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Linda (Kona) and Ros

 

 

Evil Comes Calling

 

 

 

 

A LANCER / ANGEL CROSSOVER STORY
WARNING: This story was written for Halloween and, as such, has some dark scenes
For those who are unfamiliar with the Television Show “ANGEL” or “BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER” here is a quick run down:  The vampire is not always obvious to the eye. Under normal circumstances, Angel looks like his gorgeous self, but with great strength. He can ‘vamp out’ at will, but that does not change him to his evil form - Angelus. Only losing his soul can do that. When in vampire form, he is incredibly strong, but not particularly pretty <g> He can be killed by direct sunlight, wooden stake to the heart and decapitation. Holy Water and crosses deter him, but don’t kill him. He can be hurt by other means, but not killed. He has no heartbeat, no breath and no reflection.
Baobhan Sith is pronounced baa-van-shee
**For the sake of this story, we have changed the canon timelines of Angel to have him in the US in 1870 with his soul recently restored.**

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

CHAPTER ONE

Boston…a new world…new opportunities…

Isn’t that what everyone said? New opportunities…a chance to start over?

He looked around him. It was night – his time. He pulled his coat around him and walked the cobbled streets as he looked at the city.

Boston - genteel and worldly - it was a fine city but what he saw when he looked around him was a city still struggling to establish itself. Compared to Rome and Paris and London, she was just an immature teenager – brash and independent.

He pictured his native Ireland as he looked around him. It seemed so far away now, and so long ago. Well, it was – both. But, of all the regrets in his life, leaving Ireland wasn’t one of them. There were too many memories there to deal with. His family was all gone – mother, father and his little sister – wiped out in a frenzy of remorseless pleasure.

He’d taken refuge in this seedy part of town, where the houses were timber and much in need of paint. There were no parks or trees and gardens to relieve the cold look of the place.

The only view from your window was of the house across the street, or the one next door. It felt claustrophobic and utterly depressing.

The sidewalks were paved with cobbles, like the road, and the streets were lit with gaslights. A fine mist drifted in the air, shrouding the lights so that they gave off an orange aura around them – a haunted look.

He was a long way from the best part of town, so the lights weren’t the only aura around him. The stench of human life was everywhere. Foul smells of waste mixed incongruously with the rich aroma of food cooking indoors and offended his sensitive nostrils.

The sidewalks were strewn with garbage and horse droppings littered the streets, adding to the tainted aromas in the air.

The clatter of horse-drawn carriages, bearing those with enough money in their pockets to be able to pass through this part of town as quickly as possible, mixed with the giggles and laughter of the man and woman in the doorway of a house that probably had a reputation as polluted as its facade.

He pressed on, ignoring them all, and wrapped in his own personal hell.

It was still early in the evening, but it was already dark enough to keep him safe. He walked, hunched over and with his coat pulled tight around him. He wasn’t cold. Cold was not something that bothered him these days. No, it was so that no one would see the rags he was wearing over ribs that showed through his skin from lack of a decent meal in, he couldn’t remember how long.

He knew he looked bad. How could he not? But it had been a long time since he had seen himself in a mirror, so even he would have been shocked. His tall, lean and muscular body was bent over in mortification. He was far too thin now. Where once he had stood proud and straight, too powerful for any man or beast to take on, he was now little but a shadow.

His once handsome, finely chiseled face was gaunt and pale. His brown eyes had lost their lusty glow and were now sunken in their sockets, under heavy brows that accentuated the look where once they had given him a look of omnipotence.

His long black hair was matted and untidy, crawling with things he didn’t care to think about. It hung limply across his face and the back was barely caught up by what remained of a black ribbon – a remnant of past glory days.

The clothes he wore were another reminder. Once, they had been tailored immaculately by the best men in Europe. He’d been able to afford them then, or at least he had been able to intimidate the tailors into making them – silk shirts and velvet coats, cravats with diamond pins and boots that were polished with champagne.

Nothing had been out of his reach then, and the most beautiful girl in his world had clung to his arm – she was strikingly lovely and wicked to her very soul, or lack of it. She’d offered him the world on a silver platter, and he had taken it.

But, things changed. The silver platter was gone, she was gone and the tailored clothes were now tattered and filthy rags.

He brushed against something and stumbled a little. Not enough to fall, but he had to catch himself.

“Watch where you’re goin’, me boyo!” the sailor chastised him. The man was small but wiry and with fitness on him that made him too much of a challenge.

So he let him go by and bore the shame of it. The sailor walked on, laughing, and totally unaware of how lucky he was. If it had happened just a couple of years ago…

Damn! How things changed! He’d been proud, strong, and virtually untouchable. No one would have dared! But the mighty had fallen and this is what he had become.

A young woman walked towards him and he stopped and watched her. Too young and too pretty to be out on her own, she should have had someone to escort her. His eyes followed her as she passed him by, without so much as a sideways glance.

She was young… tender… sweet… She was ideal for him, and such easy prey. There would be no sport in the chase though. And he had loved the sport.

He licked his lips and watched her hips sway as she walked away. He eyed her soft white skin and the seductive curve of her throat.

He shook his head viciously and cast the thought away, his conscience ruthlessly punishing him for even considering it.

But he had to consider it. The ache in his belly and the dizziness in his head told him he had to get something to eat soon.

He stopped and closed his eyes, listening to a sound that seemed to be coming from somewhere nearby. The alley beside him was home to rats. He could hear them scrambling around searching for food in the scraps of the alley.

Shame overcame him and he pulled the coat tighter around him. What choice did he have?

He turned down the alley.

*

He pulled the piece of paper out of his pocket. Malcolm had given him the address of the hotel where he was staying for a few days, before moving on. He’d been there last night, but he was still unfamiliar with the city and would have to find his way there again.

His mind was clearer now that the gnawing in his stomach was gone. He didn’t want to think about that though.

Malcolm Blake was a friend, and it was still early enough to visit.

It seemed odd to use that word – friend. It had been so long since he’d had someone he could relate to it. Oh, he’d had companions…partners even. They had cast him off like a mangy dog when they had realized what he had become.

But they had never been ‘friends’ in the human sense of the word. They had traveled and hunted together for years – like a pack. But, in the end, there had been no loyalty between them. And he knew that, had it been one of them who had been changed, he would have hounded them out just as quickly as they did him.

He’d left Europe behind him now and had stowed away aboard ship at Liverpool to come here to America. It was time to try his luck on his own, time to start over.

It had been easy for him on board the ship. He hid during the day, sheltering in corners of the cargo hold. But the night was his time, so there were few around when he came out of hiding. He could prowl the ship in search of food without too much fear of being caught. Animals abounded in that cargo hold so he hadn’t starved completely.

But Malcolm had noticed him and approached him. He soon figured out that the tall man who lingered in the shadows was a stowaway.

 He hadn’t turned him in though. Instead, he had kept meeting up with him throughout the journey. Malcolm had even smuggled food to him, mostly cheese and bread. It might not have been to his taste, but the thought behind it touched something in him that hadn’t been used in a long, long time.

Malcolm Blake was a loner too, but he was on a mission. It was his own personal mission based on his need to avenge his father’s death. He had a reason for living that kept him going. As the days passed, Malcolm had confided pieces of his task to him - enough to understand that the man was risking everything, and had been for more than twenty years.

Malcolm had been tracking his father’s killer since he had been old enough to understand the truth of what had happened to him. But Malcolm knew that there would be more killings if he didn’t stop it.

It was obviously an obsession, but not one that was new to him. He’d had men tracking him from one country to another with just that same obsessive need to catch up with him and make him pay for the things he had done.

He had laughed it off. Men who let their emotions get in the way of living their own lives had amused him immensely back then.

It was hard to understand a man doing that. Malcolm was putting his life at risk, and for what? Revenge? For the good of the world? For the good of mankind?

What had mankind ever done for him anyway?

In his experience, it had done nothing at all. His father had cursed the day he’d been born. His mother had wept openly for his soul, long before he had lost it. But, he had to admit, they had been right. He’d been a wastrel son with no future at all, bored with his life and looking for ways to find thrills.

He’d found those thrills. He’d taken what he had been offered and he had relished it. He had never had wealth, but he had had power and fear behind him and they made awesome weapons.

Slowly, the slum streets gave way to a better world. The roads were cleaner, greener and the claustrophobic world was left behind, unknown or ignored by the people who lived here. He knew their kind all too well. Mostly, they preferred to forget that there were others less fortunate than themselves. They knew only society balls and tea parties, wondering where their next invitation would come from, rather than their next meal.

He turned into the street where Malcolm’s hotel was. This part of town was far different from where he was staying. There were no alleys with rats scurrying around in them in Beacon Hill. The streets were clean and tidy and there were certainly no ladies of loose virtue plying their trade there.

The fashionable carriages drove past at a more leisurely pace, without the need to hurry out of the area and the houses here were tidy brown brick buildings with trees on the sidewalks and parks to break the monotony.

It was the same all over the world. There were those who had everything they wanted, and those who had nothing at all.

He found the hotel. It was five stories high, stone and brick built with a gleaming white marble façade. Inside was thick carpet and it was lit with elegant chandeliers. A carriage stopped in front of it and a man stepped down, dressed in tailored evening dress, top hat and cane. He watched the man help his lady from the carriage. She glittered with jewels and was wrapped in fur.

The hotel door was opened for them and the porter tipped his hat politely to them as they passed on their way up the marble staircase to the lobby.

He looked at himself and shuddered. Then, he stepped up to the staircase.

“And just where do you think you’re going, ya scruffy dog?” the porter demanded, stepping in front of him and blocking his way as he reached the door.

He stopped and glared at the man. A primeval urge to simply push him aside, and perhaps break the man’s neck, came over him. But he pushed it aside.

“I’m here to see Mr. Malcolm Blake,” he told him calmly. “He has a room here.”

“And what would he want with the likes of you?” the porter answered, looking him up and down and grinning scornfully. “Go on, get off with you.”

“He’s expecting me,” he told him, maintaining his calm. “You can come with me to the door, if that makes you happy.”

“The only thing that will make me happy, my lad,” the man replied angrily. “Is for you to turn around and leave the way you came.”

“I have an appointment with Mr. Blake,” he insisted. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the paper with the hotel name and address on it and pushed it at the porter. “Here, look. He gave me this.”

The porter took it and looked at it, turning it over in his fingers. “Means nothin’ to me,” he persisted and screwed it up and tossed it aside.

Fists balled at his sides, he held his temper in check, but only just.

“Come with me, then,” he told the porter.

The porter looked around him and sighed resignedly. “All right, but you’re goin’ up the backstairs. I can’t have you going up with the guests. You smell real bad, my lad.”

The man turned away and led the way for him to the stairs. They got strange looks from the staff as they progressed through the halls and he ducked his head in embarrassment.

He followed the porter up one flight of stairs after another until they had gone up three floors, then the man opened a door and looked into the hall.

“No one’s there right now, so I’ll take you down to Mr. Blake’s room,” the porter told him. “I’m only doin’ this just once. You show up here again an’ you’d better be all cleaned up nice an’ good.”

He nodded and followed the man through the door and into the hallway. The floor was carpeted and the walls were papered. Elegant gas light-fittings hung on the walls and the hall reeked of that ‘other’ world.

He’d lived in places like this himself, and not so long ago either.

“Mr. Blake’s room is number fourteen,” the porter said and led the way.

But halfway down the hall, the porter found himself alone. He turned around and looked at the stranger.

“Somethin’ wrong? Thought you were in such an all fired hurry to get to see Mr. Blake?”

He had stopped. He’d stopped because of the smell. It was strong even from where he stood. On some level, he heard the porter’s question, but he didn’t want to answer it. The smell was so sweet and fresh that he had to force the change away. It was so close, so tempting, that he had to close his eyes and get a hold of himself.

Opening his eyes again, he put one foot in front of the other and walked on. The smell got stronger as they got closer to Blake’s room and his stomach began to cramp. Something was wrong – very wrong.

The porter stopped at the door to room fourteen. It wasn’t closed properly, standing a few inches ajar but there was no sound from inside.

“You stand back there,” the porter told him firmly. “If Mr. Blake don’t know you, I’ll be calling for the law.”

He did as he was told, and gladly, while the porter knocked on the door.

There was no answer, but he wasn’t surprised. That sweet metallic smell was coming from that room. He knew the smell. He’d lived for it for more years than he cared to think about. He’d lusted for it, hungered for it.

Even now, he could taste it.

“Mr. Blake, sir,” the porter called out, knocking again. “Mr. Blake?”

The door edged open under the pressure of the man’s hand knocking. With the third knock, it opened wide and revealed the tragedy inside.

Blood was sprayed up the walls and across furniture that had had the stuffing ripped out of it or lay upended in what was left of the room. But, in the center of all the mayhem, lay Malcolm Blake.

“Oh my God!” the porter exclaimed from the doorway. He seemed frozen to the spot.

The sight of his friend lying on the floor spurred the other into action. He raced past the porter and into the room. Heedless of the blood all around him, he kneeled beside Blake and put his fingers to his throat, searching frantically for a sign of life.

He found it, a thin throbbing pulse that gave him some hope. It was weak – little more that a thread, but it was there.

“Get a doctor,” he yelled at the porter.

The man in the doorway was still frozen stiff. His face had gone a ghastly shade of green. “Too late for him, I reckon,” the porter mumbled.

“He’s alive,” the other insisted. “Fetch a doctor!”

When he still didn’t move, he shouted angrily. “Now!”

The man’s eyes widened in alarm and he finally turned and left, his footsteps sounding heavily as he ran down the hall.

“Angel…” Blake whispered beside him. “I hoped you’d come.”

“Yeah, well, I came,” Angel replied quietly. “Now take it easy and let me see what I can do for you.”

Angel looked at the slashed and bleeding flesh and wondered what he could possibly do to help the man. His chest was shredded, as were his arms and legs. It seemed as though there wasn’t a part of him that wasn’t torn.

How could the man still be alive with so much damage done to him? The slashes went deep. They seemed to be in groups of five – some from the left and some from the right. It had been a frenzied attack.

Considering that he was so used to the sight of blood, he was appalled by the human devastation in front of him. Worse, the fresh blood was evoking a longing within him that shamed him to the core. It was already on his hands.

He stared at them. The crimson juices hadn’t even had time to become sticky. He couldn’t take his eyes from it. All he had to do was lick it off his fingers…

He closed his eyes against the thoughts. It was so hard to control it. But he had to. He felt the change coming over him and clamped down on it. His one friend in the world was dying in front of him, and he didn’t want him to learn the truth now. The demon inside him had to stay locked away.

“No…too late,” Malcolm answered. “Bound…to happen…”

Angel pulled a blanket from the bed and tucked it gently around Malcolm. “Take it easy, Malcolm. The porter’s gone for a doctor.”

Blake shook his head slowly. “No, Angel…too late…for me,” he mumbled. Strangely, he smiled. “Don’t even feel anything now.”

“Who was it, Malcolm? Who did this?”

Malcolm’s drew in a breath that rattled ominously in his chest. “The Baobhan Sith…had to happen…”

He reached out from under the blanket and snatched Angel’s hand. He looked hard into his eyes and his face beaded with perspiration as he held on for his life.

“It’ll go after him next,” he said forcefully. “You have to warn him…please…find him…warn him.”

“Warn who, Malcolm?”

Blake pushed himself up on one elbow and stared hard at Angel. “Swear it, Angel…please…swear it…swear that you’ll warn him.”

Angel rested his hand on Blake’s arm. “I swear it, Malcolm. Who should I warn?”

“You’ll need money. Take what I have,” Malcolm told him hastily. It seemed that he was making his final preparations and Angel wasn’t going to interrupt him. “I have no one to leave it to, anyway. Take it and find him…warn him or this will happen to him as well.”

“All right, I’ll find him. I’ll warn him for you,” Angel assured him gently. “Tell me his name.”

Malcolm’s face went white, ghastly white. His mind was working but the words weren’t coming out. Angel could see the distress in his eyes as he began to gasp for breath.

“Who, Malcolm?” he pressed him. He couldn’t do anything without a name.

Blake finally mouthed the word, one name only, and then his eyes rolled back and he fell to the floor. He sighed once and was gone.

Angel gently lifted Malcolm’s hand from his arm and laid it back under the blanket. He sat back on his heels and considered what he should do.

The only person he had ever called ‘friend’ was gone. He felt sorrow for another human being. He couldn’t remember ever feeling that way before, not even before he’d lost his soul to the demon that still lived within him.

He’d given his word to his friend. It wasn’t the first time in his life that he had given his word on something, but it was the first time he had done it with the intention of keeping it.

Angel stood up to his full height of six feet one and stared ahead. He’d do it, though he had no idea how or where to start. All he had was one name – Lancer.

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

“You know I don’t like my fun organized.” Johnny chaffed at the white shirt and black string tie lying on his bed, washed and pressed to perfection by Maria. Why was everyone so adamant about him showing up at some boring, crowded dance? He’d much prefer staying here and lounging on the patio with a glass of tequila, reminiscing about the real dances he remembered in Mexico as a boy. The dances where the men strutted with pride and the women danced with wild abandon. “And I don’t like being tied up in one of them fancy shirts.”

“And you don’t call this fancy?” Scott held up Johnny’s salmon colored shirt with the intricate embroidery stitched down the front.

“It ain’t fancy.” Johnny snatched the shirt from his brother and slipped it on. “It just happens to be comfortable.”

“Let him wear what he wants.” Teresa sighed as she stepped into Johnny’s room and turned to where Johnny stood scowling. “As long as you come to the dance, Johnny. You promised last time, remember? You said you’d come to the next dance social. ”

“I know, but not this one, chica. I had a long day and…”

“We all had a long day, Johnny.” Scott grabbed Johnny’s jacket hanging haphazardly off the back of a chair sitting beneath the window. “That’s no excuse. Now Murdoch has the surrey ready so we can all go in together. Do you want to explain to him why you aren’t coming tonight?”

The question hung in the air for a long minute until Johnny sighed, yanking his jacket from Scott’s hand. “I’ll go, but I ain’t gonna like it.”

“You’ll have fun, Brother,” Scott promised as he followed Johnny and Teresa down the stairs. “It’s a good way to meet new people. You get to know them, they get to know you.”

“I know everyone I need to know already,” Johnny muttered under his breath.

Outside, Murdoch and Jelly were already in the surrey waiting.

“Come on,” Jelly called. “You young’ens are holding up us old timers.”

“Careful who you call an old timer,” Murdoch warned, but not without a sparkle in his eye.

“If I remember right, you wore those soft moccasins for three days after the last dance, Jelly,” Johnny laughed. “You gonna set the dance floor on fire again?”

“Ain’t my fault that I’m such a fine dancer and all the women can’t keep their hands off me,” Jelly snorted.

Teresa giggled, content to be sitting in the back between Johnny and Scott as they headed for the dance, the balmy night surrounding her, filling her mind with its heady magic.

***

 Angel took the money from Malcolm’s wallet, feeling oddly uncomfortable with the idea but conceding that Malcolm had been right. He would need it to find Lancer.

It was all he had to go on – one name that meant nothing to him whatsoever. Did the man travel in the same circles as Malcolm had?

He searched the room as fast as he could, but found nothing that might lead him to Lancer. Then he looked one more time at his friend and realized that he had to get away quickly, before the porter came back.

He wouldn’t only bring a doctor. The police would come as well. If he were any judge of character, then, by now, the hotel lobby would be in an uproar. The porter was the type to run screaming for help once he found his voice again.

They would ask questions that he couldn’t answer. He knew what had killed Malcolm, but how could he possibly tell them without being laughed off, or worse… arrested or locked up for a madman? At least the porter could tell them that he hadn’t killed Malcolm. He was glad that the man had come with him after all.

Angel stood up and looked around the room again, the scent of blood still teasing his senses. He looked at his hands, crimson red from holding Malcolm and he began to feel the change coming over him.

He clamped down on it… pushed it back with all the strength he could find, then hurriedly washed his hands in the basin on the dresser, wiped them off with the towel and went to the door. He looked outside surreptitiously and finding no one, he slipped into the hallway and ran down the stairs and out the back way.

*

 Since Malcolm Blake had come a long way from Scotland to Boston, only to have settled down for a few days there, Angel decided that he must have thought that ‘Lancer’ was here in Boston.

 He found himself a room in a less disgusting neighborhood, but cheap enough to be able to save the money. It might have to last a long time. Then he proceeded to buy some clothes and tidy himself up a little, had his hair cut into something less shaggy and more in keeping with the fashion here. No one was going to answer questions asked by him otherwise.

 The question was where to start? He sat in his room through the daylight hours and thought about it. In a smaller town, the local bar would usually be the place to start, but the number of bars and saloons in this town made it a life’s work to get to them all.

 With little other choice, Angel decided he would have to go back to the hotel and ask if Blake had made any enquiries about the man he knew only by a single name…Lancer. As difficult as it was…he waited patiently for sunset.

 He grinned as the porter tipped his hat to him as he walked up the marble staircase. The man hadn’t given him more than a second look this time and obviously hadn’t recognized him as the ‘scruffy dog’ from last night.

 He walked straight to the night concierge, aware that there was a young couple standing close by.

 “I’m looking for a man named ‘Lancer’,” he said. “I was supposed to meet him here. Do you have anyone registered by that name?”

 “No, sir,” the man answered without hesitation. “But another of our clients was asking for the same man. Perhaps you knew him?”

 “Knew? Has he left already?” Angel asked innocently.

 “Sadly, he met with an accident.”

 ‘Understatement!’ thought Angel. “That’s a shame. Did he happen to mention where he was to meet Mr. Lancer?”

 “No, sir, he did not. But I believe he thought Mr. Lancer might reside in Boston, rather than be staying here.”

 “I see,” Angel answered. He was disappointed, but it had been a long shot.

 He turned away and started to walk towards the door, but the young woman waiting behind him called to him.

 “Excuse me, Sir,” she called quietly as he passed. “Did I hear you ask about a Mr. Lancer?”

 Angel stopped, intrigued. She was dressed in high style and her escort didn’t look particularly pleased that she had approached him.

 “That’s right,” he told her.

 She lowered her eyes, and cast an embarrassed glance towards her partner. “Well, the only man by that name that I know of in Boston is Scott Lancer. Is that who you mean?”

 Angel took in the frown on the young man’s brow, and the shiny new band on the woman’s left ring finger. Newlyweds, he decided.

 “Do you know where I can find him?” Angel asked, keeping the smile from his face.

 “Well, I haven’t seen him for some time,” she explained. “He left Boston a couple of years ago…”

 “Hmmph!” the young man added with a hint of bad temper. The woman caught his eye furtively.

 “He left Boston a couple of years ago,” she repeated, glaring at her husband. “I’m sure he went west somewhere. You should ask his grandfather.”

 “And where would I find the gentleman?” Angel asked, amused.

 “His name is Harlan Garrett and he lives in Louisburg Square,” the husband told him briefly. “Everyone knows the Garrett house.”

 “Thank you,” Angel told them and walked away. He had a name and a place to start now, and he’d done it surprisingly easily. Who knew that the first one to hear the name ‘Lancer’ would know who he was?

 “And just how well did you know Scott Lancer?” he heard the young man demand of his bride as he left them. Angel smiled to himself at her answer.

 “Why, darling! I hardly knew him at all!” But a glance back over his shoulder showed him the flame in her cheeks.

 ***

The sounds of music and laughter drifted out into the night air and Johnny found his foot tapping to the tempo as he leaned against the awning post outside Green River’s Meeting Hall. It was hot inside, and heavy with the scent of women’s perfume and scented candles valiantly trying to mask the smell of sweating men and perspiring women. Too close for him, and far too crowded, he had slipped out for some fresh air and a moment by himself. But for some reason, he could not escape the allure of the music.

 Maybe it was the warm night and the blanket of stars, hanging so low it felt like he could reach up and touch them, but he couldn’t help shuffling his feet in a quick two-step to the music. He looked around sheepishly, hoping no one had seen his impromptu little dance.

 This was not like him, and he had to wonder if life in Green River, and more importantly at Lancer, was seeping into his bones…taking away the edge that was Johnny Madrid. Sighing deeply, Johnny acknowledged to himself that he could never really do that - could never really leave that part of him behind. Madrid was as much a part of him as breathing in and out. He couldn’t be anything else but who he was… there was no forgetting or putting that part of his life behind him. Because of Madrid, danger was never far away.

 Johnny stepped inside, looking around. A wooden dance floor had been built in the center of the room and a kaleidoscope of colors spun around as women, young and old, danced with their partners in a never ending circle to a waltz played on a solo violin.  He looked around, taking note of who and where everyone was. It was an instinct that he could not shake, a trait that Johnny Madrid would never allow him to lose. He noted, with a slight grin, that those not dancing were huddled in groups. Women giggled and gossiped as men discussed the price of cattle and the lack of rain. He edged past the dancers to the far corner where Scott and Murdoch stood next to the punch bowl.

 The waltz had ended, and without a moment’s breather the musicians began a lively tune. “It’s about time you joined us,” Scott shouted over the music, handing a cup of punch to Johnny.

 Johnny accepted the punch and took a sip, grimacing at the taste. “Kind a bland, ain’t it?”

 “If you mean it is lacking a little ‘punch’ so to speak? You’re right.” Scott grinned at his own joke, but Johnny just rolled his eyes.

 “Why aren’t you dancing?” Johnny asked, noticing Dolly Peterson giving him the ‘come hither’ look.

 “I needed a rest. What about you? When are you going to start dancing?”

 Johnny looked down at the floor. “I ain’t much for dancing. I’ll leave that to you, Boston. ‘Sides…I don’t think these ladies could handle two Lancer brothers dancing at the same time. You’d have every last one of them swooning on the floor.”

 Scott slapped Johnny on the back. “Right you are, Brother. Right you are. So how about we…” Scott suddenly realized that he had lost Johnny’s attention. His younger brother was staring across the room at a woman who had just entered.

 She was tall… a head taller than most of the women in the room, and slender. She wore an emerald green dress, the bodice unfashionably low cut for a barn dance, enhancing her sculpted shoulders and long neck. The soft silk skirt hung gently over her hips. But it was her red hair that commanded the most attention.  Pulled away from her face to cascade down her back, it framed her delicate features.

 Scott nudged him in the ribs. “That’s Kelly Brennen, Betty Brennen’s niece. She’s staying with her aunt for a few weeks. See, if you would get around more, you would meet the finer ladies of town.”

 Johnny nodded. “Oh, I know who she is. She just didn’t look like that the last time I saw her.”

 “The last time?” Scott asked suspiciously.

 “She was trying to ride Betty’s old Morgan…that horse goes when it wants to go, and it didn’t want to go that evening. I had to lead the old fleabag back for her, but we had a nice long walk together,” he explained with a wry grin.

 “How come you never told me about her?”

 Johnny grinned. “You never asked.”

 Scott saw the glint of mischief in Johnny’s eyes as they followed her, making her way around the dance floor to a corner where she stood alone. “That, Brother,” Scott leaned close to Johnny’s ear, “is trouble.”

Johnny’s grin widened. “Trouble and me are old partners.”

“Well then, I’ll just have to remember that when I ask her out for dinner Wednesday night. After all, you’ll be halfway to San Jose by then. It’s a shame that Murdoch picked you to bid on those horses. You’ll miss all the fun. Won’t he, Murdoch?”

Scott turned back to get Murdoch’s reaction, but was surprised to see his father looking at another woman who had just walked in behind Kelly. He nudged Johnny and they both followed Murdoch’s unblinking gaze at the new arrival.

She was as different from Kelly Brennen as night and day. At least five foot six, she had her drab gray hair pulled off her face and swept into a careless pile on the top of her head. Her skin was dull and heavily wrinkled. Her mouth was turned down, giving her a permanent sneer. The simple tan dress was neat and clean, but looked pathetically out of place among the colorful dresses the other women wore.

“Exquisite,” Murdoch breathed.

Johnny leaned over and whispered in Scott’s ear. “What does exquisite mean?”

“Beautiful…breathtaking,” Scott whispered back.

       “That’s what I thought.” Johnny studied the woman for a minute longer and whispered again, “I think the old man needs glasses.” He walked away, leaving Scott alone as he made his way across the dance floor toward Kelly Brennen. Murdoch excused himself too, catching up and passing his youngest son on his way to meet the most beautiful woman he had ever set eyes on.

***

The young husband had been right. It was easy to get directions to the Garrett house. Apparently, the man was one of the more prominent members of Boston society.

He checked his appearance and hoped he could get an invitation into the house. This might not be as easy as he had thought.

The house was certainly the home of a wealthy man, surrounded by others just like it. The street was immaculately kept, always a sign of the highest class of society.

The evening was still young, so he knocked on the front door brazenly and waited for a servant to answer. There was no way that Garrett himself would do it.

He was right. A tall gray haired man in a flawlessly kept suit opened the door. His head was held high with an aura of disdain as he looked down at Angel.

“Can I help you, Sir?” he asked.

“I’d like to see Mr. Garrett,” Angel told him confidently – more so than he felt.

“Mr. Garrett does not see visitors at this hour, Sir,” the man told him crisply. “You should come back tomorrow and make an appointment.”

It was little more than Angel had expected, but he persevered before the man got a chance to close the door on him.

“I’m sorry for the hour, but it is important,” Angel insisted. “It’s about his grandson, Scott Lancer.”

Angel was surprised to see the man check slightly. He seemed unexpectedly indecisive.

“I’ll see if Mr. Garrett is in for you,” he said and closed the door, leaving Angel standing out in the night.

But it wasn’t for long. The man came back within minutes and opened the door. “You may come in. Mr. Garrett will see you.”

With the invitation extended, Angel walked past the man and into the house. He waited for him to show him the way and found himself at a library door.

“Come in,” an older man, obviously Garrett, called gruffly. He was sitting behind a desk and did not invite Angel to sit down. Instead, he continued in the same ill-tempered tone. “You said this was about my grandson. What about him?”

Faced with the question, Angel realized that he hadn’t thought that far ahead. He could hardly tell the man his story of a man searching for him and swearing him to an oath to warn him about a deadly demon hunting him down.

“I’m not sure I have the right Lancer,” Angel began uncertainly. “The name is unusual and I couldn’t find another man by that name. I have an important message to deliver to him, and only to him.”

“Is that all you have to say?” the old man growled. “Then, you’ve wasted your time. He’s not here.”

“Where can I find him?”

“If this message of yours is so important, you can give it to me. I’ll see that he gets it,” Garrett insisted haughtily.

“It is, but it’s for him only,” Angel repeated. The old man reminded him of his own father - arrogant and overly concerned with his own importance. That relationship had not gone well, and had ended badly for his father.

Garrett rose to his feet slowly. “I don’t know who you think you are, young man, but if you have some interest in my grandson, I want to know what it is.”

Angel smiled coldly. “My only interest is in passing on a message,” he told him.

“How do I know you’re not planning to hurt him?”

“If I was, I would hardly come to you,” Angel answered with a laugh. “If you know where he is, then tell me. I’m sure he’ll tell you about it if he chooses.”

“What do you mean, if I know where he is?” Garrett snapped. “Of course, I know where he is. He’s run off to that God forsaken piece of California that his father calls a ranch.”

***

 Teresa curled herself into a small ball as she lay on the sofa watching Murdoch glide through the French doors, a bouquet of her treasured gardenias in his hand. He sniffed at them and, with a satisfied grin, grabbed a small present wrapped in gold paper from his desk and whistled as he headed out the front door.

 For the past week everyone had seen Murdoch prance around the house like a love sick sixteen year old. He hardly touched his books anymore…jobs were left to Scott to assign and more often than not Murdoch could be seen sitting in Teresa’s rose garden staring out into space.

                Most nights, according to a very inquisitive Jelly, Murdoch would take off just after dark and not return until nearly midnight. “Peculiar behavior,” Jelly tutted. He had yet to meet the woman who had so soundly captured Murdoch’s heart and, to Teresa’s dismay, he would not have to wait much longer.

Murdoch had informed her and Maria that morning that his new lady friend would be joining them for Sunday dinner that night and he expected the house to be suitably decorated for the occasion.

Having never met the woman in question, Maria went about preparing a dinner fit for a queen. Preparing all of Murdoch’s favorites, including a dreadful dish called Yorkshire Pudding. Murdoch had given her the recipe and he had promised her faithfully that it would be loved by anyone from the old country.

It was nearly six in the evening before Murdoch returned from town with his date sitting next to him in the carriage.

They entered the house, and Teresa couldn’t help but back up a step when Cadha Drummond offered her hand. There was something about her that made the tiny hairs on Teresa’s arms stand on end. Murdoch seemed oblivious to the effect she was having on everyone else in the room.

“It’s nice to meet you,” Cadha said, the nasal twang in her voice as grating as her looks.

“Welcome to Lancer,” Teresa replied, hoping Murdoch didn’t hear the hitch in her voice.

“Murdoch has told me so much about you. The both of you,” she said, nodding to Scott. But when he stepped forward to offer his hand she turned away, suddenly interested in Murdoch’s boat sitting on the table behind the sofa.

“Oh Murdoch, this is beautiful – so much detail!” she exclaimed, running her long, bony finger across the polished wood stand the ship sat on.

“It’s a replica of the ship I came over on,” he explained.

“Really? How interesting! I hope your voyage was better than mine was. I must say it was a long, uncomfortable journey from the old country. I spent most of my time in my quarters, trying not to be ill.”

Murdoch grinned, walking over to put his arms around Cadha’s shoulders. “I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy your journey more, my dear, I found it thrilling. Especially when we hit a storm. But then, I have always loved the sea. I hope to return to Scotland someday, perhaps take my family so they can see where my roots lie... meet my family. But enough about me… this is your night.”

“Dinner is ready whenever you are,” Teresa offered, still standing next to Scott, her arm touching his arm. She needed the feeling of his protection for some reason. Scott’s uneasy stance was not lost on her…he felt it too.

 “Well then.” Murdoch threaded his arm through Cadha’s and escorted her toward the dining table. “You are in for a treat, my dear. Maria is a wonderful cook and so is Teresa. They worked all day to prepare a meal fit for a queen.”

“Oh Murdoch, you are such a gallant gentleman.” Cadha laughed as Murdoch pulled out a chair next to his at the head of the table and she sat down.

Teresa sat down next to her with Scott across the table from both of them. She glanced at him, her eyes sending him a silent message filled with misgivings.

“That is a beautiful dress,” Murdoch remarked. “I don’t think I have ever seen that particular material before.”

Teresa and Scott glanced at each other, confused. Cadha wore a simple olive green dress made from the most basic cotton material.

“Thank you, Murdoch.” Cadha smiled. “I bought the material in India…I have indeed been fortunate enough to travel most of the world.”

Murdoch nodded his head, his eyes flashing with delight at her every sentence. “Scott has done quite a bit of traveling before he came home, isn’t that right, Son?”

Scott nodded. “Yes, but I’m sure not as much as you have, Miss Drummond.”

“Oh please call me Cadha.”

“Cadha, that is an unusual name,” Teresa said, passing a plate of roast to their guest.

“It is an old Scottish, Gaelic name. My family is still steeped in the old ways.”

“That’s very interesting,” Scott said, working hard to keep his tone conversational. “It’s a shame that so many old traditions are lost.”

He handed her a bowl of potatoes across the table and she visibly lurched, pulling her hand back abruptly.

“Is something wrong, my dear?” Murdoch asked, suddenly very worried.

“Nothing, nothing at all.” Cadha smiled, her eyes avoiding Scott’s. “I pulled a muscle when I was carrying a heavy valise a couple weeks ago. I still get a pinch now and then.”

‘That was no pinch,’ Scott thought. It seemed to him that she was startled for a moment. Suddenly, he couldn’t wait for dinner to be over so he could talk to Teresa.

Murdoch took the bowl from Scott and handed it to Cadha. “Perhaps I can massage it for you later.”

Both Teresa and Scott nearly spit out their food in surprise. But Murdoch was exquisitely oblivious of his remarkable behavior.
 

CHAPTER THREE

The train trip from Boston to Sacramento had been a long one, but, at least the sun hadn’t been a problem for him. He’d simply stayed behind closed curtains during the day. He knew that there had been questions asked about the stranger with a taste for the dark, but there was nothing new in that.

A century and a half of that question had left him totally unconcerned with it. It was merely eccentricity in the eyes of most people and he let them think that way.

The train had arrived in Sacramento during the night hours, so he found a hotel to settle in and figure out his next move. By all accounts, California was a big place and he had no idea where the Lancer ranch was.

He hadn’t been able to get that information from Garrett. The old man had closed up tight at the mention of his son-in-law. There was obviously bad blood between them.

That there was another ‘Lancer’ created a problem of a different kind. Which one, the father or the son, was the man he had to warn?

Behind the hotel desk, a young man sat reading. He was unprepared for someone wanting to register so early an hour, and he probably rarely did much other than read his dime novels while tending the desk.

He jumped to his feet, guiltily hiding the book from his customer’s view.

“Good book?” Angel asked mischievously.

“Er… yes sir,” the boy answered. Then he brought it out into view warily. “And a true story, too,” he offered.

“Really?”

“Yes sir,” the boy continued, his eyes lighting with passion.

“I like a good book,” Angel told him lightly, putting his bag down on the floor. “Do you have any rooms available?”

The boy put the book down on the desk and nodded. “Sure do, sir. Room six is empty. You just sign right here, an’ I’ll get you a key.” He pushed the registry towards Angel.

 Angel signed his name, just the one word, and glanced at the book on the desk beside him. He’d seen dime novels all over the country and knew they were hardly ‘Shakespeare’.

 “’Johnny Madrid and the Range Riders’?” he read aloud, keeping the grin from his face. “And it’s all true, you say?”

 “Yes sir,” the young man answered emphatically. “Johnny Madrid is the fastest gun in all California, maybe even the world. You can read it when I’m finished.”

 Angel laughed. “Thanks, but I doubt I’ll be here long enough.”

 “Well, okay. Your room is up the stairs and the second on the right, Mr… Angel,” the desk clerk told him, turning the book around to check the name. He reached behind him and pulled down a key and handed it over. “The dining room opens for breakfast at seven, sir,” he added. “And, if there is anything you need, just ask.”

 “Thank you,” Angel told him dismissively and began to turn away. He stopped and turned back. “I’m trying to find an old friend. He owns a ranch in California but I’m not sure where. Do you have any idea where I could find out?”

 The young man frowned behind his wire framed glasses and considered the question. “Well, sir, perhaps the cattlemen’s association could help you. They have an office on Second Street.”

 Angel thought about it. The office was unlikely to be attended at night, and he preferred to avoid open sunlight.

 “I won’t have a lot of time to spare while I’m here. I’m leaving tomorrow afternoon,” he told the young man. “Is there someone who could ask for me?” He grinned and added, “For a fee, of course.”

 “I’d be happy to oblige myself, sir,” the young man answered quickly. “I get off at seven in the morning and I could run down and ask for you.”

 Angel smiled. It had been the same throughout the centuries – money will work wonders.

 “Thanks,” he said. “The name is ‘Lancer’. If you can find out where the ranch is, bring the information up to my room. I’ll be waiting.”

 *

 He didn’t have to wait long. The boy knocked at his door at exactly nine in the morning. The ranch was near Morro Coyo in the San Joaquin Valley, he had said. Murdoch Lancer had named it simply, ‘Lancer’, and it covered one hundred thousand acres.

 He couldn’t miss it.

 Angel had thanked him, paid him and accepted the dime novel that the boy foisted upon him with a laugh.

 He checked out at sunset and went to find a livery stable.

 ***

The sun was just beginning to slip down behind the towering Sierras as night approached and Johnny knew he had made a tactical error in taking this shortcut home. Granted, he was anxious to get home after being gone for over a week, and he couldn’t deny, even to himself, part of the reason for his haste in getting back home was Kelly Brennen. After all, he had met her first, broke the ice, so to speak. And then Murdoch had to go and declare that he had to take this damn trip to San Jose to look at horses, leaving his brother free to move in on Kelly. It wasn’t fair.

Johnny pulled Barranca to a stop, looking out across the gauntlet of dried riverbed, peppered with rocks and boulders. Some were nearly as tall as Barranca. Murdoch had said once, that this stretch of land on the far north boundary of Lancer property used to be a sparkling river when he first bought the land, but an earthquake had diverted the stream from the mountains. In one season, the land had turned to desert.

He had also warned them that the going could be treacherous for miles.  Even after crossing the smooth flat river stones that could shift under a horse’s hoof too easily, there were still miles of rocks and mesquite that could tear at a horses hide. He recommended that they stay clear of it whenever they could.

But cutting a day off his traveling time had seemed too tempting to Johnny with his mind firmly set on Kelly Brennen, and now he found himself here, with darkness creeping up on him and a passage too dangerous to travel at night.

He knew it had been a mistake to ride so late. The darkness was just shrouding around him when he saw the perfect spot to camp. There might not be water, but there was shelter in those rocks.

“Just a little further,” Johnny urged Barranca, patting the golden neck. “We can make it to the other side while we still have light, don’t want them rocks poking me in the back all night. Why’d ya let me come this way in the first place, amigo? You’re supposed to be looking out for me, and keeping me from makin’ stupid mistakes like this.”

Barranca shook his head and snorted. Even the horse knew better, Johnny grinned to himself.

Slowly they began to cross the arid riverbed, Barranca’s hooves slipping on the sea of rocks and pebbles.

It was taking longer than he had expected and darkness was upon him before he knew it. As soon as the sun disappeared behind the mountains Johnny knew he had no choice but to stop, or risk Barranca breaking a leg on one of the rocks.

“I guess this is as good a place as any,” Johnny began, stepping out of the stirrup. Suddenly a mind numbing screech ripped through the air, terrifying Barranca. The horse bucked and spun around, catching Johnny in the middle of his dismount. His hands were ripped from the pommel, and he was tossed from the saddle, sailing through the air until he came down next to a cluster of jagged boulders. He heard the snap of bone and the excruciating pain as his left arm hit the rocks.

Stunned, he lay there motionless as the last of the blue sky disappeared and a mantel of stars appeared in the black sky.

***

Teresa froze, the plate she was drying crashing to the kitchen’s terra cotta floor. An unearthly screech knifed through the night, silence rushing in after it, as if every living creature in the world were holding its breath. Fingers of terror walked down her spine, as the hairs on her arms stood up straight, and her breath came in shuddered gasps.

She stood frozen there, waiting. It had sounded like a cougar…but the cry had been unearthly, cruel and evil…emanating from every direction…surrounding her. And complete silence followed.

As if rising from its hiding place, the world seemed to take a hesitant breath, and night sounds began to fill the air again. The horses in the barn whinnied and snorted, clearly frightened. The sound of footsteps raced across the great room and Scott rushed into the kitchen, his face as pale as she knew hers looked.

“Are you all right?” he asked anxiously.

 She nodded hesitantly. “What was that?” she whispered.

 “I don’t know.” Scott looked down at the shattered plate at Teresa’s feet and reached out to take her hand, leading her out of the kitchen. “It sounded like a cat… a big one… We’ll have to form a hunting party tomorrow.”

 “I’ve never head a cat sound quite like that,” Teresa said, her voice still shaking.

 “I know…The wind must have been just right to carry the sound so loud.”

 “What wind?”

 Scott shook his head. How could he answer when he didn’t know himself?

 Stepping through the French doors from the great room and onto the portico, Teresa and Scott looked out over the dark land. In all the years Teresa had lived here, she had never feared the darkness beyond her house. She loved the night and its stars, the sound of the insects and the lowing of the cattle. But tonight she only felt dread and an uncomfortable feeling that things as she knew them would never be the same.

 ***

The cat’s scream pierced the night air and cut through Angel’s thoughts like a knife. It was chilling and unearthly and enough to panic the horse he was riding.

He pulled hard on the reins and took control of the animal despite its frenzied attempts to shy away from the terrifying sound. He knew enough about his surroundings to know that there were cougars and bobcats in these hills, but that sound had an eerie ring to it.

His horse finally settled, though its sides still quivered with fright. He gave the animal a moment before urging it forward.

The horse moved tentatively. Angel kept his eyes open for any sign of the beast. The last thing he wanted was to be thrown unexpectedly from a terrified horse and left on foot without cover when the sun rose.

***

 Johnny reached behind his back and came to realize that the 'something' burrowing in his back was a rock the size of a hen's egg.

 Slowly, cautiously, he opened his eyes. A blanket of brilliant stars hovered overhead, sparkling in the moonless sky. He rolled his head from side to side and saw nothing but blackness.  The huge boulders stood as only deeper patches of black.

Memories of the cat screaming and Barranca bucking violently in terror came back to him and he felt his heart beat faster. The sound seemed to have come from everywhere. He couldn’t remember hearing a cat that loud or that malevolent before. It sounded not of this world. A sudden chill went down his spine at the thought that the cat could be within feet of him in this blackness and he would never know.

“Madre de Dios,” he breathed. He was in big trouble - dying kind of trouble. Johnny pushed the thought aside and tried to concentrate on the problem at hand.

Searching the sky, he spotted the Big Dipper and knew it was somewhere near midnight. That meant he had been unconscious for several hours. In spite of the rocks beneath him, and the one very uncomfortable one that had wedged its way into the small of his back, he wasn’t in too much pain.

His head throbbed. He knew he must have hit it when he fell, and his arm… he remembered the sound and the pain of a bone breaking, yet he felt only numbness.

He lifted his head just slightly, feeling the tug on his left shoulder and the answering pain along his chest but his arm was numb. Startled by the numbness he tried moving his arm, just an inch, and it ignited an inferno of pain from his elbow to his chest. Below that…still nothing.

 An insidious thread of fear wormed its way into his brain. He listened for Barranca but he heard nothing. Taking long deep breaths he forced himself not to panic. He tried to whistle but his mouth was too dry. Barranca would run home…they would come looking for him…but here? Who the hell would think of looking here for him?

Years of living on the edge had taught him that to panic was a death sentence. Forcing himself to calm down he carefully raised his head again, but saw nothing but blackness. The huge boulders stood like phantoms in the darkness.  He lowered his head back to the ground, the pebbles making an uncomfortable pillow.

He could do nothing now but wait for daylight. Cold logic told him not knowing his condition he could do himself more harm.

He closed his eyes, trying to force the mounting fear from overtaking him. The thought of that cat out there, stalking him, waiting… he knew what a big cat could do...he had seen it too often...the thought sent a shiver of dread through his body.

His arm throbbed to the beat of his heart…

Johnny could not fight the encroaching blackness in his mind any longer, and he slid back into blessed unconsciousness, safe from pain and worry…for now.

***

 Safely ensconced in the hacienda, Murdoch Lancer heard the cat scream again. There was something unnatural about it. Its strident mewl echoed around the valley into his room and wrapped tendrils of fear around his spine that crept, inch by inch, into his consciousness.

 What was it about that sound that drove the common sense out of a man and let in the primal superstitions of his forefathers?

 Murdoch wasn’t a man to let them in. Superstitious nonsense was for weaker men, not him.

 He pulled back the blankets and climbed into his bed. He picked up the book he’d been reading for the past week, pulling the covers high over his chest as if to protect himself from the eerie chill that permeated the room, and settled himself as comfortably as he could.

 Hurrying footsteps outside his door and a soft, sharp knock disturbed him again. “Come in,” he called gruffly, irritated but not sure why.

 Teresa opened the door and stood in her nightgown with a shawl hugged tight around her shoulders. Her eyes were wide with alarm.

 “Did you hear it, Murdoch? That awful shriek?”

 “Yes, I heard it. It’s nothing but a cat in the hills,” he assured her calmly, while his own nerves jarred.

 “But, it’s so loud! It’s frightening!”

 “There’s nothing to worry about, honey. We’ll send some men out in the morning to hunt it down before it starts killing calves, but it can’t do you any harm here. Go to bed and forget about it.”

She looked dubious.

“Just try to ignore it, Teresa. It’s just a cougar.”

“All right,” she replied, but she didn’t look convinced. “Good night, Murdoch.”

“Good night, honey,” he answered and watched her close the door.

He decided against trying to read and tossed the book carelessly onto the nightstand by his bed. He trimmed the lamp and blew out the flame and lay down.

Pulling the blankets up over his shoulders securely, he shivered – just once. The starlight danced in the curtains as they moved in the gentle breeze, but he just closed his eyes against the light and forced himself to sleep.

***

There it was again! The horse reared this time and Angel had to use all his wits to stay in the saddle and calm the animal.

That was the third time the devilish beast had howled in the night. With each scream, the horse grew harder to soothe and he cursed the cat for its endless shrieking. But, all the while, something deep within him told him that there was nothing normal about that sound. It not only grated on his ears and terrified the horse, but it unnerved him – and that took some doing.

Once the horse had relaxed enough to continue, he pushed on, aware of the still quivering horseflesh beneath him. But he didn’t have time to stop and reassure the horse. In a few hours, the sun would start to rise. He had to have good cover by then. So far, he’d been able to find shelter in the caves and old mineshafts that abounded up in the foothills, but he had to be sure. Without it, he would be dead.

His one unassailable enemy in the world, the sun made it necessary for him to travel the dark hours. While the rest of the world went about their lives, he was destined to remain in the shadows, waiting for the darkness to return. He’d learned to live with it.

He started to search for another cave in which to spend the sunlit hours.

***

 Murdoch drifted off into a dreamless void, only to be woken again by another shriek from the cat. No one came running to his room this time. He imagined they were all open-eyed and edging further down under their blankets, seeking refuge from the noise – just as he did.

 The grandfather clock downstairs pealed out three chimes – loud, monotonous and hollow notes that only added to the strangeness of the night.

 With the blankets pulled half over his head, he pushed the absurd thoughts from his mind and closed his eyes again.

 *

Mist swirled in the moonlight. The dark night was lit by a moon so big and so bright that it gave the sky around it a rich blue hue. Wisps of cloud drifted across the sky, like the wind filled sails of a ship at sea. The waters of the loch gleamed with black and silver.

But something was there – a presence – a foreboding presence. He looked around him. Something was there, unseen in the shadows of the bushes behind him. He took a step back and then froze as the leaves shook and rustled. 

His heart pounded in his chest and his brain screamed for him to escape, but his feet wouldn’t move. They were rooted to the ground and fear – mind numbing fear – raced through his body.

A hand on his shoulder… dragging him… pulling him…

Get away – get away – run, boy, run… the words were shouted at him. They took on a life of their own and he finally broke the spell and turned to take flight. Run, boy, run….

Run… Run… RUN… he heard the words, ringing in his ears as his feet pounded on the ground and his legs pumped with all their might… RUNNNNNNN…

A cat shrieked, tearing the night air into shreds.

RUNNNNNNNNNNN…

*

“Murdoch? Murdoch? Are you all right?” Scott called, fiercely shaking his father awake.

Murdoch finally bolted forward in the bed, nearly knocking Scott off the edge of the bed with the violence of his waking.

Scott stared at him, taking in the beads of sweat on his face, his ashen face… and the way his body shook.

“It was a nightmare, Murdoch,” Scott told him quietly. He tried to keep his voice as normal as he could, though his heart raced. He’d never seen his father like this. Murdoch’s face was a picture of sheer, unadulterated fear. “It’s all right. It’s over now.”

Murdoch swallowed hard and looked at Scott. He frowned in confusion as the last vestiges of the dream held him. His body was tense and he tried to control the tremors shaking his body.

Scott stood up and walked to the dresser where a jug of water sat with a linen cover over it. He lifted off the cover and poured some of the water into a glass, then walked back to his father’s bed.

Murdoch’s eyes were glazed and vague as they followed Scott across the room and back.

 “Here, Murdoch,” he said, calmly offering him the glass. “Drink this.”

Murdoch didn’t seem to comprehend the words.

 “Take it, Murdoch. Drink it,” Scott insisted, almost paternally. He stood over his father as he finally took the glass and raised it, still shaking, to his lips.

“What was it, Murdoch?” Scott asked anxiously. “What did you dream?”

Murdoch shook his head, as much to clear it as to answer his son.

“No, it was nothing, Scott,” he finally managed to say. He took another swallow of the water. “Just a foolish old man’s fantasies.”

He sighed heavily and wiped his forehead with the sleeve of his nightshirt. “I’m sorry I woke you.”

Scott sat down again on the side of the bed. “It wasn’t just you,” he admitted. “I heard that damned cat again a while back and couldn’t sleep.”

“Is Teresa all right? It’s got her frightened,” Murdoch asked uneasily.

“I checked on her,” Scott told him. “She’s curled up in her bed with the covers pulled over her head, but she says she’s all right.”

“Damned thing’s got everyone on edge,” Murdoch growled and Scott smiled. That sounded more like his father.

Murdoch put the glass down on the nightstand by his bed with a determined thud. “Go on back to bed, son. I’m fine.”

“Are you sure? You were yelling and thrashing about when I came in. I thought you were going to hit me when I woke you,” Scott told him with an uncertain smile.

Murdoch suddenly noticed the state of the bed. The blankets and sheets were strewn everywhere and his nightshirt felt damp with sweat.

“Sorry, I’m fine,” he sighed. “A silly dream isn’t going to kill me, son.” He smiled with embarrassment. “It makes me a little more human, I guess.”

Scott smiled back. “There’s nothing wrong with that,” he answered, and walked out of the room. He looked back only to check on his father one last time before pulling the door closed with a quiet “Good night.”

Murdoch sat still in the bed. He had no idea where that dream had come from, but it had left him with a feeling of dread that he couldn’t admit to himself or to his son. Something deep within him called out. The Highlands, the old ways and the old superstitions, all the things he’d always disparaged, came seeping back into his bones.

He pushed the feeling away and told himself how foolish it was. But it continued to gnaw at him until he threw the covers back angrily, then got out of the bed and went to his dresser. He pulled open the top drawer and rummaged his way to the bottom.

It was still there. Of course, it was. No one else knew it even existed.

He pulled out the little wooden box and opened it. The ring sat there staring at him, mocking him for a superstitious old man. He pulled the ring out and looked hard at it, rubbed it clean of the years of neglect and slipped it onto the ring finger of his right hand.

Then he ignored it and went back to bed.
 

CHAPTER FOUR

Scott stood at the window in his bedroom and looked out into the darkness. He loved that land out there. It gave him a sense of belonging that he’d longed for all his life. It was the hardest work he'd ever done, but at the end of the day he could sit back and be proud.

Fear had never been a part of his life at Lancer, not even at the beginning when Pardee and his men had been threatening its very existence. But, tonight? Tonight there was a tension creeping through the house that could only be described as fear.

It wasn’t just himself. Teresa was outright scared. And Murdoch?

Finding Murdoch shivering and covered in sweat from that nightmare had thrown Scott in a way that he would never have believed possible. Was it the cat? Had that sparked the nightmare that had shaken Murdoch so badly? He wasn’t sure. Murdoch had been behaving so strangely lately.

He was so enthralled with the Drummond woman. He seemed to see something in her that no one else saw. It made no sense!

He stared out at the fence that surrounded the hacienda and its outbuildings and corrals, and he rubbed his back distractedly. He had a scar there that almost matched the one that Johnny had gotten jumping Barranca over that fence, but it was older, and long forgotten – best forgotten.

But the twinge was there to remind him now and then, just so that he never could quite escape those days in Libby.

***

The first rays of light spilled over the mountain range, lighting the kitchen as Maria began to cook breakfast. She yelped as she burned her finger on the stove.

Memories flooded back of the long night before.

Her fingers wrapped themselves around her beloved cross, and she prayed, again, for the souls of those she loved. Evil had invaded this valley...

The cry of the gato had been not of this world. She knew that evil often took many forms. This was evil of the worst kind.

“Madre santa protegénos a todos,” (Holy Mother, protect us all) she whispered in anguish, then crossed herself and went back to her work.

***

 “Jelly!” Scott yelled as he strode out of the front door, pulling the glove up tight on his left hand. Murdoch was right behind him and the two of them walked over to the barn.

 “Jelly!” Murdoch called, even louder. Scott was more than amply aware that his father’s mood was sour this morning. He’d snipped at both himself and Teresa already at breakfast and no one had missed the ring he wore on his right hand...

When Teresa had mentioned it, he had grouched that it had been his father’s ring and that he saw no reason why everyone was so interested in it.

And Maria's superstitious sermon about evil portents had only made Murdoch's mood worse.

A loud honking told them that Dewdrop was around and Jelly soon appeared at the barn doors.

“I heared ya… keep yer britches on!” he called back gruffly and strutted over to join them.

“Jelly, we’re getting some men together to go out after that cat, before it starts bringing down the stock,” Murdoch told him. “I want you to stay close to the house with Teresa and Maria. They’re both upset by it.”

“Well, ya can’t hardly blame ‘em, boss,” he answered bluntly. “All that yowlin’ an’ screechin’ last night. Didn’t sound like no ordinary cat t’ me.”

Scott grinned, knowing what direction the superstitious old man would head in, but Murdoch was in no mood to go there.

“I don’t want any talk of superstitions or ghosts and goblins, Jelly,” Murdoch told him with unwarranted harshness. “The women were scared enough by it. I won’t have you making it worse.”

Jelly snorted and pulled himself up straight, tugging his vest down and his trousers up. “Well, who said I was gonna say anythin’ to ‘em?” he demanded brusquely, jutting his bearded jaw out defiantly. “I wouldn’t frighten them ladies for anythin’, but I gotta tell ya, I got an ache in my elbow that’s tellin’ me somethin’ real strange is happenin’.”

“Nothing stranger than a cougar that’s too close to Lancer,” Murdoch insisted angrily and strode off to the bunkhouse to round up some men for the hunt.

“Well!” Jelly huffed, left alone with Scott. “If that don’t beat all! I reckon he didn’t git up on the right side o’ the bed this mornin’!”

Scott watched his father and frowned. “I’m not sure how much sleep he got last night, Jelly.”

“Yeah, well he weren’t the onliest one,” Jelly told him quietly. “I didn’t get more’n a wink o’ sleep myself.” He turned his head and looked Scott in the eye and added, “An’ it seems to me I saw your light on in the middle o’ the night, too.”

Scott nodded. “Well, it’s hard to sleep when everyone around you is jumping out of their skins,” he confessed. “Things will get back to normal once we track down that cat.”

***

 Johnny could smell the coppery odor of blood in the air and fear clutched at his heart and churned his stomach.

 It was daylight… He could feel the hot sun beating down on his face, searing his skin, leaving his mouth bone dry. The sound of flies droning on the hot air made him dizzy. He listened for another sound… any sound to tell him he was not alone. But he was… and fear, like a living entity, squeezed a little tighter.

 Flashes of memories played in his mind… taunting him. Kelly – with her flaming red hair, her green dress whirling to the music of a single violin... then Barranca spooked by the shriek of the cat, so close he could remember feeling the air move across his face… and he was falling… and Barranca…

 Fear squeezed a little tighter…

 He pried open his eyelids, caked with grit and sweat, only to slam them shut again against the blinding sun.

 He waited, trying to make sense of everything…

 Suddenly, memories of what had happened last night exploded into brilliant detail…vividly remembered as if it were happening again this instant. The cat’s screech, so close that it drowned out every other sound… Barranca bucking violently and then he was plummeting to the ground… the cruel sound of bone cracking in the quiet aftermath of the cat’s cry.

BARRANCA!

The sound of the flies conjured up an image of the beautiful Palomino laid open…

“Barranca!” he tried to call, but his voice came out as no more than a dry whisper.

Fear squeezed tighter, clamping around his chest… making it hard to draw a breath.

Carefully, he opened his eyes again, this time squinting against the intense light.

He rolled his head to the left, lifting it just enough to get a good look at his arm. “Dios,” he groaned. 

Bile rose in his throat at the sight of his arm pinned at the elbow between two rocks, the lower half hanging at an impossibly awkward angle. A jagged spear of bone tore through skin and fabric, glistening with blood. A horde of flies swarmed hungrily over the wound, and a kind of horrified relief washed over him. It wasn’t Barranca…

He whispered a silent prayer that his friend had made it to safety.

From the position of the sun, early morning had already slipped into mid-morning and Johnny knew he was in serious trouble. He had no horse, no water and no shade... and he would need all of them if he were to survive.

Fear tightened its merciless grip on him… but he pushed it back.

He fought the urge to move, to try to swat away the flies. He had to think. He tried to lick his dry lips, but tasted only dust and blood. His arm had swollen and was now trapped solidly, wedged tightly between the two rocks. He had to get free if he was going to get out of this mess.

“Get away, damn you!” he tried to shout at the flies. He couldn't take another second of those flies hovering over his arm, biting at his flesh, but it came out as a rasping croak from his parched throat.

Anger and frustration roiled in his gut until he could stand the flies and their relentless droning no more. He tried to swat them away with his right hand, but the movement awoke agonizing pain in his left arm. He dropped his head back down to the ground, clamping his jaw tightly, trying to ride out the pain.

Keeping his eyes closed against the glaring sun, he tried to think. He didn’t know how much blood he’d lost, but he knew it was too much.

If Barranca had high-tailed it back to the ranch, then Murdoch and Scott were sure to be out looking for him by now. But how far was he from Lancer? He figured close to a day’s ride. By the time Barranca made it back to the ranch, if the horse did manage to find his way back there safely…then…the math was easy, at least two days before he would see any help…

But could they follow tracks on this hard packed and rocky ground? And if they couldn’t, would they ever think of looking here? He didn’t think so.

‘Think damn it - think and stay calm.’ Johnny berated himself. He had been in enough life threatening situations to know that a level head could mean all the difference between life and death.

 But this? Fear niggled its way a little deeper, feeding on him like the flies fed on his arm. He was alone, in the baking sun, with no water, no shade…and a busted, bleeding arm…He didn’t see how things could get much worse.

A haggard smile touched his lips…it was time he found out just how bad it was.

Opening his eyes again, he looked into the blue, cloudless sky, making sure he didn’t look toward the sun. The glare alone could blind a man if he wasn’t careful.  He’d seen it happen… Ol’ Man Charley, lost in the desert; his eyes bleached white by the time they found him… he forced the memory back into its hiding place along with all the other memories of what could happen to a man caught without food and water in the blazing sun.

Fear cinched its belt a notch tighter….

He raised his head a little and looked around. There was nothing but dry riverbed and boulders – clumps of sage bush and mesquite somehow clung to life in the dry, sun cracked ground, but nothing he could use…even if he could reach it. He remembered seeing a few caves as he traveled past a towering cliff a morning’s ride from here. But he would never make it that far, not even if Barranca was still around.

Johnny could see for twenty yards in every direction before a curtain of shimmering heat rising from the hot sand and rocks blocked his view.

He dropped his head back on the ground, breathing heavily. He was exhausted already and that didn’t bode well for spending the rest of the day here in the sun.

Slowly rolling his head from side to side, he continued to scan his surroundings, desperate for something – anything – that would give him the tiniest hope…

Something caught his eye… down by his left foot, maybe a few inches beyond the tip of his boot… his canteen. 

‘No…’ he moaned. It was so close. It must have fallen off the saddle when he was bucked off. He could reach it… There had to be a way! Inside that canteen lay the one chance he had to survive… water. 

He looked up at his arm and gritted his teeth, knowing that what he was about to do was going to hurt like hell. There was no choice. It was so close – he had to try for it. Taking a breath, he straightened his body as much as he could, stretching his left leg out towards the canteen. If he could just hook his foot into that the strap – even his toe…

But, even with every muscle in his body striving to make contact with it, it was still out of reach. Just inches away from his boot, it lay there… taunting him.

His thirst, already tormenting him, suddenly became overwhelming. Panic seized him and he jerked his body up, trying to release his arm from the vice that held it.

It didn’t budge. His only reward was the shattering protest of the fractured bone in his arm and the answering shrieks from every nerve in his body.  Pain rushed over him like a torrent and he screamed out in agony.

The sound echoed around the hills, but the only ones to hear it were the buzzards circling overhead.

They watched as he sank back down, exhausted and despondent. He laid his head on the ground, oblivious to the ants that scurried about in the dirt under his cheek, and let the blackness of unconsciousness take him away from the hell that was his… and his alone.

***

The cave was just what he needed for the daylight. He’d holed up in it and slept through the hot day, far from the lethal rays of the sun outside.

The cat had screamed twice more through the night. He wondered about it. It was so loud that he’d heard it even though he had covered over thirty miles last night. That didn’t seem natural, not by any stretch of the imagination.

He knew something about the dark world... the world that men denied or hid from. That sound was unnatural and it bothered him that it was so close to Lancer. He tried to remember everything that Malcolm Blake had told him, but he didn’t remember anything about a cat. 

His horse had shied each time and had been harder to manage with every scream, until he had started jumping at shadows. It was to be expected. Angel had been pleased to have found a horse that he could rely on when moving in the dark. ‘Denny - damn that was an awful name for a horse, but he’d been stuck with it by the Irishman who had sold him the animal’. The horse was sure footed and didn’t seem to mind the darkness. What was more, the horse was as coal black as the night.

 It was nearly sundown, so he lifted the saddle onto Denny’s back and prepared for what would probably be the last night before finding the ranch. Then he’d have some more thinking to do. 

How should he approach Lancer and warn him? How would he convince him?

***

Pebbles that had been just a nuisance for the first few hours, now felt like boulders beneath Johnny’s back. The stones under his body were still protected from the sun, but those around him were hot enough to fry eggs.

Moving was hardly an option any more. He no longer had the energy… and even when he had, the slightest twitch resulted in a mind numbing pain to his whole left side.

The sun had slowly edged across the sky, beating down on him without mercy. He was hot and so thirsty that his tongue was beginning to swell. He began to think about his gun, nestled in the holster on his hip. Hope was fading and he’d come to realize that no one was going to find him here.

The flies were gathering in force, buzzing around, biting him. The constant stinging of their bites had threatened to drive him crazy, but he couldn’t feel the ones on his arm any longer. The feeling was long gone unless he moved, and then it made itself known in a torrent of pain that threatened to carry him into madness.

He remembered coming across a calf once, its side torn open after falling against a razor sharp rock. It was near death and he remembered the eyes, pleading with him to end its misery…

Misery - he could stand that. It was the hopelessness that he couldn’t face – hopelessness and the slow, inexorable approach of death. Though he couldn’t feel them any more, he could see the flies nesting on his arm. The thought sickened him and Johnny felt the bile rise up from his stomach.

What happened when a man lost all hope? He tried to hold fast to the belief that Murdoch and Scott must be looking for him… it wouldn’t be long now… Scott would find him in time… He pushed away his thoughts of the gun. Scott would find him…

He looked up into the blue sky, the shadows of the buzzards getting larger as they flew lower with each passing hour. He no longer worried about the sun blinding him…the blackness behind his closed eyelids was too frightening.

He stayed awake… watching… waiting… knowing that the end would come soon.

The curtain of shimmering heat took on a new look, heavy with rain. He could feel the cool breeze as the wind swept the rain toward him. He opened his mouth, waiting for the water to quench his thirst. He heard it coming…saw the huge drops hit the river bed, saw the river come back to life. The thought that he might drown here instead of dying of thirst amused him and he heard his own laughter, ragged and just a little mad…

He closed his eyes and waited… but the rain never came. Hopelessness crept up on him again...

He sighed and then stopped breathing for a moment. There is was… hoof beats… Scott…

Looking up, he looked into the gray-blue eyes of his brother… concern written on his face as he leaned over and smiled reassuringly… Scott…

“Scott…” Johnny tried to call, lifting his head to look at his brother’s face… but the word came out sadly garbled by his swollen tongue.

But then he was gone…

Johnny blinked and squinted into the sun. He frowned and blinked again… confused.

It was then that, with a last heavy sigh, Johnny Lancer acknowledged what Johnny Madrid knew… no help was coming and he would die here, alone… perhaps never to be found. This was not the way he had seen the end to his life…

***

Scott reined his horse to a stop and the two men with him did likewise. They had been at this for hours, without a single sign of the cougar. It was hot, frustrating and nerve-wracking work.

He drew the canteen up and opened it.

After swallowing a couple of mouthfuls, he screwed the lid back on and turned to the men with him.

“This is getting us nowhere,” he complained sullenly.

“I’d have sworn it came from this direction, Scott,” Wade told him, sitting forward in his saddle and leaning on the pommel to stretch his back.

“Hard to say,” Hank said morosely. “Sounded like it was comin’ from all around last night.”

All of the men in the Lancer bunkhouse had spent the night listening to the unearthly screams of the cat, but none of them had been able to agree which direction it had come from. So, in the end, Murdoch and Scott had split up to cover more ground.

“There’s been no sign a’tall,” Wade continued. “An’ this ground is soft enough to set tracks. Reckon we’re wastin’ our time goin’ this way.”

“I dunno, Wade,” Hank said, shaking his head. “I’ve heard o’ some real smart cats that know how to avoid leavin’ tracks.”

Scott shook his head. “There hasn’t been any trace of kills either. Nothing! You’d think we would have found something if it was over here. We’re practically at the west boundary.”

“Maybe your Pa is havin’ better luck, Scott,” Wade suggested, then squinted as he looked straight ahead. “Say, ain’t that the boss o’ the Bar T comin’, Scott?”

“Yes, Harry Torrens,” Scott agreed. He watched Torrens and three of his men ride towards them and waited for the man to get within hailing distance. “Hello Harry, what brings you and your men out here?”

“I reckon the same as you, Scott. Hunting cat,” the man replied, pulling his horse up beside Scott’s. “I’d have sworn that racket came from this direction. Had any luck?”

“Nothing, Harry,” Scott told him disgustedly. “How about you? Have you seen any tracks?”

“Not a damned thing,” Torrens replied.

“Reckon maybe Tom Links was right, Mr. Torrens,” one of his men suggested, pushing his hat back and sighing. “Coulda come from over his way.”

“Tom heard it too?” Scott asked, surprised. “His place is miles away. I wouldn’t have thought the noise would carry that far, even with the wind behind it.”

Harry shook his head. “Gotta tell ya, Scott. It’s the weirdest thing I ever heard tell of. It’s like everyone heard it, but no one agrees where it came from.” He took his hat off and wiped his high sweating forehead with the sleeve of his shirt.

Replacing his hat and settling it comfortably on his balding head, Torrens looked at Scott and leaned forward in his saddle. He added quietly, so that his men didn’t hear… “I’ll tell ya the God’s honest truth, Scott – it made my blood run cold.”

***

Softly…softly a muffled sound padded into his subconscious and woke him. Then he heard the sharp snap of a tiny twig, the shifting of a tiny pebble and he knew it was close… very close.

A tingle ran up his spine as he slowly, and deliberately, opened his eyes to see what it was. But he knew what it would be. He’d known as soon as he heard that stealthy approach. The cat was there – and it was nearby.

He squinted against the sun to try to see exactly where the cat was and came face to face with an enormous feline face with amber eyes that glowed malevolently. Its face drew back into a snarl and teeth as big as his fingers flashed in the sunlight. 

It was perched on a boulder less than three feet away from him, its lips curling up evilly and a sharp, spine tingling gnarl splitting the air around him.

Panic gripped him. This animal was like no cougar he’d ever seen. It was black!

He’d heard tales of black panthers in Mexico, but he’d never seen one. And the white spot on its chest didn’t match any description he’d ever heard.

It was much bigger than a normal cougar too, and he watched in horrified silence as it got to its feet and made its way down from the rock – loose-limbed and graceful as only a cat can be.

Sleek black fur rippled with the movement of muscles that exuded power in every easy stride. It was in no hurry, lifting one paw lazily after another with no apparent fear of threat as it made its way towards him.

It held him with a strange fascination, while his insides knotted with terror… his body tensed as he watched the giant coming closer. He looked at his arm… trapped tightly between the rocks.

A low, guttural purr rumbled from the beast’s throat and shook the very earth beneath him. It was so close it was almost deafening.

He had to get away – but he was trapped, as surely as a calf tied down for bait... and just as terrified... waiting for the slaughter.

He tried to move, but his arm was still stuck tight… broken and bleeding… and now a tantalizing feast for the cat.

Johnny pulled on his arm… harder this time… gritting his teeth against the agony the movement brought, sweat rolling down his face and into the corners of his mouth. He closed his eyes and panted heavily… then he pulled again, desperation driving him beyond the pain…

And then he could feel its hot, fetid breath on his face, moving along his shoulder… now sniffing his arm. Its long whiskers twitched as the smell of blood drew saliva that dripped down off its fangs and wet his arm in hot fiery splashes.

He opened his eyes and found himself face to face - eye to eye – with the beast.

Slowly he moved his right hand, not taking his eyes off the monster. He felt for the gun on his hip. It was so heavy that he could barely pull it out of the holster, but he wrapped his hand around it and slid it out gently.

The cat nuzzled his arm, its long, rough tongue sliding across his flesh in one long, excruciating motion. Pleasure shone in its eyes as it savored the blood - his blood – and he pounded back the urge to scream.

Lifting the gun, he pointed it at the cat… his hand shaking… his chest tight with fear and his heart hammering. He held his breath and aimed. The cat looked straight at him… daring him to fire…

He squeezed the trigger and the thunderous roar of gunfire shook the air.

The cat shimmered and faded away… leaving only the sound of the bullet echoing around the boulders and into the distance.

“Dios,” Johnny whispered, and he let the gun drop from his hand as the blue sky and the rocks turned to blackness and he knew no more.

***

 A gunshot awoke Angel suddenly from a deep sleep. He leaped to his feet. It sounded close by.

He looked towards the entrance of the cave. It was still daylight. The sun had lost most of its strength already, but it still trapped him in the cave. He wondered what that shot was...

It would be evening soon, and he could get on his way.

By the time he had packed his meager possessions and saddled Denny, darkness had settled.

With the last rays of the sun gone, Angel stepped out into the starlit night. It was bright tonight. There was no moon, but there were so many stars in the dark blanket above him that they lit the valley below. The sky was clear, despite the wisps of clouds that passed now and then, sailing on a gentle breeze. It would be a good night for traveling.

He mounted and started out, letting the horse find his own path. He’d learned to trust the animal’s sure-footedness.

Within ten minutes, he pulled Denny to a halt. The breeze that drifted past him carried something with it – a scent that left him with a familiar ache. Blood – and it was so close that he could almost taste it.

He remembered the gunshot.

The horse pranced beneath him, eager to be on its way, but he held the reins firmly. That was human blood he smelled. Someone was hurt nearby. The odor was strong enough to tell him that that someone was in serious trouble.

He tried to ignore it. He had that message to deliver and time was of the essence. For all he knew, he could be too late already. It was ten days since Malcolm had died and it might have found its way to the valley ahead of him. 

He passed a shack - rundown and overgrown with weeds. Why anyone would build here, in this dried up hole, was beyond him. It looked as though it hadn’t been used for years but he carefully avoided it anyway. He didn’t want human contact now.

Pressing the horse onwards, the scent grew stronger. It was closer now and harder to ignore. A part of him told him that he couldn’t just ride by and let someone die. That conscience that he was still coming to grips with kept poking him like a dagger.

He stopped again. The horse lifted its head in irritation.

Angel’s keen eyes looked around carefully and finally hit upon the source of the scent - a man lying in the rocks, as still as a corpse, but obviously not one – at least, not yet.
 

CHAPTER FIVE

Angel reined in the horse beside the fallen man. He dismounted slowly and stood next to him, all too aware of the tempting scent of fresh blood. It didn’t smell quite right though. It seemed tainted somehow.

Still…

He shook away the thought and moved towards him.

The man was unconscious and it looked like he had been that way for some time. Angel started to walk closer and kicked something with his boot. He looked down and found a canteen on the ground lying by the man’s outstretched foot. When he picked it up and shook it, he realized that it was still half full. He wondered why, but a closer look explained the ugly reason.

The stranger was trapped where he had fallen. Two large rocks pinned his arm like a vice. He was wedged tight, unable to reach the one thing that could save his life.

His arm was so swollen that he could never have pulled it free, even if it hadn’t been broken.

And broken it was, badly. That was the source of the odor that had been driving him mad. One end of the bone had torn through his arm, just below his elbow. It had been bleeding liberally and a trail of sticky, partially dried blood had run down his arm and disappeared beneath it.

Angel knelt beside him and put his fingers to the man's throat. There was still the barest beat of a pulse, but it was beating wildly. And he was breathing... short, shallow breaths that told Angel he was alive, but not for long without help...

His lips were cracked and his face blistered from the sun, his skin flushed red… and hot and dry to the touch. Angel figured he’d been lying there, trapped and unable to reach his canteen, for at least a day. He didn’t think he could have survived for longer than that.

Unused to thinking of others, Angel had to consciously make himself consider helping the stranger. Getting him free would be easy, but what then?

He sat back on his heels and looked at the ugly wound. He’d have to figure out what to do about that too. This was taking on responsibility for another life, and he couldn’t remember ever having done that before.

The thought paralyzed him. He stared at the unmoving figure and wondered if it wouldn’t be easier to just stand up and walk away. But that damned conscience pricked him again.

Forcing himself into action, he looked at the rocks that trapped the stranger and considered the best way to free him. Moving them would be easy enough with his strength, but he had to be careful not to cause further damage to the injured arm when he did it.

Committed to doing this now, Angel thought about what he would need once the arm was free - water and bandages, for a start... and something to use as splints to set the bone.

He fished a clean shirt from his saddle bag and tore it into strips for bandaging. He grimaced at the sound - his last good shirt.

Setting everything down beside him, he dropped to his knees and took one last look at the stranger’s face. “Wherever you are now,” he said, “you’d better stay there, because this is going to hurt like hell.”

Firmly, but gently, he supported the injured arm with one hand while he rolled the smaller of the two rocks away. Even thought it was two feet in diameter, it took little more than a slight shove from Angel to move it out of the way.

The arm was swollen twice its size. Angel brushed a trail of ants away and swatted at the vicious flies that were still attacking the wound, then  pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and poured some of the precious water over it, setting about painstakingly wiping away the dust, grime and dried blood that had settled into the wound. 

It took some heavy handed work and he was grateful that the man hadn’t woken through it. And he noticed the bluish tint beneath the skin was receding as fresh blood moved down toward his fingers. He hadn’t arrived a minute too soon.

Satisfied that he had cleaned it the best he could with the limited water supply, Angel gently lifted the injured arm and straightened it, then used his thumbs and fingers to push and nudge the ends of the bone back into place. But his ministrations brought on a new flow of blood and Angel’s senses reeled at the tantalizing scent. For a moment, he stopped his work and stared longingly at the crimson stains on his fingers, his instinct to feed becoming unbearable.

“No!” he cried out, and the still of the night echoed with his torment. He closed his eyes to fight back the change that was already beginning to take over.

The battle of wills continued - Angel and his demon – until, finally, Angel was able to open his eyes and face the blood without the impulse overwhelming him.

Confident that he had done all he could do for the moment, he wrapped the wound tightly with the remnants of his shirt and put the splints in place securing them with his own handkerchief and the bandana that had been tucked into the man’s belt.

He undid the buckle and slid the belt off. It would make a reasonable sling to support the broken arm. As the leather came out of the last loop of the stranger’s pants, a piece of paper fell to the ground.

Angel picked it up and opened it. "Johnny, don't forget to pick up my parcel in San Jose, Love Teresa,” he read aloud.

“Johnny, huh?” Angel said, bemused, and slipped the note under his own belt to give back later.

Grabbing the canteen with the small amount of water he managed to save he eased Johnny’s head up, just a little, and raised the canteen to his lips.

Some part of the stricken man’s mind was aware enough to answer instincts. He managed to swallow the tiny amount of water that Angel tipped into his mouth and then licked his lips, searching for more.

“Not yet, Johnny,” Angel told him and pulled the canteen back from him. “Too much, too soon is as bad as none at all.”

There was no answer and he gently lowered his head back to the ground.

Angel looked around, there was no sign of any horse but his own.

“I guess we’re riding double,” Angel said, more to himself than the unconscious man.

Standing up, he listened to the night sounds around them.  Everything was quiet. Too quiet. He bent down and picked up the gun that was lying on the ground. He had no idea why Johnny had drawn it, but it had been fired. It was probably the shot he'd heard earlier. He shoved it into his own belt and then turned back.

They’d need shelter. Johnny could no more stand sunlight at the moment than he could. And he’d need water… and plenty of it. There was little enough of that around here, and what was left in the canteen wouldn’t keep the man alive.

There was the cave he had used today. He knew there was a spring of water in the back of it somewhere. The dripping had annoyed him most of the day, but it would be a miracle to the man beside him.

Then he remembered the shack he had passed earlier. It wasn't far from the cave, so they would have a water supply, but it was likely to be far more comfortable for ‘Johnny’.

The decision made, Angel fetched his horse and pulled him over beside the injured man. He looped the canteen over the pommel then reached down to pick Johnny up, as easily as a newborn babe, and hoisted him carefully onto the horse. He put him astride the animal and let him fall forward across its neck. Then he climbed into the saddle himself, gathered the reins into one hand and wrapped the other arm around Johnny, easing him up against his chest to support him.

Angel looked down at the man in his arms and wondered, again, just what he was doing. For a hundred years he had hunted, tortured and killed the weak and the helpless. Now, he found himself caught up in their lives.

Something inside him laughed at these first paltry steps he was taking towards atonement. It was still there… having a soul hadn’t destroyed it, only made it impossible to live with.

He shook the thoughts out of his head – better to just do it than to try to understand why.

Slowly and steadily, he pressed the horse back the way he had come.

***

The journey to the shack was painstakingly slow. Angel had to allow the horse to tread carefully in the dark. He was carrying a double burden now and a fall was the last thing Johnny needed.

It was a frustrating ride for Angel, so close to that alluring scent of blood. It teased and tantalized him and it took all his effort to keep his mind off it and to stop the change from overcoming him.

The man in his arms showed no signs of waking. His body was slack against Angel’s chest and the only thing that proved he was alive was Johnny’s shallow quick breaths.

Angel continued to be irritated that he was going to be forced to lose valuable time by taking care of him. He had a mission to complete and he didn’t know how far ahead of him the Baobhan Sith was. Or even if it got there before him…

He shouldn’t be worrying about a man, lost in this wasteland. He’d probably die anyway, from the infection already obvious in his arm if not from the dehydration he was already suffering from. Angel frowned and begrudged every step the horse took in the direction he had already come from. 

He had to get that warning to Lancer and every minute counted. He’d sworn his oath to Malcolm, and that was one thing he was going to hold onto.

But he couldn’t leave the man to die. By releasing him from that wretched deathtrap and doing what he could for his injured arm, Angel had made an investment in the man’s survival. And he found that it meant something to him now, if only an obstinate refusal not to let the man die after he’d made the decision to help him.

He found the shack at last. It was only a few miles from where he’d found Johnny lying injured, but the slow going had made it seem much longer. It wasn’t much to look at from the outside, but it would be shelter for both of them from the sun. Neither of them could stand the searing heat of the sunlight at this point.

With that in mind, Angel slid from the saddle, being careful not to let his charge fall. Then he eased Johnny into his arms and carried him toward the shack. He stopped and looked at it. It certainly looked abandoned. The front door was in tact, but most of the windows were either broken or cracked. The single step had broken in the middle and a couple of boards on the tiny porch had given way as well. He was relying on the fact that he was right. If he wasn’t… if someone actually lived in that ramshackle place… then he would have to talk his way in.

Angel glanced down to see if Johnny was waking. Assured that he wasn’t, he stepped up onto the porch, kicking the door open in front of him.

The place was falling apart rapidly and the door had almost fallen off the hinges when Angel kicked opened it. Dust and old animal droppings covered virtually everything and the sights and smells violently offended his senses, but it was still far better than some of the cramped spaces he’d had to shelter in over the last few days. He figured he’d have to do something about cleaning it up if they were going to have to be here for a couple of days.

He would have to go back to the cave soon. Somewhere further back in that cave, there was water. He knew it was there from the constant, aggravating dripping he’d heard through the day. It had irked him and kept him awake for hours, but now he knew that he’d have to go looking for it later. They were going to need it.

Johnny moaned very lightly as Angel laid him down on the floor to strip the mattress of the filthy blanket then eased him onto the rickety bed. It was the first sound he’d made and it took Angel by surprise. He stepped away, caught off guard, and he looked at him for a moment. But he was obviously still unconscious.

Angel took the bedroll from his saddle and covered him with the blanket. There was a shapeless pillow that had seen far better days and he took it and beat the dust out of it before putting it back under the man’s head. There wasn’t much else he could do to make him comfortable.

He settled Johnny as best he could and then decided to go for the water before he woke. He looked around the room and found a jug that would suffice once it was cleaned out and he took that with him. The cave was only a short way back, so he figured he would be gone for no more than an hour. If his charge woke in that time, he wasn’t likely to get very far before Angel returned.

***

Jelly Hoskins woke to what sounded like a nightmare. It took him a minute to realize that the racket outside was Dewdrop honking loudly over the sound of hoofbeats pounding in the courtyard.

"Gal durned bird!" he muttered, pulling the blankets over his head. "A man can't get a wink o' sleep..."

Suddenly, memories of the cat screaming last night drove him to his feet. He jumped from his bunk and pulled on his boots.

Quickly striking a match, he lit the lantern by the door and lifted it down, grabbing his scattergun and raced outside, still in his patched long johns.

What he found stopped him in his tracks.

“Barranca!”

The palomino was covered in burrs and lather. The reins were filthy from dragging the ground and he stood quivering with exhaustion. His proud head hung down dispiritedly. Jelly grabbed the reins, shoosing the exhausted animal.

“Wal, look at ya! What kinda trouble you b’n in, boy?” he soothed, rubbing the horse’s nose reassuringly. He looked out past the Lancer arch and wondered what could have happened to Johnny. Where was he?

“What's that boy got hisself into this time, fella?" he asked the animal quietly, and he wished to God that it could answer.

Lights began to glimmer all over the hacienda. The front door flew open and Scott ran out into the courtyard carrying a rifle. He’d stopped to throw on a pair of pants, but his boots still sat by his bed.

“What the hell…?” he shouted and stopped, appalled, at the sight of his brother’s palomino.

He pulled himself together and walked over to join Jelly running his hand over the horse’s neck and back. “Jelly, he looks like he’s been running for miles,” he said quietly, as his concerned hand examined Barranca. “He’s a mess.”

“Yeah, I c’n see that,” Jelly answered curtly.

Scott stood up straight and sighed heavily. He looked over the top of the horse to where Jelly stood looking back at him. They didn't need words. Their thoughts were as one - where was Johnny?

“What’s going on out here?” Murdoch yelled from the doorway. Teresa was beside him, pulling a shawl around her shoulders to cover her nightgown. “Jelly!” he ordered. “Shut that damned bird up!”

“Boss, ya better come here quick,” Jelly told him, but Murdoch had already seen Barranca and was with them before Jelly finished the sentence.

“Damn!” he cursed.

“Johnny,” Teresa whispered anxiously from behind him. “Something’s happened to Johnny.”

“Now, don’t go jumpin’ to no conclusions,” Jelly tried to reassure her, but his own mind was racing with questions.

Judging by the state the horse was in, whatever had happened hadn’t been close to home. Barranca would head for his own stable from just about any part of the ranch, and that left them one hundred thousand acres to search for Johnny.

It could take days to search it all, even with every man on the ranch looking.

And if Johnny was hurt, they might not have that much time. The question lingered in everyone's mind… where was Johnny?

***

Angel sat back and looked at Johnny. He felt that he’d done all he could for him under the circumstances. He wasn’t used to looking after the needs of a human, but he’d cleaned and bandaged the wound and trickled some of the water onto his parched lips. That had worked. The man had licked the water greedily, even though he seemed to still be unaware of what was going on around him.

It had taken Angel a while to get a fire started in the dilapidated old stove. He had found a stack of logs out back that someone had long ago chopped and stacked for the fireplace and the stove, but those had rotted and molded to the point of being useless. He’d found enough to get a start when he brought back the water from the cave, but he’d need to get more later.

It was one more of those ‘human’ chores that he was unused to, but he’d been able to boil some water to use to clean the wound properly. He’d discovered an old pot, a few plates and two cups in what had once been a cupboard. It didn’t pass for one now. The door hung by only one hinge and the shelf inside was rotting away.

Tattered remnants of Angel’s shirt lay rolled as bandages while he'd used another piece to wipe Johnny’s face clean of dirt and grit. Now it lay across his forehead to ease the sun’s heat from his face. 

Well, he never had been one for wearing white anyway. He wouldn’t miss it.

Rising from the rickety old rocking chair, he lifted the damp scrap of cloth from Johnny’s forehead and wet it again, then wiped the man’s face and replaced the cool cloth on his forehead. 

He walked to the door and peered out into the night, irritated again by the forced inactivity. It was quiet so far. Wherever that cat was, it was silent so far tonight. He listened to the stillness. Crickets sang in the few surviving trees behind the house, and he heard the swoop of wings break the quiet – an owl he thought.

Then he heard a sound that didn’t belong to the darkened world out there. It came from behind him as the bed creaked and the stranger moaned. He turned back to find the man on the bed stirring. He watched as Johnny moved a little and moaned as he tried to shift his arm. Angel took the canteen and went to his side. He sat on the edge of the bed and ignored the way it groaned and sagged under his weight. Then he lifted Johnny’s head enough to allow him to sip from the canteen.

“Not too much,” he told him quietly, and Johnny opened his eyes and blinked at him.

 Angel was surprised. He had thought the man looked part Mexican and startlingly blue eyes were not what he had expected to see.

“Thanks,” Johnny whispered, though it was barely audible and sounded more like a croak than a word. He frowned heavily as he tried to focus on Angel’s face. “Who…?”

“I’m Angel,” he answered offhandedly.

“John…” He stopped and licked his lips, and then he cleared his throat and tried again. “Johnny.” He stared quizzically at Angel and got a shadow of a smile in return.

“Guess I don’t look much like an Angel, hey?”

Johnny concentrated hard on getting his thoughts together. “Right now, you do,” he managed to say. “Thought…” He caught his breath and coughed.

“Here, drink some more water,” Angel urged and held the canteen to his lips. “Just don’t go gulping it down.”

Johnny swallowed a mouthful, and then another, before Angel pulled the canteen back. “Take it easy now,” Angel insisted. He lowered Johnny’s head to the pillow and screwed the cap back on the canteen. “If you rush it, you’ll only throw it up anyway.”

“Thanks,” Johnny’s rasping voice managed at last. “Thought I was done for...”

“Not this time,” Angel replied. “But it was close.”

Johnny tried to look around. “Where… where are we?”

“A broken down old shack beside a dried up river in the hills,” Angel explained disgustedly, straightening up. “A couple of miles from where I found you.”

Johnny closed his eyes and thought of the irony. He’d been so close to shelter, such as it was. He opened his eyes and finally managed to get a look at the room around him. There wasn’t much about it that you could call ‘comfortable’, though someone must have thought so once. But, it was a roof over their heads and Johnny had had more than enough of the sun for now.

“How…how did you find me?”

“Just lucky, I guess.”

Johnny was tiring, and he wasn’t getting anywhere with his taciturn savior. The man wasn’t over-eager with his conversation, that was for sure. He let his eyes close and began to drift into sleep when, suddenly and clearly, his thoughts turned to last night.

“The cat!” he yelled, struggling to sit up. “Barranca!”

He knew he’d never make it, but the thought of Barranca out there with that cat on the loose gave him more strength than he should have had. Nevertheless, it didn’t take much for Angel to press him back to the bed and hold him there. He struggled against the man’s grip, but it was a battle he was never going to win.

“The cat’s gone,” Angel told him firmly.

Pain fired his confusion and fed his fear. Johnny fought to understand what had happened. Images - memories - flashed in his head randomly but one fear overwhelmed everything else.

“Barranca!” he cried out again.

“Barranca… Who’s Barranca?”

“My horse! The cat…” Johnny answered frantically.

“I didn’t find any dead horse,” Angel assured him. “And I didn’t smell any fresh kill either. He got away.”

Johnny’s eyes searched Angel’s face and he caught the words, but there was something odd about them… he couldn’t place it.

Still bewildered, his strength crumbled and he sank deeper into the pillow, and into the black abyss of much needed sleep.

Angel sat back and tried to collect his thoughts. He had seen the beginnings of a fever in those unnaturally bright eyes. He checked the wound and knew immediately that it was infected. Helping this man was getting more and more complicated.

He sat watching Johnny until he was sure he was sleeping soundly, then made another trip out for water and firewood before the sun came up. After that, he’d be trapped in that shack until the sun went down again. He saw that the horse had water first, and then he went back inside to wait out the daylight hours and the fever he feared was coming.

 ***

“He could be anywhere!” Murdoch snapped angrily. 

With thumb and forefinger, he rubbed his tired eyes. He knew there was no point in losing his temper, but he was too worried to care. Barranca’s arrival, without Johnny, had come as too big a shock on top of everything else. No one had even considered the possibility that Johnny might be out there with that cat... until now.

 After that, no one had slept at Lancer, inside or outside the hacienda.  Everyone’s mind was fixed on one thing… Johnny was out there with that cat.

 Scott poured a glass of Scotch and downed it before smashing it into the cold fireplace. “We covered a lot of ground yesterday looking for that damned cat,” Scott seethed. “And all the time Johnny could have been hurt out there…hurt or…”

 Teresa gripped the back of the sofa - so tight that her nails threatened to pierce the upholstery. She willed herself to be calm though fear coursed through every nerve in her body. "Scott, I thought you said you didn't find any signs of a cat on Barranca... didn't you? There was no blood...?"

 “That’s right,” Scott answered, reining in his temper. He had looked Barranca over carefully... no scratch marks... at least none from a cat the size that belonged to the cat they had heard crying in the night.

 He turned around and his eyes caught Teresa's. She had kept the panic from her voice, but it was there in her eyes.

 "Honey, we don't know that Johnny is hurt. He could simply have fallen...waking back to the ranch. We can't let our imaginations go wild here.”

 "Barranca would never have run off and left him... you know that, Scott," she insisted, her eyes gleaming with the tears she was determined not to shed.

 Scott walked around to the back of the couch and took her into his arm. "We have to stay strong. Tomorrow we'll got out again and not come back until we find him.”

 She melted into the comfort of his arms and felt the tears begin to slip down her cheeks unbidden.

 "We'll search every square inch of this ranch, Teresa," Murdoch told her grimly. "I don't care if we have to put every man we have out there. We are going to find Johnny."

 

CHAPTER SIX

 By morning, Johnny’s fever had taken a firm hold. His skin shined and his eyes gleamed brightly on the one occasion that he opened them again through the night. Angel had managed to get him to take some water, but Johnny had not been aware of anything else. His condition had been bad to start with, but with the onset of the fever, he was in real trouble. And Angel found himself in unknown territory trying to look after him.

 Keeping him cool through the night wasn’t hard with the liberal use of a wet cloth, but the sun brought a day that was blisteringly hot. Angel stayed with him, wiping his face down and wetting his lips with water. Johnny was already seriously dehydrated from a day trapped in the sun and the fever threatened to drain what vital fluids he had left.

 Johnny began to ramble with delirium and he tossed wildly in the bed. Angel fought to keep him still. His ravings seemed to focus on a cat. Was it the cat Angel had heard? Had he been attacked by it? If he had, he had no scratches to show for it.

 And he called out names that Angel couldn’t quite catch, though he thought he heard the name 'Teresa' at one time. He remembered the name on the note - his wife? His girl? The words were too garbled by the dry rasping voice.

 Angel heated more of the water and changed the bandage on Johnny’s arm, all too aware of the blood, but hardly tempted with the poison coursing through it.

 ***

The sun blazed above them, baking the land like an oven. Exhausted from worry and lack of sleep, Murdoch and Scott made their way toward Twin Summit. It was an area where mesquite thrived in the arid soil, the same mesquite they hoped Barranca had run through on his wild charge back to the ranch.

Jelly had been the first to notice the distinctive scratches that only the sharp branches of the mesquite bushes caused, ripping and tearing at Barranca’s hide. Johnny would never have intentionally ridden his beloved horse through that that kind of gauntlet…but a horse would run through almost anything if it were frightened enough. What had terrorized the palomino to nearly run itself to death?

Cipriano took the lead as they set out at daybreak. The best tracker on the ranch, he moved swiftly, following Barranca’s erratic trail as the horse had made its way home in the dead of night.  Suddenly he raised his hand for them to halt where the grassy valley changed to rocks and lose shale. From here on, their way would be slower and harder. Ahead lay the foothills of the San Bernadinos, a wasteland where a man on foot would surely die without water.

 “He came this way,” Cipriano reported, “but he was without Juanito. See the depths of the hoof prints? And he came at great speed.”

 “How long ago?” Murdoch demanded, already feeling the heat of the sun scorch his back.

 “Lo siento, senor, I am not sure. Less than a day, perhaps.”

 “Do you think he came from Twin Summit, then?” Scott asked. Scott knew all too well, that if they made the wrong decision and traveled in the wrong direction, that Johnny would never survive without water or shelter. The one saving grace…they had not found Johnny’s canteen. Hopefully he still had it with him.

 “I do not know, Senor Scott.” Cipriano replied, his voice carrying the emotions of a very worried man. “I can only guess as you are doing. And pray. But the tracks end here. There is very little hope of finding more in those rocks.”

 “There’s a lot of rough ground up there,” Murdoch told them, looking at the rocks and frowning.  And the cat…the memory of the cat’s scream sent a chill down his back despite the heat. If the cat had found Johnny…

 “It could take weeks to cover all that territory, Murdoch,” Scott said, frustrated. “We don’t have that much time.”

 “Then I think we should split up,” Murdoch turned to Scott. “Scott, you and I will take half the men and spread out in the direction of Twin Summit. Cipriano, you take the others and head in the direction of San Jose. With any luck, we’ll find him as mad as hell, wearing blisters on his feet.”

 “And the gato?” Cipriano asked, hardly daring to mention the beast out loud.

 No one said a word. Every man there had the same question on his mind. No one had escaped the cat’s eerie calls the other night. And no one could explain why its cry turned their blood to ice or left them fearing every shadow. It was not natural… each and everyone there knew it.

 Murdoch pulled his hat down over his eyes, not wanting anyone to see the fear that lurked there. “Just be on the lookout for tracks. Johnny is our main concern, but I don’t want anyone getting hurt by that cat.”

 “If you find anything, fire three shots in the air,” Scott ordered. “We should be able to hear them.”

 Silently everyone broke up into their groups with each man praying they would find Johnny… alive.

 ***

Angel was tired. He'd sat with the injured man all day and fought him for half of it. He was amazed at the strength that delirium could bring on. He would never have guessed that Johnny was strong enough to toss around like that. By the time the sun went down, the fever had finally broken.

 The precious water that Angel had brought back near dawn had become dangerously low, almost exhausted in the battle to bring down Johnny’s fever. He’d have to leave Johnny to go for more from the spring at the back of the cave, and that meant leaving him unattended for an hour. He resigned himself to having to do it, but Johnny was closer to waking now. Leaving him meant that he might wake to find himself alone in the shack.

Still, Johnny was too weak to get far. As soon as the sun sank out of sight, Angel left the shack to replenish their water supplies. 

He considered their positions as he walked into the cave towards the spring. He’d already been held up from his mission for over a whole day and a night, and Johnny’s condition didn’t bode well for a speedy recovery. Angel figured he was going to be held up for at least another day and a night. Johnny was far too weak to travel yet.

 Once Johnny was well enough to travel, Angel thought he might be able to take the man to someone who could care for him. That would leave him free to continue towards Lancer so he could deliver the message. If he could get some water into Johnny it might even be as soon as tomorrow night.

 With his plans still running through his mind as he walked back into the shack, Angel was surprised to find Johnny awake and struggling to sit up.

 Nearly spilling half the water as he dropped the jug on the table, he rushed over to Johnny trying to push him back down on the mattress.

 “Not yet, Johnny,” he said grimly, only to have Johnny try to push him off. He was still wrapped in a haze of confusion.

 Instinctively, Johnny raised his broken arm and tried to shove Angel aside…meeting a brick wall. Even healthy, Johnny was no match for him.

 Johnny’s face contorted with pain as his bad arm collided with Angel. He gasped and fell back against the wall, holding the arm tightly with his good hand, his eyes squeezed shut against the pain.

 “Lay back and rest,” Angel ordered him. “You’re not ready to get up yet.”

 Johnny opened his eyes and frowned with bewilderment and Angel pushed him gently back towards the pillow.

 What happened next was too quick for Angel to control.

 The wound had broken open and blood seeped into the bandage. Johnny’s good hand was smeared with fresh blood where he clutched his broken arm. The odor and the sight of the bright red stain was too overpowering. 

There was nothing Angel could do to stop the change this time.

 The demon burst forth and Angel felt his face change shape. In all the years, Angel had never seen what he became, but he felt the ridges of bone that creased his brow erupt and his eyes were hot as they shone brightly in the shadowy light of the room. His fine white teeth changed to fangs and he turned aside quickly to try to hide it from Johnny.

 But Johnny had seen it. Even in his confused state, he took in the metamorphosis and he recoiled in shock and fear. He gasped and pushed away from the thing that still held him, his eyes wide with horror.

 ***

“Mr. Lancer, we’ll run out of daylight soon,” Wade Carter pointed out. 

Scott was so engrossed in looking behind every rock large enough to conceal his brother that he hadn’t noticed the shadows lengthening. He looked up and realized that Wade was right. Night would be on them soon and they had to decide whether to press on with their search or go home and start again tomorrow.

“I don’t know about you, Murdoch,” he said testily. “But I have no intentions of going back. I’ll stay out here and look some more in the morning.”

“I planned on doing the same,” Murdoch assured him. “Wade you stay with us. We'll get an early start first thing in the morning.” He turned around in his saddle and addressed the three men with them. “The rest of you men head on home. I don’t want the hacienda unprotected all night.”

The three men looked disappointed. Scott knew they were all friends of Johnny and would rather be out here searching.

"If ya don't mind, Mr. Lancer," Harry Taylor said. "I'd kinda like to go on. Don't seem right leavin' Johnny out there another night."

"Seems like Johnny could be bad hurt," another wrangler added. "Might be runnin' outa water too. More of us lookin' for him tomorrow, more chance we'll find him."

Johnny had a lot of friends among the men. He had been accepted by them quickly. When the day was over, he often relaxed with them, playing poker and sharing outrageous tales. In the bunkhouse, he had enough respect that they could forget he was their boss and treat him as one of their own.

Scott nodded. He desperately wanted more light, more time to spend searching. The knowledge that Johnny had been out here, probably hurt, for at least two days was haunting him. The sun had been brutal both yesterday and today. The little water left in his own canteen was tepid and tasteless, but at least he had brought a second one to last until they found a spring in these hills.

Johnny didn’t have that luxury. He’d be on short rations if he wasn’t near water. Another night could be disastrous for him.

He had tried not to think about what could have happened to his brother, or how he might have been injured. The fact that Barranca showed no evidence of being attacked by the cat was no assurance that Johnny hadn’t. Johnny could have been knocked from the saddle when it pounced.

He’d checked that saddle thoroughly. There was nothing to explain why Johnny might have fallen. The cinch was intact and there were no stones or bruises on Barranca’s hooves. The horse certainly wasn’t lame.

No, Johnny hadn’t gotten out of that saddle of his own free will. He wanted to cling to his father’s image of Johnny treading home, complaining bitterly in two languages. But, he knew that it was a forlorn hope.

He looked across at his father’s face, and knew that Murdoch didn’t really believe it either.

***

Johnny looked across the room at the stranger who had been helping him. 

The devil had finally caught up with Johnny Madrid. He’d sent his harbinger.

But the man looked perfectly normal now – a big man with dark hair and a strong face. He had a jaw that looked like it had been chiseled from solid rock and eyes that gave nothing away. But, he hadn’t looked like that a minute ago.

Or had he?

Actually, Johnny wasn’t even sure anymore. Had he seen what he thought he had seen?

No… he was sure. He’d seen that man’s face change into something demonic – something evil.

Johnny fought to stop the cold shivers raging through his body – shivers that he knew had nothing to do with the fever he could still feel consuming his body. Fear gripped him, and he wasn’t used to it. He’d fought against evil in many forms over the years, but nothing like this.

He tried to reach for his gun, and found both it and the belt missing. The stranger must have taken his rig from him.

His eyes scanned the room in panic, looking for his gun. He couldn’t see it, but then he stopped, and he wondered if it would even do any good to try to shoot him. Would bullets be any use against what he was?

What he was. What was he? The question rattled around in Johnny’s head insanely. Could he even admit to himself what he had seen? If he had seen anything.

Angel – that was what he had called himself. Some damned angel!

The stranger stood on the other side of the room, his arms crossed firmly across his chest. A slight frown creased his brow as he leaned against the far wall and stared at Johnny. There was what looked like a hint of amusement on his lips. He seemed to be waiting for something – but for what?

The whole thing had all happened so fast. Angel had turned his distorted face away so quickly, with what – guilt, shame? Johnny could have sworn he had seen something like that in his eyes for an instant but it had only been an impression.

But now, standing across the room, his face was normal. There was no trace of the malevolent, misshapen visage he had shown Johnny. Angel said nothing, but leaned back against the wall and watched him with silent interest.

His head was lowered just enough that he had to look up from beneath those heavy brows to stare at him - almost defying him to say something.

Johnny felt those eyes boring into him, penetrating into his mind and willing him to do something… to make a move.

Maybe that was what he was waiting for – for Johnny to try to run.

Johnny scowled. His instincts told him to run. There was something about the man watching him that felt wrong. Perhaps it had only been a nightmare, but that didn't lessen the uneasy feeling he had. But he pushed the feeling back determinedly. No - he wasn’t going to run.

Besides, his head was already spinning. The dizziness was causing his stomach to lurch and revolt. His arm was a throbbing mass of pain. He glanced at it and saw that the bandage was growing heavy with blood, but he refused to take his eyes off Angel.

Just breathing was getting harder. His heart was racing. He could feel his chest heaving with the exertion. He looked furtively towards the door and wondered if he could make it.

“You won’t get far,” Angel said impersonally.

Johnny looked back at Angel. He knew the man was right.

“I could have snapped your neck like a twig - any time I wanted,” Angel told him brutally.

“But, you didn’t,” Johnny finally answered, his voice weak and strained. He was not a man to show weakness or fear… and yet both were jockeying for position. Who, or what, was this Angel?

“No.”

“Why not?” The room around him seemed to blur and he knew that it was only a matter of time before he passed out again, but he wanted answers.

Angel merely shrugged his broad shoulders.

“Madre de dios,” Johnny cursed impatiently. His eyelids were getting heavy and his head began to feel like lead. He could hear his heart pounding in his ears and the room was starting to spin.

“I thought you might have Spanish blood,” Angel said, his eyes alight with wicked delight as he finally started to walk towards the bed.

Johnny was fast losing the battle to stay conscious. He could feel his strength seeping out of every pore.

There was nothing left he could do. Whatever happened now – cats or demons or the fever - he’d have no say in it. It just seemed like a damned stupid way for Johnny Madrid to die.

“And you’d know… I guess…” he said, his voice fading. He felt himself falling into oblivion, but there was nothing left in him to stop it.

***

Scott kicked out the last embers of the campfire. Murdoch had insisted on eating the biscuits Teresa had packed for them and washed it down with coffee, even though Scott just wanted to get started. He turned to where Murdoch and the others now waited. They were already mounted and ready to go.

He got quickly into the saddle and looked at the cloudless blue sky above him. It was a beautiful morning, but lost on Scott. All he saw was the promise of a scorching hot day. His brother had been out in that sun for at least two days…

Was he even alive? Or were they searching for him - only to give him a decent burial?

Scott shivered and cast the thought out of his head furiously. Johnny was alive. He HAD to be.

Scott Lancer was not prepared to accept any other outcome.

***

Johnny fought desperately to climb toward the light, his heart thumping in his chest, his breathing labored. The last vestiges of a horrible nightmare swirled in his mind, spiraling away even though he tried to hold onto it.  It seemed so real…so much more than a dream…He snapped his eyes open….expecting what…?

The room didn’t look or feel familiar, but he’d seen it somewhere before. The ceiling was draped with cobwebs and for a moment he lay there and watched in fascination while a spider spun a new web. His fascination died when he tried to move. Pain wiped everything else from his mind.

Minutes, hours later, he wasn’t sure… vague memories... hints of his nightmare came back to him...warning him that he was in trouble… that he needed to run

Then renewed pain, white hot and angry, shot through his arm triggering an onslaught of confused images. . A cat... there’d been a monstrous cat... or was it a cat...? He remembered seeing blood and saliva dripping from its fangs. But then - it had changed into something else… a face – a face not quite human with fangs... evil personified...

He tried to swallow, but he found his mouth was too dry. He knew he had been sick… he felt it in every pore of his body, but there was something more...

He carefully lifted his head off the pillow, just enough to look around. A man sat in a rocking chair, reading a book. He was a big man, dressed all in black - and he looked somehow familiar... his face... he’d seen that face in his nightmare. Or had that really been a dream? Could any of it have been real?

He tried to remember. Lifting his right hand, he drew it across his chest until it touched the bandages on his busted arm. He remembered the stranger leaning over him....offering him water...he tried to talk but only a feeble moan escaped his lips.

The man in the rocker looked up and at him. He dropped the book carelessly on the floor and stood up, walking across the room to stand over the bed.

“Thirsty?” he asked, without any noticeable trace of emotion.

Johnny nodded. His mouth felt like it was stuffed with cotton.

The big man poured a glass of water from a jug sitting on a table beside the bed. He held the glass out to him and asked, “Need help with it?”

Johnny wanted to say no. His dignity and pride demanded it... but his body was spent. He nodded again.

The stranger held the glass to his lips and Johnny swallowed the first mouthful eagerly. The relief as the water went down his parched throat was palpable, and he took another swallow.

“Slowly,” the man warned him. “Not too much at first. There's plenty of time.”

“Thanks....” Johnny closed his eyes. He felt a cold shiver and his strength seemed to slowly go out of him. But there was still that nightmare...

He looked into the big man’s face and knew it was the face from his dream. Johnny began to feel uneasy under his gaze. If he really had seen that face change... damn! He wished he could get his head straight. He didn’t even know where he was!

Instinct screamed at him to move...but he couldn’t. What had he seen... what had that face turned into?  What he remembered now were the monsters of a boy’s nightmare.  It could not have been real...

He tried to ease himself up a little. ‘Dios, that hurt.’ His arm protested agonizingly against the move, but he felt too vulnerable on his back. He forced himself up slowly and reached a point where he was at least half sitting. It was better, but his head swam dizzily... and that water sloshed around like it wanted to come right back up.

“Who...?” he tried to ask. Who are you? What are you?  That was crazy. Johnny knew the demons that could pray on a man’s mind when he was seized by fever. He could feel it still making his skin hot, and his eyes burn...but was it just fever... wasn’t it?

“Angel,” the man replied. “We did this part last night.”

“Don't...remember...”

“Not surprising. You were pretty out of it.”

“Cat...spooked my horse...”

“Barranca? You asked about him. Didn't see him, must have gotten away okay.”

Johnny’s head dipped closer to his lap. Barranca was safe. He felt sick... God... he hurt... and he was sick... and... and he had seen the impossible... “I’m...gonna be sick...”

‘Angel’ left the room and returned with a bowl that he set down on the edge of the bed disinterestedly.

“Use that then,” he said indifferently.

Johnny’s stomach rebelled.

“Finished?” Angel asked unsympathetically.

Johnny nodded, embarrassed. There was nothing he could do now...he was exhausted. He felt himself listing toward the edge of the cot but could do nothing to save himself. He squeezed his eyes shut and steeled himself for the impact of the floor.

Angel moved so fast that Johnny barely saw it, but he felt strong arms catch him and lift him back onto the bed.

“Easy does it, Johnny. Nursing isn't my strong point, so don't push your luck.”

“You know me?” Johnny’s voice was little more than a croak.

“Like I said, we did this part already. Your name was on a note in your belt - Johnny.”

Angel picked up the bowl from the side of the bed. He stood back from the window and threw it out carelessly, then turned back and went to sit in the rocker. A board creaked under it. He picked up the book he had tossed aside earlier and threw it on the table by the bed, apparently no longer interested in it. The title glared at Johnny... ‘Johnny Madrid and the Range Riders.’

“You like reading garbage?” Johnny snarled, his strength beginning to fail him.

Angel smiled. “I was told it was a ‘true story’.”

“Yeah…” Johnny replied sarcastically.

The smile on Angel’s face broadened with understanding. “Let me guess… Johnny Madrid.”

Even with the last of his energy petering out, Johnny managed a glare that confirmed Angel’s suspicions.

“Doesn’t bother me,” Angel said. “Everyone has a past.”

Johnny’s eyes slid closed and he felt Angel draw the blanket up over his shoulders, Angel’s last words following him as he drifted away into a restless sleep.
 

CHAPTER SEVEN

After re-stoking the fire, Angel found a serviceable pot in the cupboard and was going to do his best to make a broth out of rabbit meat. Cooking was not something he did often – there was no need. But he figured Johnny had to eat.

He wanted Johnny fit to travel tonight. He couldn’t afford to wait any longer, and Angel was already frustrated by the delay in getting that message to Lancer.

But when he got there… what then? How do you he tell a man that a demon is hunting him?

For that matter, which man was it? He knew, now, there were two Lancer men at that ranch. Which one was the man Malcolm Blake had been searching for?

This was getting far too complicated. Maybe he should have just stayed out of it.

Angel finished skinning the rabbit and disemboweled it. The sight of the warm claret-red blood reminded him that he had not eaten recently.

He drained all the blood he could from the rabbit into a mug, with the intention of drinking it later. But the smell was irresistible.

***

 Johnny woke to noises, sounds around him that told him he was not alone. Instinct prodded him and he opened his eyes.

 He looked toward the fireplace. Angel stood over a table draining the blood from a rabbit into a cup, a rapt expression on his face. He saw Angel licking his lips… looking into the cup as if it held a life-saving elixir for a man dying of thirst.

 In horrified fascination, he watched Angel wrap both his hands lovingly around the mug and put it to his lips.

 Johnny's stomach lurched. He reared back, fighting the heavy splint as he struggled to sit up, his back pressed against the wall. What kind of man did that? Man... A feeling of unreality came over him. He closed his eyes and willed the image away...

 When he opened them again, Angel stood staring back at him... regret in his eyes.

 "What are you?" Johnny whispered, the words catching in his throat.

 Angel slowly put the mug down on the table and faced him. "Are you sure you’re ready to hear the answer to that?" he asked, doubt in his voice.

 Johnny wasn't sure that he was. He looked into the... man's face... hesitantly at first. Then he hardened his own eyes and nodded. "Yeah..."

 Angel left the rabbit where it lay. It could wait. He moved over and sat in the rocker, eyeing Johnny cautiously. The board beneath the chair groaned under his weight.

 "All right," he said bluntly. "In Spanish... the word is 'Vampiro'."

 Johnny's world tilted. Vampires were stories made up to frighten little children. "There’s no such thing..."

 Angel shrugged. "So I’ve heard… Scared?"

 Johnny wiped his brow with the sleeve of his shirt and wished fervently that he had his gun strapped to his hip...whether it would be of any use or not. "Yeah..." Johnny confessed. "Your face...I saw it change..."

 Angel sighed and folded his arms across his chest, his head down.

 “I know," he admitted, and then lifted his head to face Johnny. "I was hoping you didn't remember. It was the demon..."

 The silence grew between them. The pain in Johnny's arm was making itself known again and he tried to shift.

 Angel's eyes followed his attempt. "Hurting?" he asked.

 Johnny found the question ironic. Here he was, talking to a man who claimed to be a vampire, and the man was worried about him.

 Johnny looked toward the mug sitting on the table, a thin trail of blood running down the side. He looked from the mug to the bandage on his arm. "Why... you still thirsty?”

 Angel jumped to his feet, bottled frustration and anger finally getting to him. "Look, what can I tell you? I'm a vampire. I drink blood and I don't spend a whole lot of time out in the sun... If I wanted to, I could pick you up and toss you out that door without raising a sweat." He stopped and looked candidly at Johnny. "But you're still alive because I helped you."

 Johnny shifted uncomfortably on the cot. “Yeah, I guess I am,” he said awkwardly. “I owe ya…”

 “You don’t owe me a thing,” Angel replied, still angry. He looked at the man for a long moment and began to understand how hard it must be for him to accept. A lop sided smile slowly formed on Angel's lips. "Do I look that scary?"

 Johnny couldn't help but smile back. "Not now, but you damned well did then!” he told him. “An' don't get me wrong, I'm real grateful for what you did. But I sure can't figure why a…”

“Vampire,” Angel said helpfully.

Johnny was staggered by the way he casually said the word. “A… a vampire would help me."

Angel seemed nonplussed by the question. His face went blank and he struggled to find an answer. “I guess… I just couldn’t ride by and leave you. All right?” he finally said in irritation.

Johnny figured there was something more behind that answer, but he let it lie. “All right,” he replied.

He looked down at the blanket draped over this legs...worrying a thread with his fingers. He looked back up at Angel..."I caught my brother, Scott, reading a book about vampires one night... nearly scared him out of a year's growth when I came up behind him. Ol' Harlan sent it to him. Figured it was all make believe... till now."

"'Make believe’... fairy tales... the little folk... where do you think all those stories come from?" Angel asked, shrugging. He stopped then, adding curiously, "Harlan?"

Johnny nodded and grinned mischievously. "Now, there is a scary man. Don't know how Scott turned out as good as he did with a grandfather like Harlan Garrett.”

"Garrett – from Boston?” Angel repeated.

Johnny’s smile evaporated. What connection did the vampire have with Harlan Garrett? His eyes narrowed into a cold stare. “Yeah… you know him?”

Angel looked confused. “Scott... do you mean Scott Lancer?”

Johnny's eyes darkened. "Yeah... he's my brother," he said, an icy chill in his voice. "Why?"

“I thought your name was Madrid?"

"Used to be... It’s Lancer now.”

Angel's jaw dropped. "Oh, that's just perfect..."

"Why? What do you want with Scott?"

Angel threw his hands in the air and sat down in the rocker, so heavily that Johnny thought that board beneath it would break this time.

"I came here looking for a man named Lancer. Now I have three of you... and I don't know which one!"

"What do you want with Lancer?" Johnny asked furiously. He didn't care what he owed the man, his family came first. "Did Garrett send you?"

Angel waved one hand dismissively through the air. "No, it has nothing to do with Garrett. He just told me where I could find Scott Lancer. I have a message for a man named Lancer."

Johnny tried to sit up higher, his arm throbbing to the beat of his heart. “Spit it out then..." he snapped. “What message?”

Angel frowned heavily. "You won't like this much. I have to warn him that his life is in danger... serious danger."

"Danger... what kind of danger?”

  Angel bowed his head. He looked uncomfortable and appeared to be thinking about his answer.

 “What kind of danger?” Johnny repeated angrily. “Something like you? Is there another one of you out there?"

"Not like me… worse. This is one demon I wouldn't like to tangle with," Angel told him enigmatically.

 “Demon…?” The word spilled awkwardly from Johnny’s mouth. It frightened him in a way he had never been frightened before. How did you fight something like that…?

 Johnny could deal with gunmen and backshooters. But this… this was totally alien to him.

 “That’s right… demon,” Angel replied. “I know this is hard for you to understand, but there are things out there… things that men just don’t know about… or want to know about.”

 “Like you.”

 Angel smiled. “Yes… like me,” he confessed.

 “This… this thing… why…?” Johnny’s confusion must have been obvious. The smile disappeared from Angel’s face, replaced by what looked like… hurt.

 "It killed a friend of mine in Boston..."

 Johnny caught his breath. Boston...that meant Scott. “Scott’s from Boston,” he whispered.

 “I know,” Angel replied.

 Johnny looked at him in surprise. He hadn’t expected Angel to hear him. "An’ you're here to stop it?"

 "I'm here to warn him," was all Angel would say. "But, if I get a chance to get even for Malcolm, I'll kill it. He hunted that thing for years and he came all the way from Scotland to warn your brother. He was a good man."

 Scotland... Murdoch. Johnny immediately felt a pang of guilt for feeling relieved. "Murdoch....my...our...father...he was from Scotland." It came so naturally... Murdoch - MY father...

Angel frowned. "He came from Scotland? Through Boston? The Baobhan Sith is from Scotland. This would make more sense if it's your father it's hunting."

 "Ban.. ban.. what the hell is that?"

 "Baa…van…shee…” Angel repeated slowly. “I've never seen it, but I saw what it did to Malcolm. He was ripped to pieces... claw marks all over him."

 Johnny felt panic flood over him like ice water over hot coals. He was sweating so badly that he could feel it running into his eyes. "Claw marks? You mean like a cat? Your friend, he was torn to pieces by a cat?”

 "I don't know what form it takes," Angel answered. "It's possible it was a cat."

 Renewed panic seized him. Johnny looked past Angel and in his head he could hear the cry of that cat... so unearthly. He could see the cat's piercing eyes... smell its foul breath... "I saw a cat," Johnny finally said, his voice low. "It was as black as night... fangs..."

 Johnny threw off the blanket and leaned forward to get up. "We have to get to Murdoch and warn him..."

 Angel leaped from the chair. He rushed to the bed and sat down on the edge to stop him. "We will. That's why I'm here... remember?” he told Johnny firmly. “But you're not strong enough to go on your own… and I travel by night."

 "Let me go!" Johnny persisted, trying to push past him. The pain in his arm was becoming all consuming. "I gotta get back...just get me on a horse..."

 Angel took Johnny by the shoulder in an iron grip. He was too strong to fight, and Johnny had nothing left to fight with. Angel's other hand went to Johnny's chest and pushed him gently down onto the bed.

 "It'll be dark in a few hours. Get some rest and we'll go at sunset," Angel assured him.

 "No," Johnny hissed. “Gotta warn Murdoch…”

 Angel relentlessly ignored his appeals. Johnny was going nowhere in his condition. He merely held him down and watched him close his eyes as the last vestiges of Johnny’s strength ebbed away.

 ***

Scott wiped his brow. He was beginning to think that trying to keep the sweat from dripping into his eyes was a useless task. He pushed the bandana back into his belt and slid his hat back on.

They had been riding for hours, the sun beating down on them mercilessly. They had kept up a hard pace, hoping to see something that would lead them to Johnny – tracks or a campfire… anything. But so far nothing, not even a buzzard flying overhead.

Neither father nor son could bring themselves to admit that they were looking for the birds that preyed on the dead and dying... but the thought that those wretched prophets of death might point out Johnny's location was always in the back of their mind.

The trail up to Twin Summit had been treacherous and time consuming – and it had been a waste of precious time. There wasn’t a sign of him - nothing. It was as if Johnny had disappeared from the face of the earth.

“What now?” Scott asked, rattled by frustration.

Murdoch quenched his thirst with tepid water from his canteen, wondering if his youngest son had any water. The thought of Johnny out here on foot... even with a canteen of water... knowing he would have gone through it by now… It was unbearable, but facts had to be faced.

“We go back,” Murdoch said simply.

"Go back?" Scott yelled. "We can't go back and leave Johnny out here alone? He's here somewhere... hurt... or..."

"It will be dark soon," Murdoch interrupted him, trying to keep despondency out of his voice. It was next to impossible not to admit defeat. This was his son they were looking for, but he could not ignore reality. "Johnny isn’t here... maybe... maybe Cipriano had more luck.”

"Murdoch, we can't go back. What if..."

"Son, listen to me. The horses are played out. We have no provisions and we're nearly out of water. It's going to be dark in a few hours. We have to turn back now."

"No!  I won't leave Johnny out here,” Scott persisted desperately. “Jelly said this was the only place where mesquite grew... the kind that tore Barranca up. He's got to be here... we just haven't looked enough. We must have missed something."

Murdoch felt like he was playing devil's advocate. He didn't like it, but knowing he was right pushed him on.

"I can't let you risk your life, or the lives of these men."

Scott looked around him. He saw the pity in the men's eyes. He didn't want their pity and it infuriated him. What he wanted was to find his brother. "Johnny wouldn't leave me behind,” he pointed out angrily. “And he wouldn't leave you either."

Murdoch knew that was right. Johnny would push on relentlessly if their positions were reversed. But would he risk the lives of his friends? Murdoch didn't think so.

"Scott, face it. Johnny isn't here. We could be wasting time here when he's lying hurt somewhere else. We have to go back to the hacienda and regroup. We'll get provisions and think about where we haven't searched. Don't think I'm giving up.” He stopped and glared at his eldest. “I'm not giving up on my son."

Logic warred with emotions so strong that Scott could almost feel them strangling him.

He'd seen a man die of thirst once... a scene he thought he would never get out of his mind. Now he saw that man again... only this time he wore Johnny's face. He couldn't leave...

He couldn't leave Johnny out there for the buzzards and the coyotes. But that was his heart talking. He closed his eyes and lowered his head as he slowly came to the realization that his father was talking sense.

"You're right," he agreed reluctantly..."You're right."

***

Johnny knew he had to eat something to get his strength back. Seeing that Angel had noticed him, he struggled to sit up, the splint on his arm heavy and awkward.

"How do you feel?" Angel asked. "You look a little green."

"Rabbit...I hate rabbit...."

"It's not my preferred choice either," Angel said with an enigmatic smile. "But beggars can't be choosers. Think you could keep a little broth down?"

Johnny shook his head but answered, "Maybe. Just a little."

"I'll get you some then. I can't vouch for the taste. I don't cook much."

He stood up and went to the fire, leaving the chair to rock nauseatingly back and forth.

Johnny watched Angel dip a mug into the broth. He was intrigued to see him pull back nervously whenever he had to go near the flames. If he didn't know better, Johnny would think that the man was afraid of fire.

Angel carried the mug back and put it down on the nightstand. "It's hot... you might want to let it cool before you try it. Do you need a hand with it?"

Johnny looked at the mug and his stomach lurched. "No, I'll get to it later,” he said with a shudder. “What time is it? We’d better get ready to move out."

"The sun will be gone in another hour or so. I'll have to get some water before we go," Angel said matter of factly. "And I'll make up a travois...”

"A travois…? Oh no…" Johnny shook his head emphatically. "No travois. I'll ride double with you."

"How far is it to your ranch? A day's ride maybe? It's twice that for a horse carrying a double load. You ride in a travois."

Johnny struggled to sit up, his arm protesting. But he wouldn't ride in a travois.  "I ain't gonna have my rear end sliding over all those rocks out there. I'll walk if I have to."

Angel smiled. It was a smile of sweet victory. "Fine, then I'll pick you up off the ground when you fall."

Johnny glared at him. The sudden thought that that would be just what Scott would say angered him further. "We have to get back there to warn them. If I can't ride, then you go on ahead. Send someone back for me."

"You know the way better than I do. You can probably save me a whole day," Angel pointed out angrily. "Do you really want to risk your father's life for the sake of your pride?"

Johnny slumped back against the wall - and paid for it dearly. He couldn't hide a yelp of pain... and looked up at Angel. "Damn it," he said. "You’re just like my brother... using logic on me. All right, I'll try the horse first an’ if I can't make it..."

 

Angel flashed that smile again. Johnny was beginning to know what that meant. "Funny thing, Johnny. That saddle I bought with the horse had two coils of rope with it. There's enough to make the travois... and some left over to tie you to it."

Johnny instinctively reached for his gun... muttering angrily when he remembered Angel had it. "The last man who tried to tie me up wished he hadn't."

That damned smile stayed put. "What... are you going to shoot me, gunhawk? Won't make any difference to me." He frowned for a moment. "Bullets sting though."

Johnny sighed deeply. He didn't want to admit to this...whatever he was... that he was too weak to sit a horse. But, if truth be told, he didn't think he could even sit in a chair and not fall off. His arm was a throbbing mass of pain, and that fever still baked his body. Damn... "You win," he said dejectedly.

"I was never going to lose," Angel told him indifferently. "That broth should be cool. Drink it now so you don't throw it up later."

With that, he turned his back on Johnny, returned to the fire and set about dowsing it.

Johnny watched him with disdain. He couldn't figure him out. Trying to reach for the mug he pulled his arm and swore savagely. He never liked be beholding to anyone and to know he had to rely on this man for just about everything irked him to no end. Closing his eyes he resigned himself to the journey ahead. And to an empty stomach... he couldn't reach the mug.

***

The next two hours were agony for Johnny. Not only did his arm hurt, but the minutes seemed to pass like hours. Finally, long shadows started invading the shack. The sun had run its course for another day. At last, they could get out of here and get back to the ranch to warn Murdoch.

Angel had disappeared an hour ago, leaving Johnny alone and feeling more vulnerable and frustrated than he liked. Madrid had stayed alive by always being in control. Johnny Lancer lived by the same rule but he was not in control now... not this time.

When the door eventually opened, Angel stepped in looking annoyingly pleased with himself.

"Alright, gunhawk, time to go," Angel said, almost cheerfully and pulled back the blanket covering Johnny. Leaning forward he unceremoniously lifted Johnny into his arms as though he were a child.

"I can walk!" Johnny protested furiously. He was stunned by how easily Angel lifted him. He was a grown man, but in the vampire’s arms, he felt like a child's rag doll.

"My way's quicker," Angel told him and ignored his complaints. He carried Johnny outside into the dusky shadows of evening and laid him on the crude travois he'd put together.

Johnny tried to hold back a grunt of pain as his arm met the blanket, fashioned onto the frame of the travois. He knew then that Angel was right. He would have never made it on horseback. Trying to catch his breath, he didn't realize until too late that Angel had tied the rope around his waist and secured it to the frame. "You're not tying me onto this damn thing!" he yelled.

"I don't plan on stopping every five minutes to hoist you back up when you slip off," Angel countered. There was no room for argument in his tone, something with which Johnny was becoming gratingly familiar.

"Then give me my gun at least. If anything happens to you..." Johnny looked down at the ropes that encircled his waist and his upper thighs. "… give me a chance at least."

Angel stood up and considered him for a moment. Then he went back into the cabin, returning with a pillow under his arm and Johnny's rig over his shoulder.

Johnny didn't argue when Angel carefully slipped the pillow beneath his broken arm. He mumbled ‘thanks’ but Angel either didn’t hear or he chose to ignore it.

Next, Angel handed him his gun. "You'll find one bullet missing," Angel told him and smiled. "The rabbit."

Johnny grinned. "Took you only one shot? There may be hope for you yet.” He pulled the pistol free of the leather. One handed and a little awkwardly, he opened the gun and checked it out. “Pass me one o’ those bullets,” he said negligently, his concentration all on what he was doing.

Angel slipped one from the belt and handed it to him. He watched, obviously fascinated by the man’s adeptness with the weapon, even handicapped by his broken arm.

Finished reloading, Johnny tucked it snugly between his waist and the rope. He twisted around uncomfortably and then looked back to Angel. “Think you could buckle the belt to that frame for me? Where I can reach it if I need it.”

He got no reply, but Angel fastened the belt where it would hang by Johnny’s side. Johnny checked that he could reach it. It was a stretch, but he was satisfied.

“Thanks, now let's get going. If I'm gonna get my backside skinned, I don't wanna see it coming."

Angel unrolled the bedroll and threw the blanket over Johnny, tying it to the frame next to Johnny’s left shoulder. Then, he stretched it tightly over Johnny’s injured arm and secured it to opposite frame, leaving his right arm free.

Johnny heard Angel walk forward and say something softly to the horse. The travois moved with a sudden jerk and he gritted his teeth against the pain. It was going to be a long ride home... and he prayed they would get there in time.
 

CHAPTER EIGHT

Walking toward the house, Scott saw Teresa standing in the doorway. She looked so young –so sad and so very alone.  How could they tell her they had not found him....not even a sign that Johnny had been out there? How – when he couldn’t face it himself?

 Teresa didn't wait for them to dismount. She ran to Murdoch's side before his horse had even stopped. With her hands on his leg, she looked up into his face. She must have seen that Johnny wasn't with them, but her face was full of hope.

 Her eyes welled with tears when she saw Murdoch's face.

 There was no need for words. She stepped aside and watched him dismount. He suddenly seemed so old, so fragile. She quietly laid her head against his chest and wept.

 Murdoch wrapped his arm around her and let her sob. Then he led her inside without a word. There were no words to tell her that they hadn't found his son. It was as though he couldn't bear to say it out loud.

 He trudged through the door - tired, sore and his heart heavy with grief.

 Scott rushed past both of them, heading for the door. He had no intention of leaving things as they were. He would go back out tonight... he could see by the light of a lantern...if Johnny saw the light perhaps he could call out for help. He had convinced himself that he was right, but he felt a heavy hand on his shoulder and turned to see Murdoch shaking his head.

 "Not tonight, Son," Murdoch said softly. "I don't want to lose two sons."

 Jelly appeared from the barn and heard Murdoch's words. "An' ya look about done in, Scott," he agreed gruffly. "Ain't no use in gettin' yaself hurt or lost too. You go on in an' get some rest. I'll see t' the horses."

 Teresa took a deep breath. At times like this, there needed to be a cornerstone... someone they could rely on for support… and, whether she liked it or not, she knew she was it.

"I'll get you all something to eat. You may not be hungry, but you have to eat and sleep. Tomorrow you can start looking again.”

Scott's eyes blazed. "You all think he's dead – all of you! Well, I don't believe it." His voice caught. "I... I'd know... if..."

"We're not giving up, Scott,” Murdoch said sternly. "But you of all people know the need for discipline here. Running around like a chicken with its head cut off is not going to help Johnny. Now, get something to eat, then get some rest. In the morning, we can look at the situation and figure out the best way to find him."

Scott stopped. He hated it, but his father’s words were making sense. He finally accepted that Murdoch was right and the sudden rush of reality made him feel as though his world had collapsed around him. With barely enough energy left in him, he walked dejectedly into the house.

The sound of wheels and hoofbeats in the distance brought his attention to the road. He saw a carriage drive beneath the Lancer arch and wondered for a moment if Sam had heard about Johnny and had come looking for news. It took a moment for him to realize that it was Cadha who held the reins. "Damn," he muttered, "not now." To Murdoch he said, "I'll be inside. I'm not in the mood for company tonight."

Murdoch looked down the road and frowned. He was surprised to see Cadha arriving after dark, but he assumed she'd heard about Johnny being missing.

He felt Teresa’s hand tighten around his arm as the carriage pulled to a stop in front of them. "Tell her to go away, Murdoch," she whispered urgently, her voice quivering.

He was taken aback by his ward's lack of hospitality. Teresa had been raised to welcome visitors and was usually the perfect hostess. "She's come all the way from town, Teresa," he told her firmly. "She's probably hoping we have news of Johnny."

"I doubt that," she answered unexpectedly and Murdoch looked down at her, frowning. "Please, Murdoch...” she continued, almost in tears. “Now is not the time. I have a feeling about her....I just don't know..."

"Don't be silly, Teresa," he snapped brusquely, wondering what had come over her. Then he turned back as the carriage rattled to a halt in front of him.

He squinted against the gloom to see Cadha’s face properly and thought that the darkness wasn't kind to her. Her remarkable beauty didn't bloom as well as it did in the shadows.

He stepped forward, noticing with dismay that she seemed to pull back from him just a little as he got closer. Well, he’d been out on the trail for the last two days. Perhaps he shouldn’t be surprised.

"Murdoch, I heard that your boy is missing and I had to come. I do so hope that you found him."

"No, there's no news yet," he answered sadly. He extended his hand to help her down from the carriage, but she looked at it and ignored it.

"Oh, what an odd ring!" she gasped unexpectedly. "It's quite unusual, Murdoch. May I see it?"

Murdoch held his hand out for her to see it but she shied away again.

“I can’t really see it like that. Could you take it off so I can hold it? Please?”

Murdoch really didn’t want to be bothered by her inquisitiveness, but eased the ring off his finger anyway… something within him crying an alarm. He almost stopped, then eased it off all the way, cradling it in the palm of his hand.  Cadha began to get out of the carriage and she seemed to trip on her skirt. She fell into his arms, knocking his hand aside and the ring spun away, landing somewhere on the ground at his feet.

He paid it no attention. It didn’t matter with Cadha in his arms. Her nearness sent a thrill through him. He felt like a boy again, in the presence of indescribable beauty. Now that she was close, the darkness peeled away to reveal the exquisite line of her face... the grace of her body...

Her perfume filled his senses and she smiled at him. “You can put me down now, my dear,” she said silkily.

"I'm so glad you came, Cadha. I was hoping to see you again,” he answered, reluctantly putting her on her feet. “I'll have Teresa make some coffee. You will have dinner with us, won’t you?"

Teresa's mouth dropped open. She watched as Murdoch stared into Cadha’s eyes.

She shivered.

Then she watched him gently drape one arm around the woman’s shoulders and lead her into the house.

Teresa didn't follow - not yet. She had to get control of her anger before she said something she might regret. What was he thinking? It was as if Johnny didn’t matter any more.

Murdoch guided Cadha into the great room and sat her in a chair facing the fireplace. "I'm sorry things are not more hospitable here, my dear, but we have had a rough day, looking for Johnny. If I’d known you were coming, I’d have made sure I was home sooner. I haven’t even had time to clean up.”

"Oh, that's perfectly understandable, my dear. I’m sure you must all be worried sick," she cooed. "What you need is some distraction. I think a party would be nice - dancing and music – just what you need. It would take your minds off all this."

"What a splendid idea! Teresa, don't you agree? Why don't you go tell Scott to come down and we can discuss it as a family."

Teresa stood in the doorway, the huge oak door standing open at her side. She couldn't believe what she was hearing. It was like a nightmare.

But there he was, fawning over 'that woman' like a schoolboy with his first love while Johnny was out there lying hurt... or worse. A party? Her blood boiled in her veins till she could stand it no longer. With strength that came of pure fury, she heaved the great door and slammed it shut with a force that rattled the glass in the windows.

"This is no time for a party!" she yelled. "Johnny is out there, alone, maybe dying... maybe... Murdoch, listen to yourself. I want this woman out of here, right now. If she doesn’t leave, I will."

Scott appeared on the stairs, his shirt open and hanging loose. The noise had brought him running. "What's going on down here?" he demanded. Then he scowled as he realized what Teresa had said. "What party? What are you talking about?"

Teresa looked up at him, her eyes filled with anger and tears. "Cadha and your father have decided it would be a good time to plan a party." She said the word 'father' as if it were a filthy word.

Scott turned to Murdoch. Cadha was sitting in an armchair while Murdoch stood by her side with one hand resting possessively on her shoulder. "You can't possibly be serious!" he growled. "Your son is God knows where... maybe dying. Don't you have even one iota of feeling in you?" He shook his head, disgusted. "For God’s sake, he's your son!"

"A gunfighter isn’t he? A killer?" Cadha asked.

"How dare you!" Teresa shouted. She was across the room and standing beside the chair before she knew it. "He is Murdoch's son... period." She looked up at Murdoch and saw a stranger standing there. "Murdoch," she whispered.

Scott stormed across the room and faced Cadha Drummond himself. She seemed to shrink back from him and his skin crawled. He would never be able to understand what Murdoch saw in the woman.

"I think you should leave, Miss Drummond," he said, in a tone that defied her to argue. Then he looked at his father and added grimly. "My father and I have some things to discuss - privately."

He reached forward to take the woman's arm and escort her from the house, but she reeled back and gasped. She got to her feet to leave of her own accord, turning one last smile on her love.

"I will see you again, soon," she said. "When there are no distractions." Looking at Teresa she pointed a bony finger toward her. "And you, my dear child, had better learn some manners. If you were my child..."

The rest of the statement was lost in a roar from Scott. "Get out of here this instant."

Cadha merely smiled at him. "Of course," she said sweetly and sent a chill down Scott’s spine.

She turned to Murdoch and lifted her hand to his face. She traced one long thin finger down his cheek. "I do so love dancing, Murdoch,” she whispered silkily. Then she turned and walked to the door, opened it herself and strolled out as if nothing had happened.

Murdoch glared at both of his 'children' and then rushed after her. "Cadha, I'm so sorry,” he told her, hastily taking her arm and pulling her into his arms. “I think they’re just overwhelmed with Johnny missing. Emotions are running high here at the moment, but they’ll calm down. I'm sure they will love a dance just as much as I will. Come back tomorrow and we can talk then."

Cadha nodded. She leaned forward and kissed him lightly on the cheek. "Of course, I understand. I will do that, Murdoch,” she told him in sultry tones that swept through his blood.” But beware, my love. When a woman has it in her mind to have a party... then nothing will stop her. I look forward to our first dance together.”

She pulled back out of his arms and smiled at him. “Good bye for now."  She stepped into her carriage and flicked the reins once. The horse obeyed immediately. As the carriage passed, the light from a lantern hanging from the patio wall shined on an object in the dirt. Murdoch frowned curiously, then leaned down and picked up his ring.

Suddenly the snarl of a big cat ripped through the darkness. Murdoch Lancer paled and looked at the ring in his hand. He slipped it back onto his finger and turned to go back into the maelstrom inside the hacienda.

***

It was slow going at first. The rocky terrain meant having to lead the horse now that the travois was behind it. Angel found it frustrating, but he'd mount and ride once they were on better ground.

As he walked, he kept a close eye on Johnny. The man's face was testament to his pain and Angel almost hoped he would pass out. Even a horse as sure footed as Denny couldn't miss every rock, and the smallest of bumps was almost too much for the injured man.

There was a thin sliver of new moon above them. It was barely enough to light the trail, but it was enough to reveal the beads of sweat on Johnny's brow. Angel pulled the horse to a stop unhooking the canteen and opening it as he walked back to Johnny.

"Here," he said firmly, holding it to the injured man's lips. "Maybe this will help."

Johnny sipped at it, but drank too little to satisfy Angel.

"A little more," he coaxed.

Johnny shook his head. "I'll be sick. Just get on with it. I'm all right."

Angel screwed the lid back on and checked that Johnny was still secure on the travois. He stood up and briefly looked around him. Ahead of them, the rocks looked smaller and there were fewer of them.

"We'll be out of these rocks soon," Angel assured him. The man was tough all right, but he wasn't hiding his pain as well as he seemed to think. "It'll get easier then."

Angel tried to concentrate on other things as they moved on. Like how he was going to tell Murdoch Lancer that a demon was after him. The Scots weren't known for having a superstitious nature, and if he was half as stubborn as his son seemed to be... well Angel was afraid that he was going to have one hell of a fight on his hands.

 Silence filled the air again, cut only by the sounds of the horses hooves and the travois dragging along behind.

"Do you think I'll be able to convince your father... about the Baoban Sith?" he asked, putting his doubts into words at last.

"Sure... and hell will freeze over tomorrow," Johnny answered sarcastically. "We might have to tie him down to make him listen. We could tie him to that big ol' chair of his."

Angel frowned. “It might be better if you didn’t tell him… everything about me. Getting him to believe me is going to be hard enough without that. I wouldn’t get a foot in the door…”

Johnny frowned. "Dios... why not?" he answered sulkily. "Mi casa es su casa!" (My house is your house)

Angel smiled. "Gracias. So, are all gunhawks as tough as you?"

"I'm not a gunhawk... not any more," Johnny told him firmly.

"Is that right?" Angel answered, not sure whether to believe him or not

"What about all that stuff I read in that book...It makes you out to be one real son of a bitch."

"Yeah... well, don't believe everything you read," Johnny snapped back. "'Sides, things are different now. I'm... I'm different... Hell, I just ain't."

Angel nodded. "A gunhawk with a soul... that's pretty funny," he said ironically.

Johnny grinned. "Not nearly as funny as a vampire with a conscience," he retorted. "So what's your story? Never heard o' vampires rescuin' strays."

"And you know a lot about Vampires," Angel answered sarcastically.

Angel cringed when he couldn't avoid a large rock in their path and Johnny hissed in pain. "That book of your brother's," he said quickly, trying to get Johnny to concentrate on him and not the pain. "It was probably as right about me as that book was about you."

Johnny's eyes had closed while he blocked out the pain. Angel watched him fight it off.

He finally opened his eyes and turned them on Angel. "You wanta keep me alive, don't hit too many o' them," he whispered grimly. Suddenly, he grinned. "You've got a point 'bout that book. Pictures didn't look much like that thing I saw the other day."

Angel turned away, looking up, looking for the sliver of moon again. He had lost control and it bothered him. Johnny should not have seen that... but if he hadn't, would he believe that his father was in trouble? "Never seen it myself," he said. "Pretty scary?"

"Yeah," was all Johnny would admit to, and grimaced as the travois ground over another rock.

"You want to stop for a minute?" Angel asked.

"No... I just...”

The sound of the cat cut through his words, sending a shiver up his spine and sending the horse into a panic.

Angel held tight to the lead rein as the horse reared in fright. He pulled down hard, forcing the animal back onto all four legs. It quivered nervously, ears back and its eyes wide and terrified. He put his hand on its neck and began to stroke the fear-stricken animal.

Whispering gently to it, he searched the darkness around him. Damn, it had sounded close.

Johnny had grabbed desperately for the side of the travois as the horse reared up and the framework slammed against the ground. The jingle of the tack and the snorting of the terrified horse seemed to drift into the distance as Johnny heard only the echo of the cat's scream.

It stopped as quickly as it had started, leaving a strange, unearthly feeling around them both. Only Angel's soft murmurings to the horse broke the silence.

The earth seemed to hold its breath. Even the breeze seemed to stop... and wait. Johnny listened past Angel's soft murmurs to the horse, and heard nothing. A chill shook his body and he hissed when his arm complained.

“Madre de Dios!” Johnny whispered. He grabbed his aching arm with his free hand and willed the pain to stop. He peered into the night, but he couldn't see anything. Nothing moved.

"Where is it?" he asked nervously.

"I don't know," Angel answered quietly, still stroking the horse's quivering neck. "But it sounded close."

"Too damned close," Johnny agreed. He couldn’t take his eyes off the bushes to his left. It could be that close, for all he knew.

Reaching for his gun, he drew it out to lie on top of the blanket. Something told him that a bullet wouldn’t be enough to stop that cat. There was something… unnatural about it. Like a phantom, its screech haunted the night – and men’s dreams.

Angel tied the leading reins to a handy tree. "I'm going to have a look around."

Johnny tried to shift on the travois. Surely Angel couldn’t be serious? He couldn’t leave him here – like this!

He tried again to move, but his arm flamed with a pain that reached across his chest and down to the pit of his stomach. He knew that he was helpless here... whether he was tied to the travois or not.

Eerily, the cat screamed again. The horse tried to rear, pulling on the reins and kicking wildly. The travois rocked and jolted till Johnny thought it would come apart.

His arm was agony. He closed his eyes and rode out the wild ride, trying to force the pain to the back of his mind.

Angel set about calming the horse all over again. When its panic finally subsided, he began unhitching the travois.

"What the hell do you think you’re doing?" Johnny shouted. The effort took his breath away.  He could barely take in air; he was in so much pain. "We've got to get out of here."

"I don't want it following us. Next time, I might not be able to stop the horse from bolting." A frown crossed his brow. "I don't think you'd like that."

Johnny knew he was right, but it didn't make him feel any better. He clutched his gun tighter in his hand, and tried to look into the blackness... to see anything...

He could hear that low growl, the purr of a hunting puma, and he knew it was out there somewhere… in the darkness. It was out there… watching… waiting for its opportunity…

“Keep your eyes open,” Angel warned him. “And keep that gun handy.”

 And, suddenly, he realized that he was alone. Angel had disappeared into the bushes, so quietly that he hadn't heard even a footstep.

Johnny’s eyes searched the bushes. There was no sign of Angel anywhere. The man had to be mad! Was he even armed? Johnny hadn’t seen a rifle, or even a handgun.

He closed his eyes, but he could still see the cat. Those brilliant green eyes... the foul smell of its breath – he could feel its nearness.

He felt for the ropes - tested the knot around his thighs. They were tight... too tight to be able to loosen them with one hand. He couldn't believe that Angel had taken off like that, leaving him at the mercy of the cougar.

He had misjudged him. Johnny felt the trust he had begun to establish with the vampire disintegrate around him.

 It could be the last mistake he would ever make in this lifetime...

Something moved in the bushes.

They were only a few yards away and leaves rustled a deadly warning.

Johnny tensed. His pulse quickened. Slowly, he opened his eyes and turned his head to peer into the shadows.

Try as he might, he couldn't see a thing.

But he knew that he wasn't wrong. He hadn't imagined it this time. He watched the leaves shake and pulled his gun up carefully across his chest. He had to be ready – had to keep a clear head.

He had to tear away the threads of fear and face his nemesis.

He damned the weakness that made the gun waver in his hand as he tried to lift it. He wanted to pull the trigger back, but his finger would not obey.

This was going to be an undignified end to Johnny Madrid - strapped to a travois with a cat ready to tear him to pieces.

If he were a religious man he would have said a prayer. And, in fact, he found himself reciting a little known prayer that he remembered his mother chanting whenever she had been alone and afraid.

Suddenly, Johnny stopped. He listened to the darkness. This time, there could be no mistake. He’d heard something out there.

A twig snapped, followed by another delicate rustle of leaves. Then he heard it - the faintest of faint footfalls. It was so soft, so catlike, that he'd nearly missed it.

A bead of sweat rolled down from his forehead. He felt it every inch of the way, distracting him and stinging his right eye when it got there. His eye closed instinctively and he blinked until it opened again. His vision in that eye was blurred for a moment and his heart pounded in panic.

Grimly, Johnny fought his weakness - and his fear...

He lifted the gun and aimed it unsteadily at that bush...

 

CHAPTER NINE

The leaves closest to Johnny began to shake… then there was nothing – nothing but a deep and agonizing silence. His pulse raced and he held his breath. He could picture it hiding there, in the dark, its slick black coat blending into the night… crouched close to the ground, ready to pounce.

Another branch quivered, and he could hear it beginning to pace, back and forth... the ground vibrating with its growl… it was hungry... stalking... Where was Angel? Closer now…Johnny could feel the sweat rolling down his cheek. He waited... Tied down on the travois, he was easy prey. He waited for the cat to leap out of the bushes. He wrapped his hand wrapped around the butt of the gun and he eased the hammer back. The gun felt like fifty pounds of dead weight in his hand.

He'd only get one chance. His finger tightened on the trigger.

A dark shadow moved in the bushes and he fired.

Angel… 

Johnny jerked the gun sideways at the last minute, praying his shot was wide. It was too late to avoid firing; the bullet was already speeding toward its target.

The explosion ripped through the silence, echoing around the foothills and taunting him for his recklessness.

Angel stood stock-still at the edge of the bushes. He was frowning, but otherwise showed no emotion at all.

Johnny closed his eyes and breathed again, falling back onto the travois - physically and emotionally spent. The hand holding the gun fell to his side - the barrel still smoking.

He watched as Angel warily approached the travois. There was no trace of fear in the vampire’s eyes… only doubt.

Johnny’s heart pounded in his ears and his breathing was heavy and labored. He could feel himself losing control, but just couldn’t stop it. A shudder ran through him and he tried to let go of the gun, but his hand didn’t obey him. He began to realize that he was in trouble…

Angel stopped a few feet from him and Johnny watched his eyes drop. He followed Angel’s gaze and saw the fresh blood on his arm. The bandaging was saturated already. Then he remembered. The travois had slammed against the ground when the terrified horse had reared and the jolt must have split the gash open again.

“Take it easy, Johnny,” Angel said soothingly, slowly walking towards the travois again. “Let me take a look at your arm. It’s bleeding again.”

He stopped beside Johnny and dropped one knee to the ground, gently lifting the injured arm.

Johnny sucked back a cry of pain when Angel began to unwrap the bandaging. But, even beyond the blistering pain in his arm, he was aware of the quiet.

It was an unnatural quiet - fueled by fear. Not a creature moved… even the breeze seemed to have stilled… waiting for the next cry of the cat.

“It’s close,” he whispered and, to his horror, he realized that his voice resounded with something very close to panic.

“I know,” Angel whispered back calmly. “But we’ve got to stop this bleeding before I can move you again.”

“Forget it! We have to get out of here!”

But Angel ignored him and peeled back the first layer of bandage, his eyes intent on what he was doing.

Johnny suddenly remembered the last time Angel has seen his blood – and what had happened.

“No…” he shouted. He couldn’t bear to see that face again… not now… not when his world was already hanging upside down. He tried to pull his arm away. “No… just leave it.”

Angel stopped and looked Johnny in the eye, still holding the broken arm in his hands. “Now you listen to me, Gunhawk,” he snapped back coldly. “If you’re going to be able to show me the fastest way to that house of yours, you’re going to have to let me help you.”

He was right. Johnny knew it and couldn’t argue with him. He squeezed his eyes shut, steeling himself against the pain and his fear of seeing Angel change.

Slowly… steadily, Johnny began to feel a sense of calm slip over him. Something inside him... in his heart or his head - he wasn’t really sure which and didn’t really care - something whispered serenely… trust him.

Angel went back to removing the bloodstained bandage and a flash of fire exploded from Johnny’s arm to his brain.

Johnny was grateful for the soundless blackness that folded over him.

***

Something cool and soothing swept across Johnny’s face and he opened his eyes. Angel was beside him and pulled away a wet cloth he must have been using.

“Here,” Angel said, holding the canteen close to Johnny’s lips. “You look like you could use some of this.”

Johnny wasn’t sure it was a good idea. His stomach roiled and protested at the thought, but he knew Angel was right.

Listlessly, he lifted his head enough to swallow some of the water. He felt better almost immediately. “Thanks,” he said quietly.

Johnny looked down at his left arm before lowering his head back to the travois. A clean bandage was wrapped around it. He closed his eyes for a moment, remembering a white flash of pain and then nothing. He wasn’t sorry he’d missed the rest.

He opened his eyes again and turned them to Angel. “Thanks for that too,” he added, nodding towards Angel’s handiwork. “Sure am glad I missed ya.”

Angel half smiled. “You didn’t,’ he told him frankly.

Johnny’s eyes widened. “What?”

Angel nodded towards his upper right arm where a three inch tear in his shirt gaped open. “You owe me a shirt,” he said, his smile broadening.

“I could have killed you!” Johnny exclaimed.

“No,” Angel assured him calmly. “But I did tell you they sting. I’d forgotten how much.”

Johnny bit his lip in anguish. “Dios…lo siento… I… I thought you were…”

“The cat? Yeah, I figured that.”

Johnny was taken aback by his cool response. “Do you need a hand to clean it up? I could help some…”

Angel screwed the lid back onto the canteen and hooked it over his shoulder carelessly. He pulled the tear apart to reveal a clean gash. “No, it’s fine.”

 “Doesn’t anything kill you?”

Angel grinned. “If we don’t get to that house of yours by sunup, you’ll soon find out,” he told him bluntly. “What the sun did to you the other day is nothing compared to what it will do to me.”

 He walked over to the tree and untied the lead rein, giving it a tug to get the horse moving. He’d taken advantage of Johnny’s brief stint of unconsciousness to hitch the travois up again.

Johnny grunted as the frame jolted under him and they began to move.

“We should be out of these rocks in twenty minutes or so. It won’t be so rough then,” Angel assured him.

“I don’t get you at all,” Johnny said, shaking his head. “Why’re you so determined to help me… or my ol’ man?”

For some time, Johnny thought he wouldn’t answer. Then, Angel’s tread seemed to falter for a moment. “That book… it said Johnny Madrid did some pretty bad things. It said you’re a killer for hire. Was any of it true?”

Johnny didn’t like having that thrown at him unexpectedly. He hadn’t read that book, but he had a good idea of what was probably written in it. “Can’t answer for what’s written in it,” he said wretchedly. “But, yeah, I was no saint… that’s for sure.”

He closed his eyes and tried not to let the memories in, but they were always there. He couldn’t escape them. “I did hire out,” he told Angel, at last. “Seems like a lifetime ago now.”

The cat screamed again, tearing their attention away. The horse pulled nervously and jolted the travois once more.

Johnny reached across and held his injured arm tightly, closing his eyes against the pain while Angel tried to get the horse under control. A low guttural growl, followed by another snarl sounded in the darkness, so close to them that Johnny was sure it must be tailing them.

Then there was a long, eerie silence. Both men peered through the shadows in search of movement, but there was nothing. Had it gone?

Angel stood stroking the horse’s neck, gently calming the quivering animal.

“But, you changed?” Angel asked, urging the horse onwards again.

His voice sounded as though nothing had happened. The seeming indifference unnerved Johnny, but he tried to force the cat from his head and answered. “Yeah, things are different now.”

He hesitated to ask the question on his mind, but he had to know… and it was better than thinking about what was out there in the night. “What about you? Angel seems like a real funny name for a vampire.”

“It wasn’t always Angel,” was the quiet reply Johnny got.

“Then you didn’t always go ‘round rescuin’ half-dead cowpokes?” Johnny asked, with the wisp of a smile on his lips.

“Cowpokes?”

“That’s right,” Johnny answered firmly. “Cowpokes.”

“No… I didn’t always…” Angel began, but his voice faded into silence for a while. Then, suddenly, he continued. “The things I did…” Angel started desolately, then wavered. “You can’t begin to imagine the things I did.”

Johnny could hear the anguish in the man’s voice, and he believed he could understand what lay behind it. “I know what changed me,” he said quietly. “My ol’ man… my brother… Didn’t know I even had a brother till a couple of years ago. And Murdoch… he wasn’t what I grew up thinking he was. I got lucky, I guess… I got a second chance.”

Angel hadn’t stopped walking, treading steadily beside the horse. Johnny couldn’t see his face, so he didn’t see the infinite sorrow in the man’s eyes.

“Angelus… my name was Angelus. A few years ago, I killed a gypsy girl,” Angel finally told him, still marching tirelessly ahead. “She meant nothing to me, but she was a favorite among her people. To avenge her, her clan cursed me… they restored my soul…”

Johnny frowned. “I don’t understand…”

“When the vampire killed me, it took my body… my mind… but not my soul? No, that was gone…” He waited a moment, before continuing. “I had no conscience, so it was easy to kill...”

Suddenly, the travois stopped. Angel turned around and faced him, his cool demeanor gone and replaced with an expression of ultimate remorse.

“As Johnny Madrid, you have… what…? Ten years of killing to regret? You must have been just a boy…” he said wretchedly. “I don’t have that excuse. I have over a hundred years of relentless killing to make up for.”

Without another word, Angel turned around again and gently pulled the horse forward, leaving Johnny stunned speechless.

And while Johnny thought over what his extraordinary companion had just told him, the cat screamed eerily in the hills above them.

***

 Scott woke with a jolt. He was tired… dead tired… but sleep just hadn’t come his way, not with that cat screeching in the hills. Images of Johnny had beset him all night – Johnny lying hurt… maybe dying… with that cougar out there…

 It was only when sheer exhaustion finally caught up with his body that Scott had fallen asleep. Now he sat up in bed…listening.

 A sound had come from within the house…of that he was sure. He slid his legs over the side of the bed and grabbed his pants, quickly pulling them on and padding on bare feet to his door. Putting his ear to the door he listened carefully… not a sound. He opened the door slowly… a single candle flickered in a wall sconce, sending eerie shadows down the hall.

Across the hall, Johnny’s door stood open…waiting for him.

 The empty room seemed forlorn and desolate, but he pulled his thoughts away from it and moved on to Teresa’s door. Her door was closed and he carefully opened it a little. It was dark and quiet - Teresa had finally managed to fall asleep.

 The last few days had been a kaleidoscope of mixed emotions…nothing seemed to be in its proper place. Murdoch was acting the fool… Johnny was missing… and a cat was stalking the ranch... its cry slicing everyone to their very soul.

 He moved on to Murdoch’s room and stopped to listen at the door. There was a strange noise coming from behind the heavy door – an odd, rhythmic… thumping sound that he couldn’t make out. Scott hesitantly knocked on the door and waited for an answer; then he called his father’s name.

 Still no answer came. He cautiously turned the doorknob and pushed the door open.

 A candle sitting on the nightstand next to Murdoch’s empty bed guttered toward extinction in the breeze that floated in through the open window.  Murdoch stood next to the headboard, his right hand balled into a fist and hammering on the wall.

 Scott wondered why his father was still fully dressed; then he noticed that the bed hadn’t been turned down. He must have fallen asleep just as he was… and he was asleep. Scott was convinced of that.

 “Murdoch?” he called guardedly.

 The knocking stopped. Murdoch dropped his hand to his side and stood there for a moment.

 “Murdoch?” Scott repeated nervously, alarmed to see his father this way.

 Slowly, Murdoch turned around, but he wasn’t there. He seemed to be locked in some desperate nightmare.

 In the shimmering light of the candle, Scott could see that he was pale and sweating. His eyes were vacant and looked straight though his son in a way that chilled Scott to the marrow of his bones.

 Scott edged closer. “Murdoch… its ok… you can wake up now.”

 Murdoch stared at him, his eyes shining with unshed tears.  “He won’t let me in…” he whispered. His voice sounded incredibly lost. “Da won’t let me in….”

 Suddenly, it was over. Whatever the nightmare had been, it was gone. Murdoch blinked… confusion and embarrassment creeping across his face.

 “You had a nightmare,” Scott said, trying to sound matter-of-fact.

 "My da..." he began, then stopped abruptly. He looked back over his shoulder at the wall, disorientated and bewildered. Then he looked back at Scott and recognition flashed in his eyes.

 "It's all right, Murdoch," Scott told him gently. He put his hand on his father's arm to reassure him. "It was a dream."

 Murdoch nodded, but Scott could see that he was still confused. He tightened his grip on his father's arm and guided him back to the bed. As they reached the bed, Murdoch's legs seemed to sag and he dropped heavily onto it. The ropes beneath it complained loudly.

 Scott's foot stepped in something cold and wet. Blood? Had Murdoch hurt himself in his dazed state?

 He anxiously looked down and the dim light of the candle revealed the pitcher from Murdoch's nightstand lying in a broken pile. A pool of water had spread across the floor.

 He realized that the noise of it breaking must have been what had woken him.

 Scott looked at the broken pitcher on the floor and the puddle of water. Without saying a word he hurried out of the room to return a minute later with a tall glass of water.

 "Here, drink this," he ordered, and held it out to his father. Murdoch took it with a shaky and took a sip.

 Scott watched his father. He couldn't remember ever seeing him so distraught... so dazed.

 “Care to tell me about it?”

 Murdoch looked up at him. His eyes were brighter now, more aware... and closing down on his tattered emotions. He swallowed the rest of the water, and then answered dully, "It was just a dream."

 Scott studied him for a long moment; then shook his head. “I don’t think so,” he said, setting the glass down. He sat down on the bed beside his father and added gently, "Murdoch, you were terrified. That was no ordinary dream."

 Murdoch looked down at his hands, now clasped firmly on his lap. But he didn't answer.

 "Talk to me, Murdoch," Scott continued, feeling oddly like a parent talking to a frightened child. "I could see you were terrified. You said something about your 'da'..."

 He spoke softly, letting the darkness of the room surround them and shelter Murdoch from his concerned eyes...

 Murdoch combed his hands through his thick graying hair, sighing heavily. "It was just a dream I used to have when I was a boy," he admitted slowly.

 "What about?" Scott pressed him gently.

 "Something happened, I don't remember exactly..." Murdoch answered. "I know that I'd never seen my da so scared before. I... we tried to get into the house, but the door was locked... I just remember that something was chasing us... something... horrifying..."

 Scott looked toward the window and the eerie gray shadows of dawn just beginning to lighten the darkness. "That cat out there," he said slowly. "I think it has all our nerves on edge."

Murdoch nodded. Standing up slowly, he walked to the open window and pushed the curtains aside. Outside, the crisp darkness of night was just beginning to give way to the murky pre-dawn of a new day. Soon the sun's rays would appear over the horizon and another day would be upon them.

“I used to love this part of the night,” he said reflectively. “When the earth itself seems to sleep. But not tonight… something is out there… something that doesn’t belong.”

A new day… another day of searching… of tension and fears that no one would admit to out loud.

Scott watched his father’s face in the eerie light. He was still pale and shaken, but Scott suspected it was more than just the nightmare causing it.

And, even as he thought of it, a scream from the cat tore the night apart. Scott felt himself jump as his nerves shattered. Murdoch pulled back from the curtain for a moment, stunned by the suddenness of it.

Oh God, would this never end?

He knew that his father was thinking the same thing that as he was… that Johnny was still out there somewhere... alone… probably hurt and afraid...

No - Johnny could look after himself. Scott felt a surge of hope. His brother was a survivor... if nothing else.

His mind conjured up the sight of a lone figure huddled next to a flickering fire... Johnny alone in the vastness... his gun in his hand... waiting.

Then the image faded to become Johnny...  hurt, desperate and alone... with that beast prowling in the darkness around him.

***

Angel checked on his passenger one more time and found that Johnny was now past caring about how rough the ride got. He’d finally lost consciousness, succumbing to the long painful journey he’d had to endure. Once they were out of the foothills, the trail had been less rocky. But, even so, it wasn’t smooth going and Johnny had been slowly losing his grip on consciousness.

Angel had to admit that the man was tough, but the constant aggravation of that wound on Johnny's arm had to be excruciating. He wasn't surprised that Johnny had found it too much to bear in the end.

Well, Angel didn’t have to worry about that now, so he picked up the pace. He had to get to the ranch before morning and time was running out.

Johnny had guessed that he was losing consciousness long before it happened, and he had called Angel back to give him directions to the ranch. They sounded simple enough - head west until he got to the river and then follow the road south. There would be a big arch with the Lancer name on it, so he couldn’t miss it.

Angel wasn’t worried about missing it now. He was more concerned with what would happen when he got there. It would be nearly dawn. He wouldn’t have time to find shelter from the sun elsewhere. He would have to get into that house, and that meant he’d need an invitation.

Of course, Johnny’s ‘mi casa es su casa’ might well be enough. But, to be sure, he’d have to rely on one of the family asking him in.

Angelus had never had that dilemma. Angelus had been able to smooth-talk his way into the most secure home, only to wreak havoc once he was inside.

Angel hated the idea of having to rely on his old ways again. He hated his soul-less alter ego passionately, and he feared him even more. But, if Angelus’ charm was what it would take to gain sanctuary from the lethal sunlight, then so be it.

***

Something had caught Murdoch’s eye. He went rigid with shock.

Scott leaped to his feet and ran to the window, following his father’s line of sight through the shadows of the early dawn.

There was movement in the darkness, just beyond the Lancer arch.
 

CHAPTER TEN

Murdoch burst through the doorway and out into the yard, fear and hope mingling in the waning darkness. The air felt close… caught in the unnatural hush after the cat’s cries.

He heard Scott running behind him, but he didn't slow down to wait for him.

Scott followed Murdoch out of the hacienda, grabbing his gun belt as he passed the hook by the door. He slipped the gun out of the holster and draped the belt over his shoulder, then nearly ran smack into his father in the yard.

Murdoch had stopped, peering through the half-light to try to see who was coming, and Scott came to a halt beside him and stared out towards the arch.

They watched the stranger walking his horse steadily towards the ranch and tried, in vain, to recognize him. Then, they both saw it. 

There was a travois being dragged behind the horse. Was it possible? Had this stranger found Johnny?

The need to know if it was Johnny in that travois was agonizing… the stranger seemed to be walking excruciatingly slowly, keeping a tight rein on the horse. It looked like the animal was spooked by the same closeness in the air that they could feel.

Scott said a silent prayer that the cat had finished its howling for the night. One cry and that horse was liable to tear itself free of the man’s grip and bolt for freedom.

The urge to run forward and see if it was Johnny surged through Scott, but he and Murdoch stayed where they were… all too aware that any sudden moves could set the horse off, perhaps further injuring the man on the travois.

As the stranger finally drew closer, Scott spotted the inert body strapped to the travois and covered with a blanket and his heart dropped. He was finally able to see that it was, indeed, Johnny who lay so quietly on that travois.

But Johnny was deathly still, his head lolling to one side and his face ghostly pale, even in the dim light. Scott held his breath, hoping to see if his brother was even breathing.

Was this stranger bringing Johnny back to them alive... or...? He couldn't bear to finish the thought.

"Are you Murdoch Lancer?" the stranger asked coolly as he finally drew near Murdoch.

Murdoch only nodded, brushing past the man to look down at the travois. He swayed slightly, and Scott ran to his side to put one strong arm out to steady him.

The stranger didn't stop for them. He kept the horse walking towards the house, while Murdoch and Scott paced beside the travois, aching to find out how seriously Johnny was hurt.

"He's alive," the man told him offhandedly, as he pulled the horse to a halt outside the front door of the hacienda. "Best get him inside though."

 Scott crouched beside the travois and looked closely at his brother. “What happened?” Scott asked the stranger.

 “I found him in the hills,” he answered briefly, with no obvious intention of elaborating on the story.

 Scott frowned. “When? He’s been missing for days.”

The stranger scowled at him. “Do you want to talk… or do you want to help him?” he replied bluntly.

A small whimper came from the front door and all three men looked up to see Teresa standing in the doorway, a robe covering her nightgown. She hurried out into the courtyard in bare feet, the tears beginning to trail down her face.  "Oh my God," she cried. "What happened?"

She tried to push her way between Murdoch and Scott, but Murdoch caught her arm. "Teresa, honey,” he said gently. “Get his bed ready. We’ll be right up."

Scott watched her and knew the dilemma she faced. The need to go to Johnny warred with the knowledge that she had to be strong and do what was needed.

She took a couple of steps backwards and seemed, at first, to find it impossible to take her eyes off Johnny. Then she took a deep breath, turned and ran back into the house, nearly colliding with Jelly as the old handyman came running from his room on the side of the hacienda.

"What in tarnation is...?" The rest of his words were cut short in an anguished moan... "Ah, no.... Johnny.  The cat?"

"No," the stranger said, with a measure of indifference that left Scott stunned. "The cat didn't get him, but he's hurt pretty bad."

Even in the half light of the morning, Scott could see the blood stained bandage on Johnny’s arm. He had no way of knowing yet whether that was all of his injuries, but there was no doubt that he was seriously hurt.

"Unhitch the travois and we'll take him upstairs on that," Murdoch ordered quickly.

Jelly and Scott hurriedly unlashed the travois and gradually lowered both it and Johnny. Being gentle was not enough. The frame jarred slightly as it touched the ground and a groan escaped Johnny’s lips. He frowned and his eyes flashed open.

Wildly, he looked around the sea of faces. “Angel…” he called, his breathing labored.

Scott knelt beside his brother and put his hand reassuringly on his shoulder. “Johnny, you’re home now. It’s Scott… you’re home now… you’re safe.”

"Scott?" Johnny repeated, apparently still confused and agitated. His eyes searched the dim light around him. "Where's Angel...?"

Suddenly, Scott felt a presence behind him. He hadn’t heard a sound, and he had no idea what made him realize someone was there, but a ripple of unease crept through his body.

From his position, crouched beside the travois, he could sense something...something that made the hairs on the back of his neck shift. Turning around, Scott found 'Angel' looming over him.

“I’m right here, Johnny,” Angel told Johnny, lowering himself to crouch beside Scott.

Scott didn't miss the quiet concern in the man's voice and frowned curiously.

 “You can rest now,” Angel continued. “You’re home.”

“Murdoch…?” Johnny asked anxiously.

Angel nodded. “I’ll take care of it.”

Amazingly, Johnny relaxed, his eyes fixed steadily on Angel. Scott's unease turned to disquiet as he watched Angel's words calm Johnny. There was an obvious bond between them. A bond that had taken only days to establish...

“It’s all right, Johnny. Take it easy,” Scott whispered to his brother, his hand still gently resting on Johnny’s shoulder. “Let us get you inside. You’ll be fine, now.”

Finally, Johnny’s eyes moved towards Scott, and the expression of absolute trust Scott saw in them reassured him as Johnny slowly lost consciousness again.

Scott stood up, Angel following. He still felt strangely uncomfortable next to him. Dressed all in black, Angel still seemed a shadowy figure in the half-light.

“Would you mind helping to get him inside?” Scott asked, ignoring the feeling of uneasiness he felt in the man’s presence.

Angel nodded and, walking back to the end of the travois, waited for the others.

They each took a corner of the frame and carefully carried Johnny inside. The stairs proved to be more of a problem than they expected and Murdoch yelled out more than once to be careful... even unconscious, any jarring brought a moan of pain from his son.

Once in the bedroom though, Teresa took over. She had the covers pulled back ready for him and ran over to supervise them as they gently lowered the travois onto the bed.

Scott pulled back the blanket that covered his brother and began to untie the ropes that lashed him to the frame, his eyes drifting back to the crudely splinted bandage on Johnny’s arm.

Teresa watched him until the ropes were finally pulled away. “Scott, you and Jelly lift him… carefully… and Murdoch, pull that travois out from under him.” Then, as they did as she instructed, she added, “And watch out for his arm.”

“His arm is…” Angel began to say, then stepped back out of everyone’s way and finished uncertainly, “broken.”

Angel backed away. He found himself a space against the wall and leaned back, watching the controlled frenzy of activity around him.

He was intrigued. How had an ex-gunhawk, with a past such as Johnny apparently had, managed to get himself a family that cared so deeply for him?

He felt a pang of jealousy, knowing he would never experience it himself. He never had experienced it. Angel remembered his father as a strict disciplinarian. There had been little love lost between them.

Well, that was one bridge that could never be mended… he’d seen to it himself. At least, Angelus had seen to it when he'd killed his father... and the rest of his family. That had never bothered Angelus, but now, with a soul and a conscience, it was one thing Angel couldn't bear to think about.

He could see that Teresa was aware of his discomfort, but she didn’t have time to waste on courtesy now. With the awkward task of getting Johnny untied completed, she felt Johnny’s forehead and checked his pulse.

"Murdoch, you and Scott get him undressed and into bed," she ordered. "Jelly, you send one of the men to town for Dr. Jenkins. I'll get some water boiled and bring some fresh bandages. I’ll be right back.”

“Already done it,” Jelly said gruffly and stepped back out of her way, casting a quick glance at Angel and looking him up and down. “The Doc’s been sent fer, an’ Maria’s takin’ care o’ the water.”

“Good, then I’ll get the bandages,” she said and turned for the door.

From his corner of the room, Angel watched her. The old man’s scrutiny hadn’t bothered him, but he was intrigued by the girl.

When he had first heard her name, outside in the yard, he had realized that she was the girl who had written that note he found on Johnny. Since then, he had watched her, wondering what sort of relationship they had.

Her tears and worry had first suggested that he’d been right in assuming she was Johnny’s girlfriend… or a lover. But, once her practical side took over, he had reassessed it. She cared, that was obvious, but there was no intimacy there… he didn’t think they were lovers.

Perhaps she was a sister, though Angel didn’t remember Johnny ever mentioning that he had one. He had mentioned a brother. Angel was surprised by the brother. In appearance, they were nothing alike, but Scott’s concern was all too apparent.

Without looking back at Johnny, Teresa lifted the hem of her nightgown out of her way and ran from the room like a whirlwind.

‘No,’ Angel thought, watching her hurry out of the door. ‘No, definitely not a lover…’

Murdoch Lancer eased himself onto the edge of the bed, trying not to disturb his son. He unbuttoned the shirt and pulled Johnny’s uninjured arm free of it, but when he tried to lift the other arm, Johnny gasped and his eyes flew open in panic.

"Easy, Son," Murdoch reassured him. "You're home now. You're safe."

"Murdoch?" Johnny asked anxiously. "Are you all right?"

"I'm fine, Johnny," Murdoch told him firmly. "I'm a whole lot better than you are right now, young man. Now lie still and let us get you to bed."

"No... wait… you’ve got to listen to Angel,” Johnny pleaded, desperately struggling to sit up. “Something’s after you... listen to him... listen..." he persisted, but his strength failed him. His eyes drifted closed again and his body sagged deeply into the mattress.

His face was flushed and he was sweating. Murdoch quickly felt his forehead. He was definitely running a fever, and Murdoch pulled his hand away with a frown. Johnny’s eyes opened again at the touch of his father’s hand. “Please, Murdoch… you have to listen…”

"Whatever it is, it can wait, Johnny," Murdoch said dourly. "Now, lie still... you can tell me about it later."

"No..." Johnny twisted out of his father’s grip. "Where's Angel..."

Scott looked over at the man Johnny had called ‘Angel’, surprised.

Angel stepped forward, close enough to allow Johnny to see him without getting in anyone’s way. "I'll tell him," he promised. "But, your father's right, you need to rest."

Johnny looked past them all to look into Angel’s eyes, then he stopped struggling and nodded. Suddenly, his face blanched. "Oh God…” he moaned. “I don't feel good."

 Almost immediately, his eyes slid closed and his body went limp.

"He's out cold," Murdoch said needlessly, but with worry in his voice. "Let's finish getting him undressed and get him into bed properly."

He turned his head towards Angel and frowned slightly. "But I think we’re going to need to talk later."

***

Sam stood up, stretching the kinks out of his back. He turned away from the bed where Johnny lay, still unconscious, to where Murdoch and Scott waited anxiously.

“I reset the bone and cleaned out and stitched up the laceration. When the stitches have healed and I’m sure there is no worry about infection, I’ll put a plaster cast on his arm.  He’ll be in that cast for several weeks at least…that’s a bad break. In the meantime, he has got a slight fever. From his condition, I'd say it was a lot worse at one stage," he said and turned to where Angel stood leaning against the wall. "I think Johnny has a lot to thank you for. If you hadn't cleaned that wound so thoroughly, Johnny could have been in serious trouble by now.”

Angel shifted position awkwardly but didn't answer, so Sam continued. “For now, this splint will stabilize the bone and it is heavy enough to keep him out of trouble…if that’s possible. Make sure he drinks plenty of water and Teresa knows what to give him for the fever. She also has laudanum if the pain gets too bad. I know how he is taking anything for pain, but this time he may not have a choice.”

Sam caught a quick expression of trepidation on Scott’s face and smiled. “I know it’s not going to be easy to keep him down. He’ll probably want to get out of that bed right away. Get him to rest for the day and he can go downstairs and lay on the sofa this evening if he’s up to it.  But only for a short time and I want someone with him at all times. I’d suggest one of you gentlemen,” he said and nodded toward Scott and Murdoch, and to Angel also, “help him downstairs. He’ll be weak from blood loss and that fever.”

Angel quietly edged sideways towards the door, glancing at the window where the sun streamed in. Sam was intrigued by him. He was certainly a man of few words.

“I’ll stick around until Johnny wakes up,” Sam finished.

“Thanks, Sam.” Murdoch moved around the bed to take another look at Johnny sleeping soundly under the anesthesia. “He gave us quite a scare this morning.”

“I don’t doubt that,” Sam agreed. “Exactly where did you find him?” he asked, turning back to Angel.

“About a half day’s ride from here – up in the foothills. Looked like an old dried up riverbed,” Angel answered. “He said his horse threw him when it heard that cat.”

“Yes, that cat.” Sam couldn’t disguise the shiver that went down his back.  “Everyone’s heard the damn cat. I can’t understand it. The noise seems to travel for miles. The Higgins’ farm is just a few miles outside of Green River and they heard it too. Must be more than one cat.”

“It’s the same cat,” Angel said flatly.

"How can it be only one?" Scott asked, his voice tinged with the discomfort he felt.  Things were just not right, and he didn't like it. "People have heard it from all over the valley. Even allowing for wind or echoes, it doesn't make sense."

Angel shrugged his shoulders. “Just is.”

Murdoch shook his head. "I don't care how many cats are out there. I just wish they'd stop screeching all night. It's got the stock ready to bolt and every man I talk to is about ready to jump out of his boots."

"No one has seen a thing... no tracks... nothing...” Scott said.

"Johnny said he'd seen it, but I think it was the fever. He was in the sun without water for a long time," Angel told them.

"Well, thank God you found him when you did," Murdoch said, his voice catching. "We owe you..."

"Nothing... you owe me nothing."

Sam examined Angel silently for a moment then rubbed his chin in thought. “You know…Angel…you look a little pale, are you feeling all right yourself?”

"I'm fine, Doctor," Angel replied, shifting uncomfortably at the attention, then smiled ironically. "I guess I'm just naturally pale."

“Just the same, if you traveled all night you must be exhausted, Mr…” Murdoch stopped and looked at Angel curiously.

“Angel… just Angel.”

“Well, Scott will show you to one of the guestrooms and you can get some sleep.”

***

The forge seemed hotter than usual. Murdoch usually got a primitive pleasure out of working it... hammering hot metal and bending it to his will. It was one truly tangible link he had with his own father.

Duncan Lancer had been a blacksmith in Inverness, a great hulking man with muscles of iron and emotions to match, but he had forged the ring on Murdoch's finger with his own hands...

Repairing that horseshoe for Barranca had suddenly been very important to Murdoch. Johnny would want it done and it was going to be finished when Johnny woke.

The ring on his finger was hot enough to burn. Even with the protection of his thick gloves, it was searing his skin.

Crossly, he pulled off the glove and took the ring off, putting it on the stool beside the anvil and reminding himself to put it back on later.

Looking down at the glove as he replaced it on his hand, he realized what had happened. That damned ring had worn clear through it.

Back at work with the forge, over the hammering and the sizzle of the hot coals, he didn't hear Scott walk up to him. A light touch on his shoulder made him look around and he frowned.

"I thought you were with Johnny?" he asked.

“Teresa is sitting with him for a couple of minutes,” Scott told him. “I thought you could do with a cool drink. The forge must be murder in this heat.”

 Scott held out the glass of water and watched Murdoch drop the hammer and take off his gloves to take the glass.

“Thanks. How is Johnny?” Murdoch asked, taking a sip and savoring the cool relief on his throat. “Is that fever down any?”

“It’s down a little. Sam said it might hang around for a while,” Scott explained. “He seems to be sleeping quietly. Should wake soon.”

Murdoch finished the glass and handed it back to his son with a smile. “That’s good news.”

He looked at the shoe, sitting in the cold water and shaped to his satisfaction.

“I’m going to bring Barranca out here and get this shoe on. I want it done before Johnny wakes up,” Murdoch told him. “You know how that boy frets over that horse.”

Scott grinned. “Yes, I’ve noticed. I’ll go back in then. I want to be with him when he wakes.”

Murdoch nodded and Scott watched him walk away to the barn. He turned to leave himself, but a glimmer of light caught his eye. Curious, he walked over to the anvil.

His father’s ring, the one he had so recently taken to wearing, lay beside it. Shaking his head, he turned away and bumped the stool, sending the ring to the ground where it rolled a few feet before spinning to a stop.

How easily could his father do that without noticing? The ring could get lost so easily sitting there. He picked it up and put it into his pocket, reminding himself to give it to Murdoch when he came back inside, then walked across the yard and into the house to return to his brother’s side.

***

Johnny opened his eyes slowly. His head was kind of fuzzy and he suspected that Sam must have given him something to make him sleep. There was still a little sunlight in the room – but was it the same day?

Looking down at his arm, he found that it was now encased in a heavy splint. He knew he wasn’t going anywhere without help.

 He set his good arm against the mattress and tried to edge up a little, only to have Scott suddenly at his side to stop him.

"Take it easy, Johnny. Just lie still for awhile. You gave us all quite a scare, you know? When Barranca came running in..."

"Barranca is ok?"

"Yes, he’s a little scratched, but Jelly says he's going to be fine... he’s a lot better off than you are at the moment, Brother."

Johnny closed his eyes for a moment to try to sort out his thoughts. There seemed to be a dozen things to ask at once and then nothing at all. He hated that feeling.

But Barranca was safe... that was one thing off his mind.

Angel!

"Angel... where is he?"

Scott was taken aback by the tone of Johnny’s voice. It sounded almost desperate, and Scott had to wonder why a stranger… even one who had obviously saved his life… had become so important to him.

He hadn’t had time to really talk to Angel yet. He’d shown the man to a room and Angel had been sleeping ever since. But Scott did feel that there was something different about him.

“He’s resting. Apparently, he traveled all night to get you here. He was exhausted.”

"He didn't get much sleep for a couple of days before that either," Johnny confessed. "Guess I kept him busy. But I need to talk to him."

"Something I can help you with?" Scott asked.

Johnny shook his head..."No... not yet. Just get him for me... ok? It's important. There's somethin’ goin’ on… and you and Murdoch need to know about it."

Scott sighed. "He's probably still sleeping, but I'll get him if it's important."

He got to his feet reluctantly.

"It is," Johnny assured him, watching him walk towards the door. "An' Scott, make sure you knock on his door good an' loud. Believe me... you don't wanta spook him."

Scott looked back at Johnny. He still looked terribly pale and weak, but there was something else there too... fear? The thought frightened Scott... there was little that Johnny Madrid feared. "I'll get him," he said quietly.

The wait for Scott to come back with Angel seemed interminable, but Johnny waited. Somehow, he and Angel had to convince Murdoch that he was in danger from... something.

But how? Would Murdoch believe things he could not see with his eyes, touch with his hands? Would he believe what amounted to old stories from a land he had left behind, along with it superstitions. It was asking a lot of a man like Murdoch Lancer.

He still had trouble believing it all himself. If he hadn't seen Angel...

The door opened and Angel walked in, with Scott right behind him. Johnny had hoped that they could have talked alone first, but there was no time to try to explain anything to Scott.

The sun was dipping toward the mountains and soon it would be night again... time for the cat to start prowling. They had to tell Murdoch now.

But not up here... How could his father take him series lying in bed like this? “Help me up, will you? I want to go downstairs.”

"I don't think so, Johnny," Scott said curtly.

Johnny closed his eyes and sighed. "I feel fine, Scott. I just want to go downstairs. I'll rest up there... promise."

"Well, Sam did say that you could go down for a while, IF you're feeling up to it," Scott told him firmly. "How do you feel?"

"I feel just fine," Johnny replied irritably. "Angel, did you talk to Murdoch yet?"

"No, I haven't had a chance to," Angel admitted. "But we need to talk to him before dark."

Johnny nodded. "Scott, help me get downstairs... it's important. Murdoch could be in a lot of danger..."

"All right," Scott agreed. Sam had said he could go down for a while, after all. "But you take it easy. Murdoch can look after himself..."

Angel and Johnny looked at each other. Murdoch couldn't look after himself... not this time... not against what was out there....
 

CHAPTER ELEVEN

Murdoch looked up from his desk. It had been hard to concentrate on numbers when everything around him seemed so... out of kilter, but they had to be done. The knowledge that Johnny was safely upstairs did little to ease his mind. They had come so close to losing him. And what had his son gone through while out there… alone until Angel had arrived. That brought him to his biggest concern… Angel. Who was this man? One moment, he seemed genuinely concerned about Johnny, and the next - apparently indifferent.

 

The sound of shuffling feet drew his attention toward the stairway beyond the door.

"Johnny, what are you doing down here? Are you sure you're up to it?"

Johnny nodded, sweating from the exertion of getting down the staircase. Even with Scott and Angel’s help, it had been a lot harder than he’d expected. "No..." he ground his teeth as they settled him on the couch. "But I'm here."

Murdoch cast a questioning glance at Scott.

"I know," Scott answered, without needing to be asked. "But he insists on talking to you. He says it's important."

Murdoch set his pencil down and closed his ledger. "Important enough to come all the way down here?"

"Yeah," Johnny answered shortly. "It's that important.”

Scott quickly placed an extra pillow behind Johnny's back and another for him to rest the heavily splinted arm on.

He'd helped Johnny into a sling to support it earlier, but it was obviously heavy on Johnny's shoulder and Scott could see pain wearing on his brother's face.

He knew Johnny would fight it, but Scott was afraid he would have to resort to trying to coax him into accepting a small dose of that hated laudanum if Johnny was to get through this.

Scott could see him steeling himself against the pain and the inevitable resistance he expected to get from his father.

Johnny nodded. "Angel here has a message for you and I think you'd better listen to him."

Scott looked from Johnny to Angel... there was something between them. He could feel it, as if it were a tangible thing and, whatever it was, it left him feeling cold and distanced from his brother.

He looked around the room, trying to draw comfort from the commonplace… from this room that was the heart of Lancer. Late afternoon shadows had already darkened the corners and were slowly marching inward. In an hour’s time it would be dark. But a single, long streak of light came through the window towards the sofa and Angel deliberately stepped back into the shadows.

It seemed to Scott that the man was doing his best to avoid it.

Johnny was watching Angel closely. “Murdoch, you think you can pull those drapes?” he finally said. “That sun’s right in my eyes.”

From where Scott stood, he didn’t think it was. But Murdoch stood up and pulled the drapes anyway. Then he walked around the desk and crossed the room to where Johnny sat.

 Scott watched Murdoch study Johnny carefully. Johnny was sitting up at the moment, but it was doubtful that he would be able to maintain that for long. He was already paler than he was when they first helped him downstairs.

“You should lie down, Son,” Murdoch said.

But Johnny looked up at his father defiantly, determined that he wasn’t going to lie down until what had to be said… was said.

"All right.” Murdoch crossed his arms over his chest. “What is it?"

Johnny looked up at Angel, suddenly looking lost, like he didn’t know where to start. Angel pushed away from the wall and walked around the sofa to stand behind Johnny.

"A man..." Angel began, and then stopped.  "A friend of mine," he corrected nervously, "was killed in Boston a couple of weeks ago."

"Boston?" Scott looked from Johnny to Angel.

Angel glanced towards him and then ignored him, looking back at Murdoch. "Just before he died, he asked me to find you and warn you. He only said 'Lancer', but Johnny and I are convinced it's you he meant."

"Warn me about what?"  Murdoch asked curtly.

Scott looked at his brother and saw something he seldom saw in Johnny's eyes... fear. The room seemed to close in a little more and Scott took a step closer to the couch. "Maybe,” he said, looking across the couch at Angel, “you should just tell us the whole story – from the beginning. And..." he warned, “if this has anything to do with my grandfather..."

"It doesn’t," Johnny said firmly. “Sit down and listen to what the man has to say.”

Scott thought he heard an echo of Johnny Madrid in that command. He swung around and glared at his brother. A thin coat of sweat covered Johnny’s pale face.

He held his tongue and made his way to an armchair facing the couch and sat down.

Angel waited for Scott to take a seat. "Maybe you should sit down, too, Mr. Lancer," he suggested.

Murdoch frowned. "I’ll stand. Now get on with it.”

Angel nodded. “Malcolm Blake traveled from Scotland. His father knew your father."

Murdoch's shoulders flinched just a little. "My father?” Why was his father so much a part of his life all of a sudden? He had dreamed of him for the first time in years the other night… now this…

Murdoch suddenly remembered and was stunned. "Malcolm Blake... I remember him. Callum Blake was his father. He and my Da... my father... were good friends."

"Malcolm was chasing something... hunting it," Angel continued. "It killed his father... years ago. He didn't have time to tell me much about it, just that he had followed it to America.” He stopped and looked hard at Murdoch. “And that it was after someone called 'Lancer'..." The threat lingered in the air like a thick, suffocating cloud.

“Why?” Murdoch finally asked, his voice husky.

“I don’t know,” Angel told him candidly. “I do know that they are vengeful demons…”

“Demons?” Murdoch’s face turned from worried confusion to outright anger. “ Johnny may have been half out of his mind with fever when you got him to believe this nonsense, but..."

“Murdoch, I can't tell you that I understand any of  this either," Johnny told him angrily. "But I trust Angel... hear him out."

Angel took a wary glance towards Johnny and Scott saw him simply shrug his shoulders.

“Demons, Mr. Lancer…” Angel finally repeated, very calmly. “What’s after you is not human… and it’s full of hate and vengeance.”

“Just what are we talking about?” Scott asked, annoyed by the lunacy of the story.

“It's called a Baobhan sith."

Scott scowled. “A what?”

"A Baobhan sith,” Angel answered and turned back to Murdoch. “If your father ever escaped from one, they might come after you in his place.”

Johnny looked up toward Angel. Angel had told him about the Baobhan sith’s attack on Malcolm Blake... in gory detail... "Tell him, Angel… everything. He has a right to know."

A sullen stillness filled the room, and Scott could feel the unease growing like a storm. He shifted closer to the edge of the seat.

Angel turned back to Murdoch. "Malcolm was slashed to death by the Baobhan sith. There was nothing I could do for him by the time I got there. He was barely alive and he asked me to find ‘Lancer’ and warn him. After I talked to Johnny I knew he meant you."

Scott paled, thinking about the eerie shrieking of the past few nights. But that was impossible. Angel was talking about Boston... thousands of miles away and a city - not the foothills of the San Joaquin Valley. "Slashed?" he asked uneasily.

Angel looked towards him. "Yes... it looked like claw marks."

“The cat?” Scott asked. “That’s ridiculous! In Boston?”

Angel scowled at him. “What I’m talking about is not any run of the mill puma,” he said coldly. “This thing is dangerous in ways that you can’t even conceive.”

Evening was creeping closer, the shadows eating the fading light like hungry monsters. The sun was beginning it's descent behind the mountains, and it wouldn't be long before darkness crept back over the land.

Darkness meant only one thing in the valley at the moment – the cat – and Scott, for one, did not want to be caught in that darkness...

Without a word, he stood up and picked up the matches from the mantle over the fireplace, then he lit the lamp on the desk.

Light... they needed light.

Waving the match to extinguish it, the lamp caught a letter opener on the desk and it glimmered as the light flickered.

Suddenly, he remembered the ring in his pocket. He slipped his hand in and pulled out the strange ring. He hadn’t looked at it before, but in the lamplight, he realized how simple it was – crudely made and certainly not silver. It seemed an odd thing for Murdoch to suddenly take to wearing, but he put it down on the desk next to the lamp.

A wisp of air caught the lamp’s flame and it danced erratically, casting shadows that played on the drapes in front of him, taunting his imagination...

"Mr. Lancer…" Angel began and dragged Scott’s attention back to the others in the room. He turned back to face them.

Murdoch looked guardedly at Angel. He and Johnny were both asking him to believe something that was impossible to believe. And yet… “Murdoch…” he corrected hesitantly, knowing to acknowledge this insanity was to give it life…

"All right… Murdoch, what do you know about the Baobhan sith?”

“Nothing,” he answered, too quickly for Scott’s liking.

“You didn’t hear tales as a child? Back in Scotland?”

“I said no,” Murdoch replied sharply.

“They’re…” Angel began and looked to Johnny for support.

“Tell him,” Johnny said resignedly.

The lamplight caught Angel's eyes for a moment. Scott thought he saw something there... foreboding? Johnny believed him... and his brother was seldom wrong about a person.

 “They’re vampires… of a sort,” Angel said. “But they slash their prey instead of biting…”

 Scott looked to see Johnny’s reaction and was floored to see that his brother believed the stranger. “Oh, this is ridiculous!” He said angrily, getting to his feet. “Murdoch, what we have out there is a cougar… nothing more!”

 “It’s no ordinary cougar, Scott,” Johnny told him, glaring at him. “For a start, it’s black…”

  “Black?” Murdoch asked. All eyes turned on him at once. “How do you know? No one’s seen it.”

 "I have," Johnny said softly, head bent as he worried the blanket between his fingers. "It got close... real close...."

 Scott glanced across at Angel, remembering the gory details... then back down to Johnny. "After lying in the sun all day with a broken arm?” Scott asked incredulously.  “Johnny, you were feverish, hallucinating. A black cougar?”

 “I’ve heard stories of them,” Murdoch said skeptically.

 “There used to be panthers around here, years ago,” Johnny countered. “Still are in some parts of Mexico. But it didn’t look like a panther… not with that white spot on its chest.”

“White… white spot…” Murdoch seemed to stumble over the words. Scott looked at him. He’d paled noticeably.

“Murdoch, you can’t believe any of this… it’s insane!” Scott insisted.

“Not a panther…” Murdoch said, to no one in particular. “A cait…”

They all stared at him. “What?” Johnny asked.

“A cait,” Murdoch repeated. “A cait sith… but it can’t be… not here. The black cats of the Highlands. They’re supposed to be bigger than a panther… and they all have a white spot on their chests.”

Angel frowned. “Malcolm was certain about what he was after. It was the Baobhan sith,” he told them firmly. “But I’ve heard of demons taking animal form…”

Murdoch frowned heavily. "I've never heard of anyone being killed by a cait... animals yes... but never a human. The caits are harbingers..."

Johnny stared at his father. "Harbingers?"

Murdoch nodded slowly. "The legends say that their howl is a warning of something evil coming... but it's myth... stories made up to scare children. It's not real..."

“Enough of this!” Scott shouted. “You’re talking ghosts and goblins here…”

Angel stared at him. “What you believe doesn’t matter a whole lot to me,” he said coolly. “But I promised a friend of mine that I’d warn your father and that’s what I’m here to do.”

He looked back towards Murdoch. "You have to be careful," he told him seriously. "They can only move around easily in the dark, but that doesn't mean they're not there all the time. It could be stalking you right now."

"It doesn't make sense," Murdoch answered uncertainly. He stood up slowly, waving a concerned Scott away as he walked  toward the fireplace. He stared into the empty grate for a moment, then lifted his head and looked at Angel. "Why me?"

“Did your father ever see one?” Angel asked calmly, and watched the man closely to see his reaction.

Murdoch stood stock-still. “No… I don’t think so… he never said…”

An image of his father pounding on the wall in the middle of the night, crying out and sweating in fear, came into his mind. Those nightmares – had they meant something after all? Was it some memory locked away in the recesses of Murdoch’s mind?

No! “I’ve heard enough! This is all nonsense!” Scott insisted, concerned now about the effect it was having on his father.

Angel ignored him. “Like I said, the Baobhan sith are vengeful demons. If your father ever escaped one, they would never forgive him. They will carry that vendetta from one generation to the next - and you are the next.”

He walked, slowly and deliberately, over to stand beside Murdoch. “It doesn't just kill to eat, it kills for the pleasure of it," he said coldly. "Now, I’ve passed on the warning, just like I promised Malcolm… it’s up to you to take notice of it.”

He turned back to Johnny and sighed. "I'm going outside..." he said quietly. "I'll be back in an hour or so."

Johnny nodded and said nothing, apparently not surprised that Angel was suddenly leaving. There was more to it than that. Scott could read it on Johnny's face. They were hiding something.

“Johnny…” he began.

But Johnny closed his eyes wearily. He leaned his head on the back of the sofa. “Not now, Scott,” he said in little more than a whisper. “You’ve told us what you think. I don’t blame you for not believing him, but it’s not you who’s in danger here. It’s Murdoch.”

He opened his eyes and rolled his head towards his father, too tired to lift it. “This is real, Murdoch," he warned grimly. "There’s somethin’ out there - somethin' evil. I don’t care what it’s called… but you have to believe Angel and be careful. Stay inside at night... stay close to us… whatever it takes.”

***

 Johnny heard a horse and buggy pull up to the front of the house, but he was too exhausted to care.

 "It's Cadha!" Murdoch announced as he parted the drapes.

 “Who?” Johnny asked wearily.

 “Oh no…” Teresa sighed, coming into the room. Smells from the kitchen followed and Johnny's stomach soured at the thought of food.

 Her face blanched at the mention of Cadha's name.

 “Cadha Drummond,” his father explained excitedly, apparently not even hearing the dismay in Teresa’s voice. He headed across the room to the front door. “Oh, you haven’t met her properly yet, have you? You met briefly at the dance before you left. You’ll love her - everyone does.”

 "Not now," Johnny moaned. "Tell her not now, will ya, Murdoch?"

 Murdoch laughed as he passed the couch and hurried for the door. “You’ll feel better when you meet her. She brightens up a room just by being in it.”

 Johnny scowled and looked at his brother, but Scott just sighed heavily and sat down in the armchair next to the couch.

 Teresa walked over to stand behind Scott’s chair and Johnny could see her fingers digging into the upholstery.

 It seemed, to Johnny, that neither of them was as excited about the visit as Murdoch was. He eased up into a slightly more upright position so that he could see this vision when she came in. He sure didn’t remember meeting anyone like that at the dance.

 “Here she is, Johnny,” Murdoch said ecstatically. “Cadha, this is my youngest son, Johnny.”

 She wasn’t what Johnny had expected to see. Murdoch had good taste in women. Aggie was a fine looking woman, and Mrs. Dane had been beautiful. But Cadha Drummond was a small, angular woman with gray hair and sallow skin. She was dressed in a shapeless drab green garment and extended a bony hand to him.

 Johnny did remember her from the dance. He also remembered the shock both he and Scott had felt when Murdoch had targeted her from among all the women there that night. Johnny hadn’t even considered the possibility that something might come of that meeting.

 “I’m so very glad you’re home safe, John,” she said in honeyed tones that sent a shiver down his back.

 Apprehension hummed through his body as she drew closer, and when his hand touched her cold fingers to shake hands, his whole being called out to run away.

 “Oh no!” Teresa cried out and ran for the door, distracting Johnny. “Murdoch, how could you?” she whispered as she passed him, but he seemed to be oblivious to her rebuke.

Johnny’s eyes followed her and there, in the doorway waiting for an invitation into the house, stood Dan Brennen and his pretty cousin, Kelly. No, ‘pretty’ wasn’t enough to describe the girl. With Cadha Drummond in front of him for comparison, Johnny thought he’d never seen a woman so lovely.

 Teresa ushered the pair into the Great Room, gushing apologies and glaring at Murdoch for his rudeness. But she was wasting her time, Murdoch was captivated by the Drummond woman and had eyes only for her.

 Scott said a polite, but cool, hello to Cadha and Johnny watched her. It was her eyes that he noticed most. They were icy when they looked at Scott, and there was no handshake for him either. She glared at him and then smiled.

 Johnny figured that they must have quarreled at some stage. Both of them treated each other with a chilling reserve but Murdoch seemed oblivious to it.

 “You must be so relieved to have your son home, alive and well, Murdoch,” Cadha said with a smile, her eyes turned up to his face.

 Murdoch took her hand in his and raised it to his lips, leaving Johnny’s mouth open in astonishment. “Of course, but it’s not half as good as having you here with me,” Murdoch murmured to her. “When you’re not here, there’s just no pleasure in life.”

 Johnny struggled up a little more and turned to look at his brother. He could see color rising in Scott’s face as he grew angrier. “Hey… Scott,” he whispered quickly. “What the hell’s goin’ on?”

 But Scott didn’t get a chance to answer. Kelly Brennen appeared at Johnny’s side.

 "I heard you were hurt, Johnny," she said as she reached out to take his hand. "I couldn't stand it. When we heard that Miss Drummond was coming out here, I just had to come to see how you are. Your poor arm, does it hurt terribly?"

 Johnny looked up at her, all the tension in the room disappearing at her light touch. His tiredness lifted and the aching throb in his arm no longer bothered him. He gathered up his most brilliant smile for her. "I’ve had worse," he told her quietly. "It'll just keep me out of work for awhile," he said this with a mischievous little glance toward his brother.

 Scott shook his head, but smiled. “How are you, Miss Brennen?” he asked charmingly. He stood up and strolled over to her side.

 She sat down on the edge of the couch, next to Johnny. “It’s always a pleasure to see you, Scott,” she answered, smiling at him.

 Then she turned all of her attention back to Johnny, leaving Johnny to throw a victorious glance at his crestfallen brother.

 “We were all so worried about you, Johnny,” she said anxiously. “Alone out there… with that beast roaming the hills. Dan said it must be a monster of a cougar to make so much noise, didn’t you, Dan?”

 Teresa stayed with Dan and chatted with him while Kelly visited with Johnny. He looked over at Kelly and nodded. “Yeah, reckon it must be huge.”

 “Oh, that dreadful noise!” Cadha exclaimed. “It’s just frightening.”

 Murdoch patted her hand reassuringly. “I wouldn’t let it hurt you, my dear,” he told her. “Why don’t I get you a glass of brandy? It will settle your nerves.”

 “You’re a dear man, Murdoch,” she replied. “That would be lovely.” From his place on the couch, Johnny watched his father lead the woman to his desk where a decanter of brandy sat with a set of crystal glasses.

 Johnny edged up a little to watch. The woman walked with Murdoch to the desk and stood in the soft glow of the lamp. The light played on her face and hair, but there was no life there. Her hair was lusterless and her skin made him think of the old brujas he remembered hearing stories about as a child.

 He shivered. There was something about her that unnerved him.

 Murdoch held out a glass to her. His eyes watched her, enraptured, as she reached those long, skeletal fingers past the lamp to take the glass. But she pulled back sharply, a terrified expression on her face.

 For just a moment, Murdoch’s face registered shock. He stared at Cadha and frowned. Johnny wondered if he had actually seen her for what she was, but then the moment was gone when she looked up and into his eyes.

  “Did you burn yourself?” he asked anxiously.

 “No… no… I’m all right, my love,” she assured him, staring at the desktop.

 Johnny couldn’t see what she was looking at, but there something on that desk that she didn’t like. The malevolent expression in her eyes told him that.

 Murdoch walked around the desk and took her arm, handing her the glass of brandy.

 “Thank you, Murdoch,” she said and smiled up at him. “Tell me, now that your son is home, have you decided to go ahead with the dance on Saturday?”

 Johnny was stunned and turned to see what his brother’s reaction was to that. He found that Scott was visibly trying to control his temper.

 “I… I don’t know, Cadha…” Murdoch stammered, hesitantly glancing at Scott and then at Johnny. “Johnny’s not well…”

 Cadha turned to stand in front of Murdoch. She lifted her thin, bony fingers to his face and ran them down his cheek. “But he’s safe and sound, my love,” she whispered softly. “And you know how I love to dance… can’t you hear the music… so soft… so sensuous…?”

 Her voice was like velvet - sultry... almost seductive. If he closed his eyes, Johnny could picture a beautiful woman whispering them but, with his eyes open, he was repelled instead.

 “We could dance under the stars… maybe there’ll even be a little moonlight,” she persisted beguilingly.

 “Perhaps you’re right,” Murdoch answered, smiling again. “We can celebrate Johnny’s safe return…”

 “Murdoch Lancer!” Teresa shouted from behind Johnny, jolting his nerves and reawakening the pain in his arm. “Don’t you even consider entertaining when Johnny is hurt!”

 Murdoch looked stunned by her outburst, but the woman beside him turned that icy stare on Teresa.

 Teresa backed away a step under that frigid gaze, but she stopped and took a deep breath before adding, furiously, “I mean it, Murdoch. This is not the time for a party.”

 “Maybe not a big affair, Teresa,” Murdoch suggested. “Just a few good friends…”

 “It does sound like fun,” Kelly added naively. She gazed into Johnny’s eyes. “Do you think you would be well enough to save a dance for me?”

 “Querida, I’ll save every dance for you,” Johnny answered, adding the most dazzling smile he could muster.

 “You can dance another time, Brother,” Scott told him heatedly. “It’s out of the question!”

 “Oh, that’s a shame,” Kelly sighed. “Perhaps we could make it another time then, when Johnny is a little better.”

 “Will you all stay for dinner?” Murdoch suggested blithely. “It should be ready soon.”

 “Thank you, but no, Murdoch,” Cadha said firmly. “I’ve promised Mrs. Brennen to have Kelly and Dan home in time for supper.”

 “Yeah, we oughta be leavin’, Kelly,” Dan told her. “Ma’ll be waitin’ supper otherwise.”

 “I suppose so,” she said, placing her hand gently on Johnny’s hand. “I just wanted to be sure that Johnny was all right.”

 “I’ll walk you to the door,” Johnny suggested, struggling against the cumbersome splint to get up. But a cautioning hand came down on his shoulder.

 “You’ll stay right where you are, Brother,” he said resolutely. “I’ll see the lady to the door. You’re supposed to be resting.”

 He stepped around to help Kelly to her feet, but she had already helped herself instead and disregarded his proffered hand. “Thank you, Scott,” she said distractedly. “Dan, you’re right, we should be going.”

 With that, she turned to smile one more time at Johnny, and then took her cousin by the arm and started for the door.

 Cadha Drummond tucked her arm possessively into Murdoch’s and followed her. When she passed Johnny, she gave him a light pat on the shoulder and said, “Get well… soon.”

Johnny felt a shiver roll down his back. He watched her follow Kelly and Dan out of the hacienda and then turned to Scott.

“You want to tell me what the hell that was all about?” he demanded.

“It’s been going on since that dance,” Scott told him, heaving a heavy sigh.

“He’s like a love-sick puppy,” Teresa added. “If she were… well, you know… but she’s not even nice! I can’t imagine what he sees in her.”

Scott drummed his hand on the back of the couch and started for the door. “I’d better see them off,” he said reluctantly. “Though I won’t miss Cadha Drummond… and I don’t think Kelly Brennen will miss me!”

“Don’t be a sore loser, Scott,” Johnny called after him. “The lady just has good taste.”

Teresa laughed for the first time in days, then she turned and followed Scott, apparently determined to be hospitable despite her feelings.

She got there just in time to see Dan helping Kelly into the buggy. Cadha was already seated and adjusting her skirts, while Murdoch kept close by her side until the last minute.

When they were finally settled, Dan flicked the reins and turned the buggy to go back the way they had come. She watched them out of sight. She rather liked Dan, and his cousin seemed nice enough.

 As it passed under the Lancer arch, the buggy disappeared into the night and Teresa sighed. She had no idea how they were going to deal with that woman. But Teresa did know that she would never live under the same roof as her.

 She was sure that Scott felt the same way. Murdoch didn't seem to notice it, but the atmosphere around Cadha Drummond was oppressive.

 As if to echo her gloomy thoughts, the cat screeched somewhere out in the darkness. Instinctively, she wrapped her arm around Scott's and clung to him as the high pitched scream shredded the night and her nerves. Would this nightmare never end?

 

CHAPTER TWELVE

 "Murdoch, I don't know what's come over you lately!" Teresa snapped at him as she came through the front door beside him. "How can you even consider a party when Johnny is hurt?"

He tried to ignore her, but she wouldn’t be shaken.

“You should be ashamed. I can’t believe you can think of dancing when you son nearly died.”

Murdoch looked from Teresa to Johnny lying on the couch. The thought of Cadha faded from adulation to confusion... why would he ever agree to a party now?

Angel was back, leaning over Johnny and talking quietly to him. There was something about the man that disturbed him, even though he had brought Johnny back to them. He couldn't define it, but there was something...

"Don't worry Teresa, there will be no parties," he told her decisively.

Suddenly, he found the whole room was staring at him as if he were a stranger. Confused, he tried again to ignore them. It began to occur to him that they didn't like Cadha for some reason. He couldn't understand that. She was what every man sought in a woman... beauty, grace...

He stopped in front of his desk and saw the ring lying there. How did it get there? Well, it didn't matter.

He suddenly had the overwhelming urge to slip the ring back on his finger. He took a step closer to the desk and surreptitiously picked it up, a flash of a memory of Cadha standing next to him... old and ugly... He shook the thought off.

Scott watched his father slip the ring onto his finger and frown. Behind him, was the mirror Teresa had hung over the liquor cabinet. She'd put it there to replace a painting while it was being cleaned and, now, it reflected Murdoch's actions. The image seemed oddly appropriate. Murdoch and his reflection... he seemed like two people lately.

He wondered what was going on in his head. One moment, he was all for that damned party and the next he was totally against it.

Then he glanced back to Angel, standing beside Johnny like he was part of the family.

Scott felt uncomfortable around him and definitely didn't like his hearing a family argument. He wished he could pin down what it was about the man that disturbed him, but it was too ethereal… no more than a feeling.

Teresa had stopped her tirade, obviously just as stunned as he was by Murdoch's turn around. "I'm going to see if dinner is ready," she said huffily and stormed from the room.

Dinner… something normal… it was what they needed now, a return to the mundane… a moment to savor without Cadha Drummond or the cat or… he looked back towards Angel and realized that it would not be as routine as he had hoped.

Unexpectedly, the front door opened and Jelly slipped in, his face looking decidedly pale.

"That cat sounds mighty close, Boss," he said. "An’ I ain’t likin' it one bit. We’re gonna have trouble with the stock…"

"It did sound close," Murdoch agreed, musing over the ring on his finger before looking up to attend to business as usual. Suddenly, he was himself again. "Get two of the men and check the corrals and yard. Make sure it's not around... and make sure you've got rifles. How are the horses?"

“Gettin’ real edgy, Murdoch,” Jelly replied.

Murdoch looked over towards Scott. “Son, can you check them? Angel and I will look after Johnny.”

Scott nodded. "I'll check them. And you..." he looked down at Johnny," stay where you are."

Johnny tried to edge up a little but caught the splint on the edge of the couch. Scott watched, bordering on panic, as his brother gasped in pain and fell back, clutching his broken arm. He ran to his side and Johnny held his wrist, grimacing in agony as he rode out the pain.

Scott turned to Angel. "Some brandy, quickly..."

Jelly rushed over to Johnny, looking at Angel as if he were responsible. "This boy belongs upstairs in his bed... not down here...."

But Angel was already striding over to the liquor cabinet. Murdoch was there before him and poured a generous measure into a glass and handed it to him.

Scott watched him and his mind registered something... something wrong.

He frowned and suddenly realized what it was... the mirror. He could see his father handing over the glass... but there was no one to take it. Angel stood beside Murdoch at the cabinet... but not in the reflection!

Angel accepted the glass from Murdoch and looked up, straight into the mirror. He stopped for a moment, then turned around and caught Scott’s eyes.

He didn’t seem surprised at all. Instead, Scott found himself held in a steady glare - locked eye to eye – almost trancelike. Scott found he couldn’t look away. He realized that Angel knew what he had seen… or hadn’t seen… and he saw just the merest hint of a smile cross Angel’s lips. But there was no warmth in it… just a kind of challenge… daring Scott to say something… here… now…

Angel walked across the room towards him, lithe… catlike… He had an uncommon grace for so big a man. But he didn’t take his eyes off Scott for a moment.

Scott fought down a rising feeling of dread. His heart was beating so fast and so loud that he was sure everyone in the room must be able to hear it. He held his breath as Angel approached.

He felt Jelly stiffen at his side. Had Jelly seen the impossible too? Scott felt a shiver run down his spine.

Johnny moaned quietly beside him and Scott broke away from Angel’s grip in the same instant that Angel himself did. Both of them looked towards Johnny, and the moment passed. Scott breathed out slowly and dismissed the whole thing as impossible. He turned his attention to his brother and the urgency of the situation. He could rationalize it all later. Right now, Johnny needed him.

"Here..." Angel said quickly, handing the glass to Scott.

Scott accepted it hesitantly. He couldn't get past the fact that there was something wrong with this man.

He could feel everyone watching as he lifted Johnny's head and held the glass to his lips. His brother was breathing heavily and sweat rolled down his face. Scott let him finish the glass slowly, and then lowered him back onto the pillow.

"Go check the horses," Johnny managed to say as he settled back onto the couch. "I'll be fine."

"I'll take him up to his room," Angel suggested. He was looking down at Johnny with a worried frown. "You go check your horses. I'll stay with him till you get back."

"I'm fine," Johnny argued. "Just quit fussing... all of you."

Scott looked from Johnny to Angel, unsure… but his common sense prevailed. There was no earthly reason for Angel to harm Johnny after bringing him home.

“All right,” he agreed, but frowned at Johnny. “But you go to bed... and stay there this time.”

***

Scott was shaken.

Things he perceived as real, things he knew to be true, were suddenly threatened by things he didn’t understand. His mind still reeled at the thought of Angel. Who was he? What was he?  How could he believe what he had just seen? How could the logical, college educated side of him accept the unexplainable… the gut instinct that told him this was all too real?

He reached the barn, holding the lantern out in front of him, seeking sanctuary in the small pool of light that kept the night at bay. But beyond the flickering light, the blackness pressed in. He longed for the light of day to wash away the darkness.

 Inside the barn, he could hear the horses moving restlessly in their stalls. The cat’s cry had spooked them, and he could understand why. There was something overtly evil about that sound. The cait… that was what Murdoch had called it, and he'd seen the look on Murdoch’s face when he spoke of it…

 He opened the barn door slowly and the smell of horse and hay, mingled with the smell of fear, stole his breath away. He wanted to turn and run. Every nerve in his body screamed at him that there was danger waiting inside. But the sounds of horses pawing nervously at the ground, their frightened whinnies and snorts filling the darkness, urged him on.

He stepped inside hesitantly, groping in his pocket for matches to light the lantern hanging on the wall beside him. His hands shook as he lifted the glass chimney. The extra light did little to stave off the darkness beyond the flickering halo of yellow light. The loft above remained hidden, lost in blackness, like the rest of the barn.

Holding the lantern high in front of him, he walked slowly toward the stalls. He found Barranca and Charley pressed far back against the wall, shaking their heads nervously, their ears pinned back and their nostrils flaring… terrified.

“Easy boy,” he whispered to Charley then moved on to Barranca.  “Easy Barranca…”

He didn’t dare enter the stalls. He trusted Charley, and he knew that Barranca wouldn't harm him intentionally, but there was panic in the air - and those hooves could be deadly.

From somewhere in the darkness above him, Scott heard a low guttural growl. He froze where he stood, the hairs on the back of his neck standing on end. Barranca bucked, kicking the back wall, his eyes rolling back in sheer terror.

 Scott brushed against the stall and realized he had forgotten to strap on his gun. The night had been so strange that it was the last thing on his mind. He closed his eyes and fought down a rising wave of fear. He was defenseless and alone... and he was sure he knew what was up there.

 Above him, in the loft, a floorboard creaked and a tiny shower of hay wafted down to the ground at his feet.

 Another creak... another shaft of hay, caught in the glow of the light... and his nerves tingled.

 Something heavy was pacing up there... slowly coming in his direction.

 Silence suddenly filled the barn, and Scott heard the heavy thump of something jumping to the ground. Just beyond the reach of the flickering lantern light, the air hummed to the thrum of a deep resonant purr. The ground beneath his feet vibrated to the sound of it and shook his nerves to its beat.

 Scott looked toward the door…could he cover the distance before the cat?

 He flattened himself against the stall door, his chest heaving to draw air into his starved lungs. He couldn’t remember ever being so frightened.

 Two spheres of gold glowed through the darkness,. He could hear the soft pads of its paws lightly touching down on the floor as it moved closer to him.

 Out of the gloom and into the dim light of the lamp, a huge black cat showed itself, on its chest - a small white spot.

 It strode past him, sinewy muscles moving lithely beneath that black fur – the animal’s power and grace frighteningly beautiful.

 Scott could almost feel it as he passed. It came so close that he could have reached out and touched the animal - its purr so loud that it drowned the sound of his heart hammering against his chest.

 It looked up at him… eyes so intense that Scott had to close his own.

 It slowly walked out of the barn, out of the reach of the lantern's glow then turned its head back to reveal the glowing embers of its eyes... and it was gone.

 He felt weak at the knees... it was just as Johnny had described it.

 The animal was like nothing he had ever seen before, and it was on the hunt. But he was not the prey.

 He thought of his father. If that really had been a 'cait', surely it must be after Murdoch.

 ***

“Scott, what is it?” Johnny asked anxiously. Scott was white and panting from running. He burst into Johnny's bedroom and closed the door behind him quickly.

 He seemed to stop and collect his wits a little, eyeing Angel uneasily. “I saw… I think I saw…” he started, apparently unsure. “The cat was in the barn…”

 Johnny sat up far too fast. Without thinking, he pushed against the bed with his splinted arm and cried out.

 “In the barn?" he managed to ask, pulling the injured arm across his chest and supporting it while he rode out the pain. "Are you all right?”

 Angel started towards the bed. "You okay?"

 Johnny closed his eyes and nodded, then opened them again and turned to Scott. "Scott... what happened?" he asked anxiously.

 “It was out there… in the barn,” Scott told them, still leaning back against the closed bedroom door.

 "Did you get a good look at it?" Johnny asked.

 "Yes, it walked right by me. It was just like you described… big and black. It had that white spot… and those eyes....I've never seen anything like them."

 Looking at Johnny he just shook his head..."I can't explain it...it just disappeared...”

 “Sounds like what I saw,” Johnny agreed. He was worried. Scott looked shocked. He wasn’t the sort of man who could easily believe in the things Johnny had seen lately. Cool, calm logic just wasn’t going to work for him this time.

 "I just don't know what to make of the things that are going on around here, Johnny..." Scott admitted, sighing heavily. "Nothing makes sense any more..."

 “There are a lot of things in the world that you wouldn’t understand,” Angel told him. “It doesn’t mean they aren’t real.”

 Scott looked towards Angel and a shiver of fear ran down his spine. “If you start talking about Banshees again…” Scott said, glaring at him.

 “It’s not a banshee… that’s a whole different thing,” Angel explained.

 “It’s a Baobhan sith,” Johnny said carefully, trying to remember how Angel pronounced it.

 Angel grinned. “Well done, you got it right this time.”

 Johnny’s eyes sparkled for a moment. “De nada…”

 Scott’s temper exploded. He turned to Johnny and snapped, “Will you be serious?”

 “Sit down, Scott,” Johnny said calmly, but Scott didn't move. Instead, he eyed Angel warily.

 “Just sit down,” Johnny insisted patiently, and this time his brother grudgingly took a seat.

 Johnny watched him sit in the chair by the window and stare out into the night. He looked lost... confused.

 "There has to be a logical explanation for all this, Johnny," Scott said, pulling his eyes away from the night and back into the room with his brother... and Angel.

 "Go ahead an' tell him, Angel," Johnny said with a sigh. "He's not going to believe us any other way."

 "No," was Angel's curt and determined answer.

 Angel glowered at Johnny. "You tell him... He’s your brother…”

 “Tell me what?" Scott demanded angrily, looking from one to the other.

Angel continued to look at Johnny, who nodded slightly. "He's a vampire..." Johnny said impassively.

Scott stared at him. "Oh great, another vampire?" Scott asked, throwing his hands up in the air in disbelief. “There's an awful lot of them around, isn't there?"

"You'll have to show him Angel," Johnny told him, grinning now.

“No.”

“You can change whenever you want, can’t you?” Johnny asked, suddenly realizing how little he knew about it.

Angel crossed his arms defiantly. “Yes, I can change whenever I want,” he confirmed petulantly.

"Then you have to... he'll never believe us until he knows all of it."

 “Show me what?” Scott demanded.

Without further warning, Angel’s face transformed into that horrific visage Johnny saw in the shack. His face changed into something grotesque… evil… His eyes glowed beneath a deformed brow and his teeth lengthened into fangs.

Johnny had been ready for it... or he thought he had. But the transformation still shook him. His memory of that moment when he had seen the demon emerge was misted by the haze of fever. He was repulsed by the face and jumped in surprise.

He took a deep breath to steady his nerves and looked across at Scott.

Scott had leaped to his feet and knocked his chair over.

“Shit!” Scott gasped. “What is that? What… what are you?”

As easily as he had morphed into the vampire; Angel changed back. His face returned to normal before their eyes. The metamorphosis provided a strange fascination for Johnny, but the relief was overwhelming.

“He told you…” Angel answered with disdain, “… a vampire.”

Scott stood with his back to the wall, hands flattened against it. His face paled... he stared at Angel... then turned towards Johnny.

“Are you all right, Scott?” Johnny asked, becoming concerned. Now he could remember the terror that had gripped him when he had glimpsed the demon... when he had come face to face with the reality of what Angel was. Looking at Scott, he could see the same terror on his brother’s face.

“No, I’m not!” Scott returned angrily. “It’s… it’s not possible. There’s no such thing.”

“Don’t see how you can say that now, Boston,” Johnny said edgily. “You saw him… it… I know it’s kind of hard to accept, but you saw it with your own eyes. Sit down and breathe a little… it helps.”

Scott looked from one to the other and finally sat down hesitantly in the chair. “I think I need a drink…” He looked up at Angel again and remembered what he had… hadn’t… seen down in the Great Room. “Downstairs… you had no reflection in the mirror…”

Angel dropped his head a little, then he looked up and stared at Scott. “No,” he answered.

“You didn’t say anythin’,” Johnny demanded of Scott, stunned.

Scott looked at him, shock still in his eyes. “What could I say?” he demanded. “I couldn’t believe it was real… and you were hurting.” He stopped and stared at Angel again. “You knew I’d seen…” he said nervously, not taking his eyes off him.

“I knew,” Angel told him, almost casually. Then he frowned. “Did anyone else see?”

“I’m pretty sure Jelly did.”

This time Angel was definitely surprised. He unfolded his arms and threw them up in exasperation. “Oh, great!”

“It’s okay, we’re talking ‘bout Jelly here, Angel,” Johnny reassured him calmly. “He’s always ravin’ about spooks and superstitions. No one will pay him any mind.”

But Angel shook his head. “Maybe not overtly,” he told him. “But, it’ll be there, in the back of their minds. And with the atmosphere around here, you’ll have the whole ranch wearing crosses and carrying wooden stakes before the week is out.”

“And that worries you?” Scott asked, finally finding his voice.

“Damn right it worries me!”

“Then, you really are…?”

Angel glared at him. “Yes… I really am a vampire,” he told him forcefully. “I drink blood. I don’t have a reflection, my heart doesn’t beat and I don’t breathe… etcetera. Do you want to hear a full litany or are you going to just believe your eyes?”

Scott let the idea take hold in his mind. It slowly grew from disbelief to acceptance... and then, suddenly, the full understanding of what Angel was struck him.

He rounded on Johnny, fury flashing in his eyes. “You brought a vampire into the house? What about Teresa… and Maria… Didn’t you think about what could happen?”

Johnny eased onto his side and pushed himself up on his good arm, ignoring the shafts of pain from the other. He glared at his brother. “If I thought he’d hurt anyone here, I’d put a stake in him myself,” he threw back, furiously.

Out of the corner of his eye, Johnny caught a glimmer of doubt in Angel’s eyes. “Or die tryin’!” he added seriously. “And no, it was him brought me to the house – or have you forgotten that? If it weren’t for Angel, all you’d have ended up findin’ of me is what the buzzards an’ coyotes… not to mention your furry black friend out there… left of me.”

Scott stopped. He stared at his brother for a moment and then the fury died out of his eyes. He heaved a long, heavy sigh and sank back into the chair. “You’re right… I’m sorry.”

He turned his attention toward Angel. “I am sorry, Angel You saved my brother’s life and I'm truly grateful.”

“Besides, he don’t bite, Boston,” Johnny added, almost mischievously.

 “Actually, I do bite,” Angel said bluntly, staring at Scott. “Just not people... not any more.”

“I’ve never heard of a reformed vampire.”

“Not reformed,” Angel told him ironically, “not exactly… it’s a long story. Ask your brother about it some time, but I don’t feed on people.”

“Vampires are killers,” Scott said quietly, watching for Angel’s reaction. “Are you telling me you just gave it up… cast aside all your instincts…?”

Johnny scowled at him. “Don’t you think that’s possible, Scott?” he asked angrily. “A killer can’t get himself a conscience?”

Scott turned to him and looked him in the eyes. Suddenly, Johnny saw how appalled his brother was by what he’d said.

“Johnny, I didn’t mean…” He sat staring at his hands, rubbing them nervously. “Johnny, you know I didn’t mean that.”

Then he looked up curiously at Angel. “You don’t look like a… a vampire… most of the time, I mean.”

“Why… what should I look like?”

“I don’t know,” Scott answered, pondering. “I mean, the stories I’ve read talk about bats…”

“Scott!” Johnny gasped, amazed at his brother’s sudden fascination.

Angel shook his head. “Fairy tales!” he told him dismissively. “And, before you ask, I don’t sleep in a coffin either.”

Scott sighed heavily. Combing his hand through his hair, "I’m sorry… It’s just that everything as been so strange... Johnny was missing… that damned cat screeching... Murdoch... and... and…” he turned back to Angel. “And you…”

The slightest of smiles touched Angel's lips. "Me?" Then a thought came to him, drawing a frown instead. "Murdoch?"

“He…ah… hasn’t been himself lately.”

Johnny snorted and lay back on the bed, exhausted. “He sure wasn’t himself tonight. I thought he had better taste in women than that.”

“I know,” Scott agreed. “And he’s been having nightmares…”

"Nightmares?" Johnny asked, suddenly awake again. He turned his head towards Scott and scowled. "Murdoch?"

Scott nodded. “I found him pounding on the wall the other night.” He frowned, thinking. “You know, it’s since the cat started howling… now that I come to think about it. I know he’s had at least two terrible nightmares. He’s even taken to wearing an old ring since the first one.”

“A ring?” Angel asked, his interest piqued.

“Yes, it’s just a plain band, not even silver.”

“I didn’t see any ring tonight,” Johnny said thoughtfully.

“No, he took it off this afternoon when he was working the forge,” Scott told him. “I found it and put it on his desk so it wouldn’t get lost. He seems to set a lot of store by it.”

“You said it wasn’t silver,” Angel remarked, sitting down in another chair. “Could it be iron?”

Scott frowned. “Iron?” he asked, considering the possibility. “Yes, it could be. His father was a blacksmith and he said it was his father’s ring.”

Johnny could see that Angel had something on his mind. “Why?”

“A lot of cultures think that iron will keep away evil.”

“And does it?” Johnny asked quickly.

“Some demons are afraid of it,” Angel told him seriously. “It doesn’t bother me, but I’m sure it would keep a Baobhan sith away. Maybe your father knows more than he’s saying.”

“Scott, what did he say about the nightmares?” Johnny asked.

 “He didn’t seem to remember much, but he said something about his father being scared.”

 “He told us that his old man was as tough as nails. It would take a lot to scare him,” Johnny said.

 “I think we need to talk to him in the morning,” Angel suggested. He looked at Johnny. “You were wearing your gun when you saw the cat, right?”

 “Yeah, I remember pulling it and I think I might have fired it… can’t remember it real clearly.”

 Angel nodded. “The bullet wouldn’t have done any good anyway, but the gun itself would have protected you. What about you, Scott? Were you wearing a gun in the barn?”

 Scott shook his head, shuddering a little as he remembered the fear at being unarmed and defenseless. “No, I had nothing…”

 Angel frowned. “If it left you alone, there was probably some iron around to protect you.”

 “Of course!” Scott exclaimed. “I was hit by shrapnel one time, during the war. There was an explosion at a rail yard and I was hit by a shard of metal. They never got it out. It’s still in my shoulder.”

 “Iron?”

 “I believe so…"

 Angel smiled. “Then you should be the safest Lancer in the house!”

 

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

 Walking quietly down the stairs, sounds coming from the Great Room caught Angel’s attention. He stopped and listened, identifying the voice as Murdoch Lancer’s and went into the room.

 In the gloomy half-lit room, Murdoch was on the couch tossing wildly, apparently asleep and in the throes of a nightmare.

 Angel called Murdoch’s name. He suddenly leaped off the couch and spun around and stared at Angel, his eyes wild and then suddenly confused. Murdoch was covered in sweat and frowned at him.

 “What…?”

 “You were dreaming,” Angel explained, feeling uncomfortable. “I heard you…”

 Running his fingers through his unruly hair, Murdoch shook his head. “I’m sorry… didn’t mean to wake you…”

 “I wasn’t asleep,” Angel told him.

 Murdoch walked unsteadily back to the couch and sat down. He wiped the sweat from his face with his sleeve and sighed. “I don’t know what’s wrong… this isn’t like me.”

 Angel had already guessed that much. He watched as the man fidgeted nervously with the ring on his finger. “Maybe you remember more than you’re willing to admit,” he suggested.

 Murdoch looked up, frowning. “I don’t know what I remember,” he said worriedly. “I just have impressions… my father mostly. He was scared. My Da was never scared." A small shiver shook his huge frame. “There was something chasing us, but I don’t ‘remember’ what it was. We got to the house and the door was locked… he was pounding on it... I don't remember how we got inside... I think... I remember he went to the fireplace and made me sit down… and made me hold the iron poker...”

 "How old were you?" Angel asked... careful not to disturb his train of thought.

 "Maybe four or five… I forgot all about it until just now..." Suddenly Murdoch's eyes looked haunted. "It couldn't have happened, could it?"

 Angel poured Murdoch a glass of water and handed it to him, then he sat down on the couch beside him. “Do you remember hearing anything?”

 “No… but I was scared…” Murdoch answered, then drank down the whole glass. His hands were still shaking but he seemed to be gaining more control.

 “My father made this ring after that night and he always wore it... he gave it to me on his deathbed and made me swear to always wear it,” he told Angel, twisting the ring on his finger again. “I never knew why, and I didn’t really worry about it… until I started hearing that cat. Something made me get it out and put it on…”

 Murdoch looked at the ring for a long moment. "I always wore it until I met Scott's mother... then I wore her wedding ring... when she died... I never wore a ring again... not even Johnny's mother..."  He stopped suddenly. Angel heard an echo of guilt in those words.

 Murdoch started talking again. “It’s been in a box all these years, until I heard that cait…” He looked across at Angel and frowned. “You think we were running from… this thing, don’t you?”

 Angel nodded. “Yes, I think so.”

 Murdoch looked at Angel... his voice sounded so lost. "Did my father know this was going to happen someday? Was he protecting me from this?”

 Angel sighed and stared down at Murdoch’s hand. “It’s possible. May I see it?”

 Murdoch pulled it off his finger and handed it over. It was just as Angel had thought… iron. He looked at it and then handed it back.

 “Wear it,” he said firmly. “Don’t take it off again.”

 Murdoch frowned at him. “How do you know about these things anyway?”

 Angel smiled. “Let’s just say that I’ve walked with the devil myself… now and then. I don’t have all the answers, Murdoch, but I’ll help if I can.”

 Murdoch nodded and turned to reflect back out the window... he had a lot to think about.

 ***

The night called to Angel. He felt its pull and went outside into the darkness. Exhaustion had finally caught up with Johnny and he was sleeping soundly while Scott sat in a chair by the window, watching over him.

Murdoch Lancer was still in the Great Room, distracted by thoughts of the past and trying to come to grips with the present.

Angel considered the people here and found himself envying Johnny. The gunfighter had turned his back on the past and had the help and support of his family… the brother – Scott - especially.

He’d had never had a brother, though there had been a much younger sister, Cathy. She’d died with his mother and father all those years ago… at the beginning. He remembered that ‘family blood is always the sweetest…’ and it had been. But now… now, he had to live with the memories…

The horses in the corral stamped nervously and huddled together in a corner. It seemed that every living creature was on edge… and maybe even one that wasn’t actually living… himself.

He’d hunted earlier so, now, he mostly just enjoyed the freedom of movement that the night provided. He found himself near the barn and looked around carefully. The ground was hard packed from the constant tread of men and horses, but there was no sign whatsoever of paw prints. Inside, he found the horses were still a little restless, but they accepted his presence.

His keen eyes searched the floor, but still he found nothing to show that a cat had been there. Yet, he didn’t doubt that Scott had seen it. His description was too vivid, and his reaction too convincing. It had been here all right.

The cougar screamed its blood-curdling shriek again and he looked around quickly. It sounded so close, but there was no sign of it. And he knew it wasn’t really a cougar. There was definitely something unworldly about it, whether it was Murdoch’s ‘cait’ or something else.

Walking deeper into the barn he picked up a scent that didn't belong there. He didn’t know what it was, but he knew what it wasn’t – it wasn’t of this world.

He looked up... following the wisp of a scent. It was coming from up there in the hayloft.

Climbing the ladder to the loft, he stepped out into the straw covered floor and glanced around him. The cat was certainly not there now, but the scent was stronger here.

The cat must have stalked Scott from here. It had stayed for some time.

Near the edge of the loft some straw was flattened. The cat had crouched there... watching Scott as he walked through the barn... watching... waiting...

Angel knelt down on one knee beside the flattened straw. The smell was stronger here but there were no prints. He hadn't really expected there to be any... he knew now that what had been here was not a cougar...

Suddenly distracted, he heard noises coming from outside and looked up to listen. Horses whinnying in distress... voices - some shouting, some crying... all meshed together in a pandemonium of sounds. Something was very wrong out there...

He stood up, aware that there was trouble out in the yard. There was no time for ladders and he looked over the edge of the loft. It was an easy leap, so he stepped off.

For a brief moment, he felt the ultimate freedom of the air racing past him, then he landed gracefully on the floor of the barn and crouched on one knee... listening...

Rising slowly and cautiously, he went to the door and stopped to peer out at the commotion in front of the house.

There was chaos outside... and in the middle of it all, a carriage rocked and swayed as its two horses reared in their traces.

Jelly was beside one of them, holding desperately to the bridle and trying to control the terrified animal and another man, a Mexican man whom he vaguely recognized from the other night, took charge of the second horse. Together, they got the two animals under control, but they stamped and champed restlessly.

Angel caught a quick glimpse of a skirt disappearing into the house, and stepped out of the barn, his senses keen...something had happened to terrify the horses. He started to walk slowly toward the house.

***

 Murdoch ushered the women into the house. Kelly had cried her way through a terrifying tale of a huge cougar attacking and dragging Dan from the carriage on their way home. He hadn’t heard all of it yet, but there would be time for that later. Murdoch had glanced over at Cadha, staring aimlessly out the French door windows. She was obviously in shock and he wanted to go to her but… first they had to find Dan.

 Murdoch hurried back out into the yard. Jelly and Cipriano seemed to have the horses under control now, if not settled.

 “Cipriano, harness the buckboard… quick…” he ordered. “Dan Brennen’s out there hurt.”

 He spotted Angel coming out of the barn.

 “What happened?” Angel crossed the yard and stopped beside him.

 “A friend was attacked by the cat just after leaving here,” Murdoch explained quickly. “Cadha and Kelly are inside, but Dan is missing.”

 Angel looked surprised.

“I’m sending Cipraino out to see if he can help.”

Angel seemed to be thinking. “I’d like to go take a look myself,” he said at length.

“I don’t know what you’ll find,” Murdoch warned. “I don’t suppose there’s much chance of finding him alive.”

“And the ladies?” Angel asked. “Are they hurt?”

“No, they’re both ok…Frightened, but unhurt. They were lucky.”

A rolling peel of thunder suddenly shattered the night.

“Damn,” Murdoch growled, looking up at the sky and noting the clouds swallowing the stars. “I hope we can get to Dan before that gets here.”

“I’ll saddle my horse,” Angel said, turning away. “I’d like to get out there before that storm hits.”

“Keep your eye out for tracks while you’re out there too,” Murdoch called after him as Angel ran back into the barn.

“Won’t be any,” Angel called back over his shoulder.

Murdoch turned back to Jelly. “Jelly, you’d better put some hay in the back of that wagon and take a couple of blankets.”

“Sure, Boss,” Jelly answered, nodding his head. “I’ll take some bandages… in case he ain’t…”

Murdoch knew as well as Jelly did that the chances of finding Dan Brennan alive were slim to none, but it was better to be prepared than to think…

“Yes,” Murdoch agreed quietly. “And Jelly… you and Cipriano keep your rifles handy.”

Murdoch waited and watched the wagon roll away from the courtyard, the two lanterns’ meager light fighting against the darkness until they disappeared in the distance.

He barely saw Angel emerging from the barn, his black clothes and black horse melding into the night. But he heard the tread of hoofs and the snorting of an excited horse and Angel was suddenly beside him.

“Have you got a rifle with you?” he asked as Angel paused beside him, keeping a tight rein on his horse. The animal seemed to sense danger in the air. 

“Never use one,” he answered, a half smile crossing his face as he dug his heels into the animal and raced off into the darkness.

Murdoch began to turn to go back into the house, but a streak of lighting lit the sky in the distance, followed by the low rumble of thunder around him. He sighed heavily.  It was going to be a long night.

***

Murdoch stepped into the Great Room, his tread as heavy as the thoughts that weighed on his mind.

Kelly sat on the couch sobbing into a handkerchief, while Teresa sat beside her and wrapped an arm around her to comfort her.

Cadha was still standing by the window looking out into the night. Somehow she looked older than he remembered. The light from the lamp didn’t play on her hair in the same way that he remembered. Maybe it was the strain from their ordeal taking effect on her, or just his own foolish imagination.

Scott had poured five glasses of brandy, one just a thumb full for Teresa, setting them on a tray.

As Scott offered a drink to Cadha, Murdoch saw her visibly quake as he approached her.

“No... no thank you,” she said, still facing the window but keeping her distance from Scott. She pulled her arm in tightly to her side, away from Scott, as he got closer.

“It might help,” Scott suggested kindly.

“I know, but… please, just put it down… maybe later…”

Scott looked across at his father and shrugged wearily. He placed one glass on the desk and moved across to offer one to Kelly.

 “Can you tell us exactly what happened, Kelly?” Murdoch asked and Scott stopped and glared at him. He realized how insensitive it had sounded, but he was too tired and too tensed to worry about it now.

 “Yes,” the girl answered nervously. “I think so…” she replied, taking a deep breath.

“We were on our way home… Dan noticed some lightning in the hills and said we should hurry,” she began. She sniffed and put the handkerchief to her nose to wipe it. Tears filled her eyes again. “It just came out of nowhere… it was horrible… it threw itself at Dan and… and grabbed his arm… and dragged him out…”

Teresa took a glass from the tray and handed it firmly to Kelly. “Here, drink this. It will help,” she told her and put it into her hand.

Kelly looked at the glass and took it with a shaking hand. “All right, I’ll try…” she said and took a sip. She screwed her face up in disgust but took another sip. “I know you both mean well,” she said. “It’s just… oh Scott… it was so awful.”

Murdoch accepted the brandy gratefully. “I’ve sent Jelly and Cipriano out to…” he glanced at Kelly. “To see how Dan is…” he finished lamely. “Angel went with them.”

“Thank you, Mr. Lancer,” she whispered, sniffling back her tears.

“Kelly,” Scott asked quietly, kneeling down in front of her. He reached out to take her hand comfortingly, but she was too engrossed in twisting the handkerchief in her hands to even notice. “What did it look like?”

“It was a cougar, Scott,” she answered, wringing and twisting the little handkerchief. “But it was big… to be honest, I didn’t see it very well… just a shadow… and its awful teeth…” Suddenly, she could stand it no longer and reeled back into Teresa’s shoulder, sobbing uncontrollably.

Scott got to his feet. He looked despondent and Murdoch knew that he was wishing he could have done more to help the girl. He felt the same way. It had to have been a terrible ordeal, seeing her cousin dragged off by that cat. He shivered at the thought. If it had been Teresa…

“Teresa, why don’t you get a couple of beds made up? I think the ladies should stay the night,” Murdoch suggested.

She looked at him and smiled her thanks. “Yes, Murdoch,” she said quietly. “I think that’s a good idea.”

A rumble of thunder roared outside. It was getting closer.

“We’ll have that storm breaking soon, too,” Murdoch added.

“Scott, what about Johnny? Is he still asleep?” Teresa asked as she gently pushed Kelly aside, patting the girl soothingly and getting to her feet. “Perhaps I should check on him.”

“No need, he’s awake,” Scott told her. “But I threatened to tie him down and take away his pants if he tried to get up. He promised to stay put for once.”

“Well, that makes for a nice change,” Murdoch said with a sigh of relief. He watched Teresa go down the hall to the spare rooms and then turned back to look across the room at Cadha. She still hadn’t moved. She just stood there, staring into the darkness.

He walked slowly over to stand behind her. “Cadha,” he said gently. “Are you all right?”

He noticed her once beautiful hair was now gray and drab.

“You’re wearing that awful ring,” she whispered, keeping her face to the glass. Her voice was the same, even if she did look different. There was a hushed appeal in it, soft and honeyed. “You know I don’t like it. Take it off, Murdoch… please.”

Murdoch glanced down at his hand curiously. “The ring? What does that matter at a time like this?”

He reached for her and tried to put his arms around her, but she moved just out of his reach, still facing the windows. “Cadha… “ he whispered gently. “I know this has been a terrible shock…”

She shook her head. “Please, my dear,” she pleaded in a silken tone. But it didn’t draw him as it had before. Her voice had lost some of its allure and he wondered why. The magic seemed to have suddenly gone out of it.

The ring! He remembered Angel’s warning… keep it on… wear it always…

He reached out and gripped her arms and spun her around her around to face him. She struggled fiercely but he was too quick for her.

A mass of straggling gray hair covered half of her face and, with a final shove, she pushed him aside and glared up at him. With thin bony fingers that he didn’t recognize, she pushed aside the strands of hair to reveal a face straight from hell… cadaverous, with wrinkled and sallow skin, teeth that were yellowed with age… and eyes that flashed fire at him.

***

Angel rode ahead of the wagon, trusting the sure-footed horse in the dark. He took his time, uncertain of just how far away the attack had taken place.

Not far behind him, the wagon lumbered in his wake.

He could feel Jelly’s eyes on his back. He’d seen suspicion on his face when he overtook the wagon a few minutes ago.

The man named Cipriano was driving, while Jelly ‘rode shotgun’, searching the darkness for any trace of the cat.

“Cain’t even see him in the dark up there,” Angel heard the old man grumble quietly to Cipriano. There was no way Jelly could know that Angel would be able to hear him.

“He is there, Jelly,” Cipriano told him, apparently less concerned about being heard since he spoke in normal tones. “Not far ahead.”

“Yeah, well that's good... I'd ruther have him up there in front o' me like that, than behind me…” Jelly muttered. “Gives me the jitters.”

Cipriano didn’t answer, and Jelly continued. “I’m tellin’ ya, Cipriano… if’n you’d seen what I seen, he’d spook you too.”

“He brought Juanito back to us,” Cipriano replied firmly. “Nothing else matters.”

“Well, yeah… I reckon he did…” Jelly acknowledged reluctantly. “But I tell ya, there’s somethin’ ‘bout him… gettin’ ‘round in the dark an’ walkin’ up on ya so quiet… like a cat…”

Angel heard the old man gasp at his own thought.

“You are talking foolishness, Jelly,” Cipriano admonished him. “I will not listen to such things.”

Angel smiled, grateful that he had an ally in the Segundo, then he turned all of his attention back to the search.

All his senses were on the alert as he scanned the darkness with eyes attuned to the night, seeing what mere humans could not. So far he had seen nothing, but one of his senses had picked up something... he could smell blood.

Angel slowed the horse to a walk. With every yard they covered, the smell of blood became more distinct. From no more than a wisp, it grew stronger and stronger and Angel found himself battling his demon again - the urge to savor the scent becoming harder to fight off.

Slowly he approached a slight bend in the road that obscured the view ahead... but he didn't need to see what lay ahead. The odor of fresh blood was overwhelming. He felt his horse shiver beneath him... they were getting close.

"I think we're close," he told them, turning around in his saddle. "I... the horse… seems to sense something..."

On cue, Denny snorted and fidgeted beneath him. The smell of blood had reached him as well.

"Watch yerself," Jelly cautioned, his voice raspy from fear. "That cat could still be 'round here somewheres."

Angel nodded and nudged the horse to keep him walking.  It threw its head up and snorted, shying back as they turned the corner.

Finally, he had to stop and dismount. The horse absolutely refused to go any closer.

He heard Cipraino walk up behind him and take the reins from his hand...no words were spoken, none were needed. Then he walked into the grass at the side of the road.

His senses reeled at the overpowering smell of blood.

Suddenly, he saw it... for ‘it’ was all he could call what was left of Dan Brennen.

A flash of lightning lit the sky... and they saw the face of death, frozen in a moment of absolute horror...

"Madre de Dios," Cipraino whispered, and crossed himself quickly.

“Jelly, bring the lantern over here,” Angel asked quietly.

Jelly came forward with one of the lanterns from the wagon. "God all mighty..."  Jelly held the lantern higher to get a better view..."The poor soul...."

Angel took another hesitant step forward, fighting back the change with everything he had.

What was left of Dan Brennen was a torn and bloodied mess. His body had been ripped to shreds but his face was still recognizable. His eyes were wide with terror...

Angel had seen terrible things in the past. He had done terrible things… but not like this. He recognized the signs of extreme blood loss… It was something he was more than a little familiar with.

He had to force himself to go closer and look at the body, but he found Cipriano was beside him.

“Jelly, bring the lantern closer,” Cipriano called back over his shoulder.

“Don’t know as I wanta see it that well,” he muttered.

Angel crouched beside the body, finally taking control of both himself and his demon, and looked at what was left of Dan Brennen with a more dispassionate eye. The shirt hung in tatters from the man’s chest, slashed open and leaving vicious cuts on the body. Blood was splattered in every direction, but still…

Something didn’t seem quite right.

Cipriano took the lantern from Jelly and knelt beside Angel.

“Damn! He’s ripped up worse’n I’ve ever seen,” Jelly whispered in awe. He looked around him nervously and held the rifle – cocked and ready.

“Santa madre de Dios!” Cipriano exclaimed as he realized the full extent of the injuries.

“I’ll go get a blanket,” Jelly told him and left the Segundo to join Angel in scanning the body carefully.

Angel looked at the man kneeling beside him. He watched him reach out and touch Dan’s face, then move the head to the side a little to see more clearly.

“You’re Cipriano – right?”

“Si, Senor,” the Mexican answered, not taking his eyes from the body. He moved the lantern over the length of Dan’s body and Angel wondered what he was thinking.

“¿Cipriano, ésto no fue echo por un puma… no lo es?” Angel asked. <Cipriano, this wasn't done by a puma, was it?>

Cipriano lowered the lantern and shook his head slowly. “No, Senor… el gato no hizo esto,” he answered quietly. <No, Senor… the cat did not do this>

He glanced around to see where Jelly was.

He pointed to the claw marks. They were long and deep across Dan’s chest. “You see here? Sometimes there is only one scratch… in other places there are as many as five – all close together.” He looked up at Angel. “The gato has only four claws, Senor… not five…”

Angel sat back on his heels and sighed. “I know…”

“And there are no bite marks,” Cipriano continued. “The gato, he takes his prey in his jaws… he would have dragged Senor Brennen to the ground and held him. His jaws, they are muy fuerte… powerful enough to crush bones, Senor.”

He looked down at the body and ran the lantern over Brennen again, this time to prove his point to Angel. “No bites… and these are not claw marks, Senor… They are slashes. This was a frenesí… a frenzy… I have never seen anything like this before…”

His mind raced with paradoxes. The women had seen the cat!

Another streak of lightning flashed overhead and lit the ground with it unnerving brilliance and thunder ripped the silence apart.

Angel’s thoughts went back to Boston. This was clearly the work of the Baobhan Sith, just as that had been. The slashes were the same… the blood spatters the same… and there had been no bite marks on Malcolm.

No, Malcolm had not been killed by a demon in the form of a cat, no more than this man had been.

 “I have…” Angel said quietly.

 

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

Cipriano got to his feet and walked slowly around the body, stopping now and then to look carefully at the ground.

"See anythin' Cipriano?" Jelly asked after a minute had passed.

“No, nada…” Cipriano answered distractedly, still searching.

Lightning flashed across the sky and Cipriano looked up. It was right overhead now.

“Well, there sure ain’t gonna be nothin’ left to find in the mornin’,” Jelly told him. “We better get goin’ ‘fore that hits…”

Jelly looked at Angel and scowled, but he didn't comment for once. Instead, he said gruffly. "Then let's get him on the wagon an' get outa here... this place gives me the willies..."

Angel stood up slowly, still staring down at Brennen. "Can you two take care of him? I have to get back to the ranch..."

Jelly shook his head as another streak of lightening lit the gruesome sight. "Never did see a night like this..." he mumbled

"Do not want to ever see another..." Cipriano added and the two men trudged back to the wagon to get a blanket.

Angel raced back to his horse. The animal was still edgy - snorting and stamping the ground - but he didn't care. He mounted as another bolt of lightning slashed the skies overhead.

It was too much for the horse's nerves and it reared high on its hind legs... pawing the air furiously...

Angel hung on grimly and leaned forward, forcing the animal down... fighting for control...

Then he pulled hard on the reins and forced the animal to turn towards the hacienda.

Every nerve in his body told him there was something wrong. He had to get back there... fast.

***

Murdoch stepped back, stunned. The woman who had captured his heart was nowhere to be found in the crone that stood before him. In her place he saw a wizened old woman, her soft gray hair now dull and tangled.

The air in the room had become oppressive with the impending storm. Thunder rumbled in the distance, marching ever closer, the black sky lighting up with each jagged streak of lightening.   It was as if hell itself had been awakened this night.

He couldn't think straight...

He shook his head. Nothing made sense... nothing had made sense for so long now that he wondered, for a fleeting moment, if he wasn't losing his mind.

"Murdoch...please..." she whispered.

Murdoch's spine crawled with the sound of Cadha's voice. It was still young and seductive... but somehow it seemed vile and disgusting coming from this old woman standing before him now.

She lifted her hand and reached out to touch his face, stopping just short. More skeleton than flesh, the sallow skin seemed to barely stretch over the long bony fingers.

He reeled back in horror. "Who are you?" he asked, his voice little more than a hoarse whisper.

“You know who I am," she shouted suddenly, swiping her hand across the desk in a fit of unfettered rage, smashing the chimney off the oil lamp and dousing the flame.  "I am Cadha... your Cadha.”

Candles flickered on the dining room table, too far away to push back the gloom that enveloped her like a shroud. He could barely make out her face now.

Lightening, flashing in the black sky beyond the window, revealed to him a face he did not recognize and it shook Murdoch to the core.

Her tantrum stopped as quickly as it had started and she turned her attention back to Murdoch. “So much has happened tonight... you are just confused."

"No..." he protested, hoarsely.

"Yes, my dear... we were so happy together... we can be again..."

His eyes adjusted to the darkness and he could make out the shadows of her features. She smiled… and he cringed at the sight of decaying teeth. He had kissed those lips, and he felt his stomach turn over at the thought.

She took a step towards him and he backed further away, horrified. "You can't be..." he said, confusion ringing in his voice.  "No..."

"Listen to me, my love," she whispered. "Listen to your Cadha... close your eyes and see me... we can be together again..."

Murdoch grabbed the edge of the desk as a wave of dizziness struck him and nearly knocked the air from his lungs. He gasped... and fought for breath. This couldn't be...

The thunder outside seemed to form an alliance with Cadha and echoed into silence... sending the room into suffocating stillness, leaving Murdoch gasping for breath.  Only the grandfather clock disturbed the silence, ticking away the seconds… endlessly ticking…

The sound of his ring knocking against the desktop drew his attention to this hand. What had Angel said about it? Never take it off… but why?

Lightning lit the room again, this time with the brilliance of daylight. The light barely had time to dim before a clap of thunder exploded overhead, rattling the glass in the windows with its power. Her face was lit so well that he couldn't deny the truth any longer. The Cadha he remembered was not the woman standing in front of him.

Then the silence was back… the monotonous ticking of the clock… and she spoke again.

Her voice seemed to fill the room... blocking out all other sounds.

"The ring, my love," she said, her voice entrancing..."Take it off, please... it offends me... it makes me think that I am not truly yours."

She edged closer to him, slowly and cautiously. “Murdoch, my love… listen to me,” she purred.

Murdoch looked back down at the ring on his finger. Angel had said to leave it there... always... why? He couldn't remember… he couldn’t focus…

Her words were seeping into his mind and clouding it with images...

His mind swam with visions of Cadha - his Cadha. This... this travesty of a woman wasn't the woman he loved.

"Slip the ring off, my love... it's so easy... just slide it off your finger and leave it on the desk..." she told him, her voice warm and soft.

"We can be together again... your arms around me... we can dance till dawn..."

He wanted to feel as he had... the euphoria of being with her when she was young and beautiful transcended anything he had ever felt before. He wanted it back. He hungered for it.

He drew his hand up....the ring heavy on his finger.

He wanted her so much.......

Thunder rumbled overhead, but he didn't hear it. He closed his eyes... seeing her as she was... It pained him so not to be with her.

"Murdoch..." Scott called from the other side of the room, his voice barely controlling the terror within him. "Don't listen to her..."

"He is jealous of what we have," Cadha purred. "Don't listen to him."

Scott watched his father close his eyes, his face softening with a vision of Cadha only he could see. But that woman didn’t exist. She never had. He had to make Murdoch understand that.

"Murdoch!" Scott called out.

Murdoch looked back at him, confused.

Cadha's voice was so tempting... even Scott had to admit it. He had never been able to accept it as hers. If he closed his eyes, he could imagine a sultry young siren... but it had never rung true to Scott. Instead, it had always sounded malevolent... even repulsive.

Murdoch opened his eyes and looked up from the ring... and into her eyes...

His jaw dropped and he backed away... "No... where is Cadha?"

"That is Cadha, Murdoch," Scott told him with brutal honesty, cautiously making his way over to them.

“Look at her,” he said, reaching out to touch his father’s shoulder. “This is the women we have seen.”

"No..." Murdoch whispered, turning back to Cadha… yearning for the woman he had held in his arms.

"Yes... look at her... Remember what Angel said. Don't take the ring off... look at her... she can't stand that ring... it’s your protection."

Cadha turned her eyes on Scott. They were fired with anger... and Murdoch reeled back from the sight. "Shut up!" she screamed at Scott. "Stay away... he is mine... he was always meant for me..."

Then the fire died and she looked into Murdoch's horrified face. "Don't listen to him... don't listen to anyone but me, my love... do you want things back as they were?" Her voice had regained the silken threads of a young and beautiful Cadha... sultry and seductive.

"They can be... you only have to do as I say... take the ring from your finger, Murdoch... slip it off and Cadha is yours..."

Murdoch looked down at his hand. All that happiness was his for the taking... if only he removed the ring... The temptation was almost too much...

Murdoch's fingers touched the ring. It meant nothing to him... nothing compared to recapturing what he had had with Cadha. He twisted it... moved it infinitesimally towards the knuckle.

Scott grabbed his hand, covering the ring. He had to stop him from taking it off, no matter what. "No!" he cried out.

"Scott... you don't understand..."

Murdoch looked at his son. Horror was written all over Scott's face. And fear... Scott wasn’t sure that he had ever felt this sort of fear before. Fear of the unknown… the unreal… He wasn’t sure how to fight it, or what with… but he had to keep Murdoch from taking off that ring. It was his only protection against whatever Cadha was… and he was sure enough now of what that was…

"Murdoch, you have to listen to me... don't touch the ring..." Scott begged him. “It’s iron… it’s your defense against evil… and she IS evil, Murdoch… you must know that!”

"Don't listen to him, my love. Listen to me. I can make you happy..."

Murdoch turned back to her and, for one incredible moment, lightening streaked right above the house amid a thunder clap so loud it seemed to suck the air out of the room…night turned to day illuminating everything in the room… including Cadha.

Every contour of her cadaverous face - her sunken cheeks and her dull green eyes, the dry shriveled lips that uttered those sultry tempting words... was there for him to see. He fell back in horror. The flickering flashes that followed played around her face… giving him glimpses, here and there, of the Cadha Drummond everyone else saw.

It was like a blinding flash of reality!

Scott saw it happen. He saw a breach in the confusion on his father’s face… and the first hint of comprehension. Part of him felt a surge of sympathy for him.  All his memories... were illusions... dreams she had put in his head.

Scott's grip tightened painfully around Murdoch’s hand, determined to push on now that his father was seeing her clearly. "Remember your father... remember why he gave you the ring."

"No!" Murdoch cried out, staggering dizzily. He couldn't breathe. Scott stepped in front of him, blocking his view of Cadha....

Murdoch looked pale and shaken – his other hand holding the edge of the desk turning white in an effort to keep from passing out.

Scott saw Cadha reach her hand out for Murdoch...bony and shriveled...but she could not touch him...

She brushed her hand against Scott and screamed.

"Leave... go away... you're tainted..." she wailed and held her hand in pain.

Scott ignored her and kept his eyes on his father. "Don't you see, Murdoch? There's something wrong about her..." he persisted. "She's evil!"

Scott took Murdoch by the arms and pushed him back further.

"Murdoch… remember what Angel said... she... it killed his friend in Boston to get to you."

"She wants you, Murdoch... but not out of love," Scott insisted. "She doesn't love you... she wants to kill you! That's why Angel is here... remember? That's why Johnny was so desperate to get to you... why he had Angel bring him on that travois… to warn you."

"You can't just ignore all that," Scott continued and Murdoch shook his head.

"No... no I can't... Johnny..."

"That's right... Johnny... he suffered all that way so he and Angel could bring you that message..."

Scott looked on as Murdoch staggered back. The desire was still there… torturing him... but Johnny...

He watched hopefully as Murdoch looked down at the ring and put his other hand over it.

Suddenly the wind picked up outside, howling past the windows. Then the rain came… hammering against the roof with a deafening roar, pelting against the windows.

Scott swung around as the front door opened, the wind catching it and slamming it against the wall.

The storm seemed to stall overhead, unleashing its anger over the house. Lightning struck again and again, sending blinding streaks of light into the great room. As in the chaotic images of a dream, Angel filled the doorway, his face frozen in a look of absolute hatred.

***

 All eyes were drawn to Angel as he walked deliberately into the room, the wind gusting in through the open door, flickering the candles and threatening to gut the fire in the fireplace.

But Angel seemed to have eyes for only one person. He stared malevolently towards Cadha, his eyes never wavering in their intensity.

Half way across the room, he stopped. Everything else seemed to stop with him. Scott thought perhaps his own heart had even ceased to pound in his chest as he watched Angel confronting Cadha.

"Move away from her, Murdoch..." Angel ordered, finally breaking the silence.

Murdoch looked from Cadha to Angel... lost.

"You too, Scott..." Angel continued, his eyes not leaving Cadha. "Get back away from her."

Murdoch hadn’t moved and Cadha pointed at him and hissed… "No… he's mine..."

Scott reached out and grabbed Murdoch's arm, trying to pull him away, but Murdoch brushed him aside and stared indecisively at Angel, then at his ring.

"Murdoch, no... leave the ring..." Scott insisted, grabbing his father's arm a second time and gripping it with an iron hold.

“You belong to me!" Cadha screamed at Murdoch. "You always have..."

"No," Angel said with a dead calm voice that brooked no argument. "Scott, get your father back out of the way," Angel told him firmly.

Cadha turned her attention back to Murdoch and hissed, "You are mine, Murdoch Lancer... it was meant to be... and so it shall be..."

A streak of lightning lit the room and Scott saw the light bounce off Murdoch's ring. Somehow he had drawn it almost to the end of his finger... it only needed to pass over the last knuckle and his protection was gone...

"NO!" Scott shouted and clamped his hand over his father's.

Logic and common sense were no equal to the terror of seeing that ring edging off his father’s finger. "Keep it on!" he shouted.

He pushed it back firmly and then wrapped his hand over Murdoch's hand. "Leave it," he insisted firmly, and felt Cadha's eyes fall upon him - cold as death.

Cadha hissed savagely. "Interferer! Tainted one... he's mine... I will have him..."

"I'm afraid not," Angel said quietly from across the room.

Cadha turned back to face Angel, an insane smile parting her lips and revealing those awful, decayed teeth. "Do you think you can stop me?"

Angel seemed unconcerned by her anger. "Oh, yes..." he replied coolly, his eyes like ice.

Scott felt as if he were caught in a nightmare.

"Fool!" she shrieked. "You have no idea who you are dealing with. Leave now, while you can..."

"I think I do..." Angel told her coldly. “And I have no intention of leaving…”

Her eyes narrowed and she glared at him. “Then you will die with him. You cannot conceive of who I am…”

"You're the Baobhan Sith..." he answered confidently, and she drew back in surprise.

Scott felt Murdoch jerk in his arm... a whispered, disbelieving 'No' the only sound he made...

Reaching out quickly, he wrapped his arms around his father, steering him backward toward one of the chairs. Murdoch was pale and incredibly shaken.

"It can't be true... she can't be..." Murdoch murmured.

“That’s right, my love,” she whispered to Murdoch, recovering the soft, sultry tones that seemed to beckon him. “It’s lies… all lies… they don’t want you to be happy. Take off the ring, my love… so we can be together.”

“Leave it there, Murdoch…” Angel told him firmly. “Open your eyes… look at her and see what she is…”

"Who are you?" Cadha snarled, her eyes tracking over toward Angel, a flash of light capturing her hideous face as it twisted in anger: “How do you know this?”

"My name is Angel..." he said, with no trace of his usual half smile. There was pure ice in his eyes instead. "You don't know me... but you met a friend of mine..."

She quieted, staring curiously at Angel, while Scott pulled his father further away.

"In Boston..." Angel added smoothly.

"Boston...?" she asked quietly. She seemed to be considering what he meant, but Scott knew... and was horrified.

He'd always known there was something evil about her, but this was more than he had expected.

Fear grabbed Scott and squeezed until he could barely breathe. Images of what Angel had described came back to him... and Dan...

"Malcolm Blake was a friend of mine..." Angel continued.

"He was in my way," she said coldly.

Scott felt Murdoch shudder beside him and dragged his eyes away from Angel long enough to see his father's face had paled to a ghostly white.

The older man's body seemed to quake for a moment, and he held him tighter and sat him down.

"No, it can't be..." Murdoch whispered shakily.

“What can’t be?” a confused voice asked from the doorway. “What’s going on?”

Panic struck Scott. This was not a place he wanted her to be. “Teresa, stay where you are!” he called to her. “Stay back out of the way.”

Her eyes fell on Murdoch, pale and shaken in the chair beside Scott. “Murdoch!” she gasped and took a step further into the room.

“No!” Scott shouted at her. “Stay there, Teresa… please… just stay there…”

He could see the confusion on her face, and fear too. But, Scott didn't have time to attend to Teresa as well as his father. He hoped she would stay her ground.

Another clap of thunder threatened to shake the house to its foundations and Scott looked back to Angel and Cadha.

But Cadha was looking past Angel… past himself and Murdoch… her eyes falling on Teresa. A cruel smile edged across her face and she purred, "I can take the child, my love... I can make her pay..."

"You'll have to get past me first," Angel told her coolly. He hadn't taken his eyes off her yet. He still stared relentlessly across the room.

"You..? You have no idea of what I can do..." she snarled at Angel.

"I think I do," he answered calmly. "I saw what you did to Malcolm... and I've seen Dan..."

"Dan!" Teresa cried out. "What do you mean? It was the cat..."

"Dan Brennen wasn't killed by any cat," Angel told her, without turning around. He kept his eyes on Cadha the whole time.

"How do you know?" Scott asked from his father's side.

"The claw marks," Angel explained. "He was torn up, but the claw marks were in groups of five... cats only have four..."

He stopped and seemed to let the information sink in, before continuing. "But you have five claws... don't you, Cadha?"

She said nothing, but a sly smile broke slowly across her face.

“Cipriano couldn’t find any tracks either,” Angel continued. “And he says that a cat would have bitten as well as clawed… no there was no cat… was there, Cadha?”

The smile remained malevolently, but she still said nothing.

“Dan Brennen wasn’t killed by any cat… or by a cait either,” Angel pressed on. “Only you…”

She looked away towards Murdoch, and her eyes gleamed.

“You can’t win him back now, Cadha,” Angel told her coldly. “The truth is out…”

"He is mine!" Cadha shrieked. "He belongs to me."

Scott watched in horror as Cadha's hands changed... her long bony fingers reshaping into long, sharp talons... her nails growing as he watched. An inch... then two... they curved and thinned and grew even longer... as frighteningly lethal as knives... designed for slashing...

Her eyes turned to fiery embers that glowed horrifically in her darkened corner of the room. It hardly seemed possible to Scott, but she grew even more frightening.

Scott watched her lift her hands up and flex her long, terrifying fingers so that those claws slipped through the air with an almost hypnotic grace... a deadly shield to protect herself.

Behind those frightening claws, her eyes glowed and her yellowed teeth were bared as she hissed like a wild animal...

A scream rent the air and, for a moment, Scott thought it was Cadha. But it had come from behind him.

He turned around to find Teresa staring in terror at Cadha, shaking and deathly pale. He turned around and ran to her, catching her as she fainted and slipped towards the floor.

Scooping her into his arms, he turned his head back towards Cadha and Angel, still facing each other across half the room. Neither had moved, but Scott could feel the hatred reverberating around him.

He put Teresa down on the couch, checking quickly that she had only fainted and then hurried back to stand beside the chair where his father sat watching the confrontation. But Murdoch was as still as stone.

“He belongs to me…” she said again, pointing one deadly talon towards Murdoch.

“Yeah, so you said…” Angel said coolly. He seemed bent on provoking her. “But I’m afraid things have changed. He’s not yours any more, Cadha.”

Thunder exploded above the house, splitting the air with a roaring crash as lightning flashed, casting flickering shadows over Cadha and catching the wicked gleam in her eyes and the horror of those razor sharp talons.

Murdoch leapt to his feet and shouted a horrified “NO!” before sagging at the knees and grabbing the back of the chair to keep from falling. “I know you… I remember you…”

She smiled malevolently at him. “Do you indeed, my Bonnie…?” she purred in that sultry voice she somehow still managed to bring forth. “I’m pleased. It would have been no fun if you hadn’t…”

“Remember what, Murdoch?” Scott asked, taking his father’s other arm to lend a little support of his own.

“It was her… not a cait…” he told Scott. “There was a cait screaming somewhere… I can remember that… but it was her we were running from…”

“In your dream?”

“Yes…” he murmured and slumped back into the chair.

Angel paid him no attention. His eyes still hadn’t left Cadha. Scott understood why. To take his eyes away could give her the chance she so obviously wanted… to get to Murdoch.

“Your games are over, Cadha,” Angel told her coldly. “It’s time to play with someone who knows the rules…”

“And do you think you are the one to defeat me?” she whispered back to him. “You have no idea how…”

“Oh, you’d be surprised what I know…” he answered, slipping something from his sleeve.

Scott had to look closely to see what had slid into his hand, but he recognized its meaning immediately. It was a wooden stake.
 

 

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

Johnny snapped his eyes open. Something wasn't right. Something had awoken him.

He laid very still, listening to the storm unleashing its fury overhead. But it had been something other than that storm... a sound, a voice? The question echoed in his mind, demanding an answer.

He felt hot... too hot. His fever had returned. But it was not a fevered dream he had experienced. It was real, of that he was sure.

Old habits die hard, and his habit of sleeping light, ready to move at the slightest hint of danger still lingered, long after his solitary days as Johnny Madrid. Even hampered by the fever, his instincts prevailed, so he waited and listened.

 It was deep into the night. Darkness, most times comforting in his room, was now like a blanket smothering him. Even the bolts of lightening shattering the blackness, sending shadows of familiar objects dancing against the walls didn’t lessen his unease.

He tried to think, to make sense out of the insanity that had befallen him since the cat had spooked Barranca and he had found himself looking into death's door.

He was tired... more tired than he thought he'd ever been. He blinked and listened to the rolling thunder and pouring rain pounding the roof.  Had he heard something else? With a sigh, he closed his eyes and tried to relax into the pillow, to let sleep cradle him back into her arms again.

He pulled the Indian blanket Val had foisted on him and was glad for the extra warmth. He could feel the first vestiges of chills setting in. Sam had warned him that it might happen. If truth be told, he was still surprised he had survived the ordeal. By all rights he should have died out there. And he would have if not for the help of Angel.

The name conjured up images of things that could not be… and yet, they were. Death had been denied, again... but this time by the unlikely hand of a vampire.

The very thought made him want to laugh and cringe at the same time. If he had not seen it with his own eyes he would have called himself insane.

He threw back the blanket, hurriedly tossed over him when Scott and Angel had half carried him up the stairs to bed. His boots were missing, but for once, no one had taken the time to rob him of his clothes.

Hampered by the heavy splint immobilizing his arm and the throbbing pain that went with moving it, Johnny managed to pull himself up and ease his legs over the side of the bed.

He slowly stood up on shaky legs. Pain and fever had drained him of almost every ounce of energy, and now dizziness and nausea set in to make things worse. He wanted desperately to just lie back down again, but there was something down there. Something that was not right. He strained to hear through the cacophony of thunder and rain. Listening for that elusive sound that had pulled him from his sleep.

He looked around for his gun. Normally his holster hung from the headboard, in easy reach. But tonight it was gone. An idea struck him and he quaked at the thought.   Was this after all just a figment of his imagination? Had he been delirious, dreaming of demon cats and vampires? Had he been laying here safely in bed all this time? Was Angel just a Good Samaritan who had found him and brought him home to safety?

Suddenly his bedroom door burst open and Kelly stood there. A bolt of lightening captured the tracks of tears cascading down her pale face, her chest heaving to gulp down precious air.

"Kelly?"

Blood covered her dress, smeared her cheek. Her fear was so tangible that he could almost smell it.

Shocked, Johnny instinctively tried to run to her , but a wave of vertigo sent him spinning and his legs buckled. Suddenly he felt her arms slide around his waist even as he started to black out. He leaned heavily on her and found himself sitting back on the bed, his senses reeling.

“What are you doing here? What’s going on?” he demanded, trying to gather his wits.

 “Oh, Johnny… I’m so scared…”

Choking back fear and confusion, he pulled her against him and held her, ignoring the pain in his arm and trying to comfort her. “What are you doing here?” he asked. “I thought you went home…”

Clinging to him, she whimpered, “Dan… oh poor Dan… it was so horrible..."

He pulled her closer to him, gently easing her head against his shoulder. "What happened," he asked gently, brushing the top of her head with his chin. "Tell me."

He felt her tremble against him. She looked up into his eyes, more tears spilling down her cheeks. “Oh, Johnny… it’s Dan… it killed Dan…”

“What killed him?” he asked anxiously, trying to keep his voice calm for her sake.

“The cat…” she told him, sniffing back the tears. “Cadha and I came back here… we had to leave him… and then…”

He carefully tipped her face up towards his. "And then what?"

"I don't know...everything...nothing makes sense anymore. A man came in, a big man... his eyes... he was so angry… so filled with hate. I didn't know what to do. Oh, Johnny... I'm so scared."

She shivered and began to sob hysterically. Johnny pulled her closer, embracing her in his good arm.

Johnny looked at her, confused. The only one she didn't know downstairs was Angel, but Johnny had never seen him with hatred in his eyes. He figured only one thing could bring that out in Angel… the Baobhan Sith…

Then he suddenly knew.  Cadha! Everything made sense now. His father’s unusual behaviour, the ring that Angel warned him never to take off. Did Angel know that Cadha was the one stalking Murdoch? No, or he would have warned them. He had to get down there…

 

Pushing her back he tried to stand. "I've got to get to Murdoch," he said, near panic.

"No! Johnny... you can't. You're not strong enough..."

She clutched his good arm and held him back easily. Even as they spoke he could feel his energy draining, the fever pulsing through his body.

"You don't understand, Murdoch's in trouble."

"You can't help him now...you're hurt."

“It doesn’t matter.”

"No, listen to me," she insisted. "He was fine when I left. And you're hurt. Please, stay with me."

"I can't…"

"You don't know what it's been like, Johnny..." she cried, "it was s... so awful..."

He looked into her eyes and saw the pain in them... dreadful pain.  She needed him more right now. "Tell me... from the beginning..."

“Oh, Johnny, I don’t know if I can…”

“Try…”

She sniffed back her tears and took a deep breath. “All right. We left here and Dan said we should hurry so as not to be caught in the storm. We could see the lightning flashing in the distance.”

“Go on…”

“Then there was a horrible shriek… the cat,” she told him, her eyes widening with fear.

“Next thing I knew, I was knocked sideways by something… there was a ferocious growling and snarling, and it dragged Dan from the buggy. The horse bolted… it was awful…” She stopped for a moment and took another deep breath, gulping in air to keep going. “I got hold of the reins and managed to get the horse to stop. It was closer to Lancer than town, and we knew we had to get help, so Cadha and I came back here.”

“You did the right thing,” Johnny said softly.

“Your father and Scott… and Teresa were all so kind…” she told him, wiping a tear with her handkerchief. “And then that man came…”

***

Scott found himself fascinated by the sight of the stake. Nothing more than a piece of a branch, it was small enough for Angel to hold easily in his hand, but sharpened to a lethal point. It would be just as deadly to a human as to a vampire... or a baobhan sith...

Angel appeared to hold it casually... to toy with it. His fingers ran up and down the side of it, almost caressing it. Yet, holding it, he must have been aware that if it was turned against him, it would be just as lethal.

But his eyes held Cadha in that deadly glare... it was no game.

Cadha stared at the stake, then slowly turned to look at Murdoch and sneered.

"Do you think my death will protect him?" she asked Angel, not taking her eyes off her prey. "His fate has been sealed. It was sealed on the night Duncan Lancer escaped us... there is no escape... Lancer blood must be spilled..."

“That happened years ago… I was just a boy… four or five, I don’t remember… but I remember her now…” Murdoch rambled. He glared at Cadha. “It was you we were running from… my father was pulling me along, running from you… he was…”

“Terrified?” she finished for him, pleased. “Yes… he was… he wouldn’t dance with me… and he escaped…”

“Barely…” Murdoch told her. “And he’s dead now. He’s been dead for years…”

"But not by our hands… He should have died that night! It was written..." she hissed. "Now, you must take his place... you must take off the ring..."

Murdoch seemed to find strength in his memories. He straightened and faced her. "No" he said angrily. "I can see you for the hag you are, Cadha...”

“Take it off… give yourself to me and this will end…”

“It will end anyway,” Murdoch answered. “It ends here... tonight... the ring stays..."

Scott clutched him tighter, keeping him from walking forward. Murdoch was suddenly empowered by his anger and liable to do something foolish.

"Stay back," Angel warned him and Murdoch stopped and glanced at him.

Scott could feel the energy rise in the room. In the flickering shadows at that end of the room, Cadha was watching them, waiting…

Murdoch brushed his arms aside. "I remember now..." he said, "you, it was you. You came for my Da... so many years ago.”

"Yes... and he ran... like a frightened rabbit," she snarled back at him. "Dragging you at his side... and the other ran too.  But his time came eventually..."

"The other...? Callum Blake?"

"Then you...?"

"His time came many years later... we found him..."

"If you killed him, why did you kill his son?" Angel asked angrily.

Cadha hissed dismissively. "He was a nuisance..." she told him, then an evil smile began to cross her lips. "Always following… I grew tired of him… and I was hungry..."

"And Dan Brennen?" Scott asked, feeling his own anger rising in revulsion.

The smile played malevolently around her lips. Her eyes gleamed. "A tasty young morsel..." she whispered. “He was there… nothing more…”

“He’ll be your last, Cadha,” Angel told her ironically.

Cadha shrieked furiously and Scott looked back towards Angel.

He saw Angel tense as Cadha turned her eyes on Murdoch again. There was hunger in her eyes.

Suddenly Cadha crouched like an animal, snarling and leaping, catlike, up onto the desk

In three swift strides, Angel crossed the space between them and launched himself toward her, pushing her backwards and landing hard on top of her on the floor behind the desk.

She screamed in rage.

Her talons dug deep into the back of his hands, trying to make him release the stake, but he held on desperately.

She fought Angel with the strength of the demon that she was, far more than Scott would ever have thought her capable of. She struggled against him, thrashing and shrieking until, suddenly, her left arm jerked free of his grasp and she lashed out at his chest, drawing blood.

An ear-piercing wail shook the great room, overpowering the rumble of the thunder overhead as she lunged at Angel, her razor sharp talons sinking into his chest as she lifted him into the air.

He slammed backwards into the French doors and crashed through the glass onto the portico outside, glass showering down around him like the raindrops only a short distance from him.

***

Johnny let Kelly sob on his shoulder. He could feel the soft, wet tears from her cheeks washing cool against his fevered skin.

With his good hand, he stroked her hair gently, hushing her soothingly.

“You don’t need to be afraid of him,” Johnny told her quietly. “That’s Angel. He won’t hurt you.”

"Johnny, I didn't know what to do... so I just ran. I didn’t even know where I was going… I was so scared… somehow I ended up here..."

"Hush Querida, you're safe now."

"I feel safe with you here... please don't go..."

"I'll stay here as long as you need me," he whispered to her.

She looked into his eyes and suddenly he felt her soft fingers on his cheek, and then her hand on his forehead.

"Johnny, you have a fever," she said, scolding him anxiously. "You shouldn't even be out of bed."

"I'm all right."

"You won't be for long," she told him, a surprising note of determination entering her voice. "You should lie down. You’ve looked after me, now it’s my turn to look after you."

"I can't... not now,” he said, trying to shake her off. There was trouble downstairs and he had to be there to help. “I have to see about Murdoch..."

"Murdoch is just fine," she assured him gently. "It's you I'm worried about. Please, lie back and rest..."

"No..." he persisted, but even as he said the words he felt her easing him back onto the bed.

He did feel bad. The longer he sat up, the worse the nausea was becoming, and he had no intention of embarrassing himself by throwing up in front of her.

Then there was a cool cloth on his forehead and he closed his eyes, his body relaxing back into the soft mattress.

A feeling of lethargy slowly crept over him. Everything else would have to wait. He just wanted to rest.

His mind began to drift away from thoughts of Murdoch and Angel... cats and demons...

The cool, damp cloth on his forehead, and the light touch on his cheek, was the only sensation he could feel... and Kelly’s hushed whispers were the only sound he could hear...

He had never known such peace in his life. He just wanted to flow with it… enjoy it while it lasted.

The fever ebbed... a cool breeze seemed to blow over him and he sighed.

He felt his mind wandering, but he didn't fight it. The feeling of peace was just too enticing to fight.

Through the fog he thought he heard something... indistinct screams and shouts... and then a crash.

Instinctively, his eyes flashed open. The sound of breaking glass and insane screams drove into his consciousness and re-awoke his senses.

"Murdoch!" he cried out... memory and fear returning as one...

***

For a moment Angel laid there and Scott thought he had to be badly hurt. He started towards him, but didn’t even get a step before Murdoch grabbed his arm and held him back.

“We have to help him,” Scott said, turning on his father angrily.

“I know, but not that way,” Murdoch answered quietly. “Look at him… let him do it his way.”

Scott looked back towards the French doors. Angel groaned. He was hurt, he had to be, but he had pulled himself up into a sitting position.

Angel shook his head, dazed, and a flash of lightning revealed a bloody slash across his chest, his shirt torn by Cadha’s vicious claws. He slowly got to his feet and brushed away tiny shards of glass as though they were dust… then he looked up and turned his icy gaze on her.

She shrieked… raising her hands defensively in front of her face. “Your blood! It’s tainted… poison.! You are not human!”

Angel only continued to glare at her. “Not even a little bit,” he told her coolly. He reached over his shoulder and winced as he pulled a piece of glass from his back.

“Vampire!” she spat at him.

“Now you’re beginning to get the idea, Cadha,” he said, with a malevolent smile, stepping back into the room through the shattered glass door. The wind behind him roared through the smashed doors and the lights in the room flickered and threatened to go out.

Cadha’s eyes glowed evilly in the murky light, the wind catching her hair and blowing it wildly around her head. She looked like the personification of all things evil, her eyes triumphant in the knowledge that at last she had her prey before her. 

“Cadha… that’s a good ‘old’ Gaelic name,” he told her, his emphasis on the ‘old’ turning the compliment into an insult she couldn’t face. “You’re looking a little past your prime…”

“I have walked this earth for eons…” she answered with a wicked sneer in her voice. “And I will still be here when you are dust!”

“Think so?” he asked casually and took a step further into the room, glass crunching loudly beneath his feet. “It looks, to me, like you’ve lost a little of your… appeal, Cadha…”

His words threw her back into a frenzy.  Her lips curled into a vicious sneer.

“Who are you?” she hissed at him.

He stood in the doorway, seemingly unconcerned by the blood on his chest but grimacing as he used muscles that had taken a pounding. The stake was still in his hand and he held it carelessly, oblivious to the blood running down over it from a hand torn by Cadha’s talons.

“I told you… my name is Angel…” he told her with disdain. “Though it used to be Angelus.”

“Angelus… I know that name,” she snarled. “The evil one with the face…”

“Yeah, yeah… with the face of an angel,” he finished irritably. “Heard it before... kind of embarrassing actually.”

“Then why do you fight me? Join me, there is plenty for us both,” she told him, her voice returning to the honey sweet tones she used with Murdoch. “Stop a moment… smell the air… that is fear…" she continued, enjoying herself.  "Fear is such a sweet thing..."

She turned to Angel. "You know that, Angelus."

"I know it..." he answered, a hint of remorse in his voice. Scott was appalled. The reality of the vampire's past suddenly far too real.

"The sweet taste of fear…” She looked towards Scott. “He is waiting for you… take him… savor it… You need only to let me have the old one. You can feast again... you know you want it… give in to your instincts.”

Scott watched anxiously. He could see the battle of wills on Angel’s face – him against his demon. For a moment, Scott thought he saw Angel’s face begin to change. If the demon won…

"You know you want it, Angelus,” she whispered hypnotically. “I know the hunger and the need you feel…"

Angel said nothing… if he lost this battle, Scott was sure that they were all going to die…

"Imagine the sweet warm blood...” she persisted. “The fear... relish it…"

"No..." Angel said quietly, but Scott began to worry. Angel sounded tempted.

She raised her fingernails... the talons glinting in a streak of lightning. "These... they are like your fangs... they bite deep into human flesh and release the sweet blood we yearn for... can you taste it… can you taste the fear in them, Angelus...?”

Her voice was mesmerizing. Even Scott could hear the gentle enticing tones and wondered whether Angel could resist them. Could he fight his instincts? Would he even try… for them?

"No!" Angel roared. Scott felt his nerves snap at the suddenness of it.

"You are a fool!" she screamed. "You could have it all."

"No! I am not Angelus!" Angel shouted. "You're not going to win that way..."

“I will win anyway! Why do you help these mortals?”

“Because I choose to,” he answered and flipped the stake in his hand and caught it again, the point facing her.

Cadha hissed furiously at him. “Then you will die with them!” She took a step towards him.

“Angel!” Scott called out and made a move towards them. He had to help… had to do something…

Murdoch grabbed his arm and held him tight. “No, son…” he shouted. “No… she’ll…”

But Angel had made his move. With Scott’s shout to distract her, Angel dashed behind her and pinned her arms across her chest. She screamed and struggled, but his grip held her like iron.

Raising the stake in his right hand, and keeping her pinned with his left, he pointed it at her heart. “For Malcolm…” he said quietly into her ear.

“Killing me will gain you nothing!” she snarled at him. “Do you hear me…? Nothing! Lancer blood will flow tonight…”

“Angel… wait…!” Scott shouted. There was something in her threat that frightened him.

Angel stayed his arm mid-stroke, but he kept that vice-like grip on her. “What do you mean?” he asked angrily.

“If I die, it will not save you…” she whispered, smiling. “Lancer blood will be spilled tonight…”
 

 

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

The sound of glass breaking and horrific screams emanating from downstairs brought Johnny out of the lethargy that had claimed him.

Memories flooded into Johnny's mind and the peace he had so relished disappeared in an instant.

Thunder rumbled overhead. Streaks of lightening played frenetically around the heavy brocade drapes pulled tightly across the window.

He jolted forward, suddenly terrified at the thought of what could be happening downstairs. Had Angel returned to help them? For that matter, could he help them? He hadn't been able to help his friend in Boston...

He had to go and find out.

“No, Kelly… there’s trouble downstairs,” he told her, pushing her away with his good arm and frowning as he fought off the overwhelming fatigue. “I have to help them.”

“Johnny, you’re too sick to help them,” she insisted patiently, pushing his arm aside. “You’ll only be in the way. You could get someone killed.”

Another shriek sent a shiver down his spine... horrifying and inhuman...

“Murdoch!" Johnny tried to wrench himself free. "I have to… Murdoch!"

“Hush,” she whispered and he felt the tender touch of her fingertips brush his cheek, gently stroking his skin. A single candle burned on his nightstand, casting soft flickering light upon her, catching the soft brilliance of her fiery red hair.

Her touch was so delicate. His senses swam as he felt her gently pushing him back against the pillows. While his mind urged caution, his exhausted body relinquished itself to her and he melted into the mattress.

“That’s better, Johnny,” she said quietly. “Stay here… rest…”

“My… my father… Murdoch…” he said dreamily. “He needs me…”

“He has Scott,” she told him. “And your friend – Angel… they’re there if he needs help…”

“Yes… Scott…” he murmured hesitantly. “And Angel… they’ll help him…”

“That’s right. You’d only be in the way.”

His eyelids began to feel heavy. “In the way…”

Her fingers ran softly down his cheek and stopped at the point of his chin. He blinked wearily and found himself looking into her eyes… soft and gentle … eyes filled with compassion.

Then she drew closer, her lips brushing his with a touch that was so light… ethereal, like the gossamer wings of a butterfly…

She kissed his lips… a tender, loving kiss that didn’t beg an answer from him. Then she kissed his brow, her fingers brushing aside the damp locks of his hair.

He accepted her kisses without question. It seemed so natural...so right.

“Stay with me, Johnny,” she whispered and laid her fingertips gently on his lips.

“Yes…” he found himself saying, not sure where the word came from.

She leaned forward and pressed her mouth to his, this time searching for a response from him.

Johnny felt her sweet passion and he closed his eyes and answered her kiss. Then she pulled back gently and he opened his eyes. She lightly kissed his lips again before getting to her feet.

He watched her walk across to the door and turn the key in the lock. She hummed a lilting tune as she turned and walked back towards him, her eyes bright with anticipation and her hips swaying vaguely to the wistful melody.

***

 ‘Lancer blood…’ Scott repeated in his mind, over and over. But she was beaten, held tight in Angel’s unyielding grip and staring down at the lethal wooden stake in his hand. What could she possibly do now?

 She looked over towards Murdoch and laughed... a high-pitched hideous laugh that made Scott's skin crawl.

 "Do you think that you can escape the Boabhan sith, Murdoch Lancer? With a ring...?” she mocked him. “Then you are wrong… Lancer blood will be spilled this night... it is written!"

"Why?" Scott asked, seething with rage. "What did he do to you? Why is that cat...?"

 "The cait? Fool!” she cried derisively. “If you had listened to its howls you might have escaped..."

 "Then it was warning us..." Murdoch said quietly, and Scott turned on him.

 "Warning us...?" he shouted. "It damned near killed Johnny..."

 "No," Angel said calmly, not for a moment taking his attention from the demon in his grasp. "It had every chance in the world to kill him. It didn't..."

 "And you," Angel continued. "In the barn... it could have torn you to shreds if it wanted."

 "The caits are harbingers," Murdoch said slowly. "They warn of evil coming... It was warning me about you, wasn’t it, Cadha? I should have realized it sooner..."

 "I heard the cait in my dreams...” Murdoch continued, almost as though in a trance. “I heard it when I was a boy... it was there when we were running from... "

 "From me..." she hissed. "But it did you no good, Murdoch Lancer. The Boabhan sith never forgets...  our vengeance will come… if not from me – from others."

 Murdoch straightened up and walked towards her, pulling determinedly away from Scott’s hold. “Why?”

 “Your father… he was chosen by the Baobhan sith… but he escaped…” she told him, scowling angrily. “He and the other – Blake. We found Blake and we took our revenge on him. Now it is your turn…”

 "No, you’re beaten again this time too, Cadha,” Scott told her. “You can’t touch him.”

“It is only I who am beaten… There is no escape from the Boabhan sith… kill me if you dare… it will not save you…”

“If it was his father you wanted to kill, why are you hunting him?” Angel asked coolly. “His father is long dead… that hunt is over.”

She hissed venomously. “You think like a vampire…” she sneered. “You are nothing more than a savage animal. What do you know of real hunting?”

She was wrong. Angelus had known about real hunting. The thought of the pleasure he had taken in the chase and in the final kill sickened him and he pulled her back tighter into his grip.

“You can’t even begin to know about me, Cadha,” he whispered icily.

 “Once you’ve had your fill, the game is over for you. If the prey escapes, you don’t care… you move on to your next victim. It is not so with us. There must be an ending…”

"Well this story has a new ending," Angel said callously and edged the stake under her chin. “Now, tell us what you mean.”

She drew in her breath and turned her head enough to look into his eyes. “If the father escapes… hunt the son. That is our way… generation upon generation… lifetime upon lifetime… we will seek vengeance – until the call for his blood is answered.”

She looked back to Murdoch and her eyes glowed evilly. “You should have danced with me, Murdoch Lancer, for there it would have ended… But Blood of thy Blood will be spilled – be it this night or thirty years hence… it will be spilled… the Baobhan sith will have their revenge.”

Scott walked over to stand in front of her and she reeled back further into Angel’s grip, her eyes wide with fright at his nearness as yet another streak of lightning lit the room.

“You can’t even get near me…” he challenged her. “I’m ‘tainted’, remember?”

Another raucous laugh burst insanely from her. “Yes… tainted… poison…” she spat at him. “But you are not the only son. There is the other one.”

Scott staggered back as though he had been punched.

“If I die, it will not save you…” she had whispered earlier. “Lancer blood will be spilled tonight…”

Lancer blood… the words swam dizzily in Scott’s head. It was impossible. Murdoch was safe with the ring on, they had all seen that. And if the iron shrapnel in his own back was his shield then he was also safe…

“The ‘other one’?” Scott asked tremulously. There was only one Lancer not in the room. Johnny…

“You heard me…” she hissed viciously.

"We didn't hear enough," Angel snarled in her ear. "Tell us what you mean... now..."

“You are all fools… even you, vampire…” she jeered at them. “You feared that cait, when you should have listened to it… you feared me, but I did not come alone… the Baobhan sith are never alone…”

Angel looked across at Scott. Her words chilled him as he came to understand their meaning. "Another one..." he said angrily.

Scott looked frantically around to the sofa he had laid Teresa on. She was still there, unhurt but out cold. But where was Kelly? She had been sitting there…

“Kelly!” he shouted and they all turned to look for her. “Where is she?”

“She’s one of them…” Angel said furiously. “I should have seen it sooner. She was with Cadha in the buggy with Dan.”

Cadha laughed maniacally. “Yes…” she hissed. “So, you see… my death will not save him…”

Angel looked at Scott and then at Murdoch, then he calmly said into her ear… “It won’t hurt him either…” and plunged the wooden stake into her heart.

It was as if the gods themselves roared… Lightning flashed overhead and lit the room as Cadha’s ear-piercing scream split the air. In the fierce light of the storm, they watched with fascinated horror as the awful glow in her eyes faded and they rolled back in her head.

The sound of her scream filled the room and finally died with her. Her skin withered and dried to reveal bare bone, then her body seemed to crumble and fall away to dust at Angel’s feet.

Even Angel seemed stunned. Time appeared to stand still for a moment as Scott saw Angel, still frozen in the act of driving the stake into Cadha's heart. In seconds, her lifeless body had dissolved beneath his hands.

Thunder roared overhead and Scott shivered. He stared at the empty space where Cadha had stood. The wind howled in through the shattered glass and picked up the particles of dust, scattering them around the room – wiping her very existence from the face of the earth.

Scott didn’t know what he had expected, but it wasn’t this. There was an insane kind of justice in seeing her vanish before his eyes. It was almost as though the evil had never really been there…

He’d never seen anything like it before and his mind couldn’t quite take in the true terror of this night. None of it made sense to his logical way of thinking.

He stood frozen in place… unable to move. He had the overwhelming desire to fold in on himself and make this all go away…

Then another shriek split the night – the cait!

He spun around to his father. Murdoch’s face had turned ghostly white. He swayed like a man intoxicated, but the sound of the cait instantly sobered him. He stood up to his full height, a furious look on his face as he turned to catch Scott’s eyes. The cait warned of danger…of evil…

Suddenly, her words slammed back into Scott’s consciousness… “There is the other one…”

“Oh God, no…” he gasped aloud. “Johnny!”

***

She turned back from the door and smiled at him.

There was something magical in her smile and he watched her walk back to him, her hips swaying gently to the tune filling the room.

He didn’t recognize the melody, but it was sweet and soothing, muting the raging storm beyond the heavy drapes, and he drifted peacefully away from the outside world.

There was something alluring about the way she moved. The sway of her hips was enticing and he pulled himself up to lean against the headboard of the bed to watch as she came to him.

Kelly gently eased pillows behind his back and he nestled into them. His skin tingled at the touch of her long delicate fingers.

He listened to her hum. It was wistful and captivating, the sound enveloping him in its charm.

“I have waited so long for this moment, Johnny,” she said, her voice soft and beguiling, her lips smiling… smiling only for him. “And now, tonight… this is our night.”

As she sat down on the bed beside him, he lifted his hand to cup her cheek. Her skin was soft and perfect. She was perfect...

He drank in the perfume of her body... mesmerizing... and promising... as he pulled her closer and kissed her.

She leaned over him and carefully undid the top button of his shirt, lightly kissing his skin before moving on to the next… and the next, finally pulling it open to reveal his naked chest.

He waited in anticipation... longing for the gentle caress of his skin. Her warm breath on his chest... her lips lightly kissing his shoulder, and then his neck... and he reached up and ran his fingers through the silken tresses of her hair... delighting in the touch.

She hummed her bewitching melody.

The tune was a little louder now, and different somehow... a little faster. She sat up and put her fingers tenderly on his lips... then ran them enticingly down his chest, combing her fingers through the ringlets of hair before she stopped and smiled mischievously.

"I knew you were meant for me the moment I laid eyes on you."

"Mi querida..." he murmured.

"Do you believe in fate Johnny? That two people were meant for each other? You were meant for me..."

"Si," he whispered, barely able to find his voice.

"Mi corazon... mi amor..." she whispered back

Her words filled his world. Nothing existed but her...            

She stood up and walked over to the window, her hips swinging enticingly to her hypnotic refrain. She pulled the curtains aside and looked out at the flickering lights of the storm. “It’s like a dance, isn’t it, Johnny? See how the lights dance around the sky.” Then she turned back and smiled at him. "My darling... I do so love to dance..." she told him.

She lit a candle on the table by the window and stood in its light, soft shadows playing over her face… her red hair caught in the amber glow of the flame. Johnny felt his heart miss a beat.

With her music drowning out every other sound in his world, he watched her as she took her skirt in her hands and swung from side to side in a mesmerizing dance just for him. 

She lifted her arms and spun around once, then stopped and gazed at him. "Do you hear the music, mi amor...? Does it enter your heart and fill you with joy? Come... let it carry you away..."

Johnny nodded. "Yes..." he whispered, his eyes only for her. He had to be close to her, to hold her... dance with her. He sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed.

She reached her arms out to him invitingly. "Come dance with me..."

The heavy splint forgotten, Johnny stood up. The warm air around him carried the sweet music to his ears. He took a step towards her. There was no pain, no weakness... only Kelly...

"Come," she purred, smiling with satisfaction as she watched him move. "Come and be one with me."

Johnny stopped for a moment. Something drifted into his mind... a sound, vague and somehow worrying. He frowned.

"Que pasa, mi amor...?" she asked, tilting her head to one side, her eyes studying him.

"I don't know..." he murmured, frowning. "There's something... I thought I heard something downstairs…"

"There is only us, mi amor... just the two of us..." she crooned and her tune hummed in his ears. "Come dance with me..."

But Johnny stayed where he was. There was something he knew he should be doing. Sounds began to drift into his head, distant sounds that made no sense to him.

The humming grew louder, drowning the annoying sounds in his head. He looked over at his beautiful temptress and smiled...

"Listen to me, Johnny. You are mine...we belong together,” she told him.

"Si... yes..." he answered her, his heart racing.

She touched the sash on her skirt and it fell away, the white material as light as angel's wings... it floated around her... drifting to the floor.

She walked back to stand in front of him, looking up into his eyes bewitchingly. Her hands went to his belt buckle and he felt a surge of anticipation as she undid it and slipped it free of his pants.

Kelly dropped the belt carelessly back onto the bed, then smiled that mischievous smile that so enchanted him. He felt cocooned in the warmth of her pleasure... encased in a world meant only for them.

The melody wrapped itself around him and held him, spellbound. His heart skipped a beat and he smiled.

Suddenly, she backed away from him, her eyes still locked with his... then she spun around in a pirouette of utter bliss, her skirt moving temptingly with her as her tune grew louder and faster.

“Come… dance with me...” she whispered, crooking her fingers and beckoning him alluringly.

Flashes of lightning danced around the room. She swayed and spun with the lights, entranced by her own tune. It was captivating to watch her.

Johnny took another step towards her.

The lilting tune began to change. The tempo of the sweet song became more urgent as she spun faster and faster, her movements timed to the spectacle of the lights outside the window.

His heart pounded in his chest, throbbed in his throat… all to the beat of her humming. As it got faster, her dance became grew more and more exciting…

Thunder roared like a heavenly drum roll and Johnny couldn't take his eyes off her.

He stood helpless... imprisoned by the music… shackled by her beauty. The rest of the world faded into oblivion, leaving Kelly and him in their own sublime world.

Suddenly, one incredible streak of lightning lit the room like daylight, striking the window with such power that it exploded the glass pane into a million sparkling shards.

The heavy brocade drapes blew wildly, lifting high in the air and waving in the gusts of wind that roared through the window. Her rich red hair swirled around her face, lit by the shimmering light of the candle as glass glittered like diamonds and fell behind her.

Then the wind dropped for a moment and the drapes fell back, knocking the candle over. It rolled off the edge of the table and dropped to the floor, then it trembled and wavered, but didn't go out.

It lay there, ignored, as Johnny’s world began to change.

Thunder crashed overhead, rolling away to a distant echo… leaving behind a stunning silence. But it was only a momentary reprieve. A horrendous, inhuman scream filled the silence.

Kelly stopped, shaken… her arms fell to her side and she froze, her eyes dull and shocked, while the wind billowed her skirts around her and tendrils of her hair whipped in the wind and played around her face.

 She looked at Johnny and seemed lost. He took a step towards her to offer her comfort and found himself standing on legs that could barely hold him up. He began to feel the weakness of his fever washing back over him, the forgotten broken arm once again throbbing.

 “Cadha…” Kelly sighed, her words barely audible. Then her eyes came alive again. They gleamed with something he hadn’t seen in them before. His blood ran cold. “She's gone... It is up to me now…” she whispered chillingly.

 She began to hum again…

 Her eyes caught Johnny's and held them. Once again he heard the music in his head... his heart leapt as the weakness and pain slipped away... She began dancing around him, circling him, her fingers reaching out… touching… teasing…

 His heart beat to the tempo of her music, his blood throbbed through his veins, pulsing with each note. He was hers...

 He felt his body respond... he had to have her... she was all that existed in his universe.

 Kelly moved just out of his reach, but stayed tantalizingly close. The tune she hummed sent his blood surging through his body. Some part of his mind registered a change in the room, but his thoughts were only of Kelly and his need for her.

 Behind her, the curtains were aglow with a slowly growing flame. The light flickered on her hair and cheeks and threw amber lights around her swaying skirts. She was as oblivious to it as he was… lost in the whirl of music and movement as it built to a frightening crescendo...

 Johnny could no longer resist the illusion that was Kelly. She walked seductively towards him, stopping so close to him that every nerve in his body tingled in expectation. The delicate scent of her body… the lilting tune she hummed… the very nearness of her… all enough to overwhelm every other thought he had. He longed for her… needed her.

 She hooked her fingers into the waist of his pants and drew him even closer. Her hands sought his waist and slid under his shirt and up his back, her touch sparking a thrill he could hardly contain.

 He could barely breathe…

 “We will be one, mi amor…” she murmured, her voice soft and sultry as she leaned her head on his chest – her hair falling like silk against his skin.

 “Yes…” He breathed in her air.

 “When this is over, we will be together – forever…” she whispered.

 “Over?” he asked, not comprehending. “I don’t want it to ever end…”

 “It must… but we will always be one… nothing will separate us, ever.”

 She looked up into his eyes. “It was meant to be…” she murmured and her eyes took on a strange glow that fascinated him, their intensity mesmerizing.

 Suddenly the light, tender touch of her fingers was destroyed by excruciating pain – her nails turned razor sharp and dug into his back.

 He jerked up straight and threw his head back, gasping to catch his breath against the pain.

 She dragged her nails agonizingly down his back to his waist. They cut into him like knives until she pulled away… blood dripping from nails that now looked like talons… his blood.
 

 

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

Her eyes burned bizarrely as she put one of those long, thin claws to her mouth and licked away the blood with a sigh of pure ecstasy.

Terror such as he had never known before welled up in Johnny until it exploded in a fractured scream .“Nooo…”

Kelly smiled... but the sweetness was gone... instead, it was a cruel and icy smile. Her hair shimmered in the light of the flickering flames behind her and left her face in shadow, her eyes blazing as bright as the fire...

The face he had coveted only a moment ago was gone...

Her skin had paled to a dull white sheen, flushed only with the pleasure she took in licking the blood from her nails… one by one...

“You are mine,” she shrieked, the sound echoing off the walls as she lifted those wicked claws and slashed them towards him again.

  He threw himself back and she missed him by a fraction of an inch then whirled like an enraged dervish as he fell against the wall.

 Crashing against the wall ignited the agony in his back and reawakened the throbbing in his arm. He could feel thin rivers of warm blood coursing down his back, pooling around the waistband of his pants.

 ***

Scott took the lead in the race toward the stairs, the storm outside seemingly attuned to his desperation. Lightning lit up the sky like day, strike after strike gouging into the ground around the hacienda… each bolt followed immediately by claps of thunder so close together that there was no beginning and no end.

Armageddon was upon them.

Angel was running fast behind him and Murdoch hurried in the rear. They all knew now that Johnny was in terrible trouble.

Scott put his hand lightly on the railing and spun himself onto the first step, taking them two at a time in his frantic need to reach his brother before…

Suddenly, as if to solidify the fact, they heard a scream from upstairs. Scott hesitated for an instant… his blood freezing, knowing that that scream was Johnny’s…

As he neared the top of the stairs, a new fear gripped him. He could smell smoke…

He glanced around and realized that both Angel and Murdoch had smelled it too.

Scott hit the last step and raced down the hallway. Wind raced up the stairway from the shattered French doors below and the candles in the wall sconces flickered wildly, casting weird shadows down the hall. He passed Teresa’s door and then Murdoch’s. He reached Johnny’s and he turned the doorknob in a blind panic.

It was locked.

***

 “Your father gave you to me…” she laughed.  There was a note of hysteria in her tone. Gone was the sultry seductress who had teased and mesmerized him into a trance only minutes ago.

 In its place, Johnny found himself looking at a demon.

 He stared at her in disbelief. Cadha… she had said Cadha’s name… was she another? It fit… and his foggy memory recalled the screams from downstairs and Angel’s description of the horrific damage inflicted on Malcolm. It was a perfect match for the lethal blades slicing the air inches from his chest   Murdoch! Oh God… what had been happening down there while he was entranced by this evil thing in front of him?

 “My father?” he gasped, wincing back the pain in his back as he struggled to stay on his feet. He leaned his shoulder on the wall for support.

 “He only had to give himself to us,” she hissed at him. “Then it would have been over. But he saved himself… and you are left to pay the price…”

 “Then he’s alive…”

 “Alive… yes… and so you must die,” she told him. “Lancer blood must be spilled…”

 Johnny closed his eyes in relief. At least Murdoch must be safe. He half smiled… well, Lancer blood was being spilled all right. He could still feel it running down his back.

 “And Scott?”

 Her eyes blazed at his brother’s name. “The tainted one? His blood is poison…”

 Johnny panted heavily. He could feel his strength giving way, but he found some consolation in knowing that Angel must have been right. That little piece of iron in Scott’s back was protecting him. That left only him…

 Iron… His gun was made of iron… he had to find it.

 He looked away from her to quickly search through the gloom. The room was filling with smoke and he gagged on the hot air, his eyes burning and watering as he scanned the room desperately. But there was no sign of his gun.

 If they had put it in a drawer or even under his pillow, he had no hope of reaching it now…

 His eyes caught a movement beside him and he pushed off the wall to evade those satanic talons as they swiped at him again. He wasn’t quite fast enough and he felt her nails slashing his chest, ripping his flesh. He stumbled and fell onto the floor, her maniacal laughter ringing in his ears.

 ***

“Johnny!” Scott yelled, pounding on the door. “Johnny, let us in.”

Angel was one step behind him. 

Even in the dimly lit hallway, they could see smoke escaping from beneath the door.

“The door’s locked, Angel!” Scott shouted over the thunder rolling overhead. A flash of lightning lit the house and Angel saw the fear in Scott’s eyes, just for an instant before the light was gone again. “She’s in there with him…”

“Something’s burning in there!” Murdoch yelled as he neared the door. “Break the door down!”

“Murdoch, that door is solid oak…” Scott told him angrily. “Even with the three of us…”

“I’ll get a gun. I can blow out the lock…” Murdoch yelled and began to turn away towards his own room.

“No!” Angel grabbed his arm and stopped him. “There’s no time. I can break it down… you two be ready to get Johnny out of there…”

***

 Johnny's grasp on reality was beginning to fade fast. His arm, his back... the coppery smell of blood, all vied to take precedence over the billowing smoke that threatened to suffocate him.

 She twirled ever faster, her dance escalating into a frenzy, her talons swiping at his chest, raking his flesh, each vicious slice deeper than the first.

 His instinct for survival overrode the pain of his broken arm and he tried to lift the heavy splint to fend her off, groaning with each stroke of her deadly nails... But it did little to stop the onslaught.

 He was vaguely aware of the blood loss... dizzy and nauseous from the horrendous mix of blood and smoke. His heart pounded so loud in his ears that he could no longer tell the difference between it and the thunder outside.

 His body had grown too heavy to move. The attack continued... his body ripped and torn, her demonic laugh filling his ears. He closed his eyes...

 Suddenly, Johnny realized that she had stopped. She was leaning over him, her breath hot on his skin... Horrified, he opened his eyes and saw her dip one razor sharp nail into his blood and sit up to put it to her mouth, her eyes closing as she savored it...

 She sighed with pleasure, then leaned right over him, running her tongue across his chest... licking the blood from his wounds.

He wanted to scream... but the sound wouldn't come.

 The delicate touch he had so relished before was now appallingly frightening, and he had no strength left to cast her off. He closed his eyes and tried to black out the paralyzing sensation of her tongue on his skin…

 He felt his strength waning... his hope fading… his only thought was that his father and brother were safe as the monster in front of him began to blur. Darkness began to beckon...

 He came to accept that this was the way it was going to end for him. After everything he had done in his lifetime... he was dying at the hands of a demon.

 There would be some who would think he deserved it, but no one deserved this.

 She was crouching over him now, slowly slicing a long furrow down his chest, entranced by the sight of his blood welling up out of the cut, licking her lips, her mouth stained with his blood.

 "The curse will be satisfied..." she purred... and, despite it all, a part of him still longed for the temptress she was just moments ago. Better do die at the hands of his siren lover than at the hands of this…

 And he was dying... he could see the end coming… hell was waiting, but even that would be better than this...

 ***

Angel slammed his foot into the solid oak door with all his strength and it exploded inwards, the timber around the lock splintering, leaving the door hanging by one hinge.

A blast of smoke and heat erupted out of the room, sending Scott and Murdoch reeling backwards across the hallway.

Angel hesitated... staring into the room at the flames that ate hungrily at the drapes, licking the ceiling, threatening to turn into an inferno as the wind snapped the heavy material like silk. Fire… flames… an age old fear… but it lasted no more than an instant. His next thought was Johnny. He could see the Baobhan sith leaning over him, her long talons catching the fire’s reflection as she lifted them to her lips.

Even with the smoke and flames, he was momentarily taken aback by the overwhelming smell of blood. But, this time, he felt no urge to change... he felt anger... incredible anger...

Scott pushed himself away from the wall, ready to run in after his brother.

"No!" Scott screamed as Murdoch’s strong hand grabbed his arm flinging him backwards against the wall again. Scott watched in horror as his father charged into the smoke, pulling at the ring on his finger.

"Murdoch.... No..." Scott screamed at him.

But Murdoch pulled the ring from his hand and ran to Johnny’s side. With strength borne of love and fear for his son, Murdoch pushed the demon aside and quickly slipped the ring of iron onto one of Johnny's fingers.

Kelly jumped to her feet and whirled around, her face contorted into a sadistic smile. “You fool!” she cried in delight. “You sacrifice yourself for your son.”

“No…” Johnny moaned, trying to lift his hand up to pull the ring off, but he couldn’t move, his strength leeching out with his blood, now pooled around his body.

“It’s me you want,” Murdoch yelled, his words catching in his throat as the smoke grew denser. “You’ve waited for all these years … take me.”

Kelly looked down at Johnny and slowly licked the blood off her long nails. "He tasted so sweet..."

Murdoch followed the demon’s gaze, his heart dropping at the sight of Johnny, his chest slashed open, blood everywhere… the splint on his arm ripped apart, his eyes pleading for Murdoch to turn away and run…  “Johnny…” he whispered as he turned back to stare into the eyes of death. He was ready.

Scott half ran, half crawled his way across the floor, past Murdoch and the demon, taking in the horrifying toll of his brother’s injuries before hooking his arms under Johnny’s shoulders ready to drag him out of the smoked filled room.

“No… Murdoch…” Johnny moaned feebly, unable to fight his brother. “Scott... she’ll kill him.”

Scott looked up. Kelly’s eyes were locked on her new prey… She circled him slowly, stalking him, her talons raking the air, just as deadly as Cadha’s.

“Murdoch… get back!” Scott screamed at him. But his father seemed to be as entranced by this one as he had been by Cadha. He stood waiting for her, hands down at his sides, smoke billowing around him... nothing but her in his world.

“Get Johnny out of here!” Scott heard Angel call out as the vampire plunged past him, the stake in his hand and grim determination on his face.

Even as Scott began to pull his brother to safety, Angel reached the Baobhan sith.

"Enough Lancer blood has been spilled today,” Angel told her coldly, walking over to face her.

“Not enough,” she hissed at him and turned back to Murdoch, her eyes searing into his. “Give thyself to me, Murdoch Lancer... fulfil this curse now, or generation upon generation of thy line shall know thy fear... Blood of thy blood... sons of thy sons...”

Scott dragged Johnny into the hallway and slid down the wall, cradling his brother against his chest, knowing there was nothing he could do for their father now but watch and wait.

Murdoch paled... "No!"

"Thy line is cursed!" she shrieked at him. "You can end it now..."

He looked back out of the room, at Scott leaning over Johnny, now desperately trying to tend to so many wounds, then he looked at Angel, the stake ready in his hand.

His sons... their unborn sons and generations after them... they would all know this terror...

Murdoch turned to Angel, the look in his eyes imploring the vampire to understand. "Let it be. This has to end."

From the hallway, Scott heard his father's words and screamed at Angel, "No... Angel do something..."

Angel turned and his eyes met Scott's... and he nodded, turning back to Murdoch and the demon before him.

"Yes... it has to end..." he said coolly. "But not your way..."

He lifted the stake and plunged it into the demon’s heart.

She looked at him with astonishment on her face, then withered and crumbled to dust.

Murdoch stood there for a moment stunned. "Why?" he asked, his voice barely audible. "It should have ended here, today."

"Giving into them is not the answer, Murdoch," Angel told him. "You have to find a way to live with the curse... and defeat it."

Murdoch looked past Angel to his two sons in the hallway. "I barely remember when this happened to my father... but they... how can they live knowing this could happen again?"

"Your father had the right idea... make sure each of you wears an iron ring... and use the time you have to look for a way to end the curse. There are ways... you have to find them."

Murdoch nodded. "We will..." Then the roar of the flames got his attention and he grabbed a blanket off the bed slapping at the flames. Angel worked beside him and in minutes they had the fire under control.

Gasping for breath, Murdoch turned to look out into the hallway. He rushed from the room to kneel down next to Johnny.

There was blood everywhere… too much blood.  He reached out with a trembling hand to touch his son’s chalk white face.

"We need Sam," Scott said, his voice shaking.

"I’ll go," Angel told them quietly. "You two stay with him. He needs you."

 They all heard the sound of Teresa heading up the stairs.

"Don't let her see me like this," Johnny whispered.

Angel leaned down and lifted Johnny as though he were light as a feather and carried him into Scott’s room, laying him gently on the bed.

“Take care of him,” he said, true concern in his voice as he disappeared out of the room and the sound of his voice and Teresa’s faded as they ran down the stairs.

Scott and Murdoch worked feverishly to stop the blood flowing from Johnny's appalling wounds.

"Murdoch..." Johnny murmured, the words barely more that a wisp of breath.

Murdoch took his son's hand in his. "I'm right here, son..."

"The r... ring..." Johnny managed to say. "You... you shouldn't have..."

"I'd do it for either of you," Murdoch told him, clutching his son's hand tighter.  "It was my fight, not yours."

Scott put his hand over Murdoch's, effectively joining both his father and his brother... "No, it's our fight."

Johnny managed the merest hint of a smile. "Well, next time Evil comes calling... let's not put out any welcome sign..."
 

 

EPILOGUE

It was late in the day and the house was quiet, its residents late to rise.

Johnny woke to the sound of the door creaking as it opened. He opened his eyes and rubbed them quickly with his good hand, the other arm not much more than dead weight and throbbing mercilessly.

Angel stood in the doorway.

“Come on in,” Johnny told him quietly. “I’m awake.”

Angel stepped into the room and closed the door behind him. “How are you feeling?”

“Kinda like one of those patchwork quilts,” Johnny managed to say, with the merest hint of a smile. “Sam’s put a whole lot of stitches in me… but it could of been worse. Thanks.”

“I wish I’d guessed sooner,” Angel said sadly.

“You couldn’t a known that there was more than one of ‘em,” Johnny replied, wincing as he tried to get comfortable. It was a losing battle. There wasn’t a part of him that didn’t hurt, and the fever was still hanging on, leaving him feeling as weak as a new born kitten.

Johnny followed Angel’s eyes across the room and spotted Scott sleeping in the chair by the window. He looked like he’d been there for hours. He sagged in the chair, his legs stretched out before him, his head resting uncomfortably on his shoulder as he snored softly. He felt guilty that he had taken over his brother’s bed, but it would take time to air out his room.

“Teresa said she’ll be up with some sort of tea for you shortly,” Angel whispered.

“Yeah… gotta expect that,” Johnny answered with a rueful smile.

Angel grinned. “Don’t fight it, gunhawk,” he said. “Be grateful you have them.”

Johnny sighed, tiring. “Yeah… I am.”

A corridor of light ran the width of the room, spilling across the bed. Angel eyed it nervously. “Do you mind if I close those curtains?” he asked Johnny.

“Go right ahead… watch out for ‘sleepin’ beauty’ though.”

Carefully skirting the sunlight, Angel walked over to the window and edged past Scott. He pulled the curtains across quickly and stepped back, accidentally nudging Scott.

Johnny watched his brother jolt awake and look up. Angel loomed over him like some huge bird of prey. He choked back a laugh when he saw Scott's eyes widen and his brother leap from his chair, his hand protecting his neck.

Angel looked offended. “I don’t bite people…” he said, and Johnny laughed. “I thought I had made that clear.”

“Yes… yes I guess so,” Scott answered, embarrassed. Scott nodded. “I’m sorry… I guess I was half asleep…”

‘If it could be called sleep…’ Scott thought. He’d spent hours with Johnny last night and this morning, fighting to keep him from bleeding to death. At times he’d almost convinced himself that it was just a dream…

It was too much to take in… and yet, he knew in his soul that it had been real.

The sound of a rider coming in fast had Scott jumping to his feet and gazing out of the window.

He was surprised to see Val dismounting in the courtyard.

“Trouble?” Angel whispered.

Scott shook his head. “Nothing we shouldn’t expect. It’s Val. He’s the sheriff from Green River.” He turned and started for the door. "I'll go down and talk to him..." he said quietly.

Johnny looked towards Angel with an appeal in his eyes. He was exhausted, but he knew that Murdoch and Scott might need help to explain away last night. Johnny wished he could go down and help, but he couldn’t even sit up yet.

“All right, I’ll go with him,” Angel told him.

***

 Jelly rushed out of the barn. Last night had been a long one, with the storm and that dang cat…first Dan Brennen then Johnny getting cut by that glass. It was a miracle that Johnny wasn’t killed. As it was, the poor boy was more dead than alive.

 “Howdy, Sheriff,” Jelly said, still pulling his suspenders up. “Thought you’d be out huntin’ that cat.”

 “There’re men lookin’ in the hills,” Val told him. “Not much in the way o’ tracks though.”

 Jelly drew himself up and scowled at the sheriff. “Nope, that storm sure fixed that.”

 Val looked up toward Johnny’s bedroom window noticing the scorched frame. “You had a fire?”

 Jelly nodded. “Murdoch and Scott said the drapes knocked over a lantern. Didn’t see it myself… me and Cip were takin’ care of… well, ya know…Dan…”

 “Yeah…that’s what I’m here about. And ta check on Johnny. Sam said he was lucky to be alive…I hear he was cut up pretty bad when that window broke.”

 “Yeah, it was somethin’ awful… an' then the fire an' all... we damn near lost the boy…”

 Murdoch opened the door “Val, we’ve be expecting you."

 Val nodded. “Thought I’d best come by and see ‘bout Johnny,” he said. “And to see if Miss Kelly and that Drummond lady was still here. They ain’t been seen since they left with Dan…”

 Murdoch ushered him into the house.

 Angel stood beside Scott, the heavy brocade drapes closing off the outside light in the great room.

  “Val, this is Angel. He found Johnny and brought him home,” Murdoch explained quickly. “Helped put the fire out last night too.”

 "Angel, huh?  I ain't seen you around these parts before... “

 "No. Just passing through.”

 “Lucky ta find him then,” Val told him.

 “Yes,” Angel answered coolly. “Couldn't leave a man stretched out there in the sun like that."

 Scott broke in quickly. “Mrs. Drummond was so frightened by the incident that she headed for Cross Creek and the train back to Carolina. Kelly went with her. They plan to send for their things later.”

 “Can’t blame them any,” Val said, “seeing as Dan was killed right in front of ‘em. I’ll tell Betty Brennen that she’ll hear from them when they’re settled.”

 ‘Thanks Val. I’d say go up and see Johnny but Sam has him so full of laudanum that he’ll sleep through until tonight.”

 “Just tell ‘im I was by ta see him, and we’ll catch that damn cat if it’s the last thing we do.”

 “I’ll tell him.”

 Murdoch watched Val mount up and ride away. There would still be questions when Kelly and Cadha didn’t show up in Carolina. But that was for another time. When life was back to normal. Murdoch looked down at the ring on his finger…would it ever be the same?

 ***

Night had fallen.  Angel looked out the window of Scott’s room, then turned back to see Johnny staring at him.

“You could stay, you know,” Johnny said. “It ain’t so bad being in one place.”

“Thanks, but I’d better be going,” Angel replied reluctantly, unused to such hospitality. “People start asking awkward questions after a while.”

"You going somewhere?" Scott asked from the doorway. "You don't have to, you know."

Angel smiled. “I thought you’d be glad to see me leave… you might get some sleep if you're not worrying about your neck.” Besides, the cait is on your side… it came to warn you.”

“Didn’t do me no favors,” Johnny said flatly.

“It came to warn of the baobhan sith's evil... I think you just happened to be there.”

“And if you had listened to my warning, you wouldn’t have gotten yourself in this mess in the first place,” Murdoch said as he walked into the room. “Next time I tell you not to go that way, you might listen to me.”

***

The night was still. The quiet was welcome after the violence of last night. Scott's window was open and the soft sounds of the ranch at night drifted as Johnny lay in bed.

He knew Angel was right. Angel wouldn't be able to stay here without raising suspicions about his lifestyle, but he was sorry to see him leave. He'd done so much for them, and he knew that Angel needed help of his own. Johnny hoped he'd find it someday.

Through the darkness came the sound of a horse whinnying and being led across the courtyard. The others would be there to see him off… Murdoch, Scott and Teresa. He wanted to be there himself, but he knew he could never make it downstairs. He hurt all over and he wasn’t fool enough to forget that he had lost far too much blood recently.

He’d said his goodbyes already, but it didn’t seem to be enough.

In frustration, he threw back the covers and eased himself forward to sit up. Cautiously testing the stitches and fighting the light headed feeling that enveloped him, he turned and eased his legs over the side of the bed.

The pain was agonizing, but his determination was greater and he put his feet on the floor to stand up. Grabbing the bedpost for support, he stood there shaking until the dizziness cleared, then took a deep breath and focused on the chair by the window.

It seemed forever before he made it across the short distance and carefully lowered himself into the chair and looked out into the darkness to see his friend off. The night was so still that he could hear their words drifting up to him.

Angel had his horse saddled and was ready to leave. There was nothing to keep him here now, and more questions than he cared to answer would arise if he stayed too long.

Scott and Murdoch stood on the portico to see him off.

“You’re welcome to stay as long as you like,” Murdoch reminded him.

“Thanks, but I’d better be going,” Angel replied awkwardly, unused to such hospitality. He swung lithely into the saddle and leaned over to shake hands with them both. “Look after Johnny. See that he stays out of trouble for a while.”

Johnny smiled. Even the vampire didn’t trust him to keep clear of trouble.

“He’ll only be out of trouble for as long as he’s stuck in that bed,” he heard Scott tell him confidently. “Though I’m not sure about that working either.”

Angel laughed. “Well, see that you all keep a piece of iron handy. At least stay away from that kind of trouble.”

“Murdoch’s made a ring for Johnny already,” Scott told him with a sigh. “I suppose we have to consider those rings as something to hand on…”

Angel nodded. “They’ve kept the vendetta going all these years, but it won’t be you they’ll come after next time, it’s the next generation,” he explained. “If you… or yours sons… ever need help… and if I’m still around…” Angel tried to say.

“I know,” Scott answered uneasily. “It’s hard to come to grips with, a lot can happen. But I know what you’re trying to say. We’ll call if we need you…”

Angel nodded and turned his horse away. With a wave, he headed off into the darkness. The night wrapped itself around his dark horse and clothes as he rode under the Lancer arch and disappeared.

***

 Johnny sat at the window and watched Angel ride away. He sighed, and wondered how the hell he was going to get back into that bed before his family came and found him up.

He was about to look away and begin the difficult journey, when a movement by the barn caught his eye. Peering into the night, Johnny gasped.

The cait sat watching the vampire ride away from the ranch. His massive black body was crouched, almost hidden by the darkness. His tail twitched nervously as he waited…

With infinite grace, the cait stood and walked out of the courtyard, glancing toward the disappearing rider then up at the window before heading for the foothills behind the ranch.

In moments, it was gone… his work done... for now.

 

~end~
October 2005

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