target. Sharply, as if struck, Jelly recoiled as denial fled before truth. The man in the street, the same man who had haunted Jelly’s waking dreams, the man on the blood red horse, was none other than Johnny Lancer, a man Jelly had once loved as a surrogate son. Finding his voice, pushing back the terror of the scene before him, Jelly whispered faintly, “That’s Johnny. We cain’t jist stand here while he shoots down Scott.”

“I know who that is, old man. Who the heck do ya think told ya back at the ranch? I knew ya didn’t believe me back there. Now give me a minute here.” Val’s distress was easily as obvious as that of Jelly’s. “We can’t just stand and watch but if’n we make any sudden moves we might push Johnny into drawing.”

“Well, you better think of something fast. We’re runnin' outta time.”

*****

“What do you mean? How can you be here? We buried you!” Scott gasped. His joy at the appearance of his brother was eclipsed by Johnny’s apparent lack of recognition.

“You thought you could get rid of me so easily?” Madrid snarled. ‘Did you think you would get away with it?” The gunfighter’s anger broke through his veneer of icy calm.

“Johnny!” Murdoch stared in disbelief at his youngest son. “What the hell is wrong with you? Don’t you recognize us?”

“We’re your family!” Scott fought the rising flood of panic. His brother was alive and well and intent on committing murder. His murder. “I’m your brother!”

“I have no brother!” Madrid growled. His rage flared briefly to be choked down as hell’s flames were smothered by a thick layer of ice. “You high and mighty Lancers think you can bed another man’s woman, put her in the family way and never pay the consequences. Well, never again! Today you pay for your sins. Now draw!”

“I am your brother! Don’t you know me?” Scott implored, but his words failed to penetrate the gunman’s heart. “Please, Johnny. You have to remember.”

“You’ve run out of time. Draw.” Madrid’s whispered command was softer, yet laced with the promise of retribution. Blue eyes that gleamed with a demonic light pinned Scott beneath their deadly stare.

“I won’t draw on my own brother!” Scott declared, his confusion at the situation turning to anger born of desperation. “For God’s sake, Johnny, you have to know me! I’m your flesh and blood!”

Time ceased its forward march, the earth stood still. Mother Nature writhed in agony, holding her breath as Madrid considered Scott Lancer’s declaration. Thunder rumbled in the distance, the heavens groaning as Scott and Murdoch desperately watched for any flicker of recognition in the midnight eyes.

Without hesitation, the gunman made his decision. “Don’t matter none to me.”

*****

As the confrontation before him escalated, Grimsley moved even closer to the blood bay. His lips twisted into a leering grin as his finger tightened on the butt of his gun. As his shoulder brushed Hellion’s flank, Grimsley became aware of his mistake too late. He glanced in terror behind him as the mighty stallion rose high in the air and came down, his forelegs driving into Grimsley’s shoulder. As the stallion’s hooves struck him, Grimsley screamed and fell to the ground.

Again and again, Hellion rose high to come down on the bloody mass beneath his feet. His anger spent, his thirst for blood sated, Hellion lowered his head to disdainfully sniff the remains of what had once been a man.

*****

With no thought as to his course of action, Jelly anxiously searched for a weapon, anything. His eyes raked over the debris in the alley behind him to land on the dull metal of a shovel, long since abandoned there. He desperately grasped the aged handle and ran toward the man in black.

*****

Mac had watched Grimsley moving past the stallion, and even from afar had known the animal would not tolerate anyone passing so close to him. The stallion, enraged, broke free of his restraint and lashed out at an unaware Grimsley. Before Mac could call out a warning, Hellion released his long-denied fury on the hapless gunman, and Grimsley went down under the plunging hooves.

Sickened by the horrible twist of fate death had handed his compadre, Mac turned away. His attention was drawn to an old man in overalls running toward Madrid, a shovel held tightly in his hands. His intended victim was unaware of his approach but from this distance, Mac’s cry of warning was lost on the wind. Angered at the old coot’s interference, Mac clawed for his gun, only to discover his holster was empty.

“Just take it easy, mister!’ a voice behind him cautioned. “Hands in the air!” Mac whirled around to face the lawman. The sheriff’s gun was leveled on the gunman’s chest while he tucked Mac’s Colt into his waistband.

Stunned, Mac realized it was the second time this morning someone had been able to sneak up on him. Resigned, Mac raised his hands, “Well, Sheriff, I guess I’m getting too old for this business.”

“Age hasn’t got nothing to do with skill.”

*****

Ignoring the stallion raging behind him, Madrid made his move, his hand flashing down to the Colt on his thigh. The weapon cleared leather, came up to bear on Scott Lancer and barked its vengeance. With a blinding explosion of pain, the world became dark and Madrid felt himself falling. In his last conscious moment he saw, with satisfaction, Scott Lancer hit the earth across from him.

*****

Desert Storm fought gamely to meet Hanson’s unspoken request. Her strides came painfully, her breathing was belabored, foam covered her copper neck and legs, and blood dripped from her nostrils. Hanson understood the mare’s agony. His heart ached as he felt her struggle valiantly to maintain her final drive. His weight poised over her withers where it would be easier to carry, he asked no more of her - he knew she was giving all she had to give.

As the town of Green River loomed ahead under a heavy black cloud, the voice in his heart urged, //Hurry, hurry, hurry.// A shot rang out, thundering viciously in the stillness before the storm.

Sorrowfully, Hanson shifted his weight forward, lifted and pleaded. //Oh Storm, more, more, more.// Desert Storm responded to his silent plea, meeting his challenge. The sorrel mare rallied her heart and muscles together and from deep within her came one last response.

Douglas Hanson heard the gallant mare groan, and felt her muscles bunch tightly as she gathered herself for one last drive. As she gave her final effort, he felt his own heart breaking.

***** 

It was all falling apart. Their carefully orchestrated plans had come to naught in the space of a few minutes. Ramsey panicked as he witnessed Grimsley go down under the deadly hooves of the stallion, followed by the capture of Mac. As Madrid fell, taking Scott Lancer down with him, Ramsey leaped over the balcony railing and dropped lithely to the street below.

In his haste, he barreled into the old man, who threw up his fist and raged, “Where the hell do you think you’re going, Ramsey?”

Ramsey angrily shook off the old man’s hand. “I’m finished with you, old man.”

“I’m in charge here!” Panicking, the old man saw his last hope for revenge fast disappearing. First Grimsley, then Mac and Madrid - now Ramsey! As the surge of desperation engulfed him, the old man blindly struck out at the younger man. “Now finish what I’m paying you for.”

“Are you blind? Mac is down and so is Grimsley.” Again, Ramsey attempted to break free. “One on one wasn’t part of the deal!”

“You were paid good money to kill Scott Lancer! You haven’t finished the job!” he screamed.

“Even Madrid is done for, old man. Handle Lancer yourself.” With the speed of one used to making impulsive decisions, Ramsey made haste for his horse who stood tethered to the hitching post up the street. As he quickly passed the last two remaining members of the infamous Walden gang, he urged them to follow, “Let’s ride! There’ll be no more paydays around here!” With that, he leaped into his saddle and viciously spurred his horse out of town.

*****

Joe stepped away from the saloon window, shaking his head sadly. The entire spectacle had sickened him, crushed his hopes for the renewal of so many visions. Oh, it wasn’t a physical illness so much as brokenness within his spirit. His soul ached; his mind grappled with his deep failure and left him weak.

Joe had made every effort to get through to his companions, to convince them of the path to destruction on which they had embarked. He had spent so many years riding with the Walden gang, so many years setting an example, gently displaying kindness and concern for his fellow man. They had never understood his sacrifice, his counsel, choosing instead to mock him, to treat him as a simpleton. Yet his wisdom was far superior. He had foreseen the day of their demise, had cautioned them, but to no avail.

Now, at long last, that horrible day had befallen the members of the small group of men he had cared for. Brought down in effect by an old man’s quest for vengeance and a young man’s path toward self-destruction. Two men, so different yet so similar. Two goals, but one purpose, revenge.

Vengeance, Joe mused was a fickle ally, as likely to turn on a man as to satisfy his every desire. Now it appeared she had led them all astray. Despite the old man’s best efforts, against his worldly voice of reason, fate had twisted, turned upon them all with fatal results.

Joe had watched as, one by one, the Walden gang had fled, fallen or died. So much death, so much tragedy. His one consolation was he had tried, he’d always tried. But alas, Mac, Grimsley, Ramsey, and now this boy had failed to heed his warning. Resolutely, he once more determined to save the young man…if Johnny Madrid survived.

 

Chapter 35

The blood of the slain, the weeping voice of nature cries-It is time to be reconciled…

Charles Inglis, 1776

Murdoch had lived through Johnny’s death once before. Now the agony of seeing his son falling to the ground was more than he could bear. With the rage of one who has lost love, and recovered only to lose again, he threw back his head. “No, Johnny! Not again!”

With one eye on Johnny lying in the dust of the street, Murdoch hesitated at Scott’s side only long enough to ensure his oldest son wasn’t badly injured. “Scott? Scott, can you hear me?”

A gentle moan, then the blue eyes opened. Scott gasped as the pain in his shoulder made itself known. He rose shakily, the near brush with death stinging his nerves even as the small crease in his right shoulder ached. Blinking in confusion, his gaze swept the boardwalk, landing first on Hannah, then Teresa.

At the question in his eyes, Hannah firmly reassured him. “We’re okay. Teresa fainted but she’ll be fine. See to Johnny.”

He returned his attention to his father. “Are you all right, Murdoch?”

At his father’s positive nod, Scott dismissed his own injury. Relieved they had all survived the confrontation that had rendered him light-headed, another, more pressing concern now leaped to the front of his mind. “Johnny!”

Scott staggered to the edge of the boardwalk, only to be brought up short by the sight of a blood red stallion standing ominously close to his unconscious brother. The stallion’s ears were flattened, his nostrils distended as he snorted a warning. The mighty beast had rejected his opportunity for freedom. Mysteriously drawn to the fallen gunman, he remained within close proximity of the human he had long hated.

Off-balance by the newly formed allegiance, the earth shuddered as nature raged above them. Thunder exploded, a bolt of lightning lashed out in anger, and struck the roof of the saloon.

As Mother Nature screamed above them, Hellion lifted his voice in reply. Incited to greater ferocity by nature’s challenge, he rose high, pawing the air in his fury and frustration. The stallion’s long-denied moment of vengeance was finally at hand, yet he made no move to threaten his nemesis, Johnny Madrid. Instead, he lowered his head to gently blow on the man’s face.

Jelly remembered the battle he had witnessed in Greeley and knew there was no love lost between Madrid and the stallion.  “Whatcha make o’ that? Animal’s a killer. Did ya see?’

“Yes, Jelly. We saw.” Scott stepped off the boardwalk, his eyes firmly fixed on his brother. He pointedly ignored the red giant standing so near the now-vulnerable man who lay as if dead only feet away. “But be that as it may, we have to get to Johnny,” he said tersely.

Scott was relieved to find his father beside him, matching him step for step. Together they cautiously moved toward the fallen man.

“Scott, be careful” Hannah’s voice shook with terror at this newest threat. Miraculously, they had survived the events of the afternoon, and the possibility of a reunion with their missing loved one was becoming reality but for a blood red stallion.

Johnny lay still as death, but the stallion that stood guard over him blocked their view of his face. Hellion eyed the men who approached ever so slowly, before snorting loudly and taking a threatening step forward. But the hated men did not retreat, they continued with their forward motion. With a grunt, the stallion moved to one side, and allowed the men to pass him by. He retreated a few yards yet remained ever watchful tossing his head angrily.

Suddenly a deep calm settled over the town, the storm’s voice now eerily quiet. Still circling above, the dark clouds shook silently but made no further overtures. A cool breeze picked up the energy the thunder had abandoned, gently fingering the faces of the men on the street.

Scott chanced a glance at the red beast standing only a few feet away before dropping to his knees beside his brother. His body was numbed by the reality that it was indeed his brother lying at his feet. With a shaking hand, he gently touched Johnny’s chest, noting its rise and fall with each breath.

Murdoch sank to the ground on Johnny’s other side, fearing he would awaken from a cruel dream, and discover the boy’s presence was a figment of a desperate imagination. Tremulously, afraid of waking from the dream, he stroked his son’s brow. A sob escaped the older man’s mouth as his hands touched the reality of the warm flesh.  Unashamed of the open show of emotion, he made no move to wipe the tears that stung his eyes.

The unfamiliar sight of his father’s tears of relief drew Scott back from the precipice of shock over which he had been hovering He was suddenly aware of Hannah and Teresa, followed closely by Jelly and Val, leaning over them, their faces masked by the anxiety he knew must be mirrored on his own.

Teresa dropped to her knees beside the prone figure of her husband, her hand grasping his as if to confirm he was indeed before her. Tears filled her eyes, then spilled down her cheeks as the warmth of his hand brought the man out of the spiritual realm of her mind into the land of the living. Her voice choked with concern, she whispered, “Jelly, go get Sam.”

“Already on the way. Val done called for him when the shooting stopped.” Jelly studied his employer’s hands as they ran over Johnny, searching for injuries. Relief threatened to overcome the small group as Murdoch shook his head at their unspoken question.

“No sign of injury but a big lump on the back of his head,” Murdoch reported gratefully, relief at finding no life-threatening injury evident in the man’s gruff voice. “Jelly, what the hell did you hit him with?”

“A shovel. I couldn’t help it. Everythin’ was happenin’ too fast. I just grabbed the first thing I found.” Jelly stammered to a halt, his eyes pleading for understanding. “I couldn’t let Johnny shoot Scott and I didn’t want Johnny dead neither.”

“It’s okay, Jelly. You did what you had to.” Scott soothed the handyman while denying him the opportunity for self-condemnation.

“Move aside. Let me have a look.” Sam’s voice, soothing and self-confident, was a welcome balm to their wounded nerves. Scott nodded gratefully when Val stood aside, making way for the physician. Collectively the small group held their breath as Sam performed a cursory examination on Johnny before rising to issue orders. “Let’s get him to my office.”

While Val and Jelly moved to comply with the doctor’s directions, Hannah offered a hand to aid Teresa as she rose. With her arms around the young woman’s shoulders, she steadied Teresa as she struggled clumsily to her feet.

The shadow of a group of heavy, passing clouds dropped over the four men and two women kneeling beside the fallen gunhawk. Little sunlight remained to pierce the thick woolen cover that darkened the town.  Yet another figure crept up to stand before the huddled Lancers, his shadow joining nature’s shadowy blanket and blocking the faint shafts of light that had found their way through the dark clouds.

His nerves grating at the interruption, Scott rose to meet the man, if only to urge him on his way. “Please, we need to move my brother, so can you step back, sir…”

Disbelief registered on Scott Lancer’s tightly drawn features as he recognized the man standing before him. The man wore an aging tailored suit, complete with a tattered top hat, a sad testament to wealth lost. Worn dove gray gloves enveloped his hands, while a crooked walking stick was firmly grasped in one hand. The man had aged ten years in the last four, his features were drawn and withered, his shoulders stooped as if under a weighty burden. But it was the eyes that stabbed into the very heart and soul of the young Lancer. Eyes filled with hatred blazed in the lined countenance of a man Scott had once called friend.

“Hollingsworth?” Scott asked incredulously.

“So you remember my name, do you?” the old man snarled. “What else do you remember?” William Hollingsworth demanded.

“What are you doing here?” Scott found his voice, unsteady but effective. “I can’t talk now. My first concern is my brother.” He gestured toward Johnny, who was being prepared by the doctor for the move to his office.

“That murdering breed is your brother?” Hollingsworth asked scornfully, when he was confronted by the revelation of the bond between the two men. “Why am I not surprised?” he growled.

As the newcomer’s malicious insults penetrated his study of his youngest son, Murdoch turned his attention to the man confronting Scott. He stepped forward, his head lowered belligerently. “Careful, Mister.”  Murdoch glowered at the other man, taking note of his distinct eastern accent. “He’s my son.”

“Well the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, now does it?”

Scott pushed himself between his angered father and Hollingsworth, demanding, “What is that supposed to mean?”

“It’s a shame he failed,” retorted Hollingsworth. “But then again maybe the satisfaction of killing you myself will be even sweeter.”

“Why, Hollingsworth? What are you talking about?” Scott shook his head in frustration. He glanced back at Johnny, whose head was being supported by Jelly as the doctor raised his shoulders. Weeping softly, Teresa clung to Johnny’s hand, holding it tightly as if losing contact would result in awaking from a dream to find him dead. Still unconscious, Johnny’s face was placid, so unlike the angry gunfighter who had so recently made an attempt to kill his own brother.

Scott slowly turned back to the easterner, unwilling to give him any time. “What the hell did I ever do to you? Look, I don’t have time for this. Just get out of our way,” he ordered.

“I’m not leaving, Lancer, not yet. You want to know why I’m here? I’ll tell you.” He grabbed Scott’s sleeve and spat, “Barbara! You do remember her, don’t you? Or was she just another notch on your…Beacon Hill walking stick?”

“Scott, we need your help,” Murdoch demanded, ignoring Hollingsworth.

Torn between his need to tend to Johnny, and this man who was saying he had every intention of killing him, Scott asked, “Barbara? You mean Barbara Hollingsworth? What does she have to do with anything?”

“Everything! Your scandalous rendezvous with her that night back in Boston ruined me. And her as well. Ruined! Even if I could overcome that, I couldn’t overcome Barbara’s shame. She was ostracized, cast out. When she finally found someone who would love her and support her, she was too weak.”

Scott turned to face Hollingsworth. “Was she sick?”

“Physically? No, but she never got over you. Don’t you understand? She killed herself, Mr. Lancer. Or I should say, you killed her!” Hollingsworth’s face was flushed with the heat of his anger. “I’ve come here to do what I should have done years ago! I’m going to exact the punishment you deserve for your crime!”

Suddenly, a Derringer appeared out of nowhere, steadily aimed at a place just over Scott’s heart.  “To get the job done right, you have to do it yourself,” Hollingsworth promised, his hand holding the small weapon was less than steady.  “God damn it, I’m going to kill you myself!”

In horror, Scott watched as the madman’s finger squeezed the trigger. With thoughts of protecting the women and his father, as well as the other people who stood in the line of fire, Scott flung himself at the gunman. It was as if time’s forward motion had slowed. Even as his body ploughed into that of Hollingsworth, Scott felt the impact of the bullet’s release from the small gun, deafening his ears.

The bullet ploughed through flesh and bone, penetrated the beating organ, releasing life-giving blood that stained the front of the shirt. As he dropped lifelessly to the earth, Hanson’s yell reverberated over the small group huddled in the street. “No!”

 

Chapter 36

"…. a belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness."

 Joseph Conrad          

Desert Storm slid on her haunches, her stiff front legs spewing dust as she came to a halt. Hanson dismounted before she had fully righted herself, pausing briefly to cast a sorrowful look at the gallant mare before running headlong toward the center of town

Ahead, a group of six people surrounded a prone figure, frozen in the process of lifting the fallen man. But it was the man who stood facing them that captured Hanson’s attention.

Hollingsworth, a small Derringer clasped in one gnarled hand, was engaged in heated discourse with Scott Lancer. Hollingsworth’s voice, as lethal as any weapon, left no doubt as to his intent.

With no thought save to prevent a tragedy, Hanson brought his own Derringer to bear on the man he had once considered a father. As Hollingsworth’s weapon raised and fired at Scott Lancer, Hanson pulled the trigger.  

Even as he fired his own gun, pain engulfed Douglas Hanson. An overwhelming sense of loss drove her vindictive fist into the pit of his stomach and nearly doubled him over in grief. Today he had destroyed the two things he dearly loved most – his beloved mare and his life-long friend. Scarcely pausing to breathe, Hanson staggered to the boardwalk and sank into one of the rocking chairs set out in front of the general store. He bowed his head and pressed his eyes tightly closed to stem the flow of his anguish, but a single tear escaped his control and slid down his cheek.

*****

At the sound of the two shots, momentarily stunned into immobility, the small group of people stared at the crimson blood that seeped into the dust beneath the body of William Hollingsworth. Scott rose on shaky legs, his heart thundering as the revelation he had escaped fate for the second time this day struck him. With mouth agape, he turned to face the others, awed by the divine hand of Providence that had deemed them worthy of a reprieve from the clutch of death.

“Everyone all right?” Scott choked out. Seeking reassurance, his gaze slid from one to the other before settling on his still unconscious brother. With no hesitation, he bent to retrieve the Colt from where it had fallen from Johnny’s lax grip. Scott thrust it at Val, who then tucked it into the waistband of his trousers.

The people surrounding the two fallen figures nodded, their stunned gazes searched each other for confirmation there had been no injury among them. In one accord, they shook off the shock and focused on the limp body of Johnny; he was still breathing and in need of attention.

As the Lancers lifted their loved one from the dust of the street, Val caught the attention of Harold Fairbanks, town blacksmith and veterinarian, who was watching the scene from the door of his workshop. The sheriff gestured toward the blood bay, snorting defiantly, standing ominously close to the small group. He nodded toward the corral, the command, while silent, was nonetheless unmistakable.

Fairbanks motioned to his sons, Hank and Dusty, and the three men cautiously moved toward the stallion, uncoiling their lassos. They had seen the stallion kill the hapless Grimsley, could see the dried blood still coating the animal’s forelegs, so they moved with respect, with quiet fear. While their first instinct was to put a bullet between the animal’s eyes, they acknowledged they were not in a position to make that decision.

This was Madrid’s horse, a fearsome, magnificent specimen of horseflesh, beautiful and deadly. While they both feared and admired the raw power of the animal, fear of the gunman was more paramount in their hearts.

***** 

Martin Simmons, Green River’s undertaker, had known the Lancers since his arrival, and knew them to be a steady, up-standing family. Murdoch Lancer’s reputation as a shrewd businessman and head of his family extended throughout all of California. His generosity and kindness was renowned and many of the citizens of Green River had been willing recipients of the Lancer patriarch’s liberality. The story of the loss of his wives and sons was well known and when his sons had been returned to him, his joy had been shared by his friends and business associates.

Simmons had also heard tales of the youngest son, whose prowess with the six-gun was legendary. Johnny Madrid’s reputation was likewise well known and had preceded his arrival at Lancer. The young man had been seemingly undaunted by the whispers and sharp stares that greeted each of his visits into town.  In spite of his ferocious reputation and the prejudice of the town’s people, the young man had won them over with his easy smile, his fierce loyalty and willingness to come to the aid of the most humble member of society in times of crisis. The death of the younger Lancer had impacted not only his immediate family but the residents of Green River.

The Lancers had mourned quietly, with dignity and self-control; they had striven to maintain a degree of collective decorum, concealing their grief behind the four walls of their home. In public they had been reserved and stately. It was their lack of open despair in the face of such tragedy that had earned them the continuing respect of their peers. But this morning had seen their resolve crumble as the specter of death had forced his will upon them in the guise of their missing loved one.

Simmons shook his head in disbelief. In his first few years in town, he had witnessed many drunken brawls, observed the aftermath of many shootouts, but the violence of this morning, senseless and confusing, had left him strangely shaken. Like the citizens who had been present for the confrontation between Johnny Madrid and the Lancers, he had been unprepared for the drama that had been laid open before him.

Now as Simmons took note of the bodies of Grimsley and Hollingsworth lying in mute testimony to the proceedings of the day, he was unable to fathom the motivation of Johnny Lancer in seeking to kill his own brother. ‘The boy must have been out of his head,’ he thought solemnly. It was the only plausible explanation.

With a resigned sigh he leaned over Hollingsworth’s remains, mentally calculating the height and weight of the man. An abrupt choking cough drew his attention to his assistant, Gordon, who was making similar observations about the body of Grimsley. The horrific sight of what had once been a man overwhelmed Simmons’ young apprentice. With head in hands, the younger man fled to the corner of the alley to retch violently.

With another sigh, Simmons moved to Gordon’s side. He patted his counterpart’s back, offering consolation for his distress before shoving him toward Hollingsworth’s body. Clenching his teeth, he performed the necessary measurements of Grimsley.

*****

Fairbanks was angry, angrier than he could ever remember. The damned stallion was uncanny in his assessment of the men’s next move, easily avoiding capture while seeking to inflict as much harm as possible on the men. While a lesser animal would have chosen flight to battle, the red devil seemed to revel in confrontation; the beast actually took pleasure in warring with mankind.

The sound of cursing verified the deadly hooves had found their mark once more. Fairbanks witnessed his son, Hank, stagger back from a blow from a powerful hind leg, groaning in agony.

Hellion, momentarily distracted in pursuit of the injured Hank, was unaware of Fairbanks stealthy approach.

Fairbanks uncoiled his lasso and watched in satisfaction as the coil of rope snaked out and settled around the stallion’s powerful neck. Hellion screamed in rage, he kicked out in fear of the hated rope. As he struggled against the noose, Dusty landed a second rope around the animal’s neck.

*****

Mutely, the Lancers bore their precious burden to the doctor’s office, where they gently laid him upon the table in the examination room.

Teresa, her voice laced with the first tinge of hysteria, cried, “Sam? Is he going to be alright?” She put voice to the fear that plagued the Lancer family. Tears began in earnest as she gazed upon the like-death figure of Johnny laid out on the examining table. His pallid features and stillness shocked the young woman into a state of panic. “Oh please! Not again!” she screamed.

Murdoch moved to Teresa’s side, and firmly gripped her arms. He tilted her chin in order to fully capture her attention.  “Honey, Johnny is going to be fine. Now give the doctor room to do his work.”

But Murdoch’s words fell on deaf ears as the young woman wrenched away from his arms. “No, no, he can’t die. Not again!”

Concern blazing in his eyes, Scott reached out to gather the distraught woman into his arms. “Teresa, listen, just listen! Johnny is alive! He’s going to be fine.”

Teresa traced the contours of Johnny’s face with her hand then moved it lower to rest over his heart, the steady rise and fall of his chest seeming to calm her.

Scott allowed her a few more moments with Johnny, then firmly pulled her back. “Now let Sam do his work. Do what’s right for Johnny.”

Adrenaline had supported bodies and souls pushed to the edge of human endurance. Now the lack of the energizing influence left them weakened and fearful. Yet hope rose once more, she railed against defeat, her indomitable spirit refusing to surrender. And it was hope that persuaded Teresa to rally her emotions for yet another battle. She stood taller, her shoulders back as determination lifted her head. “You’re both right. Of course he’s going to be fine. He came back to us and we are not going to lose him now.”

“Teresa, we won’t lose him,” Murdoch declared vehemently. He pulled her into his embrace, and felt her acceptance as she joined her faith with his.

“Johnny seems to be holding his own,” Sam reported. “Scott, I’d better look at you now.” With gentle fingers, the doctor examined Scott’s wound, tenderly bandaging the arm before addressing the small crowd in the waiting room. “Murdoch, why don’t you take your family to the café? You look like you could do with some coffee. Maybe some food, too.”

“We’ll wait here, Sam.” Murdoch’s voice trailed away as he and his friend exchanged knowing glances. “Johnny has come back to us and we aren’t leaving him.”

Sam nodded his understanding as he and Murdoch disappeared into the private examination room where Johnny lay. Carefully, they moved him to the bed in the recovery room, taking care to offer him as much comfort as possible.

Feeling ill at ease, useless, Val muttered expletives about the Walden gang and wanted posters. “I’m gonna check on my guest, Mr. Walden. I have some questions that need answering, one way or the other.” Val slipped from the room, his discomfort driving him to the safety of the jailhouse.

Jelly stared at the door through which the sheriff had made his exit, then abruptly turned to follow.  He called after the sheriff, “Hey, Val, wait up for me. Ya got any coffee on?”

As Jelly fell into step with the lawman, Val grumbled, “It don’t taste worth a damn but if you really want a cup, you can help your own self.” Surprised by his own welcoming reaction, Val silently accepted the handyman’s offer of company. They were an odd pair, somehow ill-matched, yet for now, they silently took comfort in each other’s company. They knew they would promptly be notified when and if Johnny regained consciousness.

 

Chapter 37  

Consequences are unpitying. Our deeds carry their terrible consequences, quite apart from any fluctuations that went before--consequences that are hardly ever confined to ourselves.

 George Eliot

Scott tossed a longing glance through the adjoining doorway at his brother, lying so still and pale on the bed, before allowing Hannah to steer him outside onto the boardwalk in front of the doctor's office. As they made their way out the door, an old man barreled into them. Without offering an apology the old man pressed by, his focus on the open door that would allow him access to the doctor's office.

"Excuse me, Sir. You almost ran my lady down." Scott caught the old man by the arm and spun him around to face him.

"Out of my way. I got ta tend ta my boy in there." The old man thrust out his chin belligerently.

"Your boy?" Puzzled, Scott blocked the entrance to the office, his curiosity piqued by the man's odd claim. "What do you mean your boy? Who are you?"

"My name's Joe, if'n it'll mean anythin' to you. I found him, I nursed him, guided him. I think that makes him my boy." Joe's determination in the face of Scott's reluctance to step aside was secondary only to his obvious devotion to the gunslinger. "I know what he needs better than any sawbones."

Strangely affected by the old man's stubborn declaration, Scott was inspired by a confidence he had believed he no longer possessed. When his brother had died, he had lost faith in divine intervention, but the events of the afternoon had proven a supreme entity was still firmly in control. With only a slight hesitation, he stepped aside to allow the older man entry, then followed him back inside.
 

*****

"Ya sure was right. This stuff would raise a blister on shoe leather," Jelly chastised the lawman.

"Well, you old coot, I warned you, but you just had to come along," Val grumbled. "Now if you don't mind, I have to have a real personal talk with my guest."

Jelly returned the lawman's glare then assumed the now-vacant seat behind the desk. With a decided air of antagonism he placed his feet on the desk, and smiled broadly at the sheriff's dismay. "Harrumph, I'll just look at the pictures of the bad guys here."

*****

Joe stepped into the warm interior of the doctor's office, his eyes sweeping the room. He took in the cleanliness of the clinic, the well-stocked shelves, and nodded in satisfaction. Ignoring the tall older man who looked on, his expression grim, and the young woman who was close to delivering a child, Joe's eyes sought and found the man he was seeking, the doctor. "Doc Jenkins? Name's Joe. This is my boy and he needs me," he said with assurance as he pointed at the prone figure of Johnny that could be seen through the open door to the recovery room.

"This is Johnny Lancer." Teresa shook her head in confusion. "My husband. Why would you say that?"

"Ma'am." Joe doffed his hat. "Apologies, I didn't know he had no missus. Like I said, I found him and nursed him and rode with him. Believe me, he's gonna need me."

Murdoch stepped between his injured son and the old man, meeting Scott's eyes over the old man's shoulder. "You seem to be familiar with my Johnny," he said sternly. "You're part of that gang!"

Joe met Murdoch eye to eye, a flash of pain sweeping across the old man's wizened features as he considered the rancher's accusation. "I'd never do nothin' to hurt Sam, er, Johnny, you call him? I'd never hurt the boy. Why, he's like a son to me. I've done took care of my Sam best I could. You gotta understand, we watched out for each other. I tried ta get through ta him before we got here but Sam weren't havin any. If'n you wanna save the boy, ya best let me help. An he can be saved, ya know."

Murdoch judged the man's words as he looked him up and down. Despite the difficult situation, he could see that Joe's words had a ring of truth to them; indeed a fine mist had filled the old man's dull eyes. Accustomed to weighing up men at a glance, Murdoch had learned to trust his instincts, though sorrowfully he realized how miserably he had failed his own son. "You can go in," he said in a low voice, "Just don't forget I'm keeping my eye on you."

Once Joe had walked to Johnny's bedside, Murdoch faced Scott, "We'll take turns here. I don't know who the old man is and what he wants, but we're going to find out." Murdoch tossed a glance over his shoulder, wonder lighting his eyes at the sight of Joe gently stroking Johnny's brow. He shrugged his shoulders, returning to the conversation at hand. "He was with them. If he is what he says he is Johnny may need him. If he isn't we'll handle it. 

Quickly, Scott considered his father's proposal. "Yes. If Johnny doesn't know us when he comes to, Joe may be able to assure him we're on his side. But still, he is an odd fellow. I'll take Hannah to the café then stop by Val's office, see if he's learned anything. I'll relieve you in an hour."

Murdoch nodded in agreement, then took hold of Teresa's arm and said quietly, "If you even get a feeling that he's not on the up and up, you tell me, honey or Scott when he gets here."

Teresa nodded, but she, too, had a feeling that old Joe was telling the truth. She could see he cared about Johnny, his hands had been gentle as he stroked Johnny's brow. In the end that was what really counted. Teresa quickly recovered her composure, her momentary lapse into hysteria no longer evident. She refused Murdoch's plea to rest, insisting she would remain by Johnny's side. Her relief and joy was eclipsed by the knowledge that Johnny might not be the man she had loved and mourned.

Still, the old man, Joe, assured her his `Sam' was a good man, and could yet be saved. She pondered on his use of the name Sam but overlooked the old man's harmless idiosyncrasy. There was a lot she wanted dearly to know about what had been going on with Johnny. It would eventually all come out but that knowledge didn't make it any easier to take.

Quietly, she entered the room, coming to a halt beside Joe. The old man placed one withered arm around the young woman's shoulders.

"No need ta worry, ma'am. I took an oath to save Johnny Madrid's soul, and I aim ta make sure I do. He'll rest easier this way," Joe vowed. His oath to ensure the salvation of the boy's soul had not been taken lightly. Joe silently reaffirmed his intention to do just that.

Strangely, against her better judgment, Teresa trusted the old man, and allowed the physical contact. Standing side by side they stood vigil over their loved one.

The doctor remained by the boy's side while Teresa and Joe kept vigil. Johnny lay still deeply unconscious, farther from them than he had been in death. Sam had assured the family Johnny was in no danger, his unconscious condition most likely being the result of the emotional overload to the boy's mind as well as the blow to the head. It was the battle that Johnny fought within himself that kept him from climbing through the murky depths of darkness to the world of the living.

*****  

Mac Walden raised his head at the hollow clanging of the door. As Val Crawford entered the back area of the jail that housed the cells, Mac sat heavily upon the bunk, refusing to meet the lawman's questioning stare. It was over. Life as he knew it had ended. The old man had been right, but Mackenzie Walden refused to go down without a fight. Resigned to his fate, he nonetheless stared defiantly at the lawman.

"Seems you and me got some talking to do," Val growled. His anger, which had simmered below the surface since the appearance of the Walden gang, now threatened to erupt into a full boil. He stepped to the bars of the cell, allowing the intensity of his glare to land fully on his prisoner.

"Nothing to talk about, lawman. Get out of here and leave me be. I got nothing to say to you."

"You ride into town, people die." Val seized the bars of the cell, his knuckles turning white as his grip on the bars strengthened. "A friend of mine is not hisself and you know why. Now you're gonna tell me or I may turn you over to some folks who'd like nothing more than to take the hide off'n you."

Mac left the bunk in a single bound, stepping forward until only the bars separated him from the sheriff. "You want answers? Get `em yourself. When Madrid wakes up, you're all gonna be dead. And I'll have the last laugh," he chuckled. 
 

*****

 

When Hollingsworth had fallen, Scott's mind had closed off. His ability to cope had been severely tested, the limits of his endurance breached.  Scott had been tended by the doctor, and although the wound to his right shoulder was a deep crease that had bled profusely, it would cause no more than an inconvenience to him. He had sat in stunned silence, his face gaunt and shocked, almost oblivious to the doctor treating the wound. Sam had gently offered him smelling salts, apparently alarmed by the pallor of his features, but Scott had refused the offer. Instead, his blue eyes sought out those of his father, the unspoken question exploding in the tense atmosphere between them.

He wondered if Johnny had missed shooting him on purpose. Had some stray memory in the dark recess of his mind remembered Scott was his brother or had fate intervened and spoiled his shot? Had Johnny been distracted or had the young gunfighter missed for another reason? Perhaps in the last second before his finger had tightened on the trigger the blow from Jelly's shovel had prevented his deadly aim from finding its mark or a rift in his subconscious had overwhelmed his hatred.

After the doctor had concluded his ministrations and given his customary instructions, which even as he recited them, knew wouldn't be followed, Scott left with Hannah. Emotionally exhausted, Scott gratefully accepted his fiancé's embrace, sliding eagerly into the safety of her love. She led him to the café, insisting she needed a cup of coffee, and something to eat, the thin attempt at deception obvious, yet Scott willing accepted the invitation, his unease in the revelation of Johnny's deadly intent fresh in his mind.

The death of two men and the close encounter he himself had experienced with the dark specter, not once, but twice was indelibly etched in his mind. As always, death had left its mark on everyone around it. His nerves raw and stinging, he sought refuge in the security of Hannah's love. Although he had never left his brother's side in the past, he was unsure of the identity of the man lying so still on the bed of the doctor's office.

Now the young rancher stared blankly into the cup of coffee held tightly in his hands. After the strain of the previous hours, he gladly welcomed the opportunity to allow his mind to seek solace in nothingness. It was bliss to sit quietly with no demands on his attention, to savor the warmth of the cup between his fingers and the love of the woman beside him. He was aware of the selfishness of his retreat but felt the need to regroup in preparation for the long battle to come.

He knew the greatest battle he had yet faced lay ahead. Johnny was alive, his body restored to them, but the battle for his mind and soul had yet to begin. It was going to take all their love, all their heart and souls to turn him from his previous deadly path…if he awoke with death on his mind. Therein lay the dilemma.

Scott's mind wandered and inevitably returned to the cycle of questions. His moment of peace had been fleeting, and now, his mind was overwhelmed with thoughts screaming at him that brought a whirlwind of fear. How would Johnny react when consciousness reclaimed him? When Johnny awoke would they see the light of Johnny Lancer shining in the blue eyes or the evil glare of Johnny Madrid? Scott wondered if Johnny would awake as a brother or a foe.

In spite of the warmth of the afternoon, Scott shivered. Was the horror of the last few months coming to an end or was this merely the beginning? A comforting hand reached across the table to gently touch his wrist. He raised his eyes to find Hannah smiling at him and as he returned her smile his world righted itself once more. 
 

 

Chapter 38

Are there, infinitely varying with each individual, inbred forces of Good and Evil in all of us, deep down below the reach of mortal encouragement and mortal repression -- hidden Good and hidden Evil, both alike at the mercy of the liberating opportunity and the sufficient temptation?

Wilkie Collins

“Scott, Mac ain’t talking,” Val repeated. “He’s not gonna talk, not to me and not to you.”

“Val, that’s not acceptable.” Scott pressed, determined to extract whatever information might be lurking in the mind of MacKenzie Walden. He was unconcerned by the willingness of the man to impart it, whether voluntary or involuntary. Scott felt his ability to rationalize slipping from his grasp as he desperately sought to maintain the slightest semblance of control. The more the questions taunted him, the closer to the precipice he slid. “Let me have a try at him,” he said roughly.

“Look Scott, he’s my prisoner.” Val replied with a shake of his head. “I know how you feel but this ain’t the way.” His hand snaked out to grasp Scott’s forearm as the young rancher attempted to pass him to enter the holding area of the jail. “Look, I got a better idea,” he cajoled. “Why don’t you talk to the old man you told me about? He seems to have a feel for Johnny.”

Scott halted, as much by the idea now thrust upon him, as by the grip on his arm. The tension in his body eased as he drew a deep breath and nodded his agreement.

*****

The shadows swirled endlessly around him, their faces blended into macabre shapes, leering, grinning evilly. Their long fingers pointed at him as their mouths moved soundlessly, accusing, taunting. Men he had killed, men he had seen die, fallen men, good men. Cold hands pummeled his body as their accusations battered his senses, yet the heat scorched his flesh. He writhed in pain, his soul in agony as the fires of Hell loomed ever closer.

In the distance, flashes of light lit the inky blackness, inviting, yet beyond reach. He screamed in terror, his mind refusing to surrender to the inevitability of death. He was dying, his soul decaying, and the stench of rotting flesh filled his nostrils. Long had he believed himself prepared for death, at times willing its speedy arrival, welcoming its finality. Yet, as the specter of death hovered above him, he resisted, he fought the urge to succumb to death’s embrace. His mind and body rebelled against the pressure bearing down on his chest, smothering him, stealing his breath.

The ghastly faces continued to circle him, their voices now a whisper, growing ever louder. ‘Madrid, Madrid, Madrid,’ they chanted maliciously. ‘Die, die, die.’ Their voices grew louder, stronger, demanding.

The light grew dim, retreating from his outstretched hand, then she was there. Her smile was warm and reassuring as her gentle hands soothed his tormented brow. He felt the flow of life begin to stir in leaden limbs, chasing back the flames, easing his conscience.

‘We are not going to lose him now,’ she whispered….

Even so, her loving eyes became lost in the sea of death, the kind hands that had caressed his forehead were withdrawn as another, colder hand struck him. Seeking a safe haven in this pit of darkness he clutched her proffered hand, her warmth soaking into his frozen soul. But the pull of Hell was greater, the ground beneath him liquefied, its stability melting under the flames. He was falling, sinking into the miry bog stagnating beneath the softness of life. //Noooo!// His mind screamed, his lips refusing to put sound to the words.

She moaned in agony as her hand was wrenched from his. ’Oh, please! Not again!/ she screamed.

His body arched as her scream of agony ripped through him, his limbs flailing desperately to escape the grip of the dark shadows holding him. Johnny Lancer rose, his effort supreme as he railed against the control of Madrid and the beckoning hand of Hell.

 

*****

Murdoch walked the street aimlessly, his mind overwhelmed by reality. He had left Teresa, Sam and the odd little man named Joe standing watch over Johnny. When Scott and Hannah had returned, the doctor’s office had become unbearably crowded, and he’d gratefully stepped out for some fresh air. He knew they would send for him the minute Johnny awakened.

In the last few months he had experienced such a wide array of emotions: anger, hatred and the most overwhelming sense of loss. His soul felt bruised, battered, as if each day of life had been but another blow to his heart. The very core of his being had suffered beyond his ability to endure the onslaught, still none of that had been quite as devastating as the emotional turmoil of the last few hours.

Grief had given way briefly to healing, then ecstasy at the reappearance of his lost son, now restored to him. Yet on the heels of his momentary joy had come the staggering reality of still another loss. Johnny Lancer had died, to be reborn in the persona of Johnny Madrid.  Even the knowledge contained in the hated Pinkerton reports had left him ill-prepared for the actuality of Madrid in the flesh.

The appearance of not one, but two specters from the past, had badly shaken the entire Lancer family and their friends. Hollingsworth’s hatred had been alive, forceful. Miraculously his bullet had failed to find its target. Hanson had seen to that. The southern gentleman had saved the Lancer family from even more tragedy. But why? And how had he known of the wicked twist of fate that would unfold this day?

Sam had sought to comfort him, reminding him Johnny obviously was suffering some form of delusions, or amnesia. But nothing Sam had spoken had been of any comfort. No words could soothe his new fears and doubts unless those words came from his own son’s mouth, as Johnny looked him in the eye speaking his father’s name in recognition, to convince him that all would be well. He prayed for Johnny’s recovery, his very heart beating in time with each breath his son inhaled, while he reluctantly feared that recovery. He was afraid that the eyes that sought his would be blank, or worse, dark with the evil man who had consumed his son’s soul.

Would Johnny remember them or would he continue on his path toward vengeance? Vengeance. What had driven Johnny Lancer over the edge, prodded him along the pathway toward death? He had seemed unafraid of dying, intent only on taking Scott with him. What horrors had filled his mind?

Questions, ever circling questions, swirled around Murdoch’s heart and soul, screamed louder and louder until Murdoch felt the overwhelming urge to run, to escape. Instead he wandered the streets and found himself before the livery stable. Unsure of how or why he had arrived at this place, Murdoch pushed the door to the barn open and stepped inside.

The interior of the barn was cool, quiet, its familiar odors of hay, leather and horseflesh comforting. More in control of his errant thoughts now, Murdoch blinked, allowing his eyes to adjust to the gloom. Faintly he heard a voice whispering at the back of the barn, murmuring indistinct words to someone or something beyond Murdoch’s range of vision.

Murdoch took another step forward. In the shadows he finally discerned the figure of a man, standing before a stall, his shoulders hunched, his hands thrust deeply into his pockets.  Murdoch took a deep breath, softly coughing to alert the other man to his presence.  He approached the man to come to a halt before the stall housing Desert Storm.

Douglas Hanson raised his head, straightened his shoulders and turned to face the newcomer. “Mr. Lancer. We meet again.”

“Mr. Hanson.” Murdoch extended his hand, surprised at the strength of the man’s grip. “I’m sorry to meet under these circumstances.” Murdoch took a step forward to better study the fine-looking horse. “This is your animal?” he asked, the admiration in his voice apparent.

Murdoch had heard of the mare, of her beauty, stamina and speed. They were legendary in the California horsemen’s circles. He’d seen a painting of the mare in the lobby of the Modesto Hotel often enough, when he’d joined his constituents at their Cattlemen’s Association meetings. He recognized this was the renowned mare, even though he’d never had the opportunity to personally view the majestic animal.

“Yes,” replied Hanson. “This is Desert Storm.” Hanson turned his gaze back to the sorrel mare. She stood with legs wide, her delicate head hanging between her knees, her breathing harsh and labored. “She has a great heart. I’m afraid I’ve caused her harm by riding her so hard.” The sadness and self-recrimination in his voice was unmistakable.

“She is as magnificent as I’d heard.” Murdoch studied the animal, a deep appreciation for the superb specimen before him washing over his countenance.

Hanson entered the stall, seeking assurance of the mare’s condition as well as an opportunity to gather himself for the questions he was sure to come.  He ran loving hands down her swollen legs, loathing for his harsh treatment of the game animal apparent in his countenance. He barely suppressed a sob as his trembling hands felt the heat rising from her limbs. Finally in control of his emotions, he turned back to the rancher. “One more minute, a lesser horse, and your son would be dead now, Mr. Lancer.”

*****  

Voices, soft voices grew louder, demanding answers, screaming accusations at him. They circled, seeking an opportunity to pierce his soul, with prodding fingers stabbing at his heart. Louder and louder. Pain exploded in his heart, his head throbbed, and the inner drummer resumed his pounding.

//’You killed my dog, mister! Why?’//

//’Oh God, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to!’//

The boy’s face loomed closer. Tears streamed down his dirty cheeks as he pointed a condemning finger. The girl drifted out of the fog, her eyes wide and gleaming with unshed tears. The bruise on her breast glowed brightly in the darkness. She aligned herself with the young boy and her words split the distance between them as she flailed her hands against his chest.

//’Please, mister, I’m not a whore’”//

//’Yes, you are. You’re a woman, aren’t you’”// Madrid snarled.

Johnny Lancer recoiled against the truth of his actions. His head, once bowed in shame, rose as he pled for forgiveness. //’No! I didn’t mean it. Forgive me!’//

/’We’re fallen angels, the good book says. Men beyond redemption.’/ Sexton Joe laughed, his dead eyes full of evil glee as Johnny thrashed on the bed, his body convulsing. Hands, gentle, firm hands, pressed the gunfighter down again, trying to offer solace that he could not accept.

/’No! I’m Lancer, Johnny Lancer!’/ he screamed.

/’Lancer is dead! You are Johnny Madrid. We are Johnny Madrid,’/ his conscience argued. Madrid seized Lancer, then one cold hand sought and found the young rancher’s throat. As Madrid’s grip tightened, Lancer gasped for breath, each attempt to take in life-giving oxygen becoming more futile. Johnny Lancer’s eyes slid shut, his heart slowing painfully as death seeped into his very bones.

With one last, desperate effort to escape, Johnny Lancer screamed, /“Nooooooo!”/

***** 

Murdoch eyed the mare, slightly taken aback by the apparent understanding he saw mirrored in the liquid brown eyes as Desert Storm lifted her head to return his studious gaze. He glanced back at Hanson. “It appears we are in your debt, Mr. Hanson. How is she?”

“She ran her heart out. She gave all she had.” Despite his obvious concern for the horse, Hanson was composed, his attitude civil, the southern gentlemen in full control of his emotions. “I’m just relieved I could make it in time.”

“If there is anything I can do to help . . . all the assets of Lancer are at your disposal.”

“You, sir, are a gentleman, and I shall indeed take you at your word. This mare is very important to me. She is my last remaining tie to Barbara.”

Murdoch eyed the mare. “Barbara? You mean Barbara Hollingsworth? I’m afraid I don’t understand. Hollingsworth said his daughter was dead.”

“She is. My dearest Barbara is now at rest in God’s arms,” Hanson said. “Desert Storm was to be a wedding gift from me to my betrothed.” His voice grew softer, scarcely a whisper, as the pain of his loss was renewed by the words he uttered. “Barbara loved this animal but she ended her life before we had the chance to be wed. I took great care to have this animal brought out here. Desert Storm is a mare worthy of respect.”

Murdoch studied the other man. “And what of Hellion?”

“He is what he is, Mr. Lancer. A demon from Hell - a horse born and bred for a man with the disposition of Johnny Madrid.”

 

Chapter 39

But a resolution to avoid an evil is seldom framed till the evil is so far advanced as to make avoidance impossible.

Thomas Hardy

Teresa’s voice trembled with fear. “What’s happening?” With nobody at hand to hear her, she reached out to grasp Johnny’s shoulders when his body heaved on the bed.

Despite his closed eyes and lack of consciousness, he jerked away from her touch as if repulsed. “Joe,” he moaned.

Horrified by the spasms wracking her husband’s body, Teresa called out for help, “Sam, Scott, help me.”

Scott threw open the door and was beside her in an instant. As Johnny thrashed uncontrollably, Scott lent his strength in the effort to restrain him. With both hands on his brother’s shoulders, “He’s going to hurt himself even more,” he cried. “Doctor, we need you now!” Scott glanced up only to verify that the doctor was coming to help control the patient.

Sam hurried in, medical instruments in hand. He dropped them onto the side table and chose the tools he needed. “Hold his arm steady,” the doctor commanded. He raised a hypodermic, flicked the small glass cylinder with a finger, then deftly inserted the needle into Johnny’s arm.

In mere seconds, the liquid comfort penetrated Johnny’s vein and flowed throughout his body. He shifted his legs and arched his back, but his efforts to fight were quickly subdued. With one final gentle sigh Johnny’s taut limbs relaxed and he fell back against the pillows.

Teresa stood back, shaking. Tears flowed freely down the young woman’s cheeks. “Doctor, what happened? What’s wrong with him?” Her bottom lip trembled as she awaited Sam’s reply.

Scott added, his voice coarse, “Why’s he fighting like this?” He put a protective arm around Teresa’s shoulder and gave her a quick hug of support when she leaned into him. “He must know we’re only trying to help him.”

The doctor checked Johnny’s pulse and straightened. From the look on his face he seemed satisfied that his patient was not in any danger. “I’ve seen men tormented by things they’ve seen and done, and I know Johnny Lancer well enough to know that the evil man we witnessed out in the street isn’t the man lying here,” Sam said with authority. “He’s fighting himself.”

*****

Joe sat quietly in the rocking chair outside Dr. Jenkins’ office. He whittled patiently on a nondescript piece of oak, his hands seemingly moving of their own accord. Murmured voices could be heard drifting through the open window, but strain as he might, their words were indiscernible.

Madrid had appeared to suffer with convulsions. His body had thrashed wildly on the bed in the doctor’s clinic as he fought unseen demons. Joe alone had been prepared for the battle that now raged within the boy’s soul. Indeed, he had expected it. Irritation flared briefly within the old man as he recalled the abrupt manner in which he had been asked to leave the boy’s side. “They don’t know the boy like I do,” he grumbled. “I’m the only one who can save Madrid. Just me.” He nodded in the darkness, his hands moving the knife deftly over the thick wood in time with his mantra. “Boy has to be saved, has to be redeemed. He needs me. He needs me. Only me, just me.”

*****

The atmosphere in the dimly lit interior of the café was warm and comforting. Tempting odors wafted from the small kitchen at the back of the building. The scents of braised beef and apple pie assailing the tall rancher’s senses solicited an animalistic growl from the region of his belly. Despite his hunger, Murdoch pushed it aside as his gaze fell on the room’s sole occupant.

Hannah was sitting forlornly at a table in the rear of the dining area, her head resting wearily on one hand. An untouched cup of coffee sat before her, cooling in the stillness of the near-empty room. Two plates with uneaten remains of food, abandoned by the young woman and her unseen companion, were pushed haphazardly away from her as if the meal had been suddenly interrupted.

His heart overwhelmed by compassion, Murdoch quickly crossed the room to stand beside the table. “Hannah?” She gave no indication she was aware of his presence, but Murdoch eased his large frame into the chair beside her, grunting lowly as stiff muscles relaxed into the hard wood. He coughed softly and repeated his greeting. “Hannah?”

Suddenly aware of his presence, Hannah lifted her head to stare into Murdoch’s eyes. Her voice barely a whisper, she acknowledged his enquiry, “Murdoch, I didn’t hear you. I’m embarrassed to say I… I almost nodded off.” She reached out to lay her small hand on top of his work-worn larger one, and when he grasped it, almost desperately, her cheeks colored pink. She smiled in acknowledgement at their mutual need to find something positive in what was sure to become an even more difficult situation.

“Why don’t you get some rest, honey? You look like you’re about done in.” Murdoch gently patted her arm. He felt like death warmed over but the thought of drinking coffee wasn’t appealing. Although his body craved sustenance, he lacked even the energy necessary to make a selection off the blackboard menu. Seeking an inner reserve of strength, and finding it, he attempted a smile.

Hannah straightened her back and took a deep breath as if preparing for battle. “Oh no, I’m not ready to turn in. I’ll have another cup of coffee while I wait for Scott to come back.”

Murdoch gestured to the waitress who had mysteriously appeared at Hannah’s mention of coffee. Unsure if his memory served him correctly, he tentatively asked, “Emily, isn’t it?”

“Yes, sir.” The young woman sat two clean cups on the table and poured the steaming brew into each. “This is a fresh pot, Mr. Lancer.”

“Thank you, Emily,” said Hannah. “It smells wonderful. Bring us some of that pie I can see on the table, will you, please?” With her composure restored, Hannah sat straight in the chair, her hands clasped demurely in her lap until two large slices of blueberry pie had been put in front of them.

Murdoch picked up his fork, finally surrendering to his body’s demand for satisfaction.

When the waitress had returned to her duties in the kitchen, Hannah asked Murdoch the question foremost on her mind. “Any word on Johnny’s condition?”

“He’s still unconscious. Scott said he would let us know when Johnny wakens.” Murdoch paused to take a swallow of the coffee, allowing the warmth of the liquid to flow through his body, soothing and reviving worn nerves.

“Today was a nightmare, wasn’t it? And it started so well.” Hannah gripped her cup. Her bottom lip trembled slightly as she thought back over the events of the day. “I had such hope that we were going to finally begin the healing process.”

Murdoch raised an eyebrow. He had to admit, if only to himself, that the same thoughts had circled endlessly through his mind since Johnny’s return.

“Oh God, that must have sounded simply horrid. I’m sorry, Murdoch.” Hannah sat back, her hand covering her mouth as the meaning of her words teased her sense of propriety.

“It’s okay, honey. I know what you meant.” Murdoch’s voice was gentle, understanding. “First the optimism of the day is shattered by the attack on Scott’s life and before we can fully get past his near miss, we have to contend with the reality of his would be killer.”

Hannah nodded in agreement. “Then before we get the chance to thank heaven for the return of our loved one, we have to face the fact he intends us harm.”

“But he didn’t know what he was doing,” Murdoch protested. “He didn’t even know who Scott was,” he reasoned, the tone of his voice intended more to ease his own worry than Hannah’s. “I’m just afraid that Johnny’s going to have a hard time of it, and if he still doesn’t remember us or what we mean to each other, then it’s going to be an uphill struggle. He might not want to remember.”

“Oh, Murdoch, I know he’ll remember us, especially once we have a chance to talk to him in a peaceful way. If we can get through this, help Johnny to recover, we can still have our happily ever after.” Hannah rubbed her brow, as if to erase the doubts that creased her forehead.

“Yes, but we have to get through this.” Murdoch sighed heavily. “And we won’t know who we’ll be talking to when Johnny wakes up.”

*****

The red stallion reared high in the air, his hooves flailing wildly as he sought his target.

Johnny rolled to the side, barely escaping the rampaging monster. Wild-eyed, thirsty for blood, the stallion pursued him. Johnny felt its hot breath, heard the snapping teeth as they closed on air beside his ear. In terror, Johnny struggled to his feet and turned to run, but lead filled his limbs, weighing them down, pressing him into the earth. He screamed in terror as he willed his unresponsive legs to do his bidding. Despite all his efforts, he was unable to move. He collapsed, resigning himself to his fate, as with thundering hooves shaking the earth, the stallion charged him.

*****  

“Joe?” Teresa beckoned him into the bright light of the doctor’s office as she stood framed in the doorway. “He’s calling for you.”

Joe stood as quickly as his arthritic limbs would allow him. Unaccustomed to sitting idle for long periods, his stiffened body protested the movement. “Told you, missy, he’s my boy,” Joe stated. His voice held no trace of triumph, no victory.

Confusion marred Teresa’s beautiful features. “I don’t understand. Your boy? Why yours?”

*****  

Triumphantly, the stallion circled the man’s body. With ears flattened and teeth bared, he lunged.

Johnny closed his eyes against the attack; he prayed death would come swiftly. Braced against the pain he was sure was to come, he felt the silence as the sound of the raging animal faded into nothingness. Prepared for the worst, Johnny opened his eyes, only to be blinded by a flash of golden light. A glowing figure approached, pushing the curtains of darkness aside. The palomino came between him and the red stallion that was poised to carry him to his death.

Gratefully, Johnny allowed himself a sigh of relief, reveling in the peace and quiet of the golden savior, but the silence and serenity was short-lived.

A blood-curdling scream pierced the silence, an angry challenge issued forth from the red horse. The golden stallion, who snorted in defiance, rose to meet the hellish opponent.

The palomino’s razor sharp hooves slashed flesh; its teeth tore the crimson flank.  A golden leg found its mark, ripping the blood bay’s shoulder to the bone, but the blood bay was a force to be reckoned with. Mad with pain, the red stallion drove a powerful foreleg into the palomino’s withers. The two stallions, equals in beauty, strength, and will, raged on.

Johnny rose to his feet, but once standing was stunned into immobility as the two combatants circled, each seeking an advantage.

Suddenly, the blood bay, clever with the wiles of Hell, found his opening and lunged for his hated opponent. In a rapid turn of events, the red stallion struck out at Johnny, the blow finding its mark, sending the man to his knees.

The palomino, angered by the unexpected attack on his beloved master, unleashed his full fury on the blood bay, his teeth finding a deathly grip on the crimson neck. As the blood bay went down, screaming in terror, a shot rang out.

Johnny fell back as the grim reaper brought his curse of death to the palomino. Crimson blood flowed from the golden chest. Releasing his grip on his opponent’s throat, the golden stallion collapsed.

Johnny felt the rush of air as the palomino fell, heard the sound of death gurgling in the golden throat. Tears stung his eyes; torment tore his heart asunder. As his beloved stallion died, he cried out in anguish, “Barranca!”

*****

The man in the bed jerked awake, the vision of the death of the golden stallion still vivid in the darkened room. Trembling, disoriented, his eyes struggled to pierce the gloom. The soft glow of the single candle on the bedside table flickered gently in the midnight breeze. The curtains billowed in the night air, peaceful in contrast to the slowly vanishing dreams that plagued him. Sensing no immediate threat, he lay back against the mountain of pillows, turning his mind inward to find his center.

Madrid answered his summons and came forward. He stood over Johnny, looked him up and down, then sneered, “You sure don’t handle things well without me, do ya? You still need me.” He shook his head. “I know how to deal with this. You sleep and I’ll take care of everything, including Scott Lancer.”

Johnny’s wildly beating heart calmed in the face of the gunfighter’s steely resolve. With a cleansing breath, he allowed the familiar presence to take command of his senses.

Confident and self-assured, Madrid lay in the darkness and waited. Suddenly aware he was not alone, he turned his attention to the chair beside the bed. Joe sat stiffly on the hard chair, his chin resting on his chest as he slumbered. Soft snores disturbed the otherwise silent night.

 

Chapter 40

We live our separate lives

While counting all the days
Till the two of us arrive

In another time and place

We share the same thoughts
We read the same lines
We meet on sad occasions
And in happier times. . .

Alan Parsons

The lilting song of the birds woke Scott from a fitful sleep. He lifted his head and peered through heavy eyelids at the bright sunlight streaming through the open curtains. The world outside his window, tranquil and bright, was surreal in sharp contrast to the violence of yesterday. While the previous day had been fraught with despair, cloaked by the dark clouds of Mother Nature’s disapproval, this day dawned with fresh hope.

Hope, ever-determined, ever-relentless, marched on through the smoky memory of the previous day’s events into the hungry void of Scott Lancer’s heart. She filled the emptiness, swelled within the confines of his soul and urged him rise at the prospect of a new day.

Energized by her all-encompassing presence, Scott surrendered his sense of futility and arose. As he quickly performed his toiletries, his enthusiasm took the form of melody. He found himself humming softly, albeit a sad tune. Surprised at the uncharacteristic song issuing forth from his parted lips, and unsure from where he remembered it, he paused to consider his reflection in the mirror.

Scott found nothing in his outward appearance to even suggest the darkness that weighed on his soul. He looked healthy enough, despite the worry that consumed him, and the lack of sleep that plagued him. He took heart in the knowledge that Johnny had been found, seemingly with only minor injuries.  Soon they would know what had prevented his return for so long. Shaking off the last remnants of depression, he strode purposely out of the room.

He paused outside Hannah’s room, listened for indications of movement within the room before rapping gently on the door. The sound of footsteps heralded Hannah’s approach moments before the door was swung wide to admit him entry. At her invitation he sauntered into the room, closing the door with one booted foot.

“Good morning. Ready for breakfast?” Hannah’s eyes sparkled, her lips parted in a small smile as she took in the handsome features of her betrothed.

“I certainly am. And you?” He took a step back, holding her at arm’s length as his eyes traveled appraisingly over her slender form. “You look good enough to eat.”

“Scott!” she gasped, a becoming flush creeping over her beautiful features. “You are certainly in a good mood this morning.”

“Well, and why not?” he laughed, the sound deep and rhythmic. “It’s a beautiful day, my brother is alive and I am engaged to a gorgeous woman.” He pulled her into his arms, his hand stroking her back seductively. “Maybe an appetizer is in order,” he murmured as his lips claimed hers.

*****   

“I’m glad to see your eyes open, boy.” Joe touched Madrid’s forehead, nodding in satisfaction at finding the gunfighter’s skin cool to the touch. “Thought you was gonna sleep forever and a day.”

Madrid roughly shook off the old man’s hand as he studied the room, his senses on full alert as he awakened. “Where am I?”  Relieved at finding they were alone, he turned his attention back to the old man. “How long have I been out?”

“Since yesterday afternoon and I been sitting right there.” Joe nodded in the direction of the old rocking chair. “We’re in Doc Jenkins’ place.”

“Doc Jenkins? You mean Sam?” Madrid’s voice was harsh, intended to conceal his surprise at hearing Sam’s name, a name to which he had given no thought in many months.

Joe accepted the truth of the revelation, dismayed by the return of Johnny’s memory. Still, he reasoned, it would be easier to save the boy, now that he remembered. Surely the shame of his prior life would make salvation a more acceptable prospect.  Joe looked thoughtfully at Madrid. “So, ya remember then?”

“Most of it.” Johnny’s voice was strained with humiliation as the burden of his deeds flooded his mind. Accusing faces of a young boy and a woman, her bruises the result of his own heavy hand, floated before his open eyes.

“Ya look like hell, boy.”

Joe’s comment jerked Madrid from the past into the present. “Feels like there’s two of me,” Johnny said softly, his brows drawn together in confusion. He rubbed at his forehead. “I remember both Madrid and Lancer and … what they’ve done. It’s so strange and my head feels like someone’s pounding on a drum.”

“Not surprised. Memories can be, well… ‘Sides, that old geezer really hit ya a good one,” Joe agreed, his attention firmly fixed on the young man in the bed. He studied the boy, perplexed by the presence of two alter-egos.

“Who hit me?” Madrid asked as he gingerly touched the back of his skull.

“An old guy in patched dungarees and a cap. Seemed to know you. Thought he had darn near knocked your brains out.”

“Feels like he did,” Madrid admitted. The name ‘Jelly’ suddenly came to mind. Why would the Lancer ranch hand strike him? Memories slithered forth as a snake trying to find a rock upon which to sun. Slow, winding memories of laughter and love, of family and contentment, of angry words and hurt feelings. He now realized he’d drawn his gun on one of the Lancers.

“These folks, the Lancers, well, they say they’re your kin. They’re worryin’ like fleas on an old dog. There’s a gal out there, big with child. Looks like she’s a-gonna force her way in here at any moment. You ready to talk to them?” Carefully Joe studied Johnny, observing the play of conflicting emotions - anger battling resignation, hope raging against defeat - that flitted across the man’s darkening features.

“What have I got to say to the likes of them?” The man in the bed struggled to one elbow as his eyes, flashing of steel, came up to meet Joe’s. “Where’s Scott Lancer?” Again, Madrid gained the upper hand. 

“Now, you don’t want ta be starting that revenge shit again, do ya?” Joe gently pressed the gunhawk back against the mountain of pillows. “Ya’d do better getting something to eat first. Then we can talk about what’s what.”

“Joe, I told you once before if you get in my way, I’ll kill ya,” Madrid snarled through gritted teeth. “I still might.” Suddenly weary, he laid his head back against the soft pillows, the effort of struggling against conflicting emotions exhausting him.

“Listen Madrid, I’m gonna save your soul whether you like it or not,” Joe promised vehemently.

“Back off, old man,” Madrid hissed. Though softly spoken, his thinly veiled promise of retribution screamed loudly in the small confines of the narrow room.

A shiver of apprehension trickled down Joe’s back. Aware of the monumental task he had undertaken, he nonetheless renewed his vow to aid Madrid on his journey towards salvation. “I’m just trying to help you find the way to redemption, son.”

Despite the overwhelming weariness that blanketed him, Madrid grinned wickedly. “I prefer to keep my fate in my own hands, Old Man.”

*****

Murdoch abruptly pushed open the door to the sheriff’s office. His broad shoulders were framed in the doorway as he surveyed the scene before him. “Morning, Val.” He nodded at Jelly, who appeared to be making himself right at home.

“Murdoch.” Val lowered his legs from the scarred desk which stood in the center of the room, his spurs jangling as his booted feet hit the floor. “Want some coffee?”

“No, thank you.” As an afterthought, the tall rancher added, “I’ve heard about your coffee.”

Jelly bristled in defense of his newly acquired ally. “Wahl, Murdoch, it ain’t so bad, once ya get used ta it. How’s Johnny doing? He in his right mind yet?”

“I’m on my way back there now, Jelly. I’ll send someone over here as soon as I find out his condition.”

Jelly nodded morosely. He poured himself another cup of the dark liquid that passed as coffee from the battered pot on the blackened stove. The ominous shadow of premonition enclosed his soul, sending a shiver down his spine. “Gonna be a long time ‘fore that boy’s okay in the head,” he muttered.

Murdoch’s gaze slid from the weathered handyman to the disheveled sheriff. Curiosity at the unlikely friendship creased his forehead as he studied the odd pair. Aware he was blatantly staring, Murdoch brought his mind back to the reason for the unexpected visit. “How’s your guest? Has he said anything?”

“No, Mackenzie’s mouth’s closed tighter than a virgin’s legs,” Val declared crudely. At Murdoch’s frown, Val shrugged, “He ain’t talking.”

“Just thought I’d stop and see if you had any information about what the hell has been going on with my son the last seven months. I expect you to get it out of him, Sheriff, one way or the other. If you can’t do your job, then I’ll find someone who can.” Murdoch settled his hat firmly on his head and moved toward the door.

“Sorry, no such luck. The asshole isn’t talking.  By the way, the territorial Marshal will be here next week to pick MacKenzie up. He wired this morning. Oh, and the sheriff in Greeley caught up with Ramsey and the other two who lit out of here. Got em under lock and key.”

“So the nightmare may be endin’, huh?” Relief swelled in Jelly’s voice.

Murdoch paused, his hand on the doorknob as he considered Jelly’s optimistic enquiry. Unsure of the future, indeed unsure of anything at this moment save a pressing need to see his son, he avoided replying. “I’m going to check in on Johnny.”

In the face of Murdoch’s reluctance to address the enquiry, Val turned toward the handyman. “No Jelly, the nightmare’s still gonna be with us ‘til we know who Johnny is and what happened to him,” he pointed out, the timbre of his voice harsher than usual. “We still have to face Madrid.”

A malicious chuckle resounded from the cell in the back room, “You’re God-damned right about that! Yeah, you’ll face him,” Mackenzie chortled, “and all you’ll see is the end of his damned gun before he sends you all to hell!” The sound grew into a gut-wrenching laugh, which circled ominously around the three men standing silently in the front room of the jail.

***** 

“He’s awake.” Sam’s announcement was met by four sets of hopeful eyes.

Scott, his arm around Hannah’s shoulder, exchanged concerned glances with Murdoch. Despite the hope of this morning, he was painfully aware of a flame of anxiety smoldering deep within his soul.

“I need to see him. Please?” Teresa’s anxious inquiry brought Scott out of his inward consideration of the current situation.

“Teresa,” Sam cautioned. “Look, before you go in there, there’s something you have to know.”

“Sam, please. I have to see my husband.” Teresa’s voice remained steady and strong, despite the apprehension clouding her features.

“He may not be ready for that,” Sam explained.

“What are you saying? That he doesn’t want to see his own family?” Near panic tinged her voice, even though she fought to remain calm. “Johnny loves me! He needs me! ”

Scott felt a tremor course through Hannah’s body as they observed the exchange. He pulled her closer, drawing strength from her warmth even as she pressed nearer.

“He may have remembered things, remembered us, but we don’t know how strong Johnny Lancer might be. And we certainly can’t be sure about Madrid,” the doctor explained.

“What the hell are you talking about, Sam?” Murdoch’s patience, held under tight rein, threatened to explode. Confusion bordering on fear lent his voice a grating quality. “That’s my son, Johnny, in there!”

“Murdoch, he’s both Lancer and Madrid.” Sam gripped his friend’s arm, urging him to understand. “He seems to be divided and having a hard time sorting things out. It may take time before he can reconcile the two parts of his life.”

“That makes no sense!” It was Scott’s turn to voice his displeasure with Sam’s announcement. The uncharacteristically rough tone startled the small gathering, the ferocity of his conviction left no doubt as to the depth of his commitment to reunite his family.

Sam moved to stand before the door joining the two rooms, his left hand raised as he encouraged the Lancers to regain their composure. “All I’m saying is don’t push him. Johnny’s had a serious blow to his head, and it appears there may have been some loss of memory. He has to come along at his own speed.”

Scott, assuming responsibility for representing the family, moved to stand before Sam. His voice low and guarded, Scott suggested, “Maybe I should go in with you. If he can face me without guilt over what happened yesterday…or without trying to kill me, then we’ll have a better idea of his frame of mind.”

“Scott, I don’t think you should…” Teresa began.

A wave of Scott’s hand silenced her objections. “Teresa, I’ll go in first and make sure Johnny understands we’re here to support him. Once Sam and I are sure he isn’t going to be violent, we’ll call for you.”

“That’s ridiculous, Scott,” Teresa said angrily. “I’m his wife. He wouldn’t hurt me.”

“Teresa, was it the Johnny you knew in the street yesterday, trying to kill me?” Scott reasoned.

Teresa shook her head. “Scott, he wouldn’t do that,” she whispered.

“He would,” Murdoch intervened, “And he did. Johnny tried to kill Scott yesterday. He wasn’t the man we knew. Let Scott and Sam go in first to make sure he’s not going to be violent, okay darling?”

Mutely, Teresa nodded in agreement, as her heart sank in the wide abyss of renewed anguish. Her husband had been restored to her, yet was for all intents and purposes as far removed from her now as he had been in death.

Sam studied the people in the room thoughtfully before turning back to Scott. “That may be a good idea. Just stand aside and let me do the talking. Remember he is first and foremost my patient.”

As the doctor and Scott entered the room where Johnny lay, Teresa sat dejectedly in the nearest chair, her hands worrying the fabric of her skirt. Her stiffened shoulders, and the tense set to her jaw easily discouraged any attempt to soothe her.

Hannah sat forlornly on a chair close to Teresa, her heart heavy as yet another complication in the saga of the Lancer family’s hopes and dreams filled the room with a brooding silence.

****** 

Johnny stood staring out the window, his attention focused on the shrill screams coming from an unseen horse, whose cries shattered an otherwise peaceful morning.  Though beyond his field of vision, Johnny knew the sound of the blood red stallion all too well.

In agitation, the fingers of Madrid’s right hand beat a steady tempo on his thigh, keeping pace with the now all too familiar drummer throbbing inside his head. Absently he lifted a hand to the bandage on the back of his skull, grimacing as the slight touch set off another round of fierce pounding.  He sensed Joe’s eyes on him, but surprisingly the old man’s presence was a cooling balm that soothed his agitated nerves.

Doctor Jenkins and Scott Lancer slowly entered the small room. The creaking hinges of the door and the tentative footsteps of the two men announced their entry. They exchanged cautious glances as they studied the rigid back of the man before them. Dressed in black the man bore little resemblance to the colorful man that had been Johnny Lancer.

Madrid felt a small smile forming on his lips as he imagined the expressions of uncertainty he sensed the two men would be experiencing in his presence.  He took a deep breath, pushed back the pain in his head, as he prepared for the conversation to come.

 

Joe paused briefly at the door. “If these fellers get on your nerves, you just call out.”

Sam moved to stand beside his patient, his hands automatically reaching for his stethoscope. “Let me have a look at you, Johnny. You want to sit over here?”

“No, I don’t need any more nursing.” Johnny turned to face Sam, looking him in the eyes for the first time. “I just want to get out of here.”

“I don’t think you should be up yet, son,” the doctor chided gently, “You had quite a blow to the head. Not to mention…”

“What? My memory coming back?” Johnny finished the doctor’s sentence, an unmistakable challenge coloring his intonation before his voice became a weary monotone. “Yeah, I remember. Most things, anyway.”

Sam hung the stethoscope neatly around his neck before laying a hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “You’ve been through a serious trauma. I would imagine your memory must be a little addled.”

“I remember just fine,” Johnny stated flatly. “All I need to.”

Sam mistakenly assumed Johnny’s affirmative reply, his casual shrug, were an indication of his readiness to face the Lancers. “Well, then, your family is anxious to see you.”

“Family? You call the Lancers family?’ Johnny sneered, his lip curling into a grimace.  He jerked away from the doctor’s touch in disgust, gesturing towards Scott who was still standing by the door.  “With family like that, I would do better with kin like MacKenzie!”

“You don’t mean that.” Scott crossed the room, disregarding Sam’s earlier instructions to remain calm, as his emotional control collapsed. “You know Lancer is your home,” he protested, anger beginning to seep through the composed veneer he had donned before entering the room.

“My home! You mean the same home I had when Murdoch sided with Stryker over a herd of horses?” Johnny pushed the doctor aside and turned to Scott. “When he discovered Teresa and I were involved, when he threw me out?” Johnny’s anger grew in intensity, overshadowing the ire of his brother. “My home!”

Aware of the futility of battling Johnny’s anger with rage of his own, Scott adopted a new tactic. Calmly, he asked, “Johnny, don’t you remember the good times?”

“Good times? You been dipping in Sam’s medicines?” Johnny snorted. “I ain’t had nothing but grief since the day I arrived at Murdoch Lancer’s ranch.”

The conversation was deteriorating.  Johnny’s countenance had darkened, his hand moved lower to hover over his thigh in the familiar stance of a gunfighter despite the lack of a gun.

Sam gripped Johnny’s shoulders. “Johnny! It would seem your memory is sketchy. You seem to recall the bad times as if they were the highlights of your time at home.” He released Johnny’s shoulders and retreated a step, allowing the semblance of space to ease the gunfighter’s aversion to his touch. “You must recall more than the bad times. Think of all the good things Lancer has given you: Your father, your wife, your son and unborn child, even a brother.”

“My memory is just fine,” Johnny growled. “The only thing wrong at Lancer was always me!” Murdoch’s words leaped from the past into the present, haunting, regrettable. “Isn’t that right, brother?”

“But there were a lot of good times and more to come.” Scott attempted once more to calm the volatile young man. “You have a father and me, your brother, who love you very much and you have a wife, a son and a child on the way! Take the time to speak to Murdoch and Teresa.  Give me time. I assure you, you’ll see the past in a different light.”

Even as Scott studied his brother, he sensed the withdrawal, the pulling away. They were losing him. Desperately, Scott urged, “Johnny, if you won’t listen to me, listen to Sam. You must know he would never steer you wrong!”

“I can make up my own mind about that!” Johnny thundered. He turned his attention back to the doctor. “Besides, have you forgotten I almost killed my so-called brother,” he demanded of Sam. Johnny pointed to Scott. “He’s just gonna up and forget all about that I suppose?”

“You didn’t know what you were doing. You were manipulated into taking that course of action,” Sam argued softly.

Scott nodded in agreement as his brother’s weighty gaze pinned him in place.

Johnny raked Scott’s lean form with an appraising stare. “Are you sure about that, Doc?” he snarled, his voice deep and deadly, reminiscent of the dangerous young man who had faced them the day before. “Sure enough to risk Scott’s life again if you’re wrong?”

 

Chapter 41

Whatever happened to the value of our love
I've seen you change
I've seen it coming slowly, these changes
You're not the same

It's not too late to start over
It's not too late to turn around
What are the things important to you?

Howard Jones

The sound of the grandfather clock, normally the comforting heartbeat of the Lancer home, now exasperated nerves wounded by long months of despair. The scraping of cutlery on dishes mimicked the distinctive cadence of the aged timepiece. Teresa’s fragile nerves, overly burdened by the emotional turmoil of life as she had of late known it, jumped with each stroke of the huge pendulum. She wrung her napkin in hands that ached with the ferocity of her grip. At last, unable to bear the weight of the silence in the kitchen any longer, which warred with the distinct marching of grandfather time, she leaned forward and gripped the edge of the table. “Johnny? Would you please say something?”

“You should eat,” Johnny replied flatly, his gaze fixed firmly on the plate of food before him. “You gotta take better care of that baby of yours.”

“This is your baby, too.” Teresa’s mouth trembled, her eyes gleamed with unshed tears of anger. “I’m your wife and you’re acting like we’re strangers.”

“I don’t know you,” Johnny nonchalantly swallowed the last mouthful of his steak. He laid his fork on the now empty plate before allowing his gaze to take in her swollen stomach.  “Is that mine?” He bowed his head, an unfamiliar twinge of guilt accompanying the sarcastic retort on his lips, even as his mouth formed the words.

“How can you say that?” she demanded. “I was loyal to you even when I thought you were dead.”

“Back off. I’m not going to say it again.” The timbre of Johnny’s voice, neutral and benign was nevertheless laced with a hint of danger. “I just got here and I’m tired. Leave me alone. Don’t you know a woman should never push a man?”

“Johnny, I have mourned you, dreamed of seeing you again and here you are, acting like you have no feelings for me.” She reached across the table to lay a hand on Johnny’s arm. “We have a child and another one soon to come. You must remember the nights we spent in each other’s arms.”

“The last girl I remember dang near lost her virginity…” Johnny grinned, an eerie gleam flashed in his eyes as his gaze raked across Teresa’s swollen bosom. Again he experienced a flash of regret. Why he was taking such pleasure on needling her, he could only wonder. Yet unbidden, the words slid off his lips, “Whether she wanted to or not.”

Teresa gasped; her hand covered her mouth as the full implication of Johnny’s words rushed over her. Embarrassment flushed her cheeks crimson. She struggled awkwardly to her feet, then sank back into her chair as sorrow rendered her limbs too heavy for movement.

“That was crude, brother.” Scott stood framed in the doorway to the kitchen, the expression on his handsome features leaving no doubt he had overheard the conversation. Disapproval shone in his eyes as he glared at the man seated at the table. “You had no reason to say that. Do you take pleasure in tormenting women?”

“You think that was crude?” Johnny sneered. He shifted his gaze to Scott, haughtily ignoring the other man’s disgust. “Since when do you tell me what to do?”

Scott was indignant. “I believe you owe your wife an apology.” He fought against the open flame of anger that burned hotly in his stomach.

Johnny accepted the challenge and rose to meet it. “If I want your opinion, I’ll damn well ask you for it,” he challenged. He threw his napkin on the table and pushed back his chair. 

Scott took a step further into the room. “Perhaps you need a lesson in the fine art of tact.”

“You want to make something of it? I’ll take you right here, right now…” Johnny’s hand dropped in the familiar gesture of a gunfighter, to rest on the Colt at his hip. “You want a piece of me, then strap on your gun.”

“I’m not going to draw on you, Johnny.” Scott spoke with a confidence he didn’t fully feel, his stomach tightening as anger darkened his sibling’s features. “You are not going to draw on me either.”

“Please, stop this! Brothers shouldn’t be fighting!”  Energized by the building conflict, Teresa stood abruptly, her chair crashing to the floor in her haste. She abruptly left the room, her angry footsteps fleeing down the hall the only sound in the great hacienda save that of the ticking of the clock.

The tension in the room pulsed heavily, throbbing between the two men, brothers at odds. With each heartbeat, Scott sensed his brother treading dangerously closer to the abyss between righteousness and evil, Heaven and Hell. Unsure of how to intervene, of how to encourage his brother on the journey toward the light of love and family, he could only stare as Johnny lifted a hand in mock salute before exiting the kitchen.

*****  

Teresa heard his footsteps stalking down the hallway. Nervously she inspected her reflection in the mirror, noting with satisfaction the glow of her creamy skin, the swell of her full bosom. Her dark hair had grown since she had learned of her pregnancy. Now reaching her waist, the soft curls, her bright eyes, conspired to lend her the appearance of an angelic being.

“Well, little one, it’s time I had a talk with your Daddy.” She lovingly patted her stomach, brushed a stray tendril of hair back into place, then left her room. 

Johnny was standing uncertainly outside the door to his former bedroom, his hand on the knob. The sound of her light footsteps behind him drew his attention. He glanced over his shoulder then with a shrug of dismissal he opened the door. He stalked to the center of the room, the door swinging shut behind him, then raked his gaze over the furnishings as if to familiarize himself with the room’s trappings.

Teresa stood in the doorway and frowned in dismay at his blatant disregard for her presence, then with a determined set to her delicate jaw, boldly entered the bedroom. “Johnny, our room is across the hall.”

“You still have that bad habit, I see.” He waved his hand between Teresa and the now open door.

“What habit?” She tilted her head. Curiously, she eyed his body, noting the taunt stomach and well-muscled forearms, the firm thighs of the man she loved. A spark of longing struck her body, memories of the intimacy they had shared fanning the flicker into a flame as she followed the angular curve of his shoulders.

As if aware of her scrutiny he leveled the weight of his stare on her. “Entering a person’s room without knocking.” His countenance was devoid of expression, his words issued matter-of- factly.

“Come with me,” she said softly with more confidence than she felt. “We could talk or just sleep. I could wake up little Paul so you can get reacquainted with your son.” She watched him expectantly, holding her breath as she awaited his reply. Hope stimulated her heart, its tempo increasing with every second that passed. Still he remained quiet, his eyes now fixed on the wall behind her as he considered her proposal.

“Don’t wake the boy.” He moved toward her, laid a hand on her shoulder.

Hope swelled at his touch. Teresa released her breath as relief encompassed her soul. But the moment was short-lived as he turned her and steered her toward the doorway. In the hallway, he came to a halt. “You should get some sleep, too.”

Her soul was shattered by his rebuke, gentle though it had been.  “Aren’t you coming in…” she stammered, as hope was replaced by a new pain.

“No, I’m not.” Johnny whispered. More gentle than he had been since their arrival at Lancer earlier this evening, he continued, “I don’t know exactly how I fit in here or even who I am.” He looked down at the floor avoiding her gaze. “Until I know, I can’t be with you.”

“You’re my husband. You belong with me. We belong together. Why can’t you see that?” She moved forward, laying a small hand on his shoulder.  Uncomfortable with the perceived intimacy of her touch, he stepped back, distancing himself.

Teresa struggled to regain her composure, but apprehension stole her resolve, lending fuel to the panic which now threatened to consume her. “We can talk, Johnny. I’ll help you sort things out. Please give us a chance!”

He studied her upturned face, felt the longing in the small hand she laid on his arm. “Good night,” he said simply.

Teresa stood still long moments after the door had swung closed, concealing the man she loved from her field of vision. Stifling a sob, she returned to her room and threw herself upon the double bed. As she had every day since the moment of Johnny’s death, her tears flowed and she cried herself to sleep.

***** 

Blinding pain exploded behind Johnny’s eyes. A vise gripped his head, pressing him into the pillow as he sought to escape. He squeezed his eyes tightly closed, his teeth grinding as he clenched his jaw.

Johnny lay frozen, panting, seeking to control his body. As he pushed the pain aside, memories invaded his awareness. Images of two women swirled around his mind, one crying for mercy, one begging for his love. They raged against his very soul, seeking even a single sliver of humanity. The specters moved faster around his bed, intensifying the pain before blending and merging into the dark-haired beauty who was his wife.

Johnny reached for Teresa, pulling her closer until he felt the warmth of her skin, smelled the lavender of her hair, and tasted her kisses. She moved with him, her body arching against his hard maleness. With a hunger long denied, she removed her nightgown, inviting his exploration.

With a moan he lowered his head, claiming her mouth, forcing her lips apart. She submitted to the invasion, her tongue meeting his. His loins ached, his breath came in shallow gasps. Flames of desire burned their bodies, their mutual need rendering them reckless. With wild abandon, he trailed kisses down her neck to her full bosom, hungrily taking her nipple into his mouth.

She groaned as his hand moved between her thighs, pressing her legs open. Skillfully he entered her, explored her inner place as she writhed beneath him. He moved upon her as they rode the waves of desire to the height of ecstasy. She cried out as their bodies reached the pinnacle of passion and they were lost in the throes of climax.

Breathing heavily, he struggled to regain his control. At long last, the hammering of his heart subsided and he languished in the weighty comfort of release.

/’Please, mister, don’t…!’/

Johnny jumped as the haunting voice whispered in his ear. In shock he watched as the woman’s pleasure became pain. An ugly bruise formed on her creamy breast, violently scarring her milky white skin. She cried aloud, struggling beneath him as she sought to escape.

With a gasp, Johnny jerked awake, the dream still vivid, his body now pain free. “Oh God, Teresa, what have I done?”

***** 

“Is Johnny up?” Scott entered the kitchen and dropped into the chair across from Murdoch. He gratefully accepted the cup of coffee Maria placed before him. “Gracias.”

“De nada,” Maria acknowledged as she offered him breakfast, then retreated down the hall toward the back staircase.

“He was heading toward the barn.” Murdoch eyed his oldest son warily. The fine lines around Scott’s mouth, the dark circles beneath the blue eyes bore silent witness of another sleepless night. Intuitively, Murdoch asked, “Did you and your brother have words?”

“Last night.” Scott morosely studied his hands, his shoulders hunched over in defeat. “This is harder than I thought, Murdoch. He’s so far from us that I don’t even recognize him. It’s like we’ve lost him all over again.”

“We just have to take it slow, let him find his own way.” Murdoch’s attempt to reassure his son echoed hollowly between them. Even to his own ears, the words were mechanical, almost mindless. “Sam says it will take time. Johnny’s been through a lot.”

“So have we! We’ve all been through hell, but he isn’t even making an effort.” Scott exclaimed. “The only one who seems to be able to get through to him is that fellow, Joe. Why does Johnny insist on keeping that old man around? He should be leaning on us.” Suddenly aware of the streak of jealousy threading through his words, Scott amended, “After all, we’re his family.”

“Joe, apparently, was with Johnny when he was injured and nursed him back to health,” Murdoch explained, though inwardly the same questions plagued him. Although Johnny appeared to be antagonistic toward Joe, he seemed to need something from him. Murdoch sensed something unhealthy in the attachment the old man displayed toward his son. “Joe witnessed the deeds of Madrid and still he stood by him. Johnny must feel indebted.”

“Indebted? I wonder if Johnny understands the right and wrong of things, much less gratitude and debt,” Scott scoffed. He quickly took a swallow of his coffee, the hot liquid searing his tongue.

“The Johnny we know wouldn’t hurt anyone. He knows who he is now.” Murdoch gripped Scott’s forearm. “He knows who Johnny Lancer is.”

“Yes, Murdoch, but given an option, is he going to choose to live as Lancer or Madrid?”

Murdoch released Scott’s arm and leaned back heavily in the chair.

*****  

Maria paused hesitantly outside Teresa’s door, afraid she would hear sounds of distress. She had listened unashamedly to the conversation of man and wife the night before, and had felt Teresa’s pain. Uncertain of how to help the young woman, Maria had forlornly made her way to her own room and fallen into a restless sleep.

Now, in the light of day, her loyalty and love for the young wife and mother urged her to seek out Teresa. Maria tilted her head to one side, and listened closely.  Relieved at the quietness in the room, she knocked boldly on the door.

“Come in,” the soft invitation wafted through the door. Without hesitation, Maria pushed the door open and stepped into the bedroom. Teresa stood beside the crib, lovingly dressing Paul. The child, an engaging bundle of energy, struggled happily against his mother’s restraint. Giggling, his vivid blue eyes wide with wonder at the intriguing world about him,  his small hands sought to grasp anything within reach.

As Maria studied mother and child, she was again struck by the resemblance of the child to his father. Memories, sweet and poignant, washed over the housekeeper as Teresa and Paul merged with pictures of Maria and Johnny. With a gentle sigh, Maria moved to the younger woman’s side. She extended her arms towards little Paul. “Would you like me to take him, chica?”

“Thank you, Maria, but no. Paul and I have a task to perform.” Teresa swept the precocious toddler into her arms, her jaw set with determination. She stalked to the door.

“What?” Maria made no effort to conceal her puzzlement. “What task could a child perform?”

Teresa paused, one arm about Paul, the other on the doorknob. With a gleam of resolve darkening her eyes, she replied. “We’re going to win back my husband!”

Chapter 42

Here I am at the end of me
Trying to hold to what I can't see
I forgot how to hope
This night's been so long
I cling to your promise
There will be a dawn

After all this has passed
I still will remain
After I've cried my last
There'll be beauty from pain
Though it won't be today
Someday I'll hope again. . .

 Superchick

Murdoch raised his eyes from the paper he was perusing at the sound of footsteps approaching the dining room. Hanson stood in the doorway, politely awaiting an invitation to join them. Murdoch nodded in greeting but remained silent, lowering his eyes once more.

“Good morning,” Scott greeted their guest. “Would you care for breakfast?”

“That would be splendid, sir.” Hanson gracefully slid into the chair across from Scott. He tentatively sipped the steaming cup of coffee that Scott poured for him.

“Don’t you think we can dispense with the formality, Douglas?” Murdoch eyed Hanson appraisingly, finding a new ally where once fate had intended there be a foe. “You are among friends. Please, call me Murdoch.”

“Very well then…Murdoch,” Douglas agreed smoothly. “You have a beautiful ranch. Perhaps one day I might return and you could give me a more lengthy tour?”

“Certainly. We’ll look forward to seeing you again.” Murdoch studied his guest thoughtfully. “The end of summer is always a good time.”

“How is your mare, Mr. Hanson?” Scott’s formal inquiry was welcomed by a courteous nod from their guest.

“She has recovered nicely. I am well pleased with her progress. In fact, I intend to return home this morning.” Hanson placed his napkin strategically in his lap. “I have accomplished what I set out to do and now I must tend to my own interests.”

“So, Desert Storm is the palomino’s dam?” Scott’s sudden question was met with a frown from his father. He continued despite Murdoch’s unspoken warning not to offend the man. “I assume that Barranca was his sire?”

Murdoch interjected before Hanson could reply, “Before I managed to capture him, Barranca sired Hellion, who is the sire of our new palomino.”

Hanson slowly swallowed a mouthful of food, taking advantage of the brief respite as his host fielded the query. He dabbed the corners of his mouth with his napkin before placing it once more in his lap.

With his patience exhausted, Scott gave voice to the questions surrounding the mystery of the palomino. “Hellion?” Scott shook his head dubiously. “Murdoch, I thought you said Hellion was a demon from Hell.”

“I fully believe he is, but I was certain he would pass along quality to the foal, Scott.” Hanson’s meal was temporarily forgotten as he explained. “I wanted to improve my herd, breed horses that would set the standard for our entire state.”

“I saw a painting of Desert Storm while at an auction in Modesto,” Murdoch added. “She looked like a fine animal. When Douglas wired me, I was more than happy to sell him as many head as he wanted. Hellion was included in the round up. ”

“And the breeding of Hellion to Desert Storm achieved the results I had earnestly hoped for.” Hanson beamed, pride in his herd evident in the boastful quality of his voice.

“So how did MacKenzie end up with Hellion?” Scott questioned.  He wondered again about the connection between his father, Douglas Hanson and the gang of ruffians who had led his brother down the path to Hell.

“Hellion killed a hand who ventured too close.” Hanson offered no further explanation. “I was introduced to Mr. Mackenzie by wire from an acquaintance.”

“Hollingsworth, you mean?” Scott urged. He leaned forward as if willing the Southerner to impart the full truth of the alliance between so many men bent on revenge.

“Yes, Hollingsworth,” Hanson admitted reluctantly. “He begged me to aid him in his efforts to rid himself of a ghost from the past. He set MacKenzie on his way toward Lancer. Johnny was but an instrument in the greater scheme.” Hanson pushed his plate away and sat back, his eyes closing briefly at the memory of a long-time friend, fallen by his own hand. “It was sheer coincidence that your brother lost his memory, and one MacKenzie made sure to take advantage of.”

“Hellion?” Murdoch returned the conversation to less treacherous ground.

“I paid the gentleman, and I do use that term loosely, to destroy the devil.” Hanson snorted, the sound no less sophisticated than his speech. “I could not do it myself. My code of honor as a horseman would not allow me to harm the animal. Apparently Mr. MacKenzie thought better of performing the deed. Although, I daresay he never had the satisfaction of riding the beast. No one could, until…”

“Until Johnny,” Murdoch said, finishing the thought. Pain flitted across his craggy countenance at the memory of the last argument in which he had engaged his younger son. “He’s always had a way with horses.”

“They seem to be two of a kind.” Hanson had the good graces to look embarrassed, his normally cool composure slipping minutely.  “Murdoch, I apologize. That was unkind of me.”

Scott uttered the thought foremost in the minds of the three men. “Unfortunately, it isn’t far from the truth.”

“I really must be on my way. No, please do not get up. Finish your breakfast.” Hanson arose, donned his hat, clasped the hand of first Murdoch, then Scott, before striding toward the door. He turned to dip his hat in farewell. “I hope you are able to resolve things with your son, I truly do.”

*****

Val spurred his mount onward, urging him to greater speed. Clinging to his horse’s straining neck, he recounted the numerous headlong races against time in which he had participated over the last week. “Becoming a damn habit,” he groused to the laboring chestnut. The stark white arches marking the entrance to Lancer loomed ahead and once more he prayed he wasn’t too late.

*****  

The dust of Hanson’s passing was but a memory. Life attempted to regain some sense of rhyme and reason but the ever-flowing undercurrent of uncertainty rendered the land unstable. Even the sun’s efforts to brighten the canvas of the world produced merely a dim shadow of her former glory. Mother Nature struggled valiantly to provide brightness in lieu of shadow, goodness instead of darkness. Refusing to admit defeat, she rose straighter, taller as the sun reached her zenith.

With purposeful strides Scott made his way to the barn, knowing that his brother, whether Madrid or Lancer, would seek solace in the company of horses. Only pausing to assure himself they would not have an audience, he entered the cool interior of the stables.

Hellion stood cross-tied in the aisle, his ears flattened as the man in black carefully brushed his gleaming red coat. Yes, Scott thought, his brother was a creature of habit. Perhaps he had discovered the path into his sibling’s soul, a trek toward redemption. Resolutely, he vowed he would not lose his brother to the darker forces at work within him.

As the stallion strained against the lead rope that held him fast, he snorted, then screamed a challenge that was answered by an unseen animal. Growing more agitated with each passing moment, the blood bay’s cries grew in intensity, rivaled only by the answering calls of the other stallion.

Despite the rage building within the great horse’s body, Scott was struck by the animal’s power and beauty. “I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a finer piece of horseflesh.” He spoke with admiration.

Johnny’s hand paused ever so briefly before resuming the long strokes of currying the stallion. “He would be perfect but for one major flaw.”

“And that would be what?” Scott folded his arms across his chest.

Johnny laid the brush on the nearby workbench then turned his attention to Scott. Secretly relishing the stallion’s ire, he nodded toward Hellion. “He hates men.” Johnny stroked the crimson neck, a smile twitching the corners of his mouth as Hellion bared his teeth. “Makes him pretty useless.”

“Well, you have managed him,” Scott pointed out. “He may yet be tamed.”

“We have an understanding.” Johnny studied the man before him. “But believe me; he’d kill me given the chance.”

“Want to stretch his legs?” Scott offered the invitation, his heart hammering painfully as he awaited Johnny’s answer. “See what he’s capable of?”

Johnny smiled broadly and for a moment Scott saw the reflection of the Johnny he used to know. “You think you can keep up?”

*****

Val pulled to a dust-raising halt, and handed off his mount to the hand who materialized beside him, before racing for the front door. Again the sense of deja vu struck him. He shook his head at the tenacity of the fates before pounding mercilessly on the thick oak door. Déjà vu indeed! “Murdoch! Scott!”

After several long moments, as Val’s hand was poised to knock again, Murdoch swung the door open. “Val, what the blazes is going on?” he thundered.

“MacKenzie.” Val gulped in an effort to catch his breath. “MacKenzie escaped this morning.”

***** 

The wind whistled shrilly in their ears as they rode hard, effectively preventing any attempt at conversation. Scott doggedly followed his brother. His sorrel ran bravely, with ears flattened as he valiantly struggled to maintain the blistering pace set by the flying crimson stallion. The long black tail of the blood bay streamed behind him in the wind of his passing, an ebony flag flaunting his superiority.

Scott concentrated on the back of the bay’s rider, a blur barely visible through the wind-induced tears filling his eyes. He blinked rapidly as his sorrel gained ground on Johnny’s blood bay. But Scott’s mount was not gaining, rather Hellion’s speed was easing. Johnny reined the blood bay to a halt. The sorrel, renewed by seemingly overtaking his quarry, half-reared, snorting enthusiastically.

Exhilarated, Johnny’s breath came in gasps, he laughed as the blood bay pranced under his hand.

“That was great,” Scott managed between deep breaths. “He’s the fastest thing I’ve seen since…” Scott’s voice trailed off, remorse coloring his words.

“Since Barranca?” Johnny met his brother’s eyes.

Surprisingly, Scott found no anger, no pain reflected in the midnight depths of his brother’s blue eyes. Only fact, acceptance. “He was an incredible animal, Johnny.”

“Yes, he was,” Johnny stated simply. Lithely he threw a leg over the saddle and dropped to the ground. Mindful of the powerful black legs and bared teeth, Johnny led Hellion to the shade of the nearby oak trees. He tied the stallion to one of the limbs before sinking to the earth, his back to a tree, legs crossed at the ankles.

Scott followed suit, his memory flashing back to a day not so long ago when he and Val Crawford had found themselves in a similar position. He sighed contentedly, the joy of his brother’s company filling his heart. A smile lifted the corners of his mouth as allowed the beauty of the land, the warmth of the sun laced by the cool, gentle breeze to lull him into a sense of wellness.

“What’re you smiling at?” Johnny’s voice broke the spell. Benign, lacking the all-too familiar ring of death of the last few days, his voice was both welcome and wonderful.

Murdoch’s caution resounded in the chambers of Scott’s mind. //We just have to take it slow, let him find his own way.// Scott shrugged. “Nothing in particular. Just thinking about how we used to come out here. It was one of our favorite places.”

“I remember,” Johnny whispered distantly. Shadowed by the memories of a past life, he allowed yesterday to swell, love and peace taking up residence in a heart that had been so dark of late. His brother’s easy companionship and patient silence conspired to stimulate Johnny Lancer to fight the hold of Madrid, the angry gunfighter. Lancer beckoned gently, yet in ever-increasing strength he requested permission to come forward. And amazingly, Madrid yielded. The dark alter-ego receded and took his place in the darkened recesses of Johnny’s mind.

/‘I’ll be here if you need me,’/ Madrid promised.

“Johnny?” Scott leaned over his brother, worry etching fine lines deeper into the sensitive mouth. “Johnny? Are you with me?”

Johnny jerked upright, shocked to find himself prone on the grassy knoll. “What happened?” he asked shakily.

“You passed out.” Scott strode to his gelding, retrieved his canteen and quickly returned. He knelt beside Johnny, then poured a measure of the cool liquid into the bandana and placed the cloth on Johnny’s forehead. With equal care he lifted his brother’s head and pressed the canteen to his lips.

Gratefully, Johnny drank the reviving water, then relaxed as Scott gently lowered him back to the ground.

“Do you feel better? Think you can ride?” Scott asked. His pale blue eyes, so full concern and brotherly love, pierced the toughened fabric of Johnny Madrid’s heart.

”Yeah, yeah, I can ride.” After a minute Johnny reached out to clasp the hand Scott offered him and allowed his brother to pull him to his feet. Grateful for Scott’s steadying hand, Johnny stood swaying. “I remember, Scott. All of it. What I did to you. God, I’ve been such an a…”

“No, Johnny, no. You couldn’t help it,” Scott comforted. He risked everything and pulled the younger man into his embrace, his heart racing as hope swelled within the confines of his soul. Joyfully, he felt Johnny’s arms encircle him as he returned the gesture.

Johnny withdrew from Scott’s arms, striding a couple of paces away as he sought to compose himself. At long last he turned to face his brother. Horrified he whispered, “Scott, I almost killed you.” A haunted expression crossed his countenance.

“Look, brother, we’ve all been through Hell, you most of all. Now we have to concentrate on moving past this.” Scott smiled encouragingly. “We’re going to be fine now.”

Johnny returned the smile, the familiar twinkle of Johnny Lancer sparkling in the blue eyes. He laughed then, a heart-felt, genuine laugh. “I heard you were getting married.”

“Yes, I am, but I had to wait for my best man,” Scott replied softly. Without a word being exchanged he voiced the question.

“I’d be honored…if Hannah will have me.” Johnny fought the tremor of uncertainty that flashed through his mind.

“Of course she will.” Scott stammered to a halt, loathe to voice the trauma the family had endured since the report of Johnny’s death had reached them. “She has been the rock that held this family together since we learned of your death.”

“I’ll have to thank her then,” Johnny whispered. He raised his eyes to meet his brother’s studious gaze. A knowing glance was exchanged, both brothers expressing in a look what they could not share verbally. Relief, joy, understanding flowed freely between the two men.

Scott smiled at his brother. “It’s been Hell the last seven months, but now it feels like it was all a bad dream.”

 

Chapter 43

If you stay over in your world

Oh, how my poor heart will pine

Darling someday when your memories wander

Won't you come over to mine

We live in two different worlds, dear

My world is honest and true

Sweetheart remember when your world gets lonely

I'll still be waiting for you…unknown

MacKenzie toed dirt over the ashes of the small fire ensuring the embers were lifeless. He stalked to his mount and quickly saddled up. With no particular idea of where to find his prey, he set out toward the west. “As good a direction as any,” he groused. “And I seem to have plenty of time.” As he rode, fury encompassed his soul, growing hotter, overwhelming his customarily cool exterior. Tenaciously, his mind replayed the events of the previous months.

Mac had insisted his band complete each and every job for which they were commissioned and compensated. Pride in their trade had been the mantra of the Walden Gang and he had steadfastly built their reputation for efficiency. They had followed the unspoken code practiced by men who lived and died by the gun. The benefit afforded a gunfighter’s reputation, when a job was performed to completion, had been instilled in him long ago by an old friend and mentor.

Isham had befriended Mac, ridden with him, and taught him so much about survival in the world of a gunfighter. He’d been the brother Mac had never had until he had been gunned down by a friend, a friend named Johnny Madrid.

Hollingsworth had been an overbearing employer but Mac had overlooked the man’s pompous demeanor. Full of hate and seeking revenge, Mac had been eager to accept the job Hollingsworth had offered him. The deal was made all the sweeter when Mac had learned the identity of his future ally. However appealing the job had appeared, it was the secret knowledge that Madrid was going to unknowingly kill his own brother that had temporarily satisfied Mac’s thirst for blood.

Still, the daily urge to kill Isham’s assassin had sorely tested Mac’s self-control, indeed he had barely been able to stifle the urge to kill the murderer. Now the opportunity to avenge Isham and gain Madrid’s terrible reputation for himself loomed just miles ahead. He hungered to kill the young gunhawk…but not now. Madrid had one more task to complete before he joined Isham in Hell.

Rage renewed her onslaught against Mac’s senses as he remembered the fall of his men. One by one they had been brought to the precipice between life and death. Grimsley was dead, and the last three of his men remained in prison. Only one had escaped - Johnny Madrid.

But what fate had befallen the dark gunfighter? Mac had seen the old man attack him from behind, dropping Madrid with a shovel to the head. He had seen the Lancer family surround the fallen man. Beyond that, he knew little. Nothing conclusive. Just rumors, whispers of a pending reconciliation between Madrid and his family.

Mac had been silent while imprisoned in the jail awaiting the marshal’s arrival. Silent yet attentive. He had hung on every spoken word issued from the front office and wisps of conversations from those who had passed by the barred window of his cell. Listened and learned. Hollingsworth had fallen, apparently killed by his own friend…to save Scott Lancer. Madrid had been taken to the doctor’s office for a brief recuperation period before being coerced by the Lancers and Joe to return to Lancer to rest.

“Joe…now you are the mysterious one, aren’t you?” Mac grunted. “What are you up to?”

He had no doubt Joe had been influential in convincing Madrid to return to Lancer. But why had he gone to Lancer? Mac had known Joe for years, had ridden with him longer than he could remember. The old man had been loyal to a fault. Superstitious maybe, but loyal. Now it would appear he was engaged in a covert quest of his own making. Perhaps he was skillfully weaving a sinister web of false security around the members of the Lancer household. Perhaps, when the right moment presented itself, the old man would set Madrid against the Lancers, in particular against Scott Lancer.

Many times in the past, Mac had witnessed first-hand the effectiveness of Joe’s power of persuasion. He knew how devious the man could be. Joe had been his self-appointed counselor since their first days riding together. He had served as cook, mentor and the voice of reason. Now he had ingratiated himself into the Lancer household. Why?

Mac wondered if Madrid would follow through to the end. Would he just lay in wait and finish what he had started?

Mac pulled the gelding to a sudden halt as the realization exploded in his mind. The idea was brilliant, totally unexpected and completely in line with Joe’s favored method of operation. The man was harmless as a dove yet cunning as a snake. He would use Madrid to finish the job. That had to be the motive behind the apparent alliance with the enemy. An evil grin crossed Mac’s face as the thought was securely embedded in his consciousness.

Hollingsworth was dead but Mac’s word was without contestation. One thing was certain - he had taken a job to see Scott Lancer killed and he would complete his contract. All he had to do was find Joe.

*****   

The ranch was quiet, lunch concluded and the family had retired to their respective rooms for a mid-afternoon siesta. Joe wandered around the yard, his eyes downcast. Johnny and Scott had ridden out, their destination unknown, as if the very hounds of Hell were in pursuit. Vaguely Joe wondered how long the two young men would be gone.

Suddenly a hand came from behind, snaking out to cover his mouth. Joe grunted in shock as he was pulled off balance and thrust behind the barn out of the sight of prying eyes. Fear flared briefly but quickly expired as Joe recognized the man who had assaulted him. “Mac! What the heck you doing here?” he whispered fiercely.

“I’m looking for you, you old bastard.” Mac shook Joe’s arm for emphasis. He roughly shoved the old man against the wall of the barn. “What the hell are you doing here?”

“I’m taking care of my boy,” Joe said softly, his eyes glazing over with disappointment at the rough treatment he was receiving at the hand of a friend.

“And just how is your boy?” Mac snarled. “Is he ready to do the job we were paid for?”

“He remembers everything, Mac. Everything. It musta come back when he got hit on the head. Kinda unscrambled his brains,” Joe whimpered. “Both Madrid and Lancer.”

“And who is he now?” Mac intensified his grip on Joe’s arm, eliciting an involuntary gasp. “Is he still ‘our’ boy?”

“He’ll do like we want,” Joe conceded.

Mac abruptly released the older man, and stepped back. He scratched his chin thoughtfully before moving nearer once more.

Joe absently rubbed his arm, all the while keeping a wary eye on his friend. “Whatcha thinking, Mac?”

“I’m trying to figure out the best way to handle this.” Mac’s eyes lit up with a malicious gleam. “Where can I find Madrid….and Scott Lancer?”

*****

“You think it’s all been a bad dream?” Johnny lowered his gaze, scuffed the ground with the toe of his boot. “You should have worn my boots.”

“I can’t imagine what it was like to not know who you were or where you came from.” Scott pushed his hat back on his head, then rubbed a hand across his brow. “Mind if I ask you a question?”

“Depends.” Johnny’s voice took on a harder edge, deep and throaty.

“I was curious...” Scott paused to finger his gloves, which hung from his belt.

“Well, go on. Say it!” Johnny’s shoulders relaxed into a familiar slouch. “You’re wondering what Mac told me…to make me want to kill you, right?”

Again uncertainty gave Scott pause. He was aware that Johnny’s demeanor was spiraling downward, their easy camaraderie was evaporating into darker antagonism. “I was wondering how you could think I was involved with Teresa,” Scott finally said. “Isn’t that what you said on the street in Green River?”

“Didn’t take you long, did it?” Johnny’s face darkened with barely concealed rage. “How long did you wait before you took Teresa? Get her in the family way then move on to Hannah?”  Madrid snarled. “Damn, I bet you’re bedding them both!”

In horror, Scott stared at the man in black standing mere feet from him. The change in attitude was unmistakable, the threat emanating from the man before him catching Scott off guard.

Madrid seemed to grow in stature, the aura of evil rising from his being swirled and ebbed around them. The air crackled with the electricity of his rage, the mouth of hell yawned imminently wider as the right hand of the gunhawk moved toward his hip.

“Well, well, isn’t this a touching scene.” Mac stepped out from the cover of the oak tree behind Scott. “I was watching the whole thing. Quite a performance, Madrid.”

*****

“Hey there, ya old coot. Need any help in here?” Joe hollered into the dim interior of the barn.

Jelly ambled out of the shadowy barn, a bridle entwined in his fingers. “Who ya callin’ an old coot?” he bristled. “Ya must be at least twicet my age.”

“I don’t know about that, but a buzzard wouldn’t even touch your old tough hide,” Joe barked in reply.

“Buzzards, smuzzard. Leastways they got more sense ‘n you do. Ya don’t just go aroun’ sneakin’ up on a fella’, leastwise not unless’n ya wanna be crow bait. Man could git hisself killed thataway.” Jelly tugged at his suspenders as his head waggled from side to side.

Joe sighed in exasperation. “I ain’t gonna argue with the likes of you but my offer to help is still on the table.” He stroked the stubble on his chin thoughtfully. “I can see why Johnny might like you, not the others, but you’re okay.”

Jelly eyed Joe, weighed, measured him and found nothing lacking. “I got some tack needs fixin’. Can ya handle leather?” Jelly led the way back into the barn, passing the stalls where horses munched contentedly on hay, and entered the tack room in the rear of the huge structure. He sat on a bench and returned his attention to the bridle in his hands.

“So, what’s the deal between you and Johnny?” Jelly mumbled. “He seems to get on with you better’n anybody.”

“He knows I’m gonna help him, is all.” Joe sat stiffly beside Jelly and retrieved a halter from the box at his feet.

“Help him how?” Jelly’s interest was well and truly piqued by the odd old man beside him. The prickly fingers of suspicion traced a pattern up and down Jelly’s spine. The unnerving rush in his ears, the like of which he had not experienced since his visit to Hanson’s spread, roared ominously. As his nerve endings screamed their warning, Jelly chided himself for his foolishness. After all, he reasoned, his instincts had failed him when he had concluded Hanson was a threat. With a shake of his head, he asked again, “You ain’t figurin’ on takin’ Johnny ‘way from here, now are ya?”

“Oh no, I’m not taking him anywhere. I figure to keep him from going somewhere, somewhere none of you want him to go.”

Reassured, indeed comforted, Jelly returned to the task at hand. He accepted Joe’s declaration and silently aligned himself with the old man. One way or the other Johnny would be safe…and home.

***** 

At the sound of footsteps in the hallway, Murdoch turned to face the door, while Val took a seat on the couch.

“Teresa, did you get any sleep?” Murdoch moved to the young woman, his arms outstretched to accept the squirming bundle. “Afternoon, Paul. How’s my big boy today?’

Paul giggled, his chubby hand coming up to grasp Murdoch’s collar. “Pepe…” he laughed. “Ride, Pepe. I wanna ride.”

“In a little while.” Murdoch settled the child on the couch, then retrieved his wooden horse from the toy box in the corner of the great room. As Paul laughed and gurgled happily, Murdoch faced his daughter-in-law. “You didn’t answer my question.”

“Where’s Johnny?” Teresa answered his question with one of her own. Her beautiful face displayed a myriad of emotions: determination, longing, doubt, love.

Murdoch studied the young woman. Stronger, more in control of herself than he had seen her in a long while, she stood straight and tall. Quietly, he said, “He went out with Scott. I think they were going to stretch Hellion’s legs.”

*****  

“Took you long enough to find your way here, Mac.” Madrid greeted casually. He nonchalantly rubbed his right hand on his thigh. “I was about finished with this conversation anyway.”

“Johnny?” Scott took a step in his brother’s direction.

“Stand still,” Madrid cautioned. “When I want to hear any of your mouth, I’ll let you know.”

“Johnny? What are you doing?”  Scott lifted his hand but quickly lowered it as the sapphire eyes grew ever darker. “I’m your brother for God’s sake.”

“Shut the hell up, you understand me!” Madrid snarled. He raised his fist in a threatening gesture.

“You’re going to be my best man, remember?” Scott urged. “I’m your brother. Think Johnny, think hard.”

“I told you to shut the hell up and I won’t say it again.” Madrid’s hand connected with the side of Scott’s head, the force of the blow rivaled only by the intense hatred of his words.

Scott was unable to obey the command to protect himself issuing forth from his mind. Instead he made no effort to avoid the fist, he relaxed and rolled with the momentum of the assault. His body was leaden, heavy, frozen to the ground as if dark specters from Hades had reached up through the earth to grasp him.

In slow motion, Johnny Madrid’s Colt came up, the muzzle firmly fixed on Scott’s chest just over the heart.

“So Madrid, you or me?” Mac stepped closer, his hand hanging over his holstered revolver. He eyed the man lying on the ground. “Have to finish the job, you know.”

“That’s what Isham said.” Madrid cocked the Colt. He licked his lips in anticipation knowing the moment had come when at long last revenge would be exacted upon the man on the ground at his feet. The image of Teresa, her belly swollen with Scott Lancer’s bastard hit him hard, and settled deep within his soul.

“So he did,” Mac eyed the dark gunslinger appraisingly. “I wasn’t sure our code meant anything to you, now that you’ve gone soft and gone back to ranching.”

Unable to think, to feel, to move, Scott’s world spun crazily out of control. As he struggled to recover from Madrid’s vicious blow, he heard the report of a weapon. As his eyes slid closed, he saw the smoke from the barrel of a gun.

 

Chapter 44  

When will they learn

That a heart doesn't draw the line

Nothing matters if I am yours

And you are mine

 

Two different worlds

We live in two different worlds

But we will show them

As we walk together in the sun

That our two different worlds are one

 E. Humperdinck

 

 “Murdoch, something’s wrong. What are you hiding from me?” Teresa’s instincts served her well, suspicion narrowed her eyes. Her gaze slid from Murdoch to Val. “Tell me!”

“It’s probably nothing.” Murdoch hedged the question, moving to stand before the liquor cabinet.

“It’s too early in the day for a drink, even for you,” she reasoned aloud. “And you never refuse to give little Paul a ride. What are you hiding? Does this have something to do with Scott and Johnny?”

“Howdy folks,” said a gruff voice from the open French door. “If you’re pouring yourself some of that likker, I sure wouldn’t say no to a drop. Strictly for medicinal purposes, you know.”

Teresa and the two men whirled to face the disheveled man in the doorway. She was the first to voice her irritation as frustration rendered her words harsher than intended. “What?”

“I’m sorry, ma’am.” Joe’s hands worried the brim of his hat. “I wuz lookin’ fir Sam. Uh, I mean Johnny.”

“He isn’t here. Now, do you mind? We are having a private conversation.” Teresa threw a warning glare at Murdoch effectively conveying the message that their conversation was far from over.

“I apologize ma’am,” Joe offered humbly. “I’ll just go check with Jelly. See if’n he could use some more help.” Joe bowed then backed out the open French door.

With the closing of the glass-paned door, Teresa whirled back to face her father-in-law and the sheriff. Unnoticed by the room’s other occupants, Joe slipped back inside, closing the door behind him and discreetly took up a position beside the armoire standing by the door.

“I insist you tell me the truth. Where is Johnny?” Teresa stood with her hands on her hips, her jaw thrust forward belligerently.

“Okay, honey, calm down.” Murdoch took a deep breath.

On the couch, Paul began to whimper. The heated exchange between the adults in the room penetrated his world of whimsy, subsequently eliciting a whine of protest.

Teresa went to his side and stroked his cheek. “Now, Murdoch, please.” Her voice was softer now, yet her insistence was no less apparent.

With a quick glance at Val, Murdoch advised her, “Val came to inform us that MacKenzie has escaped.” As the color drained from Teresa’s face, Murdoch rushed to console the young woman. “He might have left the county or…he may be looking for Johnny and Scott.”

“Now don’t you worry none, Miss Teresa,” Val interjected. “I’m gonna ride out to find Johnny. He has to be with Scott. Then we’ll catch up to the posse.”

Uncertainty clouded Teresa’s eyes. She shifted her feet nervously but Murdoch gripped her arm, steadying her. “Don’t worry,” he reassured her. “We’ll find MacKenzie before he gets to Johnny and Scott.”

“But what if you’re too late? What if MacKenzie finds Johnny first and Johnny sides with him again?” Teresa asked, the volume of her voice rising with each word. “Johnny could revert back to that…that…that man we saw in the streets. What if he kills Scott?” She covered her mouth with her hand as if to halt the flow of words, but she had already voiced all of their fears.

Murdoch felt the earth shift precariously beneath him, as the suggestion, unimaginable yet entirely possible, overwhelmed the fragile atmosphere of calm that had reigned briefly over the hacienda. With a single glance at Val Murdoch effectively conveyed the need for haste.

Val nodded in understanding, then grasped Joe’s shoulder and thrust him toward the door. “Come on old man. Let’s find Johnny,” Val growled.

Teresa stared mutely after the sheriff and Joe, her expression unreadable before she lifted her son and held him tightly to her shoulder. The whimpering child snuggled close as she gently caressed his back, but the tension in the adults in the room frightened him.

As Paul began crying in earnest, Hannah entered the great room. She was the personification of a small cyclone of fear and rage, her blazing eyes indicated she had overheard the conversation. Once again the world of Lancer had tilted crazily off its axis, cruelly tossing the members of the household about in a vacuum of horror. Terrified, she crossed the room to confront Murdoch. “You mean to tell me that killer, Mackenzie, and Johnny are going after Scott?” she cried.

*****    

Life is fragile, delicate, a frail thread stretched between this world and the next. She hangs precariously on fate’s good graces but alas fate is a fickle foe, turning and twisting in the wind as if on the whim of a sadistic puppeteer. She toys with the hearts of men, woos them, and coaxes them into a false sense of security. Only after she has weaved her magic, cast her spell, does she reveal her true purpose. With malicious glee she dashes man’s hopes and dreams, plunging them headlong into the miry pit of despair.

So it was on this day as fate’s plan unfolded, three lives hung in the balance, engaged in the age-old struggle of life and death, unwilling victims caught between two terrible hunters. With earth shaking clarity, the gunshot exploded in the silence, shattering the tranquility Mother Nature had striven so diligently to build.

Johnny remained at attention, his six-gun trained steadily on his foe as he searched for even the faintest sign of life. He had learned early and learned well never to assume a fallen man was a dead man. Many a novice gunhawk, cocky and overconfident, had been felled by the bullet of a more seasoned gunfighter, simply for failing to ensure their opponent was indeed dead.

Johnny pushed his hat off his head, allowing it to dangle securely by the strap. He straightened, then carefully approached the dead man. With the toe of his boot he kicked the body of his nemesis. Satisfied the man was firmly held in death’s grip, and on his journey downward toward ever-lasting torment, Johnny relaxed and wiped an arm across his brow. He securely holstered his weapon and took a cleansing breath before turning his attention to the other man on the ground behind him.

With a trembling hand, Scott swiped at the beads of sweat on his forehead. He swallowed the bile in his throat, then gazed at the dead man on the ground. As he rose on less than steady legs, a firm hand gripped his arm, offering him stability.

“Looks like getting whacked over the head,” Johnny said lightly, “mighta scrambled my brains, but at least it didn’t hurt my draw too much. Must be your lucky day, Scott.”

Scott turned to the man who held his arm. Hoarsely, he whispered, “I thought you were going to kill me.”

“No brother, I wouldn’t do that,” Johnny replied seriously. “I had to play the game to keep him off-guard long enough to get a bead on him.”

“I’m sorry I doubted you, Johnny.” Scott studied the familiar face of his brother, seeking and finding the bond that had existed between them and was now re-established.

“I’ve given you plenty of reason to doubt me, Boston, but I never will again.” Johnny met the searching gaze of his brother. A moment of silence ensued as the brothers met on the spiritual plane, reconnecting, renewing the covenant between them that fate had destroyed so many months before.

Johnny smiled at his brother. “Let’s go home.”

Scott draped an arm across Johnny’s shoulders as they moved toward their horses.

***** 

The Palomino stallion eyed the small group of men gathered around the corral. As if aware of his own beauty, he snorted defiantly, shook his regal head. His long flaxen mane slapped the well muscled neck and his long tail swept the ground. A picture of silver and gold, his powerful body gleamed in the sun.

Admiring stares studied the majestic animal, while soft murmurs of appreciation could be heard from the men perched on the corral rails.

“He sure is a beauty.” Jelly nodded in satisfaction. “Ain’t he, Joe?”

Murdoch paced toward the corral, instructions for the afternoon’s chores forming on his lips even as he approached the group of men lounging around the enclosure housing the palomino. Outwardly the façade of the rancher remained firmly intact, his confident grasp on the maintenance of the ranch seemingly foremost on his mind. Yet the need to mount his gelding and race headlong across the vast expanse of Lancer in search of his sons was threatening to overwhelm his control. He fought against the voice bidding him hurry and came to an abrupt halt at the edge of the group of men as a cry rang out, the feminine voice interrupting the deeper chords of the men.

“Murdoch!” Hannah beseeched. “Teresa needs help.” Her plaintive cry overrode the more raucous voices of the hands.

Murdoch turned in the direction of the voice. Hannah stood framed in the open door to the hacienda, Teresa supported firmly in her arms.

“Cipriano!” Murdoch bellowed over his shoulder. “Send someone for Doctor Jenkins. Concern deepened the furrows etched in the old rancher’s face as he moved to Teresa’s left side and offered her his support.

Gritting her teeth against another spasm of pain, Teresa leaned into his arms.

“Let’s get her to her room.” Murdoch moved to pick up the young mother but Teresa gamely shook her head.

“I can manage.” Teresa clung to Hannah and Murdoch as they moved slowly up the wide staircase, allowing the pregnant woman to set the pace.

As they approached the top of the stairs, Maria appeared on the landing holding Paul. Releasing a stream of Spanish designed to calm Teresa, the housekeeper swept Murdoch aside and thrust the child into his arms. With a maternal air of control Maria took command of the laboring woman.

“Wal, don’t just stand there,” Jelly groused from behind the tall rancher. “Ya gonna take care of the youngun?”

“Of course I am, you old fool,” Murdoch huffed as he moved towards Paul’s bedroom, holding the young child close to his shoulder. With an affection hug and kiss on the cheek, Murdoch placed the boy lovingly in his bed.

*****

“What about him?” Scott nodded at the lifeless form of MacKenzie. “We can’t leave him like that. We should take him to Val.”

Johnny studied the toe of his boots while a myriad of emotions fought for supremacy. Relief at the restoration of his memory, anger at the betrayal wrought upon him and his family and the ever-present guilt over his deeds of the months before all waged battle for control of his heart. Hesitant to break the bond between them, however briefly, the young man remained close to his fair-haired brother. When Scott bestowed an encouraging nod in his direction, Johnny reluctantly released his brother’s arm. “I’ll see if I can find his horse.”

With a small smile, Scott elbowed his sibling in the side. “Well, go on then,” he urged. “Your wife is anxious to see you.”

One last backward glance at Scott standing patiently beside his horse and Johnny disappeared into the cover of the tall trees.

Keeping a watchful eye on Hellion, Scott tightened the cinch on his saddle in preparation for the trek back to Lancer. He fought back the nervousness that his brother’s prolonged absence had induced, while a hard fist of trepidation lodged heavily in his stomach. At the sound of approaching footsteps from beyond the small copse of trees, he chided himself for his foolishness. With a sigh of relief, he eyed his brother as Johnny appeared leading Mac’s gelding.

Scott waited as his brother stopped beside MacKenzie’s still form. An unrecognizable expression flitted across Johnny’s countenance before the mask of Madrid slammed down to disguise any semblance of emotion.

***** 

Jelly poured the brandy, offering a glass to Murdoch who stood waiting expectantly. Murdoch accepted the proffered beverage, his attention focused on the room above where a new life fought to enter the world.

Again, the grandfather clock in the hallway counted the seconds in yet another chapter in the never-ending saga of Lancer. Rhythmic, staccato chords broke the silence in the house as the aged time piece beat in rhythm with the hearts of the hacienda’s occupants.

Murdoch threw back his brandy, grimacing slightly as the alcohol burned a path down his throat and settled like lead in his stomach. With yet another glance at his pocket watch he moved to his desk and sat heavily in his chair. Fear for his sons battled with the anticipation of a new birth.

Life and death are so inexplicably entwined, so closely knit. As one life ends another begins. Or perhaps it was the beginning that announced the end. In the grand scheme of destiny, as one man breathed his last, he surrendered his place on the earth to the new arrival. So it is, we are born for this, to live, give life and pass from this world.

Exquisite anguish thrust her hand into Murdoch’s soul as he agonized over the unexplained truth of man’s place in fate’s design. Was he losing a child while another struggled to gain a place here?

“Are you going to do that the whole time we wait?”

The soft enquiry broke through the veil of darkness that had enveloped the oldest Lancer and temporarily dispelled his morose thoughts. “Jelly, what did you say?”

“That.” Jelly pointed at the snifter still held tightly in his employer’s grasp. “Are you going to keep that up?”

“Keep what up?”

“Tossing that glass around like that.”

Absently, Murdoch studied his glass, watching in almost hypnotic fascination as it was rolled from hand to hand, its heavy lead crystal grinding out an annoying whine as it crossed the oak desk. “This waiting isn’t any easier now than it was with Johnny!” he ground out as he rose and stalked to the picture window behind his desk.

Jelly retrieved the bottle of brandy from the liquor cabinet and refilled his glass then offered it to the rancher. When Murdoch simply extended the glass, Jelly refilled his snifter. “It’s Johnny and Scott you’re thinking of, isn’t it?”

“I can’t help wondering where they are.” Murdoch paced to the front of the huge mahogany desk. “What if MacKenzie found the boys?”

“Johnny is a sight faster, I betcha,” Jelly boasted.

“A damn sight faster,” Murdoch begrudgingly concurred.  “But who is he going to be aiming at this time?” As soon as the words had been uttered, Murdoch drew up short, his shoulders hunching over in shame. “God, I can’t believe I said that.”

“Murdoch.” When Murdoch threw a sharp look his way, Jelly quickly continued, “Johnny is gonna be fine, just fine.”

“But will Scott?” In shame Murdoch returned to his chair behind the desk, his hands shaking as he reached again for the bottle of brandy with which to refill his empty snifter.

***** 

Birth should by its very definition be joyful. Moments, even hours of pain still filled with an air of excitement. The challenge of raising a child laced with hope for the future, the anticipation of a lifetime of experiences and conquests are foremost in the minds of parents awaiting the arrival of their child. Yet while this is a truth, in the still hacienda, a level of fear sought to overcome the joy of new life. Hearts closely knitted in love and strength, sorrow and relief, struggled with memories of grief.

Even now as the unborn fought for its first breath, a young mother fought with fear of death. Faces floated before her closed eyes. Ghastly images of Madrid, MacKenzie and the dominions of Hell leered at Teresa, mocking her, defying the seed of hope which the return of her husband had planted. In desperation, she pushed the waking nightmare aside, concentrating instead on the tremendous feat her body was now enduring. Nine months of preparation within the very core of her being had led to this moment and she would not give in to the fear that threatened to consume her.

“It’s okay Teresa. You’re doing fine.” Hannah squeezed Teresa’s hand encouragingly. “It won’t be long now.”

“Si, chica. The little bambino will be here soon.” Maria gently bathed the laboring woman’s face.

“Where’s Johnny?” Teresa panted as pain once more assaulted her body, peaking until at the crescendo of the wave in her moment of absolute despair, it receded. She collapsed against the pillows, gathering strength for the next onslaught. Pain and fear consumed her but remained secondary to her fear for her husband. Questions, doubts bombarded her mind even as the next wave of agony assailed her body.

“Sam? How much longer?” Hannah turned worried eyes on the doctor.

“It won’t be long,” the sage doctor soothed. “Not long now.”

As if to emphasize the doctor’s pronouncement, another contraction wracked Teresa’s body. She struggled to breathe easily, rhythmically, as the wave of pain crested then ebbed. “Hannah. Please get Paul.”  Teresa ground out between clenched teeth. She lifted tear filled eyes to her friend. “He won’t want to be alone in the dark.”

***** 

Darkness awoke the small child. Snake-like tentacles of ebony searched the bedroom as the creeping shadows of night invaded his haven of safety. With a whimper, Paul searched the room, seeking his mother’s figure. As the realization he was alone in the darkened room became more vivid, he cried out in alarm. But he wasn’t alone. Strong arms engulfed him, pulling him close, comforting him. “Shh, Paul. It’s okay.  I’m here,” Hannah whispered.

“Papa?” Paul cried. “I want Papa.”

“I know. He’ll be here soon.” She patted Paul’s back. With more confidence than she felt she attempted to sooth the child but her reassuring words failed to penetrate the dark cloud of fear hovering over her heart. She adjusted the child’s weight in her arms and took him down to join the two men holding vigil downstairs.

 

Chapter 45

Clouds come floating into my life, no longer to carry rain or usher storm, but to add color to my sunset sky.

Rabindranath Tagore (Indian Poet, Philosopher)

Johnny and Scott rode in silence, not the weighty silence of strangers but the comfortable silence of those who understand each other with no need for words. Side by side they rode as if never separated by time or distance, life or death. Ignoring the body of MacKenzie tied across the gelding Scott led, grim evidence of the violence of the last hour, the two Lancers pulled up overlooking the hacienda. Her windows were alight with welcoming candles, beacons in a world full of storms, promising safety, warmth and love. As on the first day of their arrival so long ago, the two men sat quietly, their eyes drinking in the panorama before them, allowing the majesty and grandeur of Lancer to fill their hungry souls.

Scott studied his brother unnoticed as tears welled up in Johnny’s eyes of midnight blue, a smile curved his lips as the light of longing flushed his countenance. “Home sure looks good, doesn’t it, Johnny?”

“Yeah, it does,” Johnny whispered. “Took a lifetime to get here.”

“I know what you mean.”  Scott extended his hand to squeeze Johnny’s shoulder. “Welcome home, brother.”

Still the brothers hesitated, as if fear of destroying the bond that had been reestablished between them prevented them from spurring their horses homeward.

Johnny started Hellion down the gentle slope of the hill when a rider appeared in the distance, streaking under the white arch and mounting the knoll. The youngest Lancer drew rein, the stallion shaking his head at the delay. Johnny’s smile lifted the corners of his lips as he recognized his friend, Val, but his brow was furrowed with concern by the man’s speed and urgency. Sudden fear invaded the warmth of Johnny’s heart, chilling his blood.

The approaching rider drew near, mounted the gentle slope of the hill and reined in his gelding in a sliding cloud of dust. The fierce grimace of concern on the sheriff’s face instantly evaporated as he took in the sight of the two men and the lifeless body laying face down across the saddle of the third horse. Quickly, he shifted his gaze from MacKenzie’s body to his friend. “Damn! Johnny, I knew you was too mean to die easy!”

“What’s your hurry, Val?” Johnny demanded harsher than intended.

“I was just coming to warn you. MacKenzie was looking for you.” Val tossed a cursory glance at MacKenzie’s body. “I see I’m too late. Your sore head ain’t messed up your aim any, has it?”

“Madrid is never off his game,” Johnny retorted, yet the light in his eyes belied the harsh words.

“I don’t much care if you’re Madrid or Lancer, just glad you shot the brains outta that varmint.” Val glared back at the young gunman, holding his gaze for a heartbeat before breaking into a grin.

“Well, I care, Val.” Scott interrupted the conversation, easily joining in the banter of the other two men. “I’m glad to have my brother back home.”

Johnny handed the reins of MacKenzie’s mount to Val. “Now sheriff, if you’ll excuse us, we’re heading home.”

*****  

Johnny turned Hellion out into the corral then joined his brother in the barn. Together they made their way to the hacienda and paused at the front door. Suddenly uncomfortable, Johnny hesitated, “What if they hate me, Scott?” he asked, his voice strained.

“No, brother, no one hates you.” Scott wrapped an arm around the younger man’s shoulders and drew him into the house.

Johnny paused just outside the great room, taking note of his father and Joe standing in the room. Joe took one look at the brothers then moved to a chair in a corner of the room to observe the family, it would seem. Scott placed a hand on Johnny’s back, urging him to enter the room.

As they crossed the threshold, a small voice welcomed them excitedly. “Papa!” The child’s cries commanded attention. “Papa!”

Johnny stood frozen as the small boy ran to him and seized his leg. Eager little arms reached up as he excitedly begged Johnny to hold him. After a slight hesitation, Johnny bent to embrace the child and lifted him to his shoulder.  “Paul?” Johnny choked huskily.

The stronghold of Madrid’s past was shattered as the small child wrapped his arms around his father’s neck. “Papa, you came home. I missed you, Papa.”

Johnny held the boy close, reveling in the precious moment, one he would forever cherish. “I missed you, too, son.” Johnny shifted the child in his arms to better examine him. As another thought presented itself, Johnny turned to his father. “Where’s Teresa?”

“She’s upstairs with the doctor,” Murdoch told his son, a knowing smile curving his lips.

“Is it time?” Johnny was suddenly fearful as he recalled his brusque treatment of his wife the night before.

“Relax, Son. Shouldn’t be long now,” Murdoch said with a calm he didn’t feel as he remembered the nervous hours he’d spent awaiting the birth of his own son.

Joy washed over Johnny’s handsome features. ““The baby’s coming now?”

His patience with the conversation exhausted, Joe made his presence known. “Sam,” he directed his words to his young comrade, “you want me to take the boy for you?” He moved forward, his arms extended.

Irritated by Joe’s continued use of the odd nickname, Murdoch approached the wizened old man, coming to a stop when mere inches separated them. “I’m not sure why Johnny wanted you here,” he said sternly, “but if you did care for him when he was injured, then we’re in your debt.” Murdoch pressed his finger to Joe’s chest.  “But would you remember what his name is? And stop interfering with my family?”

Joe backed quickly away, an aggrieved expression narrowing his pale eyes. “Well, I never meant no-one no harm.”

“Murdoch,” Scott cautioned.

Murdoch shook his head, acknowledging his lack of manners. “I just can’t help wondering if…”

The sound of a baby’s cry from upstairs then approaching footsteps interrupted the conversation, sparing Murdoch and Joe any further discourse.

“Johnny! Come quick.” Hannah’s face was flushed with excitement, her eyes glowed with joy as her gaze searched the men in the room and fell on the young man in black. “It’s a girl.”

*****

The room was lit by a soft glow from the candles on the bedside tables. Teresa lay watching the door expectantly, the glow of motherhood flushing her cheeks, lighting her dark eyes. Her long silky hair fanned across the mound of pillows, soft and inviting to his touch. Hesitantly, Johnny crossed the room to stand beside her bed. He stood spellbound by Teresa’s beauty and the wonder of the child lying nestled in her arms.

Gently, she took his hand and pulled him down to sit beside her on the bed. “What do you think of your daughter?” she whispered.

“She’s as beautiful as her mother.” Overcome by love, sorrow, and even shame, Johnny’s eyes filled with tears. Unashamed of his open display of emotion, he allowed the cleansing tears to flow, the healing of his soul becoming more pronounced with each precious drop of moisture.

Teresa’s hand stroked his cheek before drawing his face down to hers. As their lips met, she drank in his pain, offering her love in its stead; a transfusion of hope and love in exchange for regret and sorrow.  “I’ve missed your touch,”

Renewed by her tenderness and acceptance of him, Johnny cupped her chin, then stared earnestly into her eyes. “Teresa, it’s been a long time,” he whispered. “I’ve done some bad things that I’m not proud of, but if you’ll give me a chance, I want to be a husband to you and a father to our children.”

In answer, she pulled him to her once more. Cheek to cheek, their tears mingled as their two hearts beat in one accord.

***** 

The screams of the blood bay stallion awoke him. Filled with hatred and defiance, the haunting screams shattered the stillness of the new day. In one accord the household jolted awoke, violently withdrawn from their sweet slumber by the wrath of the animal. Another scream exploded in the early morning air as an equally powerful stallion answered Hellion’s challenge.

Johnny strode purposefully toward the corral, one goal, one thought foremost in his mind. His partnership with the blood bay had been born of mutual hate, mutual need, but the time for such an alliance had run its course. Regret that he would never again ride the powerful animal caused him to falter but he clenched his teeth determinedly and continued on his chosen path.

Hellion reared in his fury and frustration. His eagerness to engage his foe in the life and death battle for supremacy rendered him insane with rage. He paced the confines of the corral, measuring the height of the top rail. Head held high, his nostrils flared as he inhaled the scent of his opponent. He snorted then reared. His huge body trembled with the force of his anger, while foam flecked his flanks.

Then another scent, a familiar scent teased his delicate senses. A man in black approached and stood by the corral, staring intently at him as he circled within. Even greater fury overcame the blood bay as his two-legged opponent stood motionless outside his reach.

The palomino in the adjoining paddock once more issued his challenge, his own rage building as he was denied his opportunity to face his foe.

Hellion pawed the ground, his tail twitched irritably. But the palomino could not engage. Thirst for blood pushed the bay to the far side of the corral as he prepared to make a bid for his freedom, but the man moved then. He cautiously entered the corral and released the coils of the hated lasso. Memory detoured the stallion from his chosen course of action as he recognized the snake in his nemesis’ hands.

“Easy boy,” Johnny whispered. Steadily, slowly he approached the mighty stallion. “Easy.’

Unfamiliar with the soft tones, the gentle voice, Hellion froze. His ears flitted back and forth, his nostrils twitched. As the man drew nearer, the murmuring continued, confusing the mighty beast.

“Johnny?” Scott mounted the rail, leaning over to better his view of the proceedings within the corral.

“Don’t talk,” Johnny instructed softly, never taking his eyes from the animal before him. He was beside the quivering stallion now, his eyes seeking and connecting with the stallion’s own. Gently, he laid a hand on Hellion’s neck, prepared for the explosion of energy he knew could come, but the stallion remained still under his hand. Tense muscles bunched but still Hellion made no countermove toward his foe.

Long moments passed as Johnny returned the stare of the animal. Then surprisingly, Hellion lowered his head and his body relaxed. In a deft but smooth movement Johnny used the rope to secure a makeshift lasso around the crimson head. “Okay, fella. It’s time.”

Hellion accepted the hand of his master, seemingly recognizing a shift in the dynamics of their relationship. With a sigh of regret, Johnny led Hellion toward the gate of the corral. He paused to let his gaze find that of his brother’s. Understanding of his intentions passed between the two men. With a barely perceptible nod, Scott moved toward the barn and disappeared inside.

*****  

The wind stung his eyes, the heavy black mane whipped his cheeks, but Johnny made no move to check the strides of the mighty stallion. He released his hold on the blood bay’s reins and leaned forward, silently urging his mount to greater speed. Hellion answered the request, his body lowering as his strides became longer, faster.

Mile after mile disappeared under the stallion’s thundering hooves until his energy expunged a lifetime of hatred and rage. At the top of a knoll overlooking the north pasture, Johnny regretfully reined the animal in. Gradually Hellion slowed, and stood blowing joyously. He pranced, whinnying in excitement but obeying the hand of his master.

Johnny stroked the foam-flecked neck, his touch conveying his oneness with the blood bay stallion. They had experienced the sensation of flight but their time had passed and lithely he slid from the saddle.

Hellion turned expectantly toward the man who had bested him. In an uncharacteristic gesture of acceptance, he rubbed his head on Johnny’s chest.

“It’s time, fella,” Johnny choked on the words through the lump that had suddenly formed in his throat. He stripped the saddle and blanket from the stallion’s back and laid them aside, then removed the bridle. One last time, he caressed the powerful animal, then he stepped away. “Go on. You’re free,” he said almost angrily.

Hellion eyed the man standing so close, then the open range below. With a shake of his head, he took a step forward, then paused as if expecting further instruction.

“I said go! Run, you devil,” Johnny waved an arm in the stallion’s direction. “Go!”

As the fleeting temptation of freedom became a reality, Hellion reared high in the air, a clarion call of challenge issuing from his velvet muzzle as he claimed all he surveyed. In an explosion of power, he surged ahead, shaking his head triumphantly.

 

Chapter 46

Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. I will put my spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. . .

Ez. 37:13-14

 

Johnny stood watching Hellion until the dust swirling in the distance was all that remained of the stallion’s passing. His shoulders slumped as he bade the fiery steed farewell. Then a new sensation, a welcome sensation, reclaimed his heart. Strength from an inner being he had believed long dead crept into his soul.

Johnny Lancer stood at attention, his determination renewed. He threw down the gauntlet and stared boldly at his nemesis. Madrid moved to accept the challenge before him. He knew Lancer had been re-energized and he would be sorely tested if he was to retain control but confidence hardened his resolve. He moved forward to stand toe to toe with his alter ego. Equals in might, will and courage, they pressed for dominion but this time, this war, Lancer had an undeniable ally - love. The love of family, home, and life joined the struggle, aiding Johnny Lancer, pressing the advantage until at long last Madrid conceded defeat, and with a regretful smile, tipped his hat.

With the promise of allegiance, Madrid passed through the opened door into the deepest recesses of Johnny’s soul and took a seat.  //“I’ll be here if you need me.”//

As the final battle between Lancer and Madrid reached its climax, a rider topped the knoll, concern clouding his blue eyes. “Johnny?” Scott pulled his mount to a halt and untied the reins from the saddle horn of the gelding he led. “Are you sure you wanted to do that?”

“It was the right thing to do, Scott. Hellion will always be wild.” Johnny turned to his brother. “He belongs to the past, and now maybe he will add to our future.”

“I’m not quite sure how to take this philosophical tendency you’ve developed,” Scott observed solemnly.

It took but a moment for Johnny to be assured his brother’s words were in jest then he allowed a smile to escape. “Let’s go home. I’ve got a family to care for.” Johnny looked at the gelding Scott had led, then at the saddle that lay at his feet. “It’s gonna be hard to ride him,” he gestured toward the horse, “after riding Hellion.”

******  

“Well, there you are, boy.” Joe shuffled across the patio to stand beside Johnny. “Where’d ya go? You been out with that tall feller?”

“He’s my brother. We had something to do, Joe.” Though Johnny acknowledged the old man’s presence, he continued to study the pale evening sky.

“Looks like to me, you’re getting things worked out,” the old man observed cautiously.

“Yeah, guess so.”  Johnny turned to face the old man. “Seems like such a long time since I had a life here, you know?”

“We only rode together a few months.  O‘course you been kinda struggling. Makes time seem longer when you’re trying to keep outta the darkness.” Joe grew thoughtful. “I just wonder if you’re outta the woods yet.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Johnny asked curiously.

“You know.”  Joe moved nearer, his voice lowered conspiratorially. “Walking the fence ‘tween this life and the next.”

“That’s how I felt, too. Like I was about to cross the line,” Johnny confessed huskily. “I understand Hellion now,” he whispered to himself, oblivious of the fact the old man stood listening intently, a strange light brightening the aged eyes. “He looked so good but had such a black heart. I understand there are creatures in this world that are born with only one road to follow, a dark path. They might look good but inside they’ve got this darkness that can’t be ignored.”

He turned to Joe. “You know the kind I mean? Sometimes you’ve got to realize that they’re evil to the core and there’s nothing you can do about it…except to release him. Maybe the devil has to win sometimes.” He hung his head, thinking of the magnificent horse he’d freed but knowing in his heart he had done the right thing. Hellion was never meant to be possessed.

“I was worried some, too but don’t you worry none.” Joe rubbed the stubble on his chin. As he considered Johnny’s words, his features twisted in concern. He had hoped, had prayed the evil that was Madrid would be overcome by the goodness he knew was inherent in the young Lancer but sorrowfully he realized Madrid was far too powerful. “The voices know how to set you free.”

Joe nodded with resignation. He was sure there was but one way to save Johnny Lancer and he knew his power of conviction was enough to help him carry out the necessary sacrifice for the boy’s redemption. “I’m here to help ya and that’s what I’m going to do.”

“The voices?” Johnny raised his head. The weight of Joe’s stare, the feral gleam in the aged eyes, elicited an involuntary tickle of apprehension that trailed icy fingers down his spine. “Help me? How?”

“Johnny, I like ya, boy.” Joe leaned forward intently, his hands outstretched as he strove to make his companion understand his meaning. “Always have, but I can’t let you do this.”

“What the hell are you getting at?” In the dark recesses of Johnny’s mind, Madrid suddenly stood at attention, his senses on full alert.

”You think you’re righter than rain, but Madrid is evil. He’s always gonna be evil! And he’s never gonna go away,” Joe insisted.

“You’re wrong about that, Joe.” Johnny took a step backward, instinctive caution causing his hand to hover over his hip. As he touched his thigh the realization exploded in his mind that his Colt was hanging on its customary peg at the entrance to the foyer. “I know who I am and where I belong,” he insisted.

“I’m gonna make it right for you, Johnny.” Joe’s hand sneaked into the waistband of his pants behind his back. “I’m gonna save you from Madrid,” he promised fervently. Insanity blazed in the customarily dull eyes as Joe hunched his shoulders and took a cautious step forward. Quickly he pulled his hand from behind his back to reveal a revolver held tightly in his grasp. “I won’t let Madrid hurt nobody else.”

“Joe?” Johnny’s stomach knotted as the old man’s meaning became clear. “What the hell are you doing?”

“Hollingsworth gave me a job to do.”  Joe chuckled, the eerie sound sending shivers racing down Johnny’s spine. “He said if’n everyone else failed, even if’n he was dead, I had to finish the job.”

The gun came up to point at Johnny’s stomach, less than steady, but considering their close proximity, Johnny knew the old man could not miss. Heart-stopping fear gripped his chest, choking off his very breath. Not fear for himself, but for his family, his son, his newborn child, the woman he loved and had only just rediscovered. They had endured so much, overcome so much. His apparent death, just months earlier, had shattered their lives, and now at the moment of his recovery, a madman was determined to extinguish all that he’d achieved, all he’d regained. Joe, a misguided and very dangerous foe, stood before him bent on tossing the Lancer family over the precipice and into a pit of despair once more.

Resigned to the cruelty of fate, Johnny’s mind raced as he calculated the possibility of escaping destiny’s snare. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Murdoch coming out the front door. At first Murdoch appeared to hesitate, then with a decisive move he stepped forward. As Joe’s finger tightened on the trigger, Murdoch covered the distance between them in two long strides.  Shattering the tense moment, he called out harshly “Watch out, Johnny!”

Distracted by Murdoch’s shout, Joe faltered and turned toward Murdoch. Taking advantage of Joe’s momentary lack of attention, Johnny launched himself at Joe, his hand snaking out to grab the revolver. A mass of arms, legs and a single, deadly Colt, they fell to the ground, grunting as the breath was driven from their bodies. The two men fought for possession of the gun as they rolled into the dust of the yard, each desperate - Johnny fighting for his life and Joe fighting for his friend’s death and subsequent salvation.

Murdoch dove into the midst of the struggle. His anger at the man they’d welcomed into their home and his betrayal of Johnny incited his rage. A wild blow from Joe’s boot caught the tall rancher in the back. He grunted as pain exploded in his spine from the old injury and he staggered out of reach of the wily old man.

Johnny struggled valiantly with Joe, each man equally determined to conquer his opponent, one man driven by the code of the gun, the other by determination to rob fate of her last laugh. The old man rallied, finding a strength born of desperation, but love is a fiercer ally, her motivation that of a more severe nature and she aligned herself with the younger man. In one heart-stopping moment the gun exploded.

****** 

Hannah peered intently at her reflection in the mirror. Overwhelming joy lit her eyes, her countenance glowed with the light of love. Unable to contain her happiness any longer she lifted her skirt and twirled around, a laugh bursting forth from her lips. At the sound of a knock on the door, she paused to catch her breath and smooth her skirt before calling, “Come in.”

Scott pushed the door open and slipped into the room, closing the door behind him. As if engaged in a clandestine rendezvous, he winked, took Hannah in his arms and kissed her.

She returned his kiss, her passion igniting as his tongue probed her mouth. Abruptly, she drew away from his embrace. “Where’s Paul?”

“I put him to bed. It’s been a long day.” Again Scott pulled her close. “You are positively radiant, my dear,” he murmured as he nuzzled her neck.

She offered no resistance when his arms tightened about her waist. “I’m so happy, Scott,” she whispered. She tilted her head to allow his searching lips easier access to her throat. “Johnny is alive and well, he and Teresa have a beautiful daughter, that horrid MacKenzie gang is out of our lives. How much better could it be?”

Scott tenderly lifted her chin to gaze hungrily into her eyes.  “I can think of one thing that would make life perfect.”

“What might that be?” she asked seductively. She gazed at her fiancé boldly, burning with longing. She made no effort to prevent his hands from roaming across her body. Instead she pressed closer to him, her hunger matching his as she urged him to continue. When he slid his hand inside the bodice of her gown and cupped one breast she gasped with pleasure.

“God, Hannah, I can’t wait any longer,” Scott groaned. “Marry me now. This Sunday…be my wife.”

“Sunday? That’s only three days away.” As his hand moved lower to touch her thigh, she moaned, her arms tightening around his neck. “Yes, yes. If Teresa can be up and about by then.”

“Then leave it to me. I’ll see the priest tomorrow and make the arrangements.” Reluctantly, he released his possessive hold on her and placed his hands on her shoulders. “I want you so badly. This will be the longest three days of my life.”

Hannah sighed, disappointed by the abrupt end of his love-making but relieved that at least one of them could still exercise self-control. Contentedly, she wrapped her arms around his neck and laid her head on his shoulder. “Scott?”

Hannah’s next words were lost in the explosion of the gun from the patio below.

***** 

With fear clutching at his heart, Murdoch staggered to his feet holding his back, and moved to the two men lying as still as death in the dust. He grasped his son’s shoulders and shook him, none too gently. Johnny’s head lolled to the side, his body limp, and blood covered the young man’s chest. In horror, his father cried, “Johnny! Don’t you do this, not now!”

With a sharp intake of breath, Johnny opened his eyes and jerked upright. As he struggled to his feet, Murdoch gripped his elbow and aided him in his effort to rise. The eyes that met those of the tall rancher were fiery and alive. Murdoch pulled Johnny into a tight embrace, relief flooding his bulky frame even as his son’s heart beat against his chest. For a moment the two Lancers remained standing in each other’s arms, then gently, ever so gently Johnny took a step away.

He stood motionless for a moment, one hand absently wiping a small trickle of blood from his lip. He stared at the crumpled figure of the man who had been his friend, or so he thought, lying in the dust.

Drawn by the shot Scott rushed from the hacienda and took in the dramatic scene. He knelt over the prone body of the fallen man, then looked up, his gaze sweeping over his brother and father, before shaking his head slightly. “He’s dead,” he confirmed.

Johnny passed a hand over his face and took a faltering step backward. Scott gripped his elbow in support, but Johnny gently shook it off, rejecting his brother’s sympathy as he fought against the overwhelming pain of seeing Joe dead by his own hand. How could he really think he’d recovered enough to be sure that he truly was, now and forever, Johnny Lancer?

Johnny raised his head and met his brother’s eyes, then those of his father. At the sight of love shining brightly in their faces, Johnny’s self-doubt melted away. He glanced back at the house and raised his eyes toward Teresa’s bedroom. Teresa and Hannah stood arm in arm, framed in the window, staring worriedly down upon the scene. Upstairs was his family, and here, on this ranch, was everything that had ever – and would forever – matter to him. This was Lancer, and he knew now, without a doubt, that he belonged.

He managed a slight smile. “It’s over, it’s all over,” he assured them.

Huskily, Murdoch breathed, “Yes, finally.”

***** 

Three days later….

The sun rose quickly, eager to meet her lover the moon, before his eminent departure. As she approached the peak of the San Benito Mountains her light fell on the silvery orb, arresting his downward travels. The moon turned toward her, inviting her to engage in one last waltz.

Mother Nature nodded her approval as Father Time slowed the pace of eternity. Joyously the lovers embraced, their hearts entwined as they began the dance once interrupted by fate’s deadly interference. Round and round they held to one another until, with a sigh of regret, the moon pulled away, his cheeks tinged pink by the sun’s kiss. Fingers of silver bide his lover adieu, a promise of tomorrow’s rendezvous trailing across the sky as he disappeared beneath the horizon.

Oblivious of the ritualistic dance being performed above, a lone young man crossed the distance between the hacienda and the far corral, drawn by the snorting of the animal captured within the tall wooden rails. Johnny laid his arms across the top rail, gasping at the majesty of the palomino that stood staring back at him. With a sharp inhalation, he breathed, “Barranca!”

“Looks just like him, doesn’t it?” Murdoch asked from behind him.

“Barranca is dead,” Johnny stated his voice soft and full of sorrow at the memory of his beloved stallion.

“This is Barranca’s grandson, sired by Hellion,” Murdoch explained kindly. “I bought him from Hanson right before you came back home to us.”

“Hanson?” Johnny turned to face his father. “The man from town who saved Scott?”

“The same.” Murdoch nodded. “The stallion is yours, John. If you want him.”

“Thanks, old…thanks, Pa.” Johnny bowed his head as he struggled with the overwhelming joy of his horse’s restoration. He turned his face away for a moment then regained his composure and raised his eyes to meet those of his father. “Looks like we’ve come full circle.”

“Yes, it does.” Murdoch stared intently into his son’s eyes. “We have a second chance and this time I’m not going to make the same mistakes.”

“Me either,” Johnny vowed. “I’m just going to look in on my wife and children. Then, you know…I think I have time before Scott’s wedding to take Barranca out. He looks like he’s Hellion’s equal. Guess I want to find out for myself.”

“Barranca?” Murdoch asked curiously.

“Why not? Full circle, right?”

“It’s fitting. You’ll be back in time, won’t you?” Murdoch asked with concern.

“Yeah, sure, I’m the best man,” Johnny laughed. “Scott and Hannah have waited long enough for this day.”

A sudden need for confirmation urged Murdoch to pursue the question poised on the tip of his tongue. He placed a hand on his son’s shoulder. “How do you feel, son? Do you feel at home again?”

“How do I feel?” Johnny repeated. His eyes skimmed the mountain range beyond the hacienda that shimmered purple in the early morning sun. His mind reviewed the events of the months gone by, months of darkness and despair. By some divine intervention, a supreme entity had smiled on him and his family, and raised him up out of the pit of hell, to place his feet firmly on the solid ground of the good earth. He was now a man who could raise his head with pride. Not pride in his trade, but in his family, his sheer sense of belonging in this time and place. “Murdoch, I feel…resurrected.”

 

~end~

 

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