The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Lisa Paris

 

 

To Cheat The Devil

PART ONE.

Johnny walked around the ranch house for one last time to check it was still weatherproof. To make sure he hadn't missed anymore of the fallen roof shingles shaken loose by the ferocious storm that had swept up through the valley a week ago leaving a trail of devastation in its wake.

He tried hard to ignore the prickle of unease that made the back of his neck so sensitive, his mouth more than a little dry. The old place sure wasn't  welcoming and he was longing to get away as fast as he could.

The gaunt figure of the scarecrow mocked him from the withered cornfield. Its sightless eyes boring into him wherever he seemed to go. He shivered, and spinning suddenly around, he could have sworn the thing had moved.

He laughed out loud at himself. Ridiculous - he was being ridiculous. Acting just like Jelly who was still too scared and superstitious to ride out here with him to check the place over. The old man would always be convinced this was the Devil's land, and that one day, they'd run into Absalom Weir again.

Giving into a really childish impulse, Johnny made a face at the tattered scarecrow and whistled for Barranca. Time to go home for supper. Teresa was cooking a roast tonight as a special treat because Murdoch and Scott were leaving for Denver in the morning on business. They planned on being away at least four weeks and Johnny knew he would miss them, but the thought of one of Teresa’s celebratory dinners was already making his mouth water. Roast beef, sweet potatoes, yams, tender young peas and carrots . . .

He whistled for Barranca again, but the errant horse cocked his ears at him from the other side of the corral fence and still refused to come. Frowning in annoyance, Johnny shook his head and called.

“Barranca, aqui!”

What was ailing the palomino? The pony rolled his eyes at him and sidled away. He was usually so obedient to every whistle, click or signal, that Johnny wondered suddenly if he sensed a snake nearby.

He drew his gun cautiously, listening hard for a telltale hiss or rattle, but could hear nothing. Only the rustle of the wind through the dry cornfield like the dusty clatter of dead man’s bones. Just the mournful creak of the loose roofing flap against the side of the ranch house.

Johnny clutched his gun a little tighter, trying to ignore the involuntary shiver that ran through him as he walked slowly and carefully over to the nervous pony, stroking his neck softly and speaking soothingly to him in Spanish. Eventually the melodic words seemed to reassure them both, but it took awhile before Barranca was calm enough for him to swing his leg across the saddle.

Urging the palomino into a mad gallop, he tore on up the hill as though the Devil himself was behind him. Heading home towards Lancer without a backwards glance, he resisted the impulse to look round over his shoulder; aware the whole time of the scarecrow’s cold eyes boring like skewers intohis back.
 

* * * * * * * *
 

Teresa tilted her face up towards the sun and smiled happily. Enjoying the feel of it’s warmth on her skin, enjoying the strength of the muscular arm she held beneath her hand, and generally enjoying life itself as she and Johnny strolled contentedly along the boardwalk towards the General Store in Morro Coyo.

She loved Scott and Murdoch with all her tender heart, but the days since they’d departed for Denver had been happy and relaxing. Heady, like wine.

One of Johnny’s precious palomino mares had gone into labour, and she and Johnny had helped her to foal the most beautiful little colt. They’d spent the whole night in the barn, eating a weary but hearty breakfast with Jelly, laughing and arguing across the kitchen table as they tried to decide on a name for the brand new edition to the family.

She loved to watch Johnny working with the horses. The way he spoke to them so softly, soothing and gentling them with his long, brown hands. His gift was undeniable and never ceased to amaze her, from the skill he showed in breaking-in the wildest of them, to the tenderness with which he calmed the most afraid. He seemed to understand their nuances and moods.

Helping him deliver the colt had her share in that a little - to know the satisfaction and joy she sensed he felt as he assisted the precious new life into the world. They’d worked so well together as she tried to anticipate his movements. Basking in his quiet words of praise and admiring the surety with which he’d handled the quivering mare. All the time aware of the warmth growing inside her, a new and fragile flowering of satisfaction as the bond between the two of them grew closer.

With Murdoch away, the atmosphere around the hacienda was lighter, more informal. She enjoyed the banter between Johnny and Jelly, the blatant way Maria tried to spoil the younger Lancer son. The lingering over supper, and Johnny spending more time with her so she didn’t get too lonely in the daytime when there was no one else about.

But most of all, she enjoyed the nights. When Johnny lit the huge fire in the library, they would curl up on the sofa together whilst she drank her coffee and he had a whisky. She would tell him about her childhood.  Vignettes of his father as a younger man. Stories and gossip about their neighbours, the folk in Morro Coyo and even Spanish Wells. Things that by right he should have known, before the ill-starred hand of fate had snatched him away from the life that should have been his.

She often wondered what it would have been like if he had never left, if they had grown up together as children, running wild over the Estancia and exploring all her favourite haunts. How different things would have been - how different would he have been?

He in turn, told her some carefully edited tales about his childhood. Good things only, of a life she could barely even begin to comprehend. She liked to watch his face as she listened. The way the firelight played on the planes and angles of his cheekbones, the faraway look in his azure eyes. The complete stillness he had about him as he recalled a particular person or
situation.

It was impossible to miss the fleeting veil of pain that would occasionally film across his expression, or the brief pulse at his temple when a bad memory intruded and the words dried up and died. She wasn’t insensitive enough to ever push him. Knowing how privileged she was to hear even this heavily censored version of events, to be allowed just a glimpse into his past. To slip beneath his carefully constructed barricades and sneak a little ways into his heart.

The stories made her angry and sad by turns. No child should have grown-up the way he did, or endured the cruelty and hardships, the poverty and hunger. It was a miracle he’d survived at all, but he’d paid for that miracle with his innocence at a very early age.

She was no fool. Learning more from the parts he left out than she did from the snippets he told her. It broke her heart to have to fill in the wretched gaps. Thank God the Pinkertons had eventually found him. Thank God Murdoch had brought him home at last.

She had no doubt Johnny wouldn’t have survived out there much longer, even if by some miracle he’d escaped the firing squad in Mexico. One day, even the legendary Johnny Madrid would have come up against a gunfighter who was faster than him, and in the meantime, what was happening to his soul?

When he’d come home to them, he’d been slowly dying inside. The innate gentleness, the yearning for redemption, his
compassion . . . It was all being gradually, inexorably, eroded away. The man growing out of it had learned not to trust. His cynicism and hard indifference the lessons of bitter survival.

She’d seen the fear in his eyes. The desperation in his soul as he felt his clutch on humanity slipping away. The need behind the defiance and disdain in his voice as he wanted to believe, oh so badly, in all of the reasons his father had invited him home.

And Scott had seen it too. He’d sensed it almost at once, and responded like the good, kind man that he was. Fighting Johnny’s initial hostility with patience and understanding, biding his time and not pushing things too hard.

Teresa had watched with delight and relief as their relationship blossomed.  Deliberately taking a back seat herself to allow it to happen, watching as the closeness that went far beyond filial duty or common friendship had grown-up, powerful and true. The diversity between the two brothers was the very bond that drew them together, as ironically, it became their strength.

She just wished Murdoch had been able to see what she and Scott did. Had been able to understand just how much Johnny needed him, his love and approval. How he yearned to know Murdoch was proud of him, that his father didn’t hold his past against him. But it had taken the elder Lancer a lot longer to see beyond the barricade his youngest son had constructed, and Teresa knew that for awhile, he’d despaired of ever doing so.

What was so obvious to her and Scott was choked and hidden by Murdoch’s own guilt and confusion. The combination of love and hate he still felt for Johnny’s mother, the fact he saw her every time he looked at his son’s raven-wing hair, or the dark sweep of his ridiculously long eyelashes.

But now after three long and often troublesome years, things were a lot better and Teresa knew Murdoch loved Johnny dearly. They still didn’t share the easy relationship the other had with Scott and perhaps they never would, but the love wasn’t ever in doubt anymore, and all the residual anger between both men was gone at last.

So now it was her turn. After standing a little way back from it all to give the three men a chance to re-establish their own links, it was about time she got a look in. There was so much about Johnny that was hidden. So much he felt unable to speak about or share, whether through pain or shame, denial or fear. She found herself wanting to know it all. To finally help him come to terms with the sadness she saw so often behind those astonishing blue eyes. The sadness he hid so well, the majority of people never realised it was there. Even those that did were fooled a lot of the time.

“Penny for them, querida?”

They were outside the General Store, and Teresa realised Johnny was looking down at her, an amused grin on his face. She flushed slightly and shook her head.

"Oh sorry Johnny. Don't mind me. I'm just trying to remember everything we need so I don't have to drag you in again tomorrow because I forgot something . . ."

He grinned even harder, thinking how adorable she looked all confused and caught out in a fib. “Now Miss Teresa . . .”

“Oh no,” she interrupted in dismay as the Store door opened and Johnny saw Father Alvarez step cautiously out into the sun’s bright glare. He was unable to help himself from chuckling out loud, turning back to her with a quick wink.

“Your sins will always catch you out, Chica.”

“Later, Johnny Lancer,” she grit her teeth and smiled dazzlingly at the ancient Priest. “Buenos dias, Father.”

“Senorita Teresa,” he bowed fondly to her, “and Senor Johnny. It is fortunate we have met this way. I was going to send a message out to the Estancia this afternoon.”

“Porque Padre?”

Johnny’s smile faded, a curious sense of foreboding prickling up and down his spine as he looked at the deepening frown lines between the old Priest’s eyebrows and the man regarded him perplexedly.

“A man - he came to the steps of the Mission yesterday with a message for you, Senor.”

“Name?” Johnny said tersely, all his old instincts humming now.

“He would not leave a name, but he told me to tell you an old friend was back in the area. He said to give you his promisa that he would look you up again, pronto.”

“I’ll bet he did,” murmured Johnny softly, as he scanned round quickly, blue eyes narrowing suddenly against the sun. He checked for faces from his past.  Anyone who looked out of place or uncommonly interested in him or Teresa.  Strangers or gun hawks, potential chancers who might fancy they were quicker with a gun than the legendary Johnny Madrid. Anyone or anything who
represented danger.

Teresa saw his hand move down to his hip. The long brown fingers flexing and ready for action, as his eyes roamed up and down the street searching in the hidden shadows for a would-be assailant. And with a sudden burst of illumination, she realised this was how his life had always been.

Always expecting the unexpected- always waiting for the next situation to occur. Never being able to let his guard down or relax totally . . . She grasped his arm tightly, and for a brief moment thought he was going to push her hand away in case it impeded his access to his gun.

“Johnny!”

The fear in her tone made him come to his senses. She saw his pupil’s begin to contract again as he took a quick deep breath and turned back to Father Alvarez.

“What did he look like, Father?”

His voice was soft and controlled, quiet and deadly. It made her hair stand on end. But Father Alvarez shrugged unhappily as he regarded them trough clouded eyes.

“An older man in a dark suit. More like an abogado than a vaquero. But he did carry a gun, Senor Johnny, and he looked like he knew how to use it.”

“Do you know him, Johnny?”

He shook his head and turned to her slowly. “Doesn’t sound like anyone I’ve come across who knew me before . . .”

She knew what he meant, he meant before Lancer. Before he’d returned home. And with any luck, it wasn’t anybody from his past. No one with a score to settle, point to prove, or revenge to seek. With any luck.

She felt him relax slightly. The corded muscles beneath her fingers softening almost imperceptivity as the moment passed and the ghost of Johnny Madrid departed, to be replaced once more by the Johnny Lancer she knew and loved.

“Is there anything else, Father? Did he say where he’s staying, when he plans to look me up again. Anything?”

“Nada. That is the strange thing about it. I was in a hurry, there was a christening . . . I invited him in to the Mission, but he laughed and said he would not be welcome. When I turned around again, he was gone. Almost as though he’d vanished into thin air!”

Johnny lifted his head up sharply, blue eyes almost silver with intensity.  “An older man, black suit . . . Where’d he wear the pistol, Padre? Down on his thigh here, like me?”

The Priest thought for a moment, then shook his head. “No. Higher up, around his waist. Not like you.”

Johnny smiled softly and nodded. “Well, well. That figures. Muchas gracias, Padre. I think I know who it is now.”

They watched the old man pick his way carefully off along the boardwalk, and Teresa turned back to Johnny with foreboding in her heart.

“Who is it, Johnny?”

“Don’t you recognise the description?”

“I . . .” Her eyes widened suddenly. “Johnny, no. It sounds like Absalom Weir.”

He held the door of the Store open for her, re-taking her arm as they walked through. “Yep, that’s what I thought too. Kinda curious to know just what he wants after all this time.”

She shivered despite the heat. “He frightens me. He tried to kill you the last time he was here, and he may try to again. He must have heard you take care of the Hackett place for Silas while he’s at school back East.”

“Maybe.” Johnny’s face was thoughtful. “But then again, maybe not. Don’t worry, Miel. I won’t let him hurt you.”

“It’s not me I’m worried about,” she said dryly. “Oh how I wish Scott and Murdoch were home.”

He laughed and spun her round in his arms. Tilting her anxious little face up so he could see it more clearly and smiling down into her eyes.

“I’m hurt, Teresa. Is my company really that bad? And there I was lookin’forward to a real nice couple of weeks together. No gettin’ frowned at if I’m late for supper, no havin’ to watch Scott get all the roast potatoes just because he’s the elder brother. No . . .”

She was laughing helplessly at him now. “you are totally shameless. You know  perfectly well Maria spoils you far more than poor Scott, you get away with blue murder. To say nothing of extra roast potatoes.”

He looked at her sideways. “It is nice though, querida. Just the two of us. Peaceful, kinda cosy.”

Their eyes met and held for a moment, and then she blushed and looked away. “And Jelly, of course. And Maria . . .”

He let go of her arm quickly. “And Dewdrop, you’re forgettin’ Dewdrop.”

“How could I forget Dewdrop - wish I could forget Dewdrop.”

They laughed together again, the awkward moment vanished as quickly as it had come. Senor Balderamo eagerly claiming Teresa as soon as he saw her enter his shop. Johnny lounged against one of the tall wooden pillars just watching her. Silently berating himself for nearly allowing his feelings to show. For almost giving the game away.
 

* * * * * * * *
 

PART TWO.

Jelly's head shot-up with shock as he dropped the bucket he was carrying with a loud clang and stared at Johnny in fright. "I knewed it. I knew we hadn’t seen the last of thet . . . thet fella. I warned ye not to mess with the devil, but no . . . no, you wouldn’t listen. Too darn stubborn as usual!"

"Jelly . . . " Johnny's voice was it's customary soft drawl, but Jelly just ignored him.

"Too darn bull-headed to ever listen to anythin’ that ever made a passel of sense . . ."

"Jelly." Johnny's voice was firmer this time. "Will you just calm down and listen to me for a second? Weir ain’t the Devil. He's a man. Just a man ."

"But . . ."

"Oh, he's a slippery one alright, I'll give him that. But there's nothing supernatural about him and I don't want you keepin’ on
and frightenin’ Teresa. You got that now?"

Jelly sighed and made a big show of righting the bucket again. "Aw heck Johnny, that's the last thing I want to do, but that Weir fella, he just gives me the creeps is all. You positive it's him?"

"Positive as I can be without seeing for myself"

"Well what does he want with you now?"

Johnny smiled, but it didn’t meet his eyes. "What would anyone with a draw as fast as his, want with a man like me?"

Jelly took a surprised breath and glanced involuntarily at the colt hung at Johnny's hip. "You mean . . ."

"Yep," said Johnny ironically." Reckon curiosity finally got the better of him and he wants to know which one of us is faster. So much for the Devil, huh Jelly?"

"But how do you know fer sure?"

"Take it from me, I know."

Shaking his head and muttering under his breath, Jelly finished feeding the post-partum palomino mare whilst Johnny watched in contemplative silence. He was so still Jelly was forced to glance up at him a couple of times to check he hadn’t left the stables. But no, he stood deep in thought and chewing on a piece of hay as he studied the wobbly little foal in the pen.

Dammit, but Jelly had never known a man as still as Johnny. His body, his stance, his whole being. The stillness seemed to come from within his very soul, mirrored only in his watchful eyes.

There was a time once in Green River. Some punk in a saloon had challenged Johnny after the two of them had dropped off some steers. Jelly could still recall his feeling of dismay as he realised his friend might be seconds away from losing his life. Johnny had been so still, Jelly swore he'd never even breathed or flicked his eyes. Standing in perfect silence as he waited for the other man to make the first move. It was over in a heartbeat. In a blur of motion so fast, Jelly hadn’t even seen him draw his gun before the
would-be chancer lay clutching his shoulder in the dusty street. Jaw dropping in amazement, Jelly had watched Johnny straighten up and check his gun. Pushing his hat back on his head and glancing at his injured opponent with implacable eyes. Jelly could still recall his words.

"You done Mister?"

Grunting through his gulps of pain, the man had nodded with gritted teeth. Knowing just how lucky he was to be alive as he stared fearfully at the man above him, so calm, so in control. For a moment, Jelly had not known that Johnny. Sensing it was Johnny Madrid he was watching. That this scenario, or one just like it, had been played out on more occasions than he cared to take a guess at.

He could still remember the sudden rush of sorrow he'd felt in his soft, old heart. The loneliness he knew would always be a part of Johnny's soul. Sighing loudly, he straightened up rheumatically with a grimace of resignation.

"What'll you do?"

Johnny shrugged. "Guess that's up to him."

"I don't like it, Johnny. Devil or no Devil, he's dangerous and he's got a grudge against you. I sense trouble a-comin'!"

Casting the chewed piece of hay to one side, Johnny nodded almost absent-mindedly. "Let's just wait and see. I've got the barn roof to fix tomorrow, but I thought I'd ride on out to the Hackett Place in the evenin’ and take me a look around. Maybe see if anyone's been campin’- out there."

Jelly gulped hard. "S'pose I'll come along with you then. Try and keep you outta trouble . . ."

"No." Placing a soft hand on the old man's shoulder, Johnny shook his head at him with a slight smile. "I appreciate the offer Jelly, but I'd like you to stay here with Teresa."

"But . . . "

"No ‘buts.’ Her safety's the most important priority here. I don’t think he'll try anythin‘, his score's with me. But I . . . I can't take that chance. Comprende?"

"You can count on me, you know you can . . . But what if he's there waitin' fer you?"

Johnny's face hardened. "Then I'll finish it this time. For once and for all!"

 * * * * * * * *
 

Teresa watched Johnny out of the corner of her eye as he absent-mindedly spooned even more food onto his plate. Knowing full well that as he did so, he didn’t have a clue what he was about to eat. A mischievous smile twitched her lips and she put a small soft hand on his as he was about to help himself to even more.

"Hungry, Johnny?"

She raised innocent brown eyes to his face, and he looked down with a slight start as he realised what he'd done.

"Guess I must be at that."

She tutted at him. "Save some room for the pot-roast or I'll have to think of taking out all your clothes !"

He grinned ruefully back at her. "Got a little carried away for a minute there. Gonna need all my energy for fixin' the barn roof tomorrow."

She nodded, her smile fading. "And then I presume, you'll be riding out to the Hackett Place?"

He looked up sharply. "Jelly spoke to you?"

"No he didn’t. I . . . I know you well enough to work it out for myself." She paused, and he heard her give a tiny sigh. "I don't suppose there's anything I can say to stop you, is there?"

"No." He placed a gentle finger under her chin. "There isn’t querida. But don't worry, he probably aint there. He may even have moved on by now."

"I know you don't really believe that."

No, he didn’t really believe that, but he didn’t want her worrying about him either. Their eyes met and held for a second, and he wondered if she saw what was in his heart.

"Teresa . . ."

He pronounced her name in the Spanish style, imbuing it with a passion and a dignity she'd never heard before. It sent a sudden shiver up her spine.

"Teresa . . ." He repeated it softly, as though it was rare and precious, and her eye's widened as they looked back at his in search of answers.

The back door banged loudly. They both jumped out of their skins as Jelly stumped into the kitchen muttering and grumbling as they heard him washing his hands at the sink. The spell was broken, and snatching his hand away from her face, Johnny ran his finger's a little shakily through his hair and inhaled deeply.

"It'll probably be a fool's errand just like I said. No reason to fret about it."

Aware that her heart was still hammering hard enough to burst out of her breast, Teresa looked back at him reproachfully.

"At least take Jelly with you - or one of the men."

But he dug his fork into the pile of buttered squash and gave her a quick, decisive smile. "Jelly'll stay here with you. Be faster, simpler by myself."

The object of his word's came in from the kitchen. "Someone takin' my name in vain?"

Teresa shook her head crossly. "Talk some sense into him Jelly, because I sure can't."

Jelly made a wry face as he realised what he'd just walked in on. "S'no good Teresa darlin'. He aint about ter listen ter me.
Stubborn as a mule an' twice as 'ornery. Don't think I haven’t tried. I don't like the thought of him goin' after thet Devil anymore than you do, but will he listen? Pah!"

He snorted loudly, and whanged a spoonful of mash down hard onto his plate, as Johnny grinned at him and shook his head with gentle mockery.

"How many times do I have to tell you, Jelly - Absalom Weir is not the Devil."

"Don't say it, Johnny. Don't tempt the Devil!"

"Stop it. If that man's the Devil, he can strike me down now just to prove it!"

Jelly paled and dropped his fork. "Johnny!"

There was a deafening crash. Teresa's heart lurched as the large picture above Johnny's head clattered down from the wall, it’s wooden frame splintering as the glass dashed to pieces on the flagstone hearth. Johnny leapt out of his chair, but wasn’t quite quick enough to avoid a jagged shard of glass that glanced off his cheekbone, slicing into it and spotting scarlet blood onto the snowy tablecloth.

They stared at each other in fright for a couple of stunned seconds, then Teresa came to her senses. Bustling quickly out of her chair to press her napkin against the cut on Johnny's face, even though her hand was shaking like a leaf.

"B . . . bring me over the candle, Jelly. I don't think there's any glass in the wound, but I need more light . . . "

"It's alright, Teresa. Don't fuss."

Johnny held her gently away from him. Trying to reassure her with his eyes as he watched her fighting valiantly to remain calm. Jelly wasn’t quite as reticent. Jumping to his feet and crossing himself wildly, eyes darting frantically around the room as the tremors shuddered through his body.

"You shouldn’a said it, Johnny. You shouldn’a tempted the Devil thet way!"

Striding swiftly over to the fireplace, Johnny quickly examined the small hole in the plaster-work where the picture hook had hung, his face thoughtful and closed.

"This nail's worked loose. Or maybe somebody worked it loose."

"It's Weir, I knew it. There’s somethin' powerful uncanny about him, Johnny. Even you can't deny it no-more."

"That's enough, Jelly." Johnny's voice was curt now, final. "The nail worked loose, the picture fell. If it ain't a coincidence then somebody staged it.  I'll fix it first thing, and we can hang something else here till it’s mended."

"Like a crucifix mebbe," muttered Jelly. Still palpably distressed, as he watched Teresa shake her head at him and start to stack the dishes. All interest in supper lost now. Not one of them felt like eating anymore.
 

* * * * * * * *
 

Walking out onto the veranda, Johnny sighed and looked up at the stars. Despite his air of resolute calm, the incident with the picture had shaken him badly, but for a different, non-supernatural reason then all Jelly's talk about the Devil.

He was pretty, damned sure someone had tampered with, and manually loosened the nail which had held the picture-hook in place. If it was Weir, it meant the man had been inside the hacienda. The thought of him creeping about whilst Teresa and Maria were alone during the daytime made his blood run cold, his mouth bone-dry.

He was under no illusions. He knew what kind of man Weir was. Oh, he wasn’t ‘the’ Devil, but he was ‘a’ devil. Johnny had sussed him out that very first day as he'd sat at their dining table and reminisced about a time he'd watched Johnny face-up to a man in Santa Fe.

Crinkling his eyes slightly with effort, Johnny could still roughly recall Weir's exact words.

 "I watched you gun a man down in Santa Fe, about ten years ago. I marvelled at your speed, your confidence, your grace. I remember thinking at the time, that you were very nearly as fast as myself . . . "

His hand moved involuntarily down to where his gun should be. Teresa always made him remove it when he came into the house, and now it was hung on the peg by the door. Feeling suddenly vulnerable, he shivered slightly, eyes scanning the shadows even as he berated himself for his disquiet and unease.

". . . very nearly as fast as myself . . . very nearly as fast as myself . . ."

Gamesmanship words. Deliberately uttered to put him at an immediate disadvantage. Deliberately said to make him believe Weir was the faster man.

Relaxing slightly, Johnny smiled softly at the moon. A lot had changed since Weir had seen him fight in Santa Fe. In the years after that, during his time as a gunfighter, his skill's had honed. He'd become better, faster. A master at reading his opponent, and although he wasn’t a vain man, he knew he'd been the best at what he did. But was he now? Who was he now?

Johnny Lancer or Johnny Madrid?

Johnny Madrid was still there inside him. Still waiting, still wary, and still as deadly fast with a gun. Johnny Lancer was who he wanted to be. A better man with roots and people who cared about him. A man at peace with himself and the world. But the world just wouldn’t leave him alone, and every time he thought he might be one step closer to finally coming to terms with his past, it seemed to rear up and mock him again.

He thought of Weir once more. Remembering the little display the man had executed for his and Jelly's benefit the morning they'd ridden to the Hackett's after Silas. So called demonstrating his skills to the boy, as he shot the white china plates out of the sky with deadly accuracy and speed.

It had been no more for Silas then anything else the man had done, and Johnny knew the exhibition had been solely for his benefit. A warning. A taster of what he could expect if he dared to cross Weir. Maybe even a challenge. A vainer man might have taken if he'd felt the need to prove himself faster or more accurate in the eyes of the boy.

He hadn’t lifted the gauntlet that day even though part of him had been sorely tempted. Perversely enjoying the taint of acrid disappointment he'd sensed in Weir when he'd refused the unspoken challenge. But Weir had been impressive all right. As accurate as Johnny had ever seen. Possibly even more accurate than Johnny himself. But was he faster?

That was the million-dollar question, and there was only one way of finding out the answer.

Funny how, even at the time, he'd felt that a meeting between the two of them was inevitable. As sure as the sunset over the mountains, as definite as the rosy, valley dawn.

"Johnny?"

Teresa's voice was soft and uncertain behind him, and as she approached, he could smell the familiar scent of rosewater on the night air.

"Here," He stepped out from behind the pillar and watched as she walked over to him. White petticoats foaming around her ankles, eyes as dark as forever.

"Coffee's in the library."

"I'll be in shortly."

Instead of leaving, she linked her arm through his and stood beside him looking at the moon. "When I was a little girl, I thought the moon only shone over Lancer. I thought it belonged to Murdoch just like everything else did."

He nodded slowly. "Do you ever wonder how things would be if I'd grown up here too?"

"All the time." Her voice caught slightly, and he felt her clasp tighten on his arm. "I'd imagine what you were like sometimes. You and Scott. Pretend you were both here where you belonged, that we'd have wonderful adventures together . . ."

"Were you lonely, Teresa?"

"Now and then. I used to play with Cipriano's children, with the children at the Mission School of course. I never wanted for
anything, Murdoch and my father spoilt me to bits. I was their little angel." She paused, and he felt her shake her head. “Ironic really, under the circumstances."

"Why so?"

"Oh, because of my mother. Because of what she was, and what she did to my father. I know now that every time Murdoch looked at me, he was probably remembering you. When Angel ran away, she left her daughter behind, when your mother left she took you with her. It's like a bad melodrama."

He fought against the knot of misery her words invoked, and spoke so softly she could hardly hear him. "We both got a raw deal, querida."

"Maybe. At least Maria loved you enough to take you along. But on the whole, I've been so lucky. There's hardly anything I'd change . . . "

She stopped, and he knew she was thinking of her father's murder, so he put his arm around her and pulled her closer for comfort. Resting his chin on the softness of her hair.

She leant in closer to him. He made her feel so safe. So safe, so reassured. So vital, that every one of her senses was aware of him. The warmth of his skin, the beat of his heart. The way he seemed to smell of sunlight and fresh air. It wasn’t just the memory of her father that caused her pain. It was the thought of his childhood and everything he'd lost. All the hurt and hardship she knew he'd suffered, all the love and comfort he'd been denied because of his parent's inability to live together. A turn of the cards. A toss of the dice. A child's life.

They were silent for along while. Each drawing comfort from the other as their thoughts chased different memories and themes. Converging with uncanny similarity, had they but only known it.
 

* * * * * * * *

PART THREE
 

Johnny got up early the next morning. He took a moment to stand at his bedroom window and watch as the dawn broke over the majestic San Benitos. His breath caught in his throat as the beauty of the view stunned him yet again. He felt a bond, a connection to this land that always moved him, but never more so then at times like this when the grandeur of nature was at its most spectacular.

He’d slept poorly, wrestling with his thoughts for most of the night. Ghosts of his childhood, his years as Madrid. The cold spectre of Absalom Weir. They’d all invaded his dreams as well as his waking hours. Nightmares in the main, interlaced with a single bittersweet thread in the shape of Teresa O’Brien.

His little sister by proxy. His scolding, well-meaning conscience and sympathetic ear. His precious little pet. But what else was she?

He sighed in exasperation as he washed and shaved, trying to push her out of his head for a while. Knowing he had to focus on other things today. The chore of the barn roof. Absalom Weir. If he was right and Weir was waiting for him out at the Hackett’s, then today could be the last day of his life. This could be the last sunrise he’d ever see, the last shave he’d ever have . . .

Funny what you thought of at times like this. He snorted at his melodramatic meanderings, and wondered what on earth was wrong with him. He’d faced this situation more times then he could count. Greeted the morning knowing it heralded another adversary, another fight. Another brush with death.

But then, whispered a small voice in his ear, you didn’t have so much to lose. Now it seemed, there was everything. A home he loved. A family who cared whether he lived or died, and a brother he thought more of than just about anything else on God’s green earth. To say nothing of his own growing sense of self-respect.

Teresa . . .

Pulling on his shirt and pants, he made his way downstairs and tried to ignore the empty space above the fireplace as he went through to the kitchen in search of coffee. It was too early for even Maria to be about yet, and in a way, he was glad of the solitude as he made himself a pot of rich black coffee, and settled for an apple from the fruit-bowl.

After a night of such ceaseless mental activity, he felt curiously peaceful now as he focused on the purely physical work ahead of him. His first task was to repair the hole in the wall and hang another picture from the hallway in place of the ill-fated original.

Once that was done, he felt even better, and crossing the courtyard from the hacienda, he met Jelly coming out of the barn, a bucket of pony-mash in his hands.

”Baby’s lookin’ good this mornin’. Hungrier then his momma can take. She’s gettin’ crosser then a nest full of bees in there.”

”We’ll need to keep an eye on her, Jelly. Mix her some extra feed.”

”Yup, already did that. Added a little honey to it fer energy like we dun fer the last mare. Jist about ter see if she appreciates it.”

Johnny nodded. ”Let me know. I’m going to start on the barn. Coffee’s on the stove.”
 

”Okay . . .”Jelly shuffled his feet and hesitated. ”Johnny,’bout you goin’ over ter the Hackett place today . . .”

”We’ve talked about that,” said Johnny mildly as he turned on his heel.

”Figured we had,” sighed Jelly, recognising the tone of finality in the younger man’s voice pretty well by now. Boy was more like his Daddy than he knew, sure as damn it. Both of them just as stubborn and headstrong as a man could be. ‘Oh well, can’t blame a man fer tryin’,’ he thought to himself as he made his way into the stables to see to the mare.

* * * * * * * *

Teresa got up when she heard Johnny hammering downstairs. She realised he was fixing the picture-hook, good as his word, and listened for a second or two, wishing the situation with Weir were as easily mended. Trying to push aside the sense of grim foreboding which had settled deep down in her heart.

It was going to be a scorching hot day. The morning was getting warmer by the hour as it stretched onwards towards noon. To keep herself occupied and away from thoughts of Weir, Teresa roped poor Maria into washing curtains and they set to work with a vengeance.

She was in Scott’s room. Perched precariously on his washstand as she unhooked the plain nets that lined the heavier velvet drapes at his window. The aspect from his bedroom gave her an excellent view of the barn roof.

She looked out and found herself smiling, breath catching as she admired the scenery. Johnny sat astride the shingles totally absorbed in his task. He’d long-since discarded his shirt because of the heat, and she found herself stopping in her tracks just to look at him. She watched the ripple and interplay of his muscles. The definition and purity as they moved sinuously beneath his skin, contracting and relaxing as he sat back for a second and wiped the sheen of sweat from his brow.

Balancing there immobile, observing him from the obscurity of Scott’s window, she was suddenly aware that her heart was thumping and her mouth was dry. He was beautiful, she realised. Sensual and beautiful. His brown skin and lithe body almost perfect to her in all its vigorous masculinity.

Nobody knew better than her that his body was land marked with numerous scars; she could map them all by heart in her head. The indelible legacy of his years as a gunfighter. The bloody souvenirs of the life he’d led. How she’d wept and raged over them in her heart. Nursed him through pain-racked days and feverish nights as she’d cared for him following the bullet Day Pardee had put in his back.

She’d washed and bathed his body, cleansed and bandaged his wounds. Cared for him like a mother, and prayed for his survival on the all too frequent occasions they’d nearly lost him. ‘Too many times,’ she thought. ‘It’s been too many times.’

The thought of him having to face the evil menace of Absalom Weir yet again was almost more than she could bear. Like Johnny, she didn’t believe Weir was the Devil. But there was no doubt in her mind the man was pure evil, and at the moment, that evil was directed at somebody she loved. Loved.

The word made her check, and she almost fell off the washstand as the realisation hit her like a physical blow. She felt her eyes fly back to him like a moth drawn to a flame.

He was mercurial, an enigma. Tender-hearted even though he liked to hide it. Quick-tempered, but sometimes the most patient man she’d ever known. Dangerous, but he could make her feel so safe . . . An infuriating contradiction of a man - to all intents and purposes her surrogate brother. Well, she felt anything but sisterly to him now.

What she did feel was scared to death. Avoiding him at lunchtime as she set out the plates of bread, ham and cheese on the kitchen table, and left him and Jelly to help themselves. She kept busy with the curtain washing. Glad of any excuse not to confront the object of her confusion and throwing herself into the task with such vigour that Maria shook her head in perplexity.

Squeezing the last drape through the mangle, Teresa straightened-up and pushed the damp tendrils of hair back off her face. The day was almost too hot, and as she loaded the heavy wet fabric into the washing basket, she couldn’t help giving a small sigh of relief the job was almost done. She bent to lift the basket, but there was a step behind her and Johnny caught hold of her arm. He pulled her gently backwards.

”Let me. That’s way too heavy for you, Miel.”

She wasn’t about to argue. Watching instead, as he hefted it into his arms, carrying it through the washroom and out into the garden. He’d put his shirt back on before coming in for lunch, but hadn’t bothered to tuck it in or do up many of the buttons. She averted her eyes from the smattering of hair on his chest, and found herself flushing as he turned to face her with a grin.

”Kinda hot for all this activity, querida.”

”Perfect drying weather.” She paused, and decided not to pull any punches with him. ”And besides, it helps take my mind off things if I’m busy.”

He looked away from her with a slight frown. ”You understand why I have to do this, Teresa?”

”Yes.” Her voice was clipped as she began to pull the drapes from the basket and peg them out on the line.

He shook his head. ”There’ll be no end to it otherwise. I can’t risk him comin’ here after me.”

”We could send to Green River, Val Crawford could help.”

She was referring to the Sheriff of Green River, a good man and a friend of theirs. But Johnny shook his head decisively.

”No. Weir’d be long gone before Val could even begin lookin’. It’s me he’s after querida - he needs to know that he’s better. Faster . . .”

He backed away as she shook out a curtain viciously hard. The drops of water spraying all over the front of his shirt.

”And what if he is, Johnny? What then?”

He looked back at her unhappily, startled by the tears in her eyes and the anger on her face. Taking a tentative step towards her, uncertain how to make things right.

And then he froze. Eyes switching past her to the large diamond-backed rattlesnake on the gravel path at her feet. It reared it’s head to strike, short tail twitching and shaking. Teresa became utterly still. Suddenly petrified as the sound registered. Her face blanching chalk white as she stared beseechingly at him and he remembered her almost phobic terror of snakes.

”Don’t move . . .”

His voice was thick in his throat as he reached down slowly for his gun.  Thanking God that the looming spectre of Absalom Weir had made him strap it on this morning. Something he wouldn’t normally do for a chore so mundane as repairing a barn roof.

She was trembling like a leaf. Eyes blank and wild with dread. He could tell she was about to turn-tail and run as he drew the gun in a blur of speed, cannoning her sideways into the herb-bed as he pumped three quick bullets into the snake.

He rolled back onto the path, casting a cursory glance at the snake’s decimated body before re-holstering the colt and turning to Teresa. She sat up slowly. Face still pale with shock, her hair dishevelled about her shoulder’s. His heart contracted with fear as he realised just how close he’d come to losing her.

It hit him like a blow on the back, and he was beside her in a second. Gathering her tenderly into his arm’s, relief and gratitude almost overwhelming him.

”You’re alright, you’re alright. It didn’t bite you, querida?”

She shuddered against him, and he felt her shake her head. ”No . . . I’m fine. I’m fine, thanks to you.”

He inhaled deeply, and pulled her even closer. The sharp scent of the bruised herbs enveloping them like a cloud. Rosemary, Mint and Rue. The evocative fragrance of Lavender. Footsteps pounded around the corner. Through the archway and into the garden. Jelly, clutching tightly onto his antiquated squirrel gun, closely followed by Maria who was brandishing a broom.

”Johnny, we heard shootin’. . . ”

Johnny nodded over his shoulder towards the pathway. ”S’okay Jelly, it’s not what you think.”

Jelly stared at him in bewilderment. ”What am I s’posed ter be lookin’ at?”

”The rattler.”

Getting to his feet, Johnny held out a hand to Teresa. ”There, on the path.”

Jelly poked gingerly among the overhanging flowers at the edge of the border with the end of his squirrel gun, turning back to Johnny with an odd look on his face.

”There’s no snake here as I can see. Y’sure you got him?”

”What the hell . . .” Johnny regarded the path with grim puzzlement. There was no sign of the snake’s body. No trace of even a bloodstain to show the creature had been there. He looked up at Jelly in uneasy amazement.

”It was here, Jelly. I saw it, heard it. Shot it dead. Right where you’re standing . . .”

Teresa nodded, her voice still tight with terror. ”It was here. It would have struck at me, but Johnny saved my life.”

Jelly gulped and stared rabidly around him. ”It’s Weir again, aint it?”

”Jelly . . .”

”No. You cain’t tell me it aint that Devil. He’s bin here, if he aint still.  We’re none of us safe while he’s sneakin’ round like he’s invisible . . . Where in tarnation you goin’ now, boy?”

”Stay here with Teresa.”

Gun back in hand, Johnny ran quickly back through the archway and along the veranda. Checking the washroom, he pushed the kitchen door open cautiously, and spun into the room - pivoting on his heel in case there was anyone hiding in the shadows behind it. The inside of the hacienda was cool and dark in comparison with the flaming heat outside. It took Johnny about five minutes to satisfy himself there was no-one concealed inside the building.

Walking out through the front door, he searched the out-houses, and even Jelly’s quarters before crossing the courtyard to the stables. The mare whinnied softly at him as he entered, and after checking the hayloft and the other empty stalls he stood and rubbed her velvet nose for awhile, deep in thought.

”Johnny, you in there?”

”Here, Jelly.”

The old man entered cautiously, eyes straining through the muted light. ”Maria took Teresa into the house. I figured it must be safe, seein’ as you didn’t come back or start shootin’ again.”

”It’s safe. He’s gone now. Guess he saw what he wanted to see.”

”What’s that?” Jelly was puzzled.

Johnny slid his gun back into it’s holster, his smile cold and without humour. ”It was a test, Jelly. Since when did we ever have a snake come into the garden? They’re just as keen to avoid us as we are them. He planted it there.”

Jelly shook his head in confusion. ”But why?”

”To suss out the opposition.”

Comprehension began to dawn in the old man’s eyes. ”You mean . . . ”

”He wants to know how fast I am. How accurate. Whether or not I can respond under pressure. Guess he got his answer.”

”Then he was out there somewhere abouts watchin’ it all?”

”I figure.”

Jelly sat down on a hay bale and mopped his brow. ”How can you be so cool about this? Thet Devil . . . and no, don’t you stop me from callin’ him thet - thet Devil might have killed Teresa jist ter see if yer still got yer touch. Beats me!”

A small muscle jumped at the side of Johnny’s jaw as the look on Teresa’s face flashed back into his mind. He clenched his fists.

”He’ll pay for that.”

Patting the mare one last time, he strode across to the doorway. Silhouetted in a shaft of yellow sunlight that threw his shadow
across the floor.

”I’m gonna check on Teresa and then I’ve got a barn roof to finish. Promise you’ll stay close to her?”

Jelly nodded and watched him go with a combination of admiration and exasperation. Although he liked and respected Scott Lancer enormously, he felt a connection to Johnny that wasn’t hard to explain. He knew this boy.  Knew just where he’d come from, just where he’d been. They were linked through the history of poverty and deprivation in their lives. The emptiness in your belly that ached so hard it hurt. A lifetime of dodging the kicks and curses, the crooks and conmen. The pimps and users who preyed on those not quick enough, tough enough or smart enough to survive.

Sometimes when he looked at Johnny, he saw the homeless boys he’d rescued before coming to work off his debt to Murdoch Lancer. He could even picture a younger Johnny. Too thin through lack of food. Sharp of face and sly of hand, almost feral in his struggle to stay ahead of the game.

There must have been many who’d tried to prey on the boy. He would have been pretty even as a ragamuffin. All smooth brown skin, black hair and bright blue eyes. It was no wonder to Jelly he’d metamorphosised into Johnny Madrid. But the old man didn’t like to think what might have happened in-between.

What had made him strap on that God dammed six-shooter and become a legend.

Jelly sighed and rolled his eyes at the mare. ”Well, what are you lookin’ at me like that fer, princess? There’s nuthin’ I can do ter stop him. Jist hope he’s as fast as he’s confident, is all.”
 

* * * * * * * *

PART FOUR.

Johnny hammered the last shingle into place and stared at his handiwork with grim satisfaction. Although this kind of work was mind-numbingly boring, the barn roof had been just the right kind of self-absorbing task he needed this particular day. Dull enough to take his mind off Weir. To quiet the flame of anger that burned within him because the man had dared to use Teresa as a pawn in his twisted little game.

The object of his thoughts came out into the courtyard with Jelly. Shielding her eyes against the sun's bright glare as she smiled up at him.

"Time to take a break, Johnny. There’s fresh lemonade on the veranda."

He grinned back at her. Ridiculously glad to see that the colour had returned to her cheek's, as he gave a small, mock salute. "Pronto, Capitan."

She watched him slide dextrously down the steep shingles to the edge of the roof. Backing onto the ladder, his feet finding the rungs as he paused to smile at her again.

"I’m about finished here now . . ."

The rest of his words were lost in her scream of fear. The ladder suddenly pitched sideways and he grabbed futilely at the guttering before falling the thirty or so feet to the ground.

For a brief second, it felt as though her limbs had dissolved to water as the world rocked before her stricken gaze. And then she was running . . . fast as the wind . . . across the courtyard to his side. Vaguely aware of Jelly somewhere behind her, as she skidded to her knees in the dust.

A sob caught in the back of her throat, hand’s shaking as she bent over him. Knowing she should be calm and in control, but all the while aware that he lay there much too quietly. Far too still.

"Johnny?" Her voice was surprisingly strong as she tried to assess his injuries. ”No se mueva."

His eyelid's fluttered but didn’t open. There was a trickle of blood running from his ear and more from his nose, but no other obvious signs of injury. Touching him gently on the cheek, she looked up at Jelly. The old man was almost as pale as Johnny, but she disregarded that now, and took a deep breath.

"Jelly, send one man for Sam Jenkins and four more out here to me, now. When you've done that, tell Maria to turn down Johnny's bed and put some water on the stove. Do it now!"

He looked at her blankly and then glanced down again at Johnny. "I checked the ladder myself, Teresa. Even dug some safety grooves ter make it sound. It never should'a toppled like thet."

"It doesn’t matter now."

"But I checked it myself . . ."

"Jelly!"

Her voice wobbled dangerously. Jelly snapped ‘to‘, with a slight start and ran off towards the outhouses. Turning back to Johnny, she checked the pulse at the side of his throat. It felt weak, fast, and she struggled with terror as her heart became cold and afraid. His eyes fluttered again, opening blankly. But she wasn’t sure if he could see anything.

"Me . . . duele . . ."

"I know." She broke down then. Pushing his hair back gently. ” I know. It won't be long Johnny; I'll make it better I promise. Just hold on. It won't be long ."

But he didn’t answer her. Sinking back into unconsciousness. Unresponsive to her voice and her touch, as she sat there in the dust with his head in her lap, praying as hard as she'd ever prayed for anything in her life.

It took nearly five hours before Doctor Sam Jenkins arrived at the Estancia. The only doctor for miles around, his time and services were hard-pressed, and he'd been a mile or so out of town re-setting a broken leg when Cipriano's man had eventually found him. Teresa heard his gruff voice on the stairs talking to Jelly and felt the familiar sense of relief his stalwart presence always gave her. Casting a last glance at Johnny's still figure, she left the room and joined them on the landing.

"Teresa." Jenkins didn’t waste any time.”How is he?"

"It's hard to say. I can't see any obvious sign of injury, but he's been unconscious more or less, since he fell. He did respond to me a little at first, but there . . .there's nothing now. Nothing at all."

He gave her a kindly pat on the arm and led the way back into the bedroom, nodding at Maria. The old woman got to her feet and turned to the door, dabbing at a surreptitious tear as she did so. Teresa watched carefully as Sam set his equipment out on the nightstand, and spent over half an hour examining Johnny in his usual thorough fashion.

She assisted him as necessary with her quick, deft hands. Impressing him as always with her calm competency and anticipation. Her sensible air of practicality. But he’d been a doctor too long not to notice the shadows beneath her eyes. The taut white lines around her mouth. He knew she was suffering. That she was holding herself in on a very tight rein. But he also knew there wasn’t much he could say or do to afford her any comfort this time round.

Johnny Lancer was an old patient of his by now. They'd first become acquainted only days after the man had first arrived back at Lancer, and he'd been called out to deal with the bullet wound inflicted by Pardee. He'd been called out a few more times since then. But one thing he knew for sure about Johnny was his intrinsic toughness. That this particular Lancer had inherited his father’s fierce and fiery will to live.

Lifting Johnny's head off the pillow, he noted the tiny trickle of blood from the right ear and nodded grimly as his fingers felt around the back of Johnny's skull.

"Did he bleed from the nose or the mouth, Teresa?"

"Yes. I wiped it away before you arrived. It was nothing much. Just a little - even though he landed on his back. Does it mean anything important?"

"Could be."

He was deliberately non-committal. Lifting each eyelid and noting to his relief, that both of Johnny's pupils were equal. He was also mightily relieved to discover there was good tone and reflex in all four of Johnny's limbs. He'd seen men fall from heights a darn sight lower than the Lancer's barn and end up with broken spines.

Of course it was impossible to know whilst Johnny was still unconscious, but Jenkins was pretty hopeful that his first, very real fear
seemed thankfully, to have been misplaced. Johnny might not have broken his back, but there were definitely some fractured ribs on the left-hand side of his chest, and Jenkins was in no doubt his left arm was broken. He looked up at the girl.

"We need to set this arm, Teresa. I want you to hold onto his elbow and shoulder for me . . . Here, like this."

She did as she was told. Following his lead and trying not to wince as Jenkins grasped Johnny's wrist tightly, and tugged the arm out straight with one almighty yank.

"That's good," he nodded at her. Bending it back up slightly, and turning to Jelly who was hovering in the doorway. "We're going to need a splint Jellifur, if you please. Let’s say about eighteen inches long. Two pieces of nice, green wood, each three inches wide."

Jelly nodded. Glad of something practical to do as he cast one last, miserable look at Johnny's motionless figure and made his way down the staircase. Crossing the courtyard to the workshop, he paused for a second and stared out across the paddock to the mountains. Realising with a slight shock, that the sun was beginning to cast a rosy glow over the distant peaks as it started it's descent into night.

A thought struck him suddenly and he changed direction towards the barn. Seeing that awful moment when Johnny had fallen play over again in his head. He stopped beside the ladder which still lay where it had crashed to the ground. Clenching his fists and re-experiencing the terrible helplessness he'd felt ever since it happened as he knelt down awkwardly and examined the legs.

"Well I'll be . . ."

Anger and relief flooded through him. Thank the Lord the accident hadn’t been his fault. He knew he'd checked the ladder . . . The trench he'd dug had been safe enough to support it while Johnny was up on the roof. His sense that something was wrong had now been vindicated, the accident had been deliberate. Someone, no prizes for guessing who, had placed a wedge beneath one of the ladder legs. Just enough to make it unstable so that when Johnny tried to climb back down, it would over-balance and topple sideways.

Jelly straightened up, hefting the wedge in his gnarled old hand and wishing Weir's head was somewhere handy, as in his mind’s eye, he saw Johnny laid out in the dust all over again. A sudden prickle of unease made him cock his own head and listen. The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end and his skin felt icy-cold.

Spinning on his heel, he strained his eyes around him and peered into the gathering darkness. Swallowing down his fear, as the anger he felt about Johnny gave him a shot of courage.

"You out there, you bastard? Come ter take a look at yer handiwork?"

The silence echoed around him but there was no reply. Jelly gulped hard, still convinced he wasn’t alone as the shadows began to lengthen across the corral and a couple of the horses snickered back at him. But no human voice answered him. Nobody responded to his sudden challenge.

He clutched the wedge even tighter. Making his way back towards the workshops to fix Sam Jenkins a splint for Johnny's arm. Half expecting to feel the icy grip of Weir's hand on his shoulder at any moment.
 

* * * * * * * *
 

"Thank you, my dear."

Sam Jenkins regarded the girl across the tabletop and took a mouthful of the good, black coffee she'd poured for him. She was no fool this one. He knew he couldn’t be anything other than straight with her even though his gruff heart bled for the stricken look in her big, brown eyes. Sighing, he put his cup down carefully and rested his hands on the table in front of him.  Wishing that Murdoch and Scott were here to ease her burden a little as he began to talk.

"I'll be blunt with you, Teresa, and start with the obvious.  A broken left arm and two or three cracked ribs on the same side. You’ve seen for yourself how bruised he is, but luckily, I’m fairly sure there's no serious damage to his spine."

She felt some of the tension seep away as her main dread was assuaged, and the deep fear that Johnny might have broken his back was lessened.

"You're sure, Sam?"

"As sure as I can be while he remains unconscious. You saw me test his reflexes with the joint hammer?"

"Yes."

"Well, everything's working as it should be. That wouldn’t be the case if there was any paralysis."

She closed her eyes briefly and exhaled in relief. Struggling not to breakdown, as the rigid controls which had held her together ever since she'd watched Johnny fall threatened to crumble at last. Jenkins reached across and took her hand. So tiny, yet so capable. He knew she was equal to the task that lay ahead of her.

"That's not the problem, I‘m afraid."

She opened her eyes and nodded at him. "The head injury."

"Yes. The bleeding from his nose and ear could indicate a broken head. A fractured skull. If that's the case, he maybe unconscious for some time."

"How long?"

He shook his head. "I can't answer that. He could wake up tonight. On the other hand, it’s not unusual for these types of cases to remain unconscious for days. Sometimes even longer."

She looked up at him pleadingly. "But he will be alright?"

He sighed once more. "It's hard to say. Medicine’s still shockingly ignorant with regard to head injuries. There could be bleeding into the brain . . . If that happens, then the patient doesn’t usually make it. Before I go, I’ll tell you what signs and symptoms to look out for. If any of them occur - you must send a man for me immediately." He squeezed her hand. " You might want to call Scott and Murdoch home from Denver. Just in case."

She nodded numbly. "I'll ask Cipriano to send a telegram first thing in the morning. Meanwhile, what do I have to do?"

He gave her a list of nursing duties. Writing down the warning signs he wanted her to look out for before leaving for the ride back to Morro Coyo and promising to return the following lunchtime.

As she watched him ride away, she felt suddenly exhausted. Turning to walk slowly back into the hacienda, the large airy rooms unaccountably lonely as her footsteps echoed on the flagstone floors.

"Well?"

Jelly met her at the top of the stairs. Face as pale and drawn as her own as she filled him in on what Jenkins had said.

"It weren’t no accident Teresa."

She looked up sharply. "What do you mean?"

He told her about the ladder being rigged to over-balance and handed her the wedge he'd found. Staring at it in silence for awhile, she was suddenly filled with a tremendous urge to hurl it through the landing window. A huge well of pain and rage surging through her body.

"That means he's been lurking around the Estancia all day. Watching us - waiting. Biding his time." She broke off abruptly, alarm lighting her features. "He could still be here. Waiting to hurt Johnny again!"

But Jelly shook his head quickly. "I dun thought of that already. Cipriano's posted men out front and back. There’ll be two men downstairs all the time, and Maria and I'll stay here ter help you with Johnny. That bast . . .that devil ain't gettin' anywhere's near him again."

She gave him a wan smile of gratitude, carefully placing the wedge down on top of the linen chest. "Thank you Jelly. I . . .I don't know what I'd do without you."

He ducked his head in embarrassment and shuffled his feet. "It aint nuthin', girl. I jist want ter see Johnny get better, is all. "

"I know you do," she said softly. Standing on tiptoe to plant a tender kiss on his weather-beaten old cheek. "And so do I."
 

* * * * * * * *
 

But later on that night, in the darkest hours before the dawn when things were at their blackest, Teresa began to fear nothing would ever get better again.

Johnny lay as still and pale as death. His body temperature had dipped alarmingly till he was as white and waxen as a corpse. She fetched an extra quilt from the linen-chest on the landing and placed it over him right up to his chin. Watching him closely for any sign the warmth might be creeping back through his limbs.

He looked so young and vulnerable like this. Almost innocent.  She reached out a shaking hand, letting it linger on his face and tracing the angles of his cheekbones. The winged flare of his eyebrows, the proud Spanish cast of his nose and lips, realising in her heart, she could never regard this man as a brother ever again.

Being with him made her blood sing. He made her feel more alive then anyone or anything else had ever done in her entire life. He was so vital. So full of life and energy that he fairly crackled with it. Capable of lighting-up a room with his presence. With the sheer force of his spirit even if he never said a word.

She did not want to lose that feeling. Did not want to lose him. And kicking off her shoes, she undressed down to her petticoats and crept in under the covers. Lying carefully on his uninjured side as she wrapped her arms around him and willed some of the warmth from her own body into his. She couldn’t sleep. Too afraid to do anything but lie there and listen to his breathing. Too filled with the nameless dread of waking-up to find him cold and dead beside her if she gave-in to the fatigue and closed her eyes.

A shaft of moonlight from the curtain-less windows fell across his face, shining even brighter than the dim glow of the oil-lamp beside the bed. She moved even closer to him. Surrendering to temptation, as she kissed him softly on the mouth.

"Wake-up for me, Johnny . . ."

She prayed that somehow, somewhere in the recesses of his mind he could hear her. Sighing against the feeble pulse in his throat, as she let her love and need for him flood honestly through her for the first time ever.

"Please, Johnny."

There was no response of course, but it gave her a measure of comfort to lie there beside him. The scent of his skin on hers. The silkiness of his heavy, black hair against the back of her hand. It felt so right to be here like this with him. So intimate. So close. As though a missing part of her had suddenly been made whole after all these years.

Was it possible that one man could provide all the answers to her questions - could make her feel so safe yet so afraid? Inhaling softly, she felt the tears slip silently down her cheeks as her body trembled with emotion. She could not, would not, lose him now. Not when things had changed so much between them lately. They'd developed such a deep level of understanding and closeness, empathy and trust. She had no doubt he felt it too. She'd seen it in his eyes as they lingered on her face. Heard it in his voice as he spoke to her in Spanish. The protective endearments that punctuated his words and sentences almost a caress. Had known it by the unspoken bond she sensed made him feel he could trust her enough with some of his past.

He was as aware of her as a woman as she was of him as a man. She'd felt the burn of his eyes on her shoulders, her neck. On her hair . . .

Just as she'd watched him on the barn roof today. The urge to touch his body strong and hot inside her. Tentatively, she stroked him now. Her hand skimming his chest. The outline of his pectoral muscles. The soft smattering of dark hair that tapered down his belly as she held her breath. He felt warmer now. The deathly chill that had permeated his flesh was gone.

But she didn’t leave him until the first grey light of dawn had replaced the moonlight at the window, until the silence of the night surrendered to the morning sounds of birdsong. The horses calling to each other in the corrals. The mare whinnying at her foal in the stables. The cantankerous old rooster crowing loudly in the yard. Then, and only then, did she slip out from under the covers. Shrugging on her clothes before she heard Jelly's tread coming up the stairs and his gentle tap on the door.

"How is he?"

"There's no change."

Jelly scrutinised her closely. Thinking she was far too pale, let alone Johnny. The dark shadows under her eyes a vivid testament to the fact she clearly hadn’t managed to snatch any sleep at all.

"Go and git some breakfast. Maria’s down in the kitchen a'rustlin' up some eggs. I’ll spell you here fer a few hours - git him washed-up and comfortable."

"Jelly . . ."

"Go on now, git." His voice softened. "You know I'll call you if there's any change, and I've got that list the Doc. gave you. I’ll take care of him - I promise."

Relaxing slightly, she got to her feet and crossed the room to the doorway, casting one last look at the man in the bed.

"Jelly, one thing bothers me."

"What's that?"

"Why did Weir do this to him if he wants to see who's fastest?"

Jelly scowled and snorted. He'd already formulated his own theories on that subject. "Mebbe he got the answer ter that question when he watched Johnny shoot the rattlesnake. Mebbe he got his feet cold and decided ter even the odds a little bit."

She nodded with sudden comprehension. "Johnny's better than he expected."

"I figure."

"So he thought he'd kill him another way?"

"Mebbe," said Jelly again. "Or he thought he'd hurt him so's it'll give him a disadvantage."

Her fist clenched on the doorknob. "Coward!"

Jelly sighed. He didn’t think Weir was a coward. He didn’t think there was a single thing Weir did that wasn’t calculated to the finest degree.

"Go. Off with ye. Git some rest. Cip's gone to send that telegram. The sooner Murdoch and Scott git home, the happier I’ll be."

She gave him a small pale smile of thanks, and slipped from the room like a wraith. Knowing well-enough she could trust him with Johnny whilst she caught up on some much-needed sleep. Jelly turned to the younger Lancer son and studied his face unhappily.

"Best you wake-up boy . . ." He stopped suddenly, and bent over the bed. Picking something up off the white pillow next to Johnny's head.

"Well I'll be damned."

It was a long dark brown hair and it wasn’t alone. A couple of others nestled beside it, in the slight indentation made by someone’s head. Jelly lowered his face and sniffed hard. Recognising the delicate but familiar scent of the rosewater Teresa always used.

His eyes flicked back to Johnny in sudden comprehension and he wondered in amazement, how he could have been so blind. He'd never in his wildest dreams, thought it would be Johnny. Always assuming like everybody else did, that Teresa and Scott might one day make a match of it - if it was to be either of the brothers. They were the logical couple. Both so easy-going and level-headed. So practical and sensible. He chuckled suddenly despite the gravity of the situation. They'd bore each other rigid within weeks.

But Johnny and Teresa? It made perfect sense in an illogical kind of way. She'd give him the loving care and stability he craved so desperately, and he'd provide her with the fire and passion. The excitement she needed to breakout of the matter-of-fact and capable niche she'd been forced to assume as mistress of Lancer. He brought himself up short as reality hit home hard. Looking down at Johnny's motionless form once more.

All this was assuming everything turned out happily, of course. That Johnny woke-up with all his marbles intact. That Absalom Weir vanished off the face of the Earth and descended back into whatever hell-hole he'd crawled out of. And then there was Murdoch . . . Always banking Murdoch Lancer didn’t cut-up rough when he realised his darling was in love with the wrong son.

Jelly hoped he was under-estimating the man, but no-one who knew Murdoch for long could fail to recognise just how much he loved Teresa. How very protective he was of her.

From Jelly's own point of view, the more he thought about it, the more sensible and right it seemed. As far as he was concerned, he would trust Johnny with his life. The man was cool and insightful in a fight, possibly the best he’d ever seen. But Jelly would never forget the time he'd first come to Lancer. The time when Johnny had cared for his homeless boys - risking his life to save them out of the goodness of his heart.

Jelly had seen that heart many times since then, and knew it to be an intrinsic part of the man. The real Johnny Lancer hidden beneath the facade of Johnny Madrid.

He looked at the hair again. Disposing of it in the small cast-iron fireplace. Picking the others off the pillowcase and smoothing out the indentation of Teresa's head before Maria brought him in a kettle of hot water to bathe Johnny.  Jelly let her cry over him a little as she set it down. Waiting patiently until she left the room with another huge sniffle. Then the old man shook his head at his unconscious friend as he began to minister to him, and sighed heavily.

"Don't you worry none, boy. Old Jelly'll keep yer secret for you. And ter think that yesterday, all I had ter worry about was you meetin' up with Absalom Weir."
 

* * * * * * * *
 

PART FIVE.

Murdoch Lancer leant back in his chair with an air of satisfaction, patting his stomach surreptitiously, as he wondered whether or not anyone would notice if he let out his belt another notch.

Sitting opposite him, Scott smothered a grin and put down his knife and fork. He looked round the sumptuous dining room and nodded courteously to the very attractive widow he'd been enjoying a subtle dalliance with since arriving in Denver. She looked back at him coyly from under her hat. Fluttering her eyelashes at him as she sipped her tea. His heart skipped a slight beat as he remembered a certain incident that had taken place not eight hours previously in the privacy of her hotel bedroom. An incident he
was hopeful of repeating tonight.

"Mr Lancer?"

Both Scott and Murdoch looked up as the Busboy approached their table with a telegram.

"Murdoch Lancer?"

"Here." Murdoch took the telegram and tipped the carrier as Scott prepared to get to his feet, his mind on other matters.

"Hold it Scott."

The urgency in his father's voice stopped him immediately, and somehow he knew the missive had brought them bad news.

"What is it, what’s wrong ?"

"Here, read it."

Taking the scrap of flimsy paper, Scott read the brief message and his heart sank. "Absalom Weir, I don't believe it.”

"Believe it,” said Murdoch grimly. “Get your things together while I settle-up. We’ll leave as soon as we can get a train."

Scott felt cold inside. "What does Teresa mean, Johnny's injured? Do we take it that Weir's hurt him? Dammit, I should have known we hadn’t seen the last of him . . ."

"Scott." Murdoch put a hand on his shoulder. "Let's just finish up here and get started, shall we? There’s no point tormenting ourselves with unanswerable questions. Pack your stuff and let Teresa know we're on our way. I’ll meet you in the lobby in an hour’s time."

Scott nodded unhappily. Grateful for Murdoch's ability to bury his emotions under a need for practicality even though he knew the Old Man well enough by now to realise it was just a veneer.  Deep down, Murdoch Lancer was wrung with anxiety as he went over and over Teresa's brief words in his head. Picturing all kinds of scenarios as Weir's face dominated his thought's with peculiar
clarity.

He didn’t believe for a moment that Weir was the Devil, despite all Jelly's protestations to the contrary at the time. But there was something unaccountably evil and uncanny about the man. Something that made it hard to pin him down or categorise. The thought of Weir at large and in search of revenge made Murdoch feel very apprehensive indeed.

Luckily, the businessmen he was dealing with were staying in the same hotel and they'd more or less wrapped things up the day before. The only thing he had left to do besides checking-out, was to observe the common courteousness of bidding them farewell, and arranging for his lawyer to go over the contracts they were due to send him.

It took less time than he'd thought. The minute he informed them Johnny had been injured, one of them was immediately sympathetic. Confiding with tears in his eyes that he'd lost a son at Gettysburg. Murdoch could see he'd never recovered from it, and his own heart had constricted at the thought of losing Johnny. His enigmatic, equivocal younger son.

The man he'd despaired of knowing, ever reaching. Let alone of being close to once again. It had taken time, more than their fair share of trouble and trauma to bring them back together, but slowly, inexorably, it had begun to happen. At long last, he was actually beginning to understand Johnny a little as well as love him. He'd once read that loving someone was easy, but trusting them could take a lifetime. Whoever had written those words had been quite right.

When Johnny had come home at last, he’d been so full of hurt and suspicion it had broken Murdoch's heart. But actually getting through the barriers of wariness and doubt had been almost impossible for him. Every time he looked at Johnny he saw Maria. The boy may have inherited his own blue eyes but in all other respects he was a facsimile of his beautiful, wayward mother. It had come as one hell of a shock and taken a lot of getting over on Murdoch's behalf, steeling himself not to feel the bitter knife of pain twisting his gut around every time he looked at Johnny's face. Telling himself this was not her, but her son instead. The child who’d been made to suffer as a result of everything that had gone wrong between them. The innocent.

And in turn, Johnny had been fed a diet of lies and half-truths about him. The boy had grown up thinking his father hadn’t wanted him, had rejected both him and his mother because of their Mexican blood. Murdoch had found it both sad and unpalatable. But he had to believe Maria had loved her son. Tried to believe it with all his heart. Hoping she'd taken Johnny with her on the black day she'd run, for that reason alone. The other reason, that she might have taken Johnny as a means of hurting him was worse than torture and didn’t bear thinking about. He couldn’t stand to imagine that of her.

However much had lain between the two of them, he hated his gleam of suspicion she might have done such a callous thing to her own precious son.

But she'd died before Johnny was even twelve. Beaten to death by one of a succession of "uncles”, a man whom Murdoch suspected had become the first notch on the gun of Johnny Madrid. And then the boy had been cast adrift. Murdoch had read snatches of the infamous Pinkerton Report compiled by the Detective Agency he'd hired to find his son. It made damned inedible
reading.

Johnny's life as Madrid had not been pretty, and sometimes Murdoch had difficulty equating the hard-eyed young man who'd slouched into his study on that first day at Lancer, with the man his son was becoming now. Perhaps the man he had always been inside. The man who treated old Maria and Teresa with such charm. The man who could settle the wildest of his horses with just a touch and some whispered words. Who'd saved Jelly's orphans and volunteered to teach a bunch of kids there was no glamour or gain in the life of a gunfighter. No, Murdoch was not prepared to lose this man again. Not ever.
 

* * * * * * * *
 

Three days later, Teresa was beginning to despair. Although Johnny's condition hadn’t worsened, he wasn’t any better either. Lying like a pale corpse on the bed, a faint movement of his chest the only testament to the fact he was alive at all.

She nursed him devotedly. Ably assisted by Jelly and Maria, with Sam Jenkins visiting everyday to check on his patient. If the truth be told, Jenkins was starting to believe Johnny wasn’t going to make it. His main hope was that Murdoch and Scott would arrive home before he died, in time to say their goodbyes.

They fed him sugar-water through a tube down his nose, a technique that Sam had seen used at a recent Medical conference in San Francisco. But even after only three days, the hard muscle was beginning to fade from his frame through lack of any real nourishment. The shuttered face was becoming sharp and gaunt.

He wasn’t the only one who was losing weight either, thought Sam, casting a sideways glance at Teresa as she wrung out a towel and placed it over Johnny's brow. He wouldn’t mind betting she'd hardly eaten anything at all since the accident, and she sure didn’t look as though she'd managed any sleep. If he wasn’t careful, he was going to end up with two patients on his hands instead of one and Murdoch Lancer would come home to double calamity.

On his fourth visit, he cornered Jelly in the kitchen, eyeing the old man warily, unsure exactly how to go about broaching his subject. But Jelly did it for him. Sitting down at the table, his face uncommonly grim.

"He ain't improvin' is he?"

"No. I’m afraid not."

Resting his head in his hands, Jelly flicked his eyes towards the doorway. "You told her?"

"That's what I want to discuss with you, Jellifur. When do you realistically expect Murdoch and Scott to arrive home?"

"It's a long journey back from Denver, Doc. They set out the mornin' after it happened, but the trains is unreliable and if'n they miss a connection to the Stage here an' there - could take them the best part of a week, mebbe more. It’s thet bad?"

"I'm concerned about Teresa. She looks burned-out and I'm not sure how much more of this she can take . . ." He put out a placatory hand as Jelly brought his head up in sudden indignation. "Now don't get all defensive on me, Jelly, I know you and Maria are doing a magnificent job. It’s just that I've known Teresa since she was a little bit of a thing and I've never in all those years, seen her look like this. Not even when her Daddy died. She looks on the verge of collapse."

Jelly sighed, and Jenkins was amazed to see that his rheumy, old eyes had filled with tears. Wisely, he kept silent. Allowing the usually gruff and crusty man to master his feelings. Waiting respectfully until he’d found his voice again.

"Don’t go underestimatin’ thet girl, Doc. She's stronger then any man I've ever met. She’s got a heart of pure one hundred carat gold. Pure gold."

"I know it Jelly." Jenkins spoke softly with compassion. "But she's only human and sometimes because she is so practical, so strong, I tend to forget just how young she really is. I think we all do."

Jelly looked at him, weighing-up his words carefully. Unsure how much he could safely say, even though he knew he could count on the Doc's discretion.

"The problem is . . ." He sighed with self-exasperation. "Oh heck. Well you see, Doc, I have an inklin' that she . . .That Johnny and Teresa, that they . . .That she . . .But Murdoch don’t know about it, and maybe not even Scott. Heck, I'm jist guessin', or not exactly guessin' . . . But neither one of them's said anythin' ter me. Do you understand what I'm sayin' ?"

"Well, I'll be."

Jenkins was startled, and then he wasn’t. No. The more he thought about it, the less startled he was. He mulled back over the last few years, weighing-up what he knew of Paul O'Brien's daughter and Murdoch Lancer's younger son. Like everyone else in the area with an opinion, he’d naturally assumed that if Teresa were to chose to marry one of the Lancer boys, it would be Scott.

Murdoch Lancer's cherished ward and his heir apparent - in the old-fashioned sense of the word of course, for everyone knew Lancer was split three ways. It was something he'd almost casually taken for granted, and he knew most of his neighbours had done so too. Everyone except Teresa it seemed.

He couldn’t help smiling slightly as he nodded his head.For all her strength and practicality, the girl had always had a stubborn streak. Biddable and sunny-tempered most of the time, she was more then capable of putting her foot down when she knew what she did or didn’t want. Why, he could remember a time - she must have been five or maybe six, she had to take some medicine as he recalled. Or maybe it was because she'd been forced to stay in bed with the Measles . . .

He shook his head wistfully. Teresa was a young woman. Filled with a young woman's hopes and dreams, longings and desires. Obviously Johnny Madrid Lancer with his dangerous good looks and enigmatic past had been the one to set those emotions alight, and it really did begin to make sense.

He was so different to all the men she'd known in her life before. A big mystery, a little wild. Yet he'd tried to turn his life around and worked so hard to earn his redemption. Jenkins knew how much that would appeal to the tender heart which beat within her breast.

He looked across at Jelly and pursed his lips. "And Murdoch hasn’t guessed?"

"Nope. Like I said, no one knows. I’m not even sure they've bin an' spoken ter each other about it yet."

"Then . . ."

"Oh take it from me Doc, I'm right on this. She loves him, an' he loves her too. And I aint talkin' brother an' sister here!"

"Then that's why she's been so upset by all of this. It puts me in a difficult position somewhat."

"We'll take good care of her. Me an' Maria. I’ll insist she gets more rest, an' Maria'll make sure she eats some more. I hear what yer sayin', Doc, but I think it'll do more harm then good if she cain't be with him as much as she needs jist now . . ." He paused and shook his head a little, as if the contemplation of his next words was just too hard to bear. "And 'sides, you want ter be the one ter deprive them of any time they got left tergether? Cos ‘I’ sure as hell wouldn’t want ter be."

Jenkins looked at Jelly with new respect. "By Jove, Jellifur, you're right man. She is entitled to this, however much of a small mercy it may turn out to be. But you must promise me you'll take care of her. Proper meals, perhaps a small glass of claret as a tonic, plenty of rest."

"Course I will. Him too, much as I can."

The two men looked at each other soberly, both burdened and saddened by the secret they now shared. Both filled with sorrow for the man lying so helplessly upstairs and the woman who loved him.

And all the while Jelly knew the shadow of Absalom Weir hovered over them like a pair of gigantic black wings. An evil obscene creature just waiting to swoop. The Devil hadn’t finished with them yet!
 

* * * * * * * *

NOTE: I’m not certain how old Johnny is in text at Maria's death so in this story, he’s not quite twelve. Naso-gastric tubes have been used to feed unconscious patients for nearly two hundred years, and there is also evidence some ancient civilisations
used them.

PART SIX.

Teresa looked at her clock again and leant back against her pillows, placing down the book she was attempting to read with a sigh. Attempting was the right word. She'd been on the same page for over half-an-hour now and the text was blurred and jumbled before her tired eyes.

It was nearly one-o-clock in the morning and she'd been in bed for an hour. Finally forced to her room by a surprisingly firm Jelly. She thought back over Sam Jenkins’s visit. It was patently obvious the doctor was starting to believe Johnny would die. Teresa had seen it on his face as clear as day, however hard he tried to hide it from her.

The small knot of terror forming in her chest for the last few days threatened to expand and overwhelm her as she struggled and fought with it, forcing it back into dormancy with every ounce of strength she possessed. He was not going to die. She would not let him. Why oh why, hadn’t anyone seen Absalom Weir on the Estancia that day, why hadn’t they realised how dangerous he was and kept a better eye on Johnny? If only . . .

She leant across and turned down the oil-lamp at her bedside. Determined to get at least a couple of hours sleep, as a door banged somewhere downstairs. She froze for a second, hair suddenly prickling all over her scalp as her ears strained for any other sound. One of Cipriano's men. Andreas or Jorge perhaps . . .

The moonlight dimmed and faded. Turning the familiar outlines of her bedroom into a ghostly cavern. The solid edges of the furniture seemed to shift and alter as the clouds scudded across the face of the moon outside, and sitting up in the darkness, her heart raced against her ribcage at a rate of nineteen to the dozen as goose bumps stood up slowly on her arms.

Taking a deep breath, she waited for the feeling of disquiet to fade. But suddenly, she was assaulted by the most terrifying sensation of pure evil, unlike anything she'd ever felt before in her life. Her eyes began to water and her hair stood on end. In-spite of the fact every instinct she possessed was urging her to stay where she was and bury her head beneath the counterpane, she swung her legs out of bed and padded across to the window on curiously leaden feet. Staring fearfully through the glass as her eyes adjusted to the spectral light .

There were storm clouds racing across the sky in great swirling swathes of black, obscuring any sign of the familiar stars and doing their best to blot out the moonlight completely. Somewhere in the corral, she could hear the horses neighing. Calling uneasily to each other, an unearthly edge of panic in their high-pitched cries as they herded together with apprehension.

There was no sign of an intruder. No evidence anything might be wrong, but the feeling of evil increased rather than diminished, and Teresa was suddenly and utterly convinced she had to get to Johnny. That he was in deadly and malignant danger!

Picking up her nightgown with one hand, she pushed her fears aside. Running out of her room and down the landing to his door, part of her mind registering as she did so, that the oil-lamp on the sideboard had been extinguished.

"Jelly!" For some reason, the door-handle kept refusing to turn and she began to feel hysterical with panic. "Jelly!"

Wrenching with all her might, she threw her entire body-weight against the unyielding barrier until at last, it gave way with a crash and propelled her into Johnny's bedroom. There was no sign of Jelly, and the windows swung wide open filling the room with cold night-air and fanning the wicked little flames licking round the edges of Johnny's bedspread. She dragged it off in one swift movement. Throwing it into a smouldering heap in the corner of the room and dashing the water from the washstand over it. The fire sizzled and died just as Jelly came stumbling through the door.

"What in tarnation . . ."

He held the lamp from the landing high above his head and as it illuminated the shadowy corners of the bedroom, Teresa half expected to see Absalom Weir crouching there.

"Where were you, Jelly, where were you?"

She was almost sobbing now as she ran across to Johnny's side. Touching him frantically, feeling for a pulse to reassure herself he was still alive. Jelly closed the windows, his face white as chalk.

"I went down ter get some hot water. I was only gone five minutes . . ."

She stared blindly at him, still so full of terror she found it hard to catch her breath. "Why did you open the windows so wide? The wind blew the candle over.”

He put the lamp down on the nightstand, his hands shaking uncontrollably as he righted the fallen candlestick. "I never did."

They looked at each other in shock and horror. Jelly turned back onto the landing, smack-bang into Andreas who had come running up the stairs, rifle in hand.

"Did you see him?"

"See who, Senor?"

"See him . . . See anyone come in!"

"No one has been in through the back or the front, Senor Jelly. You, yourself were in the kitchen."

Gulping convulsively, Jelly took a long, hard breath. He couldn’t afford to succumb to his own superstitions and terrors now. Teresa and Johnny needed him and he had to be strong for them both.

"Double the guards and search the Estancia. Inside and out.Every buildin', barn, granary and outhouse. Do it now!"
 

Andreas nodded tersely, turned, and then hesitated. "Senor Johnny?"

"The same."

For the first time, Jelly's voice nearly broke. He covered it by being more than usually gruff. "Well what are y'waitin' fer, Christmas? Git on an' do as I ask."

Back in the bedroom, Teresa lit another lamp and began to change Johnny's bedding. She was her usual composed self again now, but the huge, dark shadows under her eyes told their own story as Jelly helped her with the linen. Rolling Johnny gently onto his side, careful of the ribs and broken arm.

"Nobody saw anything."

It was a statement, not a question, and Jelly had no option other than truth as he answered. "Nope."

"He was here, Jelly. I know it. He turned out the lights, did something to Johnny's door and set fire to his bed. He was here."

Jelly looked down at Johnny's closed features. Reassuring himself that the man's chest was still moving slightly and resisting the urge to brush aside the thick fringe of black hair that flopped so characteristically over his forehead. He swallowed the lump that persisted in his throat.

"I never should'a left him alone."

"You couldn’t have guessed."

"I should've."

"Jelly, don't. Weir's done this to him. Its Weir's doing. We've just got to make sure we keep him safe until . . ."

She caught herself up with a jerk. Hands suddenly cold and still on Johnny’s shoulder as the future seemed to crash around her ears.

"Until Murdoch and Scott get home." Finished Jelly hurriedly, knowing what she was thinking as clearly as though she'd said it out loud.

"Yes." Her voice was no more than a whisper, as she drew the fresh counterpane up over Johnny's body. "Until they get home."

She refused to go back to her own bed after that. Jelly reluctantly left her alone with Johnny as he went to check on the men. Cipriano met him by the front- door, eyes uneasy as he shook his head.

"Nada, Jelly. No me gusta. No sign of even a horse. The men are getting muy medroso. They say this man is Satanas. El Diablo."

"There aint goin' ter be no trouble is there, Cip?"

"Not yet. Momento, is just rumours. But if Senor Johnny dies . . ."

"He aint agoin' ter die!"

"No." Cipriano looked as unhappy as Jelly felt. "I have doubled the guards. We'll see anyone getting in or out of the Estancia. There's no-one here now who does not belong."

They stared at each other edgily, both more then reluctant to be alone. Eventually, Jelly sighed. "Care ter come on in an' partake of somethin' warmin'? Old Murdoch need never know . . ."

"Si." Cipriano nodded gratefully. "Muy bien gracias."

 ****
 

Dreams. Fragments of nightmares . . . His mothers screams, her once beautiful face distorted and swollen by bruises as her arms reached for him in terror. His own inability to help her.Powerless. Pushed aside into the edge of the range, his head spinning painfully, so dizzy as he tried to get up to go to her. To save her.

"Mama . . ."

The man's hands on his smooth young body. Fumbling at his drawers, breath hot and heavy on his neck as he squirmed and wriggled to get away. The feel of the man's pistol as he reached round in terror. The heavy wooden butt in his hand, the sound of the shot and smell of the powder . . . The man's blood on his clothes, on the floor, on his hands forever. The first of many . . .

Hunger. So hungry his belly ached and his limbs grew weak. Thieving and scavenging, stealing from alleyways, trash-bins and market-stalls. Often too weak to escape pursuit - then getting beaten for being hungry, thrown in jail for taking food. And all the time practising with the gun.

Using the gun and practising till he knew it like a friend. Watching the men around him in the dangerous Border towns, and learning that to have fire-power was to have strength. To have speed was to have respect. And he learned to have both. The gun became an extension of him. A living, breathing part of him. Sometimes, his only friend. The only thing between him and death. Between him and the kind of hopeless obscurity he saw in the eyes of those all around him. A way out. An escape.

And as he got better, then so he got known. Known and respected, not hungry anymore. Not beaten anymore. Not preyed on anymore. The gun brought rewards. It also brought a different kind of danger. The men who thought they were better. More accurate. Faster. They never were. One or two had come close, and some were just as quick, but they didn’t have the combination. The accuracy, the grace. The confidence in their ability that he had.

Pain. The bullet-wounds, some fair, some foul. Back-shot in the darkness, ambushed in the night . . . The fear of losing his dexterity his aptitude, his gift, as he holed-up alone with his injuries like an animal. Petrified of being discovered at a disadvantage by the men who were his enemies. Never, ever letting down his guard. Never letting anybody close. Never letting them see his vulnerability or allowing them to think he was helpless. And he never did.

His reputation grew. The legend grew. People respected him. They were afraid of him, fawned over him, gave him what he wanted and did what he told them to. Women desired him and he used their bodies. Those he really wanted he left alone. To need made you powerless, to love made you weak. But the pain never left him. It grew inside him like a cancer, getting bigger and stronger as it threatened to consume him and he felt his spirit dying.

The emptiness of his existence was like a mockery of everything he'd sacrificed to survive. Ashes on his tongue.Loneliness in his soul. A frozen wilderness that grew with each man he gunned down, with every life he took, until he began to seek obscurity again. The revolution in Mexico. Johnny Madrid hiring-out for no money. The turning-tide in the realisation of a cause, a goal that didn’t involve power, reputation, or pure, hard-edged survival. Redemption.

Pain. . . Fragments of nightmares. . . The Scarecrow sneering at him, teeth drawn back in a rictus grin as he fought his way through the dead cornfield trying to find a way out. Absalom Weir.

"I watched you once, ten years ago, gun a man down in a Santa-Fe saloon.  I marvelled at your confidence, your grace, your speed. In fact, at the time, I judged you very nearly as fast as myself. . . "

Pain in his head, in his chest . . .The ladder falling sideways, Teresa's scream. Teresa. The scent of rosewater. Eyes like a doe. Hands so tiny, he could enclose both of them in only one of his own. Indomitable. So fragile.

"Mi corazon. . . "

His head hurt. Throbbing bands of agony and red-hot fiery torment that beckoned him back towards oblivion. The blessedness of peace and darkness. Fight. . . Fight his way upwards again. Knowing that if he gave-in, if he succumbed to the darkness once more, he might never be able to leave it again.

Fight . . . Shattered pictures. The smashing of a glass frame, the cracking sound of his own bones. The breaking of her heart. Her arms around him. Her head on the pillow beside him. Her lips soft and tender on his. Fight . . .

The shadows misted clear as the light gradually coalesced beneath his eyelids and the pain receded enough for him to grasp hold of his senses at last. He opened his eyes. The light hurt them, dim as it was. The low amber light of an oil-lamp, the sheer opalescence of dawn.

He watched it in wonderment for a while through the curtain-less window. The mountains, his mountains, behind it. Tall and majestic, dark frames of grandeur against the vivid splash of sky, splendid in their magnificence. How he loved this view.

He hurt all over, but felt curiously at peace. Gradually becoming aware with detached surprise, that the warmth of his body was generated by another presence curled up beside him. He shifted his head with difficulty. Turning his face against the dark cloud of her hair and inhaling it's fragrance with guilty pleasure as she burrowed closer to him with a small sigh, and he felt the flutter of her breath against his neck.

There was something, a tube down the back of his throat. His arm was strapped closely to his body and there were wrappings round the grating edges of his ribs. He hadn’t escaped the fall scot-free then. A small ripple of humour ran through him as he considered that maybe, under the given circumstances, all the pain wasn’t such a bad thing. Any other time, any other place, his body wouldn’t be reacting in such a gentlemanly way to Teresa's close proximity. In-fact, the feel of her against him now was
beginning to sing every cell in his battered body back to life.

For along while he lay as he was. Watching the sunrise through the window, and enjoying the warmth of Teresa beside him and the soft scent of roses in her hair. He felt more at peace than he had ever been in his life. The sense of balance and security stronger then anything that had come before. He looked down at her with a slight feeling of awe. There was a lifetime of trouble behind him, A deep well full of secrets and issues to deal with. But lying here like this, with her slender figure beside him, they suddenly didn’t matter anymore.

He had a home and a family. A father and brother who loved him, who felt him worthy of their love. Good friends like Jelly, Cipriano, Val Crawford and Sam Jenkins. Good men who believed in him. Men that he could trust. Old Maria who nagged him to death, but adored him with all her warm, soft heart. Alternately spoiling him and scolding him as though he were her own.

And Lancer. The Estancia and the land itself. Vast and beautiful, powerful and majestic. Every blade of grass and every ounce of soil a testimony to the man who had built it up from the wilderness, the man who had struggled to carve his destiny into the country that he loved so much. His father. Murdoch Lancer.

How he'd hated the name. Hated the man. The hate had sustained him for so long it had become a part of him, and yet it had been torn away in a ridiculously short amount of time to leave him floundering and full of new resentments. Resentment that in his heart, he desperately wanted this man to love and feel proud of him. Terror when he knew the foundations he’d built his life on, everything he'd become, was all fabricated on a tissue of lies. What if . . . What might have been . . .

What might he have been?

But that was a road he could never travel now. The past was over and done with, and he had two clear options. He could let his old life and everything he'd been and done engulf him, or he could draw a fresh line under it and begin again. He shifted slightly. The broken ends of his ribs catching and causing him to gasp involuntarily as they rubbed against each other like fire. Teresa stirred immediately and he felt her stiffen beside him for a second before she raised her head as though hardly daring to hope. He looked up into soft, dark eyes filled with tears.

"Johnny?" Her voice was husky, still honeyed with sleep as she put a shaky hand on his face.

"Querida."

"Am I dreaming?"

She sounded so sad, he was vaguely surprised. The gradual awareness he must have been far more gravely injured than he'd first imagined eventually dawning on his still slow-witted mind.

"No sueno, Miel . . ."

She was so pale, transparent even. He began to feel slightly afraid and the concern must have shown, as he saw her face flood and glow with sudden transforming relief.

"You know who I am?"

He grinned with a little embarrassment. "I hope so. Don't want any strangers sharing my bed."

She blushed rosily and he watched with delight; still trapped within this magical, surreal world they seemed to inhabit. But then her eyes brimmed over with tears and his smile faded as he watched them pour down her cheeks in time with her great, gulping sobs.

"Teresa . . ."

He ignored the pain and pulled her close again. His good arm curling around her as, unable to help himself, he pressed his face against her and buried his lips in her hair.

"Please don't cry, no llores mas . . ."

But she didn’t stop for along time, and he held her almost reverently as she shook silently against him, tears like rain on his skin. When at last she was still, he waited until her ragged breaths had settled before asking quietly;

"How long?"

She didn’t move. "You fell on Tuesday afternoon. Today is Sunday."

He inhaled carefully. "Weir?"

"Yes. He came back last night to try again. We thought . . . I thought we'd lost you. Sam Jenkins said . . ."

"Hush." He kissed the top of her head softly. "How many times do I have to tell you, I'm as stubborn as the Old Man and twice as pig-headed."

"Hard-headed."

"Si, hard-headed too."

She extricated herself gently from his arms and he felt suddenly bereft, deprived of her warmth, as part of him longed to call her back and feel her skin again. Her heartbeat next to his. She wore her nightgown, and he claimed invalid's privileges. Letting his eyes linger on her bare shoulders. The soft swell of her breasts above the hand-made lace, the hollow of her throat as it pulsed slightly in tune to the rhythm of her heart.

"Querida, this . . . You . . ."

He paused, unsure of how to continue without embarrassing her, the last thing in the whole wide world he wanted to do. Especially now. But she looked up with total comprehension, surprising him with a small smile.

"You got so cold at night times. It was a choice between me or Jelly."

It wasn’t the whole truth and he knew it. But he was wise enough to hold his tongue. Touched more than he could say by what he suspected the real facts to be. Instead, he grinned at her and raised an eyebrow.

"Lucky I got you then."

"Jelly's beard would itch."

He laughed then wished he hadn’t as his head banged and the ribs grated again. Taking his breath away with the sudden onslaught of searing agony, as he winced and closed his eyes. She was beside him in a flash, her hand cool on his brow.

"Hey, slow down. You must rest. Your skull was probably fractured when you fell and you'll have to take things very easy for the next few weeks."

He closed his eyes briefly and thought of Absalom Weir. The man wouldn’t wait a few weeks, and he knew it. But he wasn’t about to tell Teresa that just yet.
 

****
 

PART SEVEN.

The next time Johnny woke-up, the sun shone brightly through the window and it was Sam Jenkins who stood beside his bed, a pleased smile on his craggy face.

"Well it's about time. Good to see you awake, Johnny. How do you feel?"

Johnny blinked and thought about it. How did he feel? Pretty weak if the truth be told, and a mass of pain and discomfort. He raised his good hand to the tube in his nose and touched it with a grimace.

"Better if you take this thing out, Doc."

Jenkins nodded. "Not a problem so long as you promise me you'll drink plenty of water over the next few days. We need to start building you up again, you're looking as thin as a scarecrow."

Johnny went cold suddenly at Jenkins choice of adjective. The image of the scarecrow mocking him once more. Closing his eyes again briefly as he pushed it resolutely away and tried to banish it from his thoughts. He lay back against the pillows and subjected himself to the doctor's hands, concentrating on his body as he gathered up his strength. After the next couple of excruciatingly uncomfortable minutes, Jenkins handed Johnny a towel to mop the tears away from his face and the offending tube had been removed.

"Better?"

Johnny nodded mutely and took a careful breath. "Yeah, I think so."

Regarding him sympathetically, Jenkins sat at the side of the bed and waited a moment or two for him to recover his equilibrium.

"I'm betting you have the mother of a headache, Johnny, but I can't give you any laudanum I'm afraid. It's not advisable in cases of serious head injury like yours. However, Teresa can brew you up some Willow-bark tea and that'll help the pain a little."

"What happened to me, Sam?"

Jenkins didn’t pull any punches as he described the catalogue of injuries. He knew Johnny of old, and the man was a notoriously bad patient. He especially stressed the gravity of the fractured skull and the need for Johnny to stay in bed for the duration of his recovery. The left arm was not seriously broken - it wouldn’t take long to heal. But the cracked ribs were going to be extremely painful and would take a while to repair themselves. There was always the latent worry the jagged ends might cause damage to the lungs.

If Johnny did as he was told and took things really easily, then the risk of thoracic involvement was lessened. Besides, none of these injuries, nasty as they were, were Jenkins main cause of unease. No. It was the skull fracture that still concerned him. Although Johnny had defied the odds and regained consciousness with no apparent cerebral damage, the doctor had seen cases in the past where men had collapsed days, even weeks after their initial injury, and died. He wasn’t a pessimistic man by nature, but he couldn’t help remembering these cases, and he wasn’t about to take any unnecessary chances with Johnny. This was the son of one of his oldest friends, and besides, he'd always liked and admired the man from the first time he'd been called to the
Estancia to treat him. Johnny had guts. Jenkins had been impressed by the bravery and self-deprecation he'd shown as he made light of a bullet wound Jenkins knew was causing him intense agony. It had been the beginning of a close doctor/patient relationship, and a bond of friendship had grown up between the two men.

Watching Johnny's face and guessing fairly accurately what was going through his mind right now, he smiled a little in mitigation.

"However, if you behave and promise not to cause any problems for Teresa, there's no reason at all why you shouldn’t be back on your feet within three or four weeks."

Johnny almost snorted. "Three or four weeks?"

” Yep. Pretty good huh? And then maybe back in the saddle after eight weeks or so. Can't have you getting dizzy and falling off, can we? You hit that thick skull of yours again before it's healed-up properly, and you may not be quite as lucky next time."

His tone was light, but there was a real warning behind it. Johnny was once again filled with a combination of exasperation and remorse as he realised just what a scare he'd clearly given them all.

"Anyway . . ." Continued Jenkins blithely, as he deliberately choose to ignore the effect of his words upon his patient.

" It will be a lot better when Scott and Murdoch get home. Teresa tells me they're expected in another three or four day’s time. The miracles of modern travel, eh?"

But Johnny looked up in quick dismay. "You called them back from Denver?"

"Of course;" Jenkins was slightly puzzled as he sensed Johnny's disapproval. "It was touch and go there for a while, Johnny. You've been very lucky. Teresa telegraphed Denver on my advice when things weren’t looking all that good. Murdoch and Scott had a right to be informed."

"I know." said Johnny softly, the annoyance still evident in his voice. "I just don't like the thought of them rushing back here on a wild-goose chase because of me."

"Hardly a wild-goose chase."

Teresa came into the room with a tray of Willow-bark tea and over-heard the tail end of the conversation. She was dressed now. Her thick dark hair was pulled back with a Spanish comb to keep it tidily off her face and he had a sudden vision of her earlier. That same hair beautifully dishevelled over her bare shoulders in a dusky cloud, face pale and swollen with tears. . .

He swallowed hard. "I'm sorry. Guess I've caused a bit of a rumpus."

She smiled gently at him. "What's new? You've been doing that since the first day I picked you up off the stagecoach in Morro Coyo. Why change the habits we all know and love."

He grinned back at her. "Cut me and I bleed, Teresa."

"Really? And I thought you were thick-skinned as well as thickheaded. Here, drink-up your tea !"

Grimacing, he took a mouthful of the bitter herbal-tea and lay back on his pillow. The impending arrival of his father and brother had put a new and different complexion on things. He knew he had to make the most of the next twenty-four hours or so, in order to get himself as fit as possible before Scott and Murdoch got back to Lancer.

"Any news of this Weir man?"

Jenkins looked across at Teresa as she sat herself down in the window-seat, and Johnny glanced up with surprised disapproval straight into her challenging glare.

"Jelly says that Val Crawford's going to check out the Hackett place today."

"He won't find him," said Johnny with quiet conviction.

"Oh I don't know, the man's got to be holed-up somewhere nearby," said Jenkins confidently. "Val Crawford's a good lawman, I hear he can track a rattlesnake across the desert. If Weir's about, he'll flush him out."

"I hope so," said Teresa fervently, her eyes on Johnny's face.

But he looked back at her obliquely and only shook his head. "Don't hold your breath."

Closing his eyes, he rested his aching head. Suddenly tired beyond all belief as the Willow-bark tea began to steal through his veins and the toll of his injuries caught up with him. His worries had just multiplied by two, now that Murdoch and Scott had been
added to the equation. Weir had not scrupled to harm Teresa. He certainly wouldn’t flinch from hurting anyone else Johnny loved. Red hot pain began to thump behind his eyes at the thought of Weir striking-out again in his name. He could not let it happen. Would not let it happen.

Sam Jenkins got to his feet and cleared his throat. "You mind what I've said now, Johnny. Do as Teresa tells you, and on no account are you to get out of bed. I'll be out again tomorrow, around lunchtime."

"Maria's cooking?" There was an edge of gentle humour back in Johnny's voice again, and the slight air of tension was broken.

"Second only to Teresa's here." Jenkins smiled gallantly at her, and nodded meaningfully as he made his way to the door.

But there was no need for the gesture and she was already at Johnny's side. Taking the cup from his lax fingers and carefully straightening his pillow as he lost the battle to stay awake. Looking down at his face, she couldn’t help pushing the hair back off his brow. A small sigh on her lips as relief flooded through her all over again.

Jenkins left the room quietly, feeling like an intruder. Remembering his conversation with Jelly last evening, there were no doubts in his own heart that the old man was right. It was clear to see these two had fallen in love. He sighed a trifle sentimentally and found himself hoping for a happy ending.
 

* * * * * * * *
 

Johnny was indeed a model patient. Lying quietly in his bed and sleeping for most of the time. He obediently drank the Willow-bark tea Teresa or Jelly brought him every four hours or so, without demure. Swallowing the chicken-broth she insisted he have to build his strength up again, and generally doing exactly as he was told. And if Jelly looked at him suspiciously once or twice, then Johnny would close his eyes and flop wanly back against his pillows looking so ill and wrung-out, Jelly felt guilty immediately. Continually reminding himself just how close they'd come to losing him.

Jelly kept the guards on duty round the clock. For Johnny had been right and Val Crawford had ridden out that first evening to tell them there was no sign of anyone out at the Hackett place.

Johnny had listened without comment, and Teresa bit her lip as a small shiver ran down her spine again. Telling herself that everything would be alright once Scott and Murdoch got home. She hated the thought of Absalom Weir waiting out there somewhere, just waiting and biding his time.

On Tuesday morning, exactly one week after he'd fallen from the barn roof, Johnny knew the time had come. He waited for Jelly to bring him the hot water kettle for his wash and shave, allowing such a look of anxiety to cross his face that the old man was alarmed.

"What's ailin' you, Johnny. You in pain again ?"

"No . . . It's probably nuthin'. Nada."

"Now don't go sayin' that ter me, boy . . . It's clearly somethin' and somethin' aint nuthin'. Come on now, spit it up."

With a quick pang of guilt, Johnny forced a sigh to his lips. "Did you check the mare and foal this mornin'?"

"Course I did. Fed them first thing. Baby's thrivin' and Momma's lookin' happier cos she likes the honey. Got a real sweet tooth, jist like her master . . .Why, what's wrong?"

"Thought I heard somethin' out there last night. Didn’t you hear her callin' to her baby just before sun-up?"

"No, " said Jelly uneasily. "But I slept real deep last night. The first real night's rest I've had in an age thanks ter you . . ."He paused; "you think mebbe he was out there?"

Johnny shrugged, then shook his head cautiously. "No. No se. Probably not. I was just worried he might harm them. He knows I breed the Palominos and he thought nuthin' of killing Cinder to hurt Silas that time . . ."

He left the words hanging as he tailed off deliberately. Hoping that Jelly would take the bait. The old man didn’t disappoint him.

"You think thet mebbe I oughta bring Barranca up from the West Paddock?"

"Oh, there's probably no need." Johnny paused, "although, he does know Barranca's mine . . ."

"Knows how much he means ter y'too. Heard ye talkin’ ter Silas one time, don’t you remember it, Johnny?"

Jelly’s voice was patently alarmed now, and Johnny played along. Frowning consideringly, his face creased with thought.

"Si, yeah. I do now. You don't think he'd hurt Barranca, do you Jelly?"

Jelly frowned. "Wouldn’t like ter take the risk. Nope, the more I think on it, the more I've made -up my mind. Cain't take any chances, Johnny. I'll bring him in, an' put him in the corral where I can keep an eye on him. 'Sides, he's agettin' too fat on all that sweet grass anyhows."

"Well if you're sure . . ."

"Yep I'm sure. It's jist the kind of low-down, mean-spirited thing thet devil Weir would do. I think it's a real good idea of mine. In fact, I'll go get him jist as soon as I'm done here with you."

Johnny smiled gratefully at him. "You don't know how much that puts my mind at rest, Jelly. You really have no idea."

And Jelly was just as good as his word. Coming back up to Johnny's room after lunch just to let him know Barranca was fine and healthy and in the stable-corral right opposite the hacienda. Johnny felt a rush of relief, knowing he could never have brought the palomino up from the paddock in his present condition, and genuinely glad to know his horse was indeed unharmed.

He wouldn’t put anything past Weir, and the man did seem to have a penchant for hurting horses. In-truth, one of the stranger things that stood out about him on that first, fateful visit to Lancer, was the fact no one had seen him arrive on horseback. No one had ever seen him ride a horse at all. It was unheard of in these parts, and Johnny knew all about Jelly's theory that decent, honest animals wouldn’t let the man anywhere near them.

A week ago he would have scoffed at that theory. But even in the safe haven of his bedroom here on the Estancia in the middle of the day, he couldn’t seem to rid himself of the curling sense of evil that shivered all around him. That seemed to pollute the very air he tried to breathe. His time was running out and he knew it!
 

* * * * * * * *
 

Later that day, when he was supposed to be taking an afternoon siesta, Johnny prepared quietly for what he knew he had to do. Getting out of bed was surprisingly difficult. His legs felt like rubber and he discovered aches and bruises hitherto unnoticed due to the severity of his other injuries.

For a while he practised walking slowly round the room. Trying his hardest to resist the temptation of leaning on the furniture and really glad Maria had re-hung his curtains. Their cool shadiness shielded him from any watchful eyes. It wasn’t going to be as easy as he'd thought. Feeling relatively comfortable when lying in a soft bed did not translate to being vertical and active. He found his ribs caught and rubbed with every breath he took.

He tried again. Fighting to ignore the spinning and pounding in his temples as the floor threatened to claim him with a rush and he reeled drunkenly across to the wardrobe. He breathed as deeply as he could without aggravating the ribs too badly, then paused and waited for his head to stop whirling as he opened the mahogany door. The clothes he wanted were hung on hangers and he figured in relief they must have brought him straight up to his room after the accident, because his boots, and most importantly his
gun-belt, were in there too.

He pulled the belt out with a strange sense of reluctance and began to check the gun. There was a cleaning kit next to it and he took that out too. His hands seemingly possessed of a life of their own as they started to go through all the old rituals that had governed his existence for so long. Oil it, spin it, check the barrel. Everything he'd done a hundred times before. To make sure. Just to make sure.

Flexing and stretching his fingers. Rotating his wrist backwards and forwards, running over the whole gamut of hand exercises and thanking whoever was watching over him it wasn’t his right arm that was broken. Was it his imagination, or had his hand stiffened-up a little over the last three years as a result of all the ranch-work and labouring he did on Lancer?

He smiled ruefully at himself. He knew that when he practised he was as fast as ever. But some of his knuckles definitely cracked now, and there were calluses on his palms despite the protective gloves he wore whilst he was working. Folded neatly in the wooden box where he kept his gun-oil was another kind of glove. A single glove made for his right hand. As tight-fitting as a second -skin, and made of the finest kid- leather money could buy.

He looked at it for along time, and found he was curiously reluctant to try it on. He knew why of course. The glove was made for Johnny Madrid, and as he drew it slowly over his knuckles, it felt as though he were stepping backwards to another time. Becoming Madrid again not Lancer, as his old life flashed before his eyes.

How many times had he gone through this ritual? Granted, it was usually in some nameless hotel room down on the borders.Drinking the black coffee he always ordered to clear his head and speed-up his reflexes before a gunfight. Mentally preparing himself to step out into that dusty street and kill or be killed. Checking his hands, and checking his guns. Gauging the position of the sun in the sky so it wouldn’t shine directly into his eyes and blind him at a crucial moment. Examining the rooftops, the windows and shadows. Places where bushwhackers could hide, places that offered him potential cover if he needed it quickly. All the angles and tricks that gave him the edge. That kept him alive.

He looked down at his hand. A gunfighter's hand. Was it really capable of being anything else, he wondered? A rancher's hand? A lover's, a husband's, maybe even a father's one day? He hoped so. God, he hoped so. But first he had to deal with Weir.
 

* * * * * * * *

PART EIGHT.

Teresa took him up two cups of tea at four o’ clock. One of Willow-bark and one of ordinary, a little surprised to find him still so deeply asleep. Pulling the curtains open as quietly as she could, she set the tray down on the night-stand and watched him for a little while. Loathe to wake him, but knowing he'd be in a lot of pain later if he didn’t have the Willow-bark now.

A familiar whinny floated up from the corral. She moved to the window again, a smile curving her lips as she looked across at
Barranca flirting with Maria at the fence. The house-keeper reaching out to slip him a juicy apple from the pocket of her apron.

"Someone pinin' for me?" Johnny asked sleepily.

"Oh I don't know. He's being spoiled rotten out there." She continued watching the palomino, glad Johnny had woken by himself.

"I meant Maria, not Barranca."

His voice was laced with amusement now, as she turned in surprise, her face alight with laughter.

"How?"

"I cheated."

He indicated the full-length mirror on the wardrobe door and she saw that it faced out towards the window. She could just about catch a glimpse of Maria's ample figure and cheery red skirts as she realised Johnny must have a really good view from his slightly elevated position in the bed.

"Wretch."

He smiled at her and struggled up against his pillows. Feeling her arm slip round behind him to support his injured side. For a brief second her hair brushed against him and as he was tantalised by the scent of her. The warm fragrance of roses and the softness of her skin. He knew a moments bitter regret at the necessity of deceiving her, and prayed she'd forgive him. If he made it back alive.

"We got a telegram from Murdoch and Scott."

He sipped his tea. "When will they be home?"

"They sent it from Barstow yesterday and they expect to be back by tomorrow morning."

He nodded quietly. "I'm sorry to have worried them. Sorry to have worried you."

She perched on the bed beside him and sighed. "It doesn’t seem fair, Johnny. We were having such a happy time. The foal being born, everything . . . Oh I don't know, it's all turned into a nightmare."

He touched her cheek gently. "It was a happy time, and it will be again. It's going to be alright, Teresa. I promise you."

Turning her face into his hand, she lowered her eyes. "You promise me?"

He swallowed hard. "Si. Yes I do, hermosa."

He tilted her chin up and their eyes met. Hers’ deep and brown, his blue as a summer sky. And he thought about telling her the truth. Thought about waiting until Murdoch and Scott were home. Thought about actually doing what they all expected of him . . .

 

But then all he could think of was how beautiful she was and just how much he loved her. Of how Weir had nearly killed her with the rattlesnake. How the devil wouldn’t hesitate to hurt her again just to get at him.

"Johnny?"

Her voice was low and questioning. A little scared. And despite the fact he knew he was being unfair, despite the fact he knew how wrong it was, he simply couldn’t help himself. He bent forward and kissed her gently on the mouth. Giving her his whole heart in the gesture. Her lips were petal-soft and yielding, and his head began to reel again. But it had nothing to do with his fractured skull this time. He groaned and gathered her even closer with his good arm. Desire mingled with the need to protect her, remorse combined with the surety of the love he felt for her. He knew that he'd give anything to keep her.

The spell was quickly broken as familiar footsteps on the landing heralded the arrival of Jelly. She spun chaotically out of his arms. Only just making it across to the window seat before the old man entered the room, she took a deep and calming breath and rested her heated forehead against the glass.

Johnny looked up at Jelly enquiringly, both relieved and annoyed to see him. He was still more aware of Teresa as she collected the empty cup and slid out of the door with some vague excuses about preparing supper. Still more aware of how empty his arms felt without her now she was no longer there.

But Jelly was totally oblivious to any undercurrents swirling around him, and he looked at Johnny with a massive beam on his face.

"Teresa tell you the good news?"

"About Murdoch and Scott? Yeah, she did."

"Don't mind tellin' you it's a big relief ter me, Johnny. Kinda feel like a sittin' duck stuck here. What with you outta the picture an' everythin' a restin' on my shoulders."

Johnny flicked him a small genuine smile and felt guiltier than ever. "Been meanin' to thank you for that. Jelly. You’re doing a fine job. Helps me relax a little knowing you're watchin' out for the girls. Oh, and by the way, thanks for bringing Barranca up from the paddock for me. I can hear him kickin' up a dust out there and it sounds good."

Jelly cleared his throat with embarrassment. "Guess he misses you. Always did say thet horse was more human then most men. It'll be a while befere you can ride him, I'll bet?"

"Sam said eight weeks or so, maybe more."

"Scott kin exercise him when he gits back. Y’ won't catch me on the back of thet there circus pony."

They talked for a while then Johnny deliberately made a big show of yawning and letting his eyelids droop. "Think I'll catch-up on another couple of hours sleep before supper-time, if you don't mind Jelly."

"Naw, you go on right ahead. Keeps the place nice an' quiet when you're a-nappin' all the time."

Jelly got to his feet, still slightly worried that the bump to his head had really taken it out of Johnny this time. For Johnny to actually be so co-operative about his forced convalescence - to even admit to being tired, why, it was virtually unheard of. Normally the boy was a nightmare to coddle. It took a combination of plenty of threats and a lot of persuasion to make him rest and do as he was told.

Giving into a sudden impulse, he patted Johnny awkwardly on the shoulder. It was an impulse that surprised them both and brought an unexpected lump to Jelly’s throat.

"You jist take it easy and don't worry none about anythin'. We'll leave you be till suppers ready. Got ter make sure you're lookin' yer best when Murdoch gits back tomorrow."

Johnny couldn’t help grimacing, and Jelly chuckled, his hand on the doorknob. "Guess the old man might have a thing or two ter say ter you about takin' crazy risks agin."

"Guess he might."

"Don't give it no thought, Johnny. He'll jist be relieved you didn’t go high-tailin' off after Weir all by yerself."

"Maybe so."

"Well, I'm off ter fix the pump over at the Bunkhouse, but Ruis and Jorge are downstairs with Maria an' Teresa so don't go frettin' on me. I'll see you after supper."

"Yeah, " murmured Johnny softly. “After supper."
 

* * * * * * * *
 

Johnny hunched over in the saddle as Barranca picked his way across the meadow grass. The palomino seemed to sense his master's discomfort. Picking his legs up daintily as Johnny sat there, unable to do more then just walk him. Any other gait was far too painful, and even this slow pace was nearly more than his poor battered body could tolerate. Perhaps this wasn’t such a good idea after all. Every single jolt and jar was purgatory to Johnny's grating ribs and pounding head, he was beginning to wonder if he'd made a huge mistake.

Instinct told him that he had to get to Weir before sundown. Tomorrow Scott and Murdoch would be home. Weir would want to end things before then which meant Jelly, Teresa, and everyone at Lancer would be in the gravest of dangers tonight. When the Devil would play his final hand. Johnny knew it in his heart as much as he knew anything, and he wasn’t about to let Weir get near the hacienda anytime soon. He thought vaguely of a term he'd heard Scott use sometimes. Something about mountains and Mahomet’s. But he couldn’t quite work out which one was him, and which was Weir. All he knew, all he was certain of, was he couldn’t let the devil anywhere near Teresa. Never again.

Thank God it was only an hour's ride to the Hackett Place from Lancer. He didn’t know if he was physically able to make it any further then that. Holding on loosely to the reins as he hugged his broken arm in tight across his chest. The shadowy sense of guilt still dogged him and he was more worried about the lies he'd told Jelly and Teresa, then actually facing Weir.

A gunfight was just that as far as he was concerned. He'd done the mental preparation he needed for it and most of his brain had already entered the detached mind-set he'd long-since discovered was his only way of dealing with what had to be done. If it wasn’t for Teresa . . .

What was wrong with him?

In the past when he was Madrid, he'd never had any trouble distancing himself totally before a fight. Slipping into the dispassionate state that gave him such an edge with consummate ease, as he shrugged on the mantle of cool which added to his reputation up and down the border towns.

"I watched you once, ten years ago, gun a man down in a Santa Fe saloon. I marvelled at your confidence, your grace, your speed . . ."
 

The words came back to haunt him yet again. Words, which up until a couple of years ago, he would have felt a glow of satisfaction to hear. Words which would have helped to sustain the image he’d fought so hard to preserve. But now they sounded hollow. Empty. Almost, they shamed him.

He stopped as he reached the breast of the ridge and looked down towards the Hackett Place. Barranca immediately began to act-up. Snorting nervously, rearing his head back and twitching his ears furiously as he danced sidewards.

"Se bueno, Barranca, se bueno," He murmured. Quickly surveying as much of the area as he could from his elevated vantage point.

The scarecrow stared back at him mockingly, but there was no other sign of life. No indication anything had changed at all since the last time he’d ridden out to check the roof. It seemed like a lifetime ago now, he thought ruefully, as the wind began to whip-up around him, the clouds chasing and swirling across the sky. The weather had changed in the short ride from Lancer, and he remembered unbidden, the blistering winds and uncharacteristic climate Weir seemed to bring with him the last time.

” El tiempo de Satanás.”

He laughed scornfully at himself. It was too late to start getting superstitious now. A bullet in Weir's chest would be the acid test of
whether or not the man was human. But even so, a small prickle of unease trickled down his spine like ice water. The same fear he'd hated himself for on the night he'd come for Silas.

He nudged Barranca forwards down the incline, tipping his hat over his forehead to shield his eyes from the howling winds. It put him at a crashing disadvantage by obscuring his field of vision, and in his imagination, he fancied Weir's own eyes burning into him as he approached the ranch house. But he couldn’t risk raising the hat-brim and getting any grit or dust in his face. Grit could cloud his view and affect his accuracy. Accuracy. He knew his life could depend on it.

The sky was so dark now the sun had completely vanished. The landscape bathed in an eerie silver glow unlike anything he could ever recall seeing in his life. To make matters even harder, the closer he got to the house, the worse Barranca began to behave. The horse pranced sideways and rolled his eyes, tugging back his head as he whinnied in fright. Every pull on the reins was sheer agony for Johnny, wrenching at his damaged ribs until he began to feel sick and dizzy with pain. He knew he couldn’t continue like this.

When he was about a hundred yards from the corral, he gave-up. Dismounting slowly and awkwardly from the palomino's back, part of him wondering how he was ever going to get into the saddle again. And then he realised with a jolt of macabre humour, it might not turn out to be necessary. With that in mind, he didn’t tie the horse. If anything were to go wrong, at least Barranca would have a shot at freedom. He patted the pony’s neck and shook his head gingerly.

"Mal caballo," he said softly.

But part of him knew exactly how Barranca felt as he let the reins drop and spoke more sternly into the horse's ear. "Stay Barranca. Stay"

Under normal circumstances, he'd have no qualms or worries about Barranca obeying him. But nothing about today was normal and the thought of being out here totally alone sent a cold chill through his heart. He patted him one last time and took a deep breath.

"Está bien. I'll be back soon." But he wasn’t sure who he was trying to reassure the most, himself or the horse.

He pulled himself as upright as possible, hitching his broken arm across his ribcage before walking slowly round the side of the corral towards the house. Each step was a minor trial in itself. Steeling himself against the misery as he grit his teeth to deflect the pain.

The wind moaned and howled around the buildings as it tore at his clothes with spiteful fingers, he shivered suddenly as he recalled again the legend this was the Devil's land. If he closed his eyes, it was possible to believe the mournful wail was the cry of souls in torment. That the cruel sharp clutch of the wind was the grasping of skeletal hands.

His head began to ring and pound. As though someone were striking at an anvil in his skull. He knew with sudden deep conviction in his soul that one way or another, this fight would soon be over.
 

* * * * * * * *
 

Teresa loved her pantry. From the rough-hewn stonewalls lined with cedar wood shelves, to the tall, glass-fronted cabinets where she kept all manner of things. A vast apothecaries dresser stood at one end, with its dozens of little drawers and secret compartments. The racks above the old wooden table were hung with bunches of drying herbs and flowers, all of them evocative of last year's summer with their spicy medicinal smell and dusty faded colours.

She spent hours in here by herself. Sometimes working at the huge stone sink, sometimes at the ancient iron range. Pickling and bottling, preparing jar after jar of chutney or marmalade. Honey from her beehives which Johnny usually stole to add to the mash he fed his precious palominos. Herbal medicines for the vaqueros and their families. Things like Coneflower tincture for infection, and of course, the infamous Willow-bark tea for pain and fevers.

Sam Jenkins bought the majority of his simple herbal medicines from her, and although she insisted he only pay her a pittance for them, it delighted her to receive some pin money all her own. Money that was not part of her Daddy’s estate or given because of Murdoch's kindness and innate generosity. Something that was hers alone.

She also swapped the bottles of rose and lavender water she made for ribbons, or a copy of the latest serial romance from the General Store in Morro Coyo. The flowers from her gardens were a lush and fertile source for virtually the whole year round. The Pantry was her domain. A sanctuary like her garden. A place that was an extension of it really, as she prepared her seeds at the huge old table and stored and germinated all her tender plants on the wooden shelves. This was where she utilised their harvest and reaped the bounty they brought her. A place she always felt at peace.

She'd come in here to get some sage. Maria was making a pork roast, and they'd decided on a sage and apple stuffing because it was one of Johnny's favourites. But the room was so cool and comforting, so safe and familiar, instead of hurrying back to the kitchen, Teresa sat down in the old wooden chair and rested her forehead on the table.

She raged with a myriad of differing emotions. So much so, it felt as if there was a whirlwind inside her. Love and fear. Desire and anticipation. Guilt and apprehension. Scared. She was scared of loving a man like Johnny. A man who was so worth the loving she longed to be with him every minute of every day. To know that love. To touch it, taste it, be it . . .

To lose it. To have it taken away in a brutal second by a man like Absalom Weir, or any of the other men who would try to take him from her. And she knew they were out there all right. Hadn’t they been coming after him ever since the day he'd arrived back home? The gunfighters who thought they were faster. The bounty hunters hoping for rewards. The revenge-seekers thirsting for his blood.

She'd realised a harsh lesson over the course of this last week. Something which had left her on the brink of an abyss, teetering over the darkness ready to fall-in if he died. If he had died . . .Could she bear the risk of loving him only to lose him? To have everything she ever wanted, just to see it snatched away?

But oh, how she wanted him. To hold him in her arms and make it right. To give him the solace of her kisses and ease his nightmares with her love. Suddenly, she felt ancient. A woman, not a stupid girl any longer. Filled with sadness and wisdom, secrets and desires. It was frightening but strangely liberating at the same time, and inexplicably, for the first time ever, she thought of her mother with something like understanding as she realised what had driven Angel to follow her own star.

Well she wasn’t Angel, and she had no wish to become a showgirl. But the thought of running away, of space and time alone, began to appeal in a way it never had before. She loved Lancer with the same burning passion as Murdoch did. Every brick, each stone, all the flowers in her garden. It was her world, her life. Her rapture. To leave it forever was beyond contemplation as far as she was concerned. But perhaps it wouldn’t do her any harm to leave it for a little while. Just a little while . . .

To take-up Murdoch's offer of a year at finishing school in Boston might clear her head and put things into some kind of perspective. It wouldn’t stop her from loving Johnny and nor did she want it to. But it might help her come to terms with the anticipation of pain. The overwhelming and nightmare fear of losing him, so she could make some kind of decision about what she wanted for her future. To see if she could sacrifice for love.

"Teresa!"

She jumped out of her skin as Jelly burst in through the Pantry door, his face red and agitated. "What is it?"

"It's Johnny . . ."

Her world lurched and shifted as Jelly blurred before her. "What's happened, Jelly tell me?"

"He's gone. It's my fault - I brought Barranca up from the paddock, I never shoulda . . ."

"Stop it Jelly." Her voice was hollow, not her own. "It's not your fault. Johnny planned this because he thinks Weir will come back tonight before Scott and Murdoch get home. If it's anyone’s fault, it's mine. I should have realised he'd do something just like this. He's trying to protect us "

"Danged fool. In his state he won't even make it as far as the Hackett's, let alone be fit enough to face Weir."

She got to her feet. "He'll make it. He's stubborn and he's probably been preparing. Saddle the pinto for me. I'll meet you out front in five minutes."

He nodded grimly. "You aint agoin' alone girl. Cip an' me'll be comin' too. We’ll bring the wagon jist in . . ." He swallowed hard. "Jist in case we need it to bring back Weir's body."

She flew into the hacienda past a startled Maria and on up the stairs to her bedroom. Unable to resist looking in at Johnny's room on the way, hoping against all hope Jelly had made an incredible mistake. That Johnny would still be safe and sound. The room was deserted, just as she'd known in her heart it would be, but some instinct made her cross over to the wardrobe and open the door. The peg where his gun-belt usually hung was empty and his boots were gone. All of a sudden she felt faint and sick inside. Perilously like bursting into tears.

"Oh Johnny . . ."

There was an envelope on the pillow with her name on it but she had no time to read it now. She stuffed it into her pocket. Sprinting to her room and changing into a shirt, a pair of pants. Pulling out her jacket and her hat.

By the time she made it outside, Jelly had saddled the pinto. He and Cipriano were already waiting for her up on the buckboard and she tossed him one of the carbines she'd taken from the gun-cupboard. Holding onto the other one herself, she nodded tersely as she mounted and nudged the pinto on into a fast lope. She tried hard to focus, tried not to think. Terrified in her heart, they might already be too late!
 

* * * * * * * *
 

PART NINE.

The wind howled and moaned around him in a culmination of all the nightmares he'd ever had. Clouds swirling in a vortex overhead as he stood in front of the ranch house, blue-eyes narrowed into a squint, searching for a sign of Absalom Weir.

There was a strange, sickly-sweet smell on the air. Sulphurous, like rotten eggs or brimstone. Johnny had to battle resolutely to keep his superstitious fears at bay, as he reasoned Weir was clever and twisted enough to stage the theatricalities by releasing some sulphur-based chemical just to intimidate him. He'd had enough of this by now.

"Weir. Weir . . .I know you're here some-place!"

But the wind was the only thing to answer him. Mocking and screaming at him like a banshee as he jumped a mile high, heart pounding painfully in his chest when a door banged somewhere at the back of the house. He tried again.

"Weir!"

The weather seemed to worsen and get darker as a streak of lightening forked through the sky above him. It felt close enough to scorch the back of his neck. He spun on his heel and ducked involuntarily, the movement making him gasp in agony as the ends of his ribs caught and burned. Jerking quickly back upright, he spied a figure on the periphery of his vision and his hand flew to his gun. The colt was halfway out of the holster before he realised it was only the scarecrow again.

He laughed shakily. "Tonto - fool."

Exasperated beyond belief with himself and his own credulity, he straightened up painfully, hand still on the butt of his gun as he pulled himself together. The scarecrow was leering at him. A macabre figure in the dead cornfield, battered black hat on its travesty of a head. The ghastly derisive grin still daring to taunt him. That damned scarecrow had haunted his nightmares for too long now, and muttering slightly under his breath, he vowed that once he'd finished with Weir he was going to rip the bloody thing
down for good.

‘If Weir doesn’t finish with you first,’ whispered a tiny voice in his ear. He turned towards the house. Sensing the blind eyes of the scarecrow burning into his back and wondering ruefully if Jelly's over-active imagination really was catching.

"Weir!"

He called again; doubt assailing him for the first time as there was still no response. He'd been so sure he was right. So convinced Weir would be out here waiting for him. What if he was wrong and Weir had doubled back to Lancer? What if, even now, he was back there with Teresa?

He struggled to dampen down the panic that flared-up inside him, and strode up to the ramshackle porch. Part of him wondering with an odd sense of detachment, just how Silas was ever going to make the place habitable again when he was eventually able to come home. Taking the key out of his pocket, he braced himself, and inserted it into the lock. It was a nod to security really, a symbol to let potential squatters know Hackett’s was claimed. Anyone determined enough would only need a minute or two to break into the cabin if they had a mind to, although no one ever come near the place as far as Johnny knew. And he knew why, too.

The door swung open the minute he touched it. The key defunct and un-used in his hand as all of his senses prickled into electric awareness. He stepped quickly out of the doorframe and the obliging target it provided, hand feeling for his gun yet again. Nothing. No one fired a shot at him - no sound came from within. If Weir was here, he was certainly winning the psychological battle, Johnny thought with slight dismay, his heart hammering loudly in his breast. But the real war wasn’t over yet. The final battle
still unfought.

He closed his palm round the familiar contours of the colt, pulling it clear of the holster as he entered the cabin on silent feet. The gun was his friend like it always used to be. His friend and only ally. A shadow moved and he paused, still as a cat, when he saw the man in the chair by the window. He knew at once who it was.

"Hello, Johnny Madrid." Weir turned, his smile cosy. But his eyes stayed cold and black as a sharks. "Did you really think you'd seen the last of me? We've unfinished business, you and I."

"I told you the last time we met . . ." said Johnny slowly,” I go by the name of Lancer now."

"Anything you say, Johnny, anything you say." Weir nodded urbanely ; "although of course, a man can never escape from his past. He is who he is, don't you think? "

"People change." Johnny's voice was whisper soft, and Weir continued to stare at him mockingly.

"Do they? You've heard the old adage that leopard’s don’t change their spots. You haven’t changed as much as you think, Johnny Madrid. Tell me your first instinct when you heard I’d returned?Your gut reaction?" His smile vanished as he sat forwards in the old rocking-chair and jabbed his forefinger into the air. "I'll tell you what it was . . . The first thing you did was to strap-on your gun-belt and seek confrontation. Just like the old days, hey Johnny? The solution lies in the gun."

Johnny shook his head, his body still and tense as a wire. "You sought me out, Weir. You threatened my family."

Weir leaned back in the rocker. "Ah yes. The lovely Teresa. I trust there were no lasting effects from her little encounter with the snake? Personally, I've always found them rather beguiling creatures, but I know she has an almost pathological fear of them. "

Johnny felt his gut clench, but not by one flicker did he let his deep and abiding anger show as he stared back across the room at Weir, blue-eyes vivid and unreadable.

"Leave her alone. It's me you want, it always has been. Let's just get this over with, shall we? "

Weir nodded approvingly. "Stalwart words, Johnny. Bravo! The gun-fighter at his coolest. A consummate master of your craft.
Words carefully designed to throw your opponent into a fervour of unease before you even fire a shot. It's worked well for you over the years, hasn’t it? "

Johnny sighed loudly. "You gonna blind me with science and bore me with elocution all evenin', Weir? Or we gonna do what we both came here for?"

Was it his imagination, or had Weir's eyes flickered with a small gleam of anger. He pressed home his attack. "Though of course, if you're havin' second thoughts after seein' me take out the rattler, I'll understand. Won't be the first time a man's backed out of a fight with me. Think I'm too fast for you, Weir?"

Weir licked his lips, the spark of anger fading. "I told you once how I admired you, Johnny Madrid. Your speed, your grace, your skill. I told you I thought you nearly as fast as myself - but that was over ten years ago now. Tell me, have the last ten years made you better or worse, faster or slower then you were?"

Johnny permitted himself a little smile. "Let's find out, shall we?"
 

* * * * * * * *
 

"Thank God that journey's over." Murdoch Lancer strode up to his own front door as Scott paid-off the obliging farrier who'd brought them and their luggage from Spanish Wells. "Where is everyone?"

Their eyes met in brief, shared fear, as a quick vision of their worst nightmare crossed both minds simultaneously. Murdoch almost beat the door down as he thundered loudly on it.

"Senor Lancer!"

Scott spun on his heel as Ruis came up behind them, a loaded carbine in his hands, just as Andreas opened the front door and pointed one straight into Murdoch's incredulous face.

"What's going on here, where's Teresa? "

Murdoch was now beginning to imagine a million worse-case scenario's after being on the receiving end of such a greeting. Scott wasn’t feeling much better, trying to remain as calm as possible under the circumstances.

"What's happened, Ruis?"

"Senor Johnny has gone to fight El Diablo at the Hackett ranchero. Senorita Teresa, Jelly and Cipriano, they have gone after him."

"But Johnny's hurt, " said Scott, his heart sinking.

"Si, Senor. Está gravemente herido . . ."

"Then what in God's name, does he think he's doing? "Fumed Murdoch, relief combining with fear and anger all over again.

"Being Johnny." Scott replied dryly.

"Being Johnny . . .I'll give him being Johnny. I'll give him the . . ."

Scott put a restraining hand on his arm just as there was another, softer knock at the door and Sam Jenkins stepped somewhat gingerly into the hallway.

"Ah Murdoch, I thought I heard your er, dulcet tones. Welcome home, Scott. " He nodded courteously, "I'm glad to see you both. "

"Some welcome, " growled Murdoch, pulling him through into the library in relief. "What's been going on, Sam?"

"Brace yourselves . . ." Jenkins put his bag down on the chair and proceeded to fill them in on events. By the time he'd finished, he was confronted by two very grim faces indeed.

"My God . . ." Murdoch was visibly shaken. "We guessed it might be serious by the tone of Teresa's telegram. But to have so nearly lost him . . . and we were neither of us home."

"But he made it, " said Jenkins soothingly. "He should be fine if he rests and does as he's told."

"Hang-on a minute, Sam, " Interrupted Scott, "didn’t you hear what's happened? Johnny's gone. He went to the Hackett place to have it out with Absalom Weir. Teresa and Jelly have gone after him."

Jenkins’s face fell as he shook his head slowly. "This isn’t good Scott. At the very least, he shouldn’t even be out of bed. If he falls and hits his head again . . ."

His voice tailed-off, leaving them in no doubt of the consequences and Scott looked quickly at Murdoch. "We need to get after them. I'll saddle some horses. Sam, would you mind?"

Jenkins picked up his bag. "Of course not. Wild horses wouldn’t stop me giving that young-man a very big piece of my mind."

"You and me both!" Scott nodded gratefully as he headed for the door and cast a worried look in Murdoch's direction.

The big man seemed to be suspended in a temporary state of fugue since hearing of the severity of Johnny's injuries.

"Murdoch?" Jenkins’s voice was gentle. "That's a very strong young-man you have out there. I happen to know he's as stubborn as his father. We'll bring him safely home."

Murdoch's eyes, blue as his sons, flickered suddenly back to life as he acknowledged his old friend's words. "It's Weir that worries me, Sam. The man's a killer. If he harms Johnny . . . " he took a deep breath. "It'll leave Teresa and Jelly vulnerable too."

Jenkins hesitated, unsure of how much or how little to reveal as he sought to find some words of comfort. "Take it from me, Murdoch. Johnny won't let anything hurt Teresa. Not anything."

His voice was so peculiar, Murdoch turned in surprise a query on his lips, just as Andreas hurried into the room.

"Perdón, Senor. The horses are saddled. "

Murdoch forgot all about his question as he moved across to the gun-cupboard and saw someone had already removed two carbines. Teresa of course, his practical girl. His heart ached briefly for her as well. Knowing she must have gone through hell for the last ten days or so. He imagined her frightened to bits and worried out of her mind, gripping the carbines even tighter as he strode from the hacienda. Granite-jawed and implacable now, setting out to retrieve his family.
 

* * * * * * * *
 

Johnny glanced up briefly at the sky. Noting with a sense of wonderment, the swirling storm appeared to have vanished as quickly as it had risen. He was grateful for small mercies. It was one less thing to worry about as he adjusted the brim of his hat, unconcerned about the dust and grit damaging his eyes anymore. The sun was still obscured by clouds, but by now he knew it must be dipping-down towards the mountains. Reddening-up if the sky was clear.

A couple of paces to his right, Weir chuckled. "Checking the position of the sun. A wise precaution, Johnny. You wouldn’t want to be caught out by a sudden blind-spot."

Johnny ignored him totally. Pulling on his kid-glove with the aid of his teeth. The fingers of his left-hand were still too stiff and swollen to be of any use and the rest of him didn’t feel much better. Not long. It wouldn’t be long now, then one way or another this would all be over.

Once the glove was on, he uncurled and flexed his fingers a few times, watching as Weir donned his own. Black of course, like the rest of his attire. The man was supremely confident. Humming between his teeth with a feral grin of amusement on his face, as he too looked up at the sky almost as though memorising the position of the clouds.

"Bitter weather, Johnny. Bitter weather."

Johnny deliberately turned his back on him. Contempt and fear mingling like bile in his throat as he strove to maintain the silence in his head. The silence so essential to him before a fight. He closed his eyes fleetingly. Taking a couple of deep breaths and ignoring the creaking protest of his rib-cage as the oxygen began to sharpen his senses and still his mind. Slowly, inevitably, he began to assume the old mantle of Johnny Madrid. Slipping into the familiar skin like a well-worn shirt as all his instincts kicked into gear taking a tight grip on him.

It was as though the past three years had never existed. As though Johnny Madrid had never been replaced by Johnny Lancer. He felt cold. Suddenly more afraid then he'd ever been before - suddenly, he was afraid for his very soul.

He opened his eyes and began to walk purposefully. Not too slow. Too slow meant reluctance and fear. But not too quickly either.
Too fast meant nerves and agitation - lack of concentration. Either could give your opponent the edge.

When he was twenty paces from Weir, he turned back to face him and tried to adopt his usual slouch. But his body felt lop-sided and out of synchronisation. The broken arm and busted ribs interfering with his preferred normal stance. Live with it. Or die with it, he thought laconically. He was only grateful his gun-arm had been spared.

He let his right arm fall down loosely by his side and regarded Weir impassively. "You ready?"

Weir waved blithely back at him. "Take your time, Johnny. Take your time."

You had to hand it to him, thought Johnny reluctantly, the man was cool. He watched as Weir squared-up to face him. The big cheesy smile still plastered all over his mouth. Left hand hooked casually into his waistcoat, right hand hanging loose like his own. Left hand hooked into his waistcoat . . .

Johnny shook his head slowly, a tug of remembrance spreading across his own face. A southpaw. Weir was a southpaw and he pulled his gun out across his body. Weir's smile grew even wider.

"Well-done, boy. I was wondering if you'd remember. Could have given me a slight advantage if you’d forgotten and shot me in the arm instead of the chest."

Johnny raised an eyebrow. "You need an advantage, Weir?"

"Maybe. A man always needs an advantage, Johnny. But maybe not today. Maybe I already have one today. How's that head of yours by the way?"

His smile faded suddenly, eyebrows drawing together in a line across his forehead. The only look on his face now was malice.

"Hope you remembered to say your prayers, Johnny Madrid."

At last, at long, long last, Johnny allowed himself a tiny smile as he stared directly into Weir's eyes. "Worried about my soul?"

Never once did he allow his own eyes to drift down to Weir's hand. Never once did he make the classic rookie mistake of watching the hand instead of the eyes. It was the eyes that told the story. The eyes that called the draw. A lesson Johnny had learnt the hard way many years ago, never to forget it again as it saved his life, time after bitter time.

Weir's eyes held fast onto his own. Cavernous, unflinching. But Johnny never wavered. Sensing the tiny flicker as much as seeing it, his hand reaching for his gun as the sun burst forth from the clouds in all its dazzling splendour. Pulling the trigger and feeling the colt kick back against his palm, the blossoming of agony as something exploded in his head and his balance swept from under him . . .

Firing again. The report from his first shot beating Weir's by a millionth of a second as he was totally blinded by the dying sun and Weir's bullet took him in the shoulder, knocking him back on the ground. He hardly even noticed through the dark pain in his head.

Silence seemed to swallow and engulf him as he lay there dazedly in the dust, still clutching the colt like a lifeline as he waited for Weir to come again. The crimson sun was deep and dark as blood, blazing into ascendance overhead as it forced the uncanny clouds aside. The whole world hazy and bathed in mute suspension as he realised with dismay he couldn’t move. And then he heard the running footsteps echoing in the earth beneath his head.

His head . . . Gritting his teeth and fighting the betrayal of his own body, he prayed harder than he'd ever done before in his life as he struggled to get up. His head pounded even harder. The sky retracting before his eyes into a veil of nightmare as he fell back limply to the ground and lay there motionless and broken.
 

* * * * * * * *

PART TEN.

Jelly and Teresa topped the ridge just as the clouds began to clear and the wind died down. The ranch house stood below them in the valley, it's outline squat and brooding against the sky. Teresa searched desperately for Johnny, her eyes finding him with an overwhelming rush of relief. But then she saw the black crow-like figure of Absalom Weir and her heart gave a sudden stab of terror. She glanced across at Jelly, her intentions plain as day. Just about to push the pinto down the hill, when he caught hold of her arm abruptly.

“Wait on!”

“Why?” Her voice was laced with confusion. “We’re not too late, Jelly.”

“Yep - yep, we are,” said Jelly urgently. “They’re facin’ off. We go down there an’ distract him, it could cost him his life.” He stared at her with firm compassion and shook his head. “We have ter stay here. Keep quiet . . . still.”

For a second she was tense as a wild-thing, and he thought maybe she’d risk it anyway as he saw the patent struggle going on inside her. The light of desperate denial in her eyes.

“ Teresa . . .”

She pulled away, her shoulders hunching miserably. “ It’s alright. I heard you.”

“He’ll be okay,” muttered Jelly reasoningly. Saying it out-loud for his own benefit as much as hers. “He’s the fastest thing I ever did see.”

“You said that once about Weir,” she said quietly.

“Weir was shootin’ at plates then.”

“He’s shooting at Johnny now.”

His mouth opened and closed, but there was no response to that, as he watched the drama playing out below them. In truth, he was far less confident then he seemed. The combination of fear and foreboding Weir always managed to generate was strong inside him. He hoped with all his might, Johnny would be all right.

He reached across to take hold of Teresa’s hand. Both of them clinging on tightly, grateful for the warmth and comfort of another's touch. Although he’d rather die than admit it, Jelly was uncommon fond of the younger Lancer son, and a small cowardly part of his soul wished he were a thousand miles away from here right now. He didn’t want to watch him if he fell.

He wondered if Johnny remembered the man was a southpaw. A sinister. Well that figured, trust Weir to be left of centre. Trust Weir to be left of anything. Jelly sighed again - knowing Johnny, he probably had. He might not say much sometimes, but Jelly knew hardly anything escaped those sharp blue-eyes. He stifled a sudden yelp as the pain in his hand increased. Teresa squeezed it so hard that the tendons in her own small fingers were white and taut with stress.

She sat motionless on the pinto. As still and unstirring as the men she watched so intently below them. Jelly didn’t have the heart to protest. He bore it in silence, a slight grimace of discomfort on his weather-beaten old face. Glad in a perverse way to be of service to her; however small a service it might be.

And then it happened. So fast, had he blinked, he would have missed it. Both men reaching for their guns in a blur of astonishing speed as the sun came bursting through a gap in the clouds like a big crimson ball of fire.

Three shots.

But he couldn’t tell who’d fired what. Conscious of Teresa flinging his hand aside and urging the pinto down the ridge like a mad thing, the dust kicking up round its hooves. Aware in horror-stricken amazement, of a quick sharp pang as he watched Johnny fly backwards into the dust!

“Oh dear Lord . . .”

He was only a second behind her. Fear and denial fighting every instinct he possessed as he cocked the carbine and looked across at Absalom Weir. More than ready to blast the devil to perdition despite all his superstitious terrors and beliefs. He could hardly get his head around what he’d just seen. This devil, this . . . this creature had killed his friend!

“Oh Lord,” he murmured again. “Johnny.”

Weir had doubled over, his left arm hanging uselessly at his side. Galloping down in Teresa’s wake, Jelly saw him clutch convulsively at the wooden railing next to the porch for support, as his abandoned cane toppled to the ground with a clatter. Jelly slid down off his horse in a single surprisingly nimble movement for a man of his age. He covered Weir with the carbine and walked cautiously across towards him.

“Drop the gun, Mister.”

He couldn’t bring himself to call the man by his name. His resolve implacable as his finger hovered on the trigger and he watched Weir closely for any hint of trickery. But there was none. Weir chuckled moistly, the pearl-handled colt sliding out of his grasp as it fell in the dust at his feet.

Teresa was off the Pinto and flying across the ground towards Johnny. Her body moving of its own volition - mind a swirling blank of shock and dread, fright, and a terrible sense of panic which threatened to steal her self-control. He lay flat on his back, gun still in his out-flung hand. The white blur of the sling he wore, stained and flowered with crimson blood. As red as the glow of the dying sun.

Then miraculously, just as she reached him, he moved and began to struggle upright. Anxiety and urgency clear in his eyes as he pressed a hand to his temples with a soft groan of pain.

“Teresa, be careful . . . Weir.”

She was on her knees in the dust beside him. Understanding his primary need immediately as she took his head against her shoulder, tears of relief springing down her cheeks.

“Jelly has that covered.”

“ Help me . . . ” He fought to pull himself up. The reeling dizziness in his head and brand new agony in his left shoulder threatening oblivion, swathes of darkness swinging crazily across his vision for a second or two, as he fell back against her.

“You’re shot Johnny. Just lie still.” She closed her eyes and prayed. “Cipriano will be here with the buckboard in a minute.”

“ No.” He grit his teeth and struggled forwards. “Weir, I have to see.”

He made it to his knees this time. Clutching onto her as he swayed and tried to control his breathing. Nausea clenching and unclenching in his gut as the world rolled around him, his head banged and thumped.

She bit her lip and held onto him tightly. Knowing him too well by now to try and stop him. The wet stickiness of his blood was all over her hands as his body shuddered, gasping and fighting for air.

“Take the gun . . .”

Each word was a choking effort as the red tide ebbed and flowed inside his head, threatening to drown him. She took it from him with loathing and stuck it into her belt. His now free hand gripping hold of hers for leverage as he made it to his feet and steadied himself. She slipped her shoulder under his, wrapping her arm round his waist as she helped him limp slowly and tortuously across to where Jelly held the carbine on Weir.

“Cain’t tell you how glad I am ter see you.” Jelly’s words were gruff and heart-felt, but he never took his eyes off his stooping captive. “Danged fool though y’are!”

“ Weir?”

Johnny’s voice was cracked and more than a little husky as he confronted his enemy, the sick taste of apprehension dry as ashes on his tongue. After what seemed an eternity, Weir straightened-up slowly and regarded him with a ghastly grin. Johnny could finally see for himself that both his bullets had found a home. One deflecting through the man’s left collarbone; the second truer and more deadly in it’s aim, plumb in the centre of his chest. And in-spite of all Jelly’s dire predictions to the contrary, Johnny saw for a
fact that the Devil could bleed. His blood as red and mortal as any man’s.

“I see the ten years worked in your favour, Johnny Madrid.” Weir’s eyes burned like two black coals as he gripped the porch-post and coughed. A fountain of bright scarlet spluttering up over his chin.

“Is it worth the knowing?” asked Johnny softly, bitterly.

Weir laughed eerily. “It’s always worth the knowing, Johnny-boy. Admit it, you were curious too. Which of us was faster, who had the truer aim. It bothered you.”

“No.” Johnny shook his head and the sky spun in cartwheels of sunset. “What bothers me is you had to ask the question. That it don’t seem to want to let me be.”

Absalom Weir smiled into his eyes and the world crashed and tipped around him. The two of them held suspended in time. Johnny’s past was like an open sore; raw and weeping in its pain and struggle. It’s savage darkness. Tormented by the faces of dead men; the clamouring ghouls of his previous life. He began to shiver uncontrollably. Mesmerised and captivated by Weir’s black eyes, by all of his treacherous memories as they came right back to haunt him.

His mother’s screams of fear and agony. The filthy hands on his own smooth skin. The thrill of power deep down in his soul as he pulled the trigger for the very first time . . . And pulled it again . . . And again, and again . .

Every time a revenge for the misery in his life; for the tragedy that was Johnny Madrid. A petty assuagement for abandonment and misfortune as he made them pay and pay and pay. Gaining strength and respect at the price of his own, losing his soul with each life he took. With every damn fool he consigned to the grave.

He blinked, and fought to tear his eyes from Weir’s. Vaguely remembering Murdoch’s discovery that one of the man’s many previous incarnations had been as a hypnotist in a travelling show. He took a deep breath, clenching his teeth against the pain as he willed it to leave him. It was both physical and in his heart; burning, pressing down on him.

Weir chuckled again. “Ah those memories . . . ” he coughed up more blood. The red a stark and obscene contrast to the pallid white of his skin. “I told you once, every man has his dark side. Never be ashamed of your past, Johnny Madrid. It’s what made you who you are today.”

A rumble of wooden wheels, and Johnny turned his head painfully for a second to see Cipriano driving the wagon down the hillside. The sight blurred suddenly before him.

“Johnny?”

It was Teresa’s voice. Soft and questioning as she sensed him getting weaker, and overhead, the sky began to shift and lurch around him. He focused on Weir. Watching as the man sank down on one knee and clutched at his midriff. Head bowed forwards as his shoulders heaved for air.

Jelly relaxed slightly as he turned to look for Cipriano. Johnny frowned, desperately trying to focus and aware that something seemed wrong. Things were out of synchronisation. Everything hanging in deadly slow motion, as he saw Weir’s hand reach beneath his coat, the red sun a dull gleam on the derringer’s barrel. Weir’s voice gleeful and gloating in his head.

“Did you really think you could cheat the devil, Johnny Madrid?”

“No!”

Before he could even think of moving, Teresa span and sent him sprawling into the dust. Reaching desperately for the colt at her belt, she swung it round and pointed it at Weir. Her finger tightened on the trigger four times, each explosion like a death knell in her head. Continuing to fire even when the chamber was empty, hand shaking, face white and set. She finally realised she was clicking on air, lowering the Colt and sinking to her knees in horror.

The silence seemed to stretch on forever. The stench of cordite hung around them like a pall. Jelly was the first to react, walking shakily over to where Weir lay hunched on the ground and feeling for a pulse.

“Is he dead?” she asked urgently, body taut with anxiety and dread.

“Yep,” said Jelly slowly, as he lowered the carbine, his voice thick with guilt. “He’s deader then dead.”

She nodded a couple of times, took a deep breath, and then thrust Johnny’s gun towards him with revulsion. “Here. Take it Jelly.”

Swallowing hard, he stuffed it into his waistcoat. Watching as she knelt down besides Johnny who had raised himself up on his good arm, face strained tight with pain and worry.

“Teresa . . .” Johnny’s voice was one huge question as he looked into her eyes at the agony there. ”Lo siento - I’m sorry . . .”

She hesitated for a second, taking his head onto her lap as his vision blurred alarmingly again, the throbbing in his skull louder and more persistent.

“It’s alright, Johnny. Everything’s going to be alright now.”

More horses hooves. A sudden, fierce joy blossomed inside her as she looked up to see Murdoch, Scott and Sam Jenkins cantering down the hillside and leading Barranca with them. She turned to him again.

“It’s Murdoch, Johnny. Murdoch and Scott!”

But he was beyond hearing anything now. The darkness that had sought him for hours finally claimed him and fell like a final curtain. His eyelids sank and fluttered closed.

“Teresa?” There was a world of pain in Murdoch’s voice, as hand on her shoulder, he crouched alongside his younger son and sought her reassurance.

She nodded tiredly. “He’s alive.”

“Weir’s dead, though.” Scott’s voice was tight and clipped. The way it always was in times of stress.

“I killed him.” Teresa had a sudden hysterical urge to laugh. “You see, he was going to kill Johnny, so I had no choice. I killed him.”

“Teresa, honey . . .”

Murdoch dragged his eyes from Johnny’s motionless face. Looking up at her with concern, as Scott used the opportunity to lower his brother gently out of her arms so Sam Jenkins could examine him. She got stiffly to her feet and passed a shaky hand across her eyes.

“I’m okay.”

“No,” said Murdoch, as he stood up beside her, enveloping her in a firm hug. “No, you’re not. We need to get you home. You need some rest, we’ll have Sam take a look at you. You need . . ”

She pulled back a little. Looking past his shoulder to where Johnny lay on the ground, her face intense and still. “I need to know he’ll be safe.”

Murdoch swallowed hard and prayed it would be so, as he met Sam Jenkins’s grave expression. “We have to get him back to Lancer now, Murdoch. There’s no time to waste.”

“Scott . . .” Murdoch hated having to ask him. “Would you and Cipriano wait here with this . . .” He glanced in disgust at Weir’s corpse. His eyes lighting on the ubiquitous cane lying discarded in the dust beside him as he found he was barely able to say the man’s name. “With the body. I’ll send Ruis back with another buckboard the minute we get home.”

Scott nodded. He’d already anticipated the question. Looking down at Johnny, his lips tightened. “Take good care of him for me, won’t you?”

Murdoch clasped his shoulder in mute understanding. He stooped to lift Johnny, dismayed at how much weight he’d lost, but almost buckling beneath the heaviness of the pain inside his heart. He held him briefly against his massive chest and closed his eyes. His son. His precious, younger son. Determined this was one soul the Devil would not reap.
 

* * * * * * * *

PART ELEVEN.

Johnny tossed in and out of consciousness for the next week without respite. Raging as he muttered and burned with fever, but not sinking back into the motionless coma that had so terrified Teresa the first time he’d been injured.

The shoulder wound was deep. Weir's bullet had torn its way down through layers of muscle causing blood loss and infection, but thankfully not affecting any major organs or blood vessels as it lodged beneath the scapula. Sam Jenkins had removed it immediately on their return to Lancer, using the kitchen table as an operating base. It was not the first time the big piece of oak furniture had been used for this purpose. Murdoch hoped with all his heart, it would be the last.

It had been difficult to persuade Teresa she needed to get some rest herself. Eventually, Scott had forced her to go to bed, promising on his word of honour he would call her once they had some news. She’d been like a zombie on the journey back to the Estancia. Sat in the back of the buckboard with Johnny’s head in her lap as Sam Jenkins placed a makeshift dressing on his wound to stop the bleeding. It was a nasty wound but not life-threatening, and Jenkins was still more concerned about Johnny’s head. Staying at Lancer for three nights as he monitored his patient between a couple of minor call-outs and the birth of a baby in Morro Coyo.

As far as he was concerned, the sooner the younger Lancer regained consciousness again, the better. There was a man he knew. A friend of his in St. Louis who had specialised in treating serious head injuries during the war. He was prepared to give it another week before he wired him. If Johnny hadn’t woken-up by then, he had a gut feeling things would be very bleak indeed.

Jelly filled Murdoch and Scott in on the chain of events since Absalom Weir’s return to Morro Coyo. He left out a point or two where he thought it judicious, especially the parts that might have got either Johnny or Teresa into trouble. Telling Murdoch miserably, it was his fault Teresa had been forced to shoot Weir. He’d lost concentration for one fatal moment, and despite all of his own dire warnings and predictions about Weir, he’d underestimated the man with tragic results.

Murdoch had regarded him grimly for a second or two, truly more worried about Teresa then he had been at any time since Paul O’Brien’s death. But he was a fair man, and in his heart of hearts, he knew it was impossible to blame Jelly for any of this mess. He’d seen the results of Teresa’s shooting for himself. Two of her bullets had missed altogether; the other two had hit Weir almost
plumb in the centre of his belly. No. It had been Johnny’s bullet in the chest that should have killed Weir. It was amazing he hadn’t died immediately from a wound that would have finished most men instantaneously.

Johnny. Murdoch alternated between thanking God and raging at him for dealing his son yet another poor hand. Switching between fury for Johnny’s bull-headedness and the deepest of sorrow for his pain. Murdoch wondered at his son’s bravery and cursed his stubbornness. Just when things had been going so well. Just when Johnny had at last, been arriving at some sort of reconciliation with his past and over-coming the ingrained sense of worthlessness so deep in his soul.

Weir had come looking for Johnny - had come looking for what, answers to questions? Vanity, revenge . . . Probably a combination of all three. Whenever Murdoch thought about him, hatred threatened to overcome him in a thick black cloud. So what if he wasn’t the Devil, there was no doubt in Murdoch’s mind that Weir was evil incarnate. The thought he’d come so close to depriving him of his youngest son ate away at his bones like a cancer.

It was Monday evening now. Six days since they’d brought Johnny home from the Hackett’s. He was still desperately ill and fighting for his life. Still waging a critical battle against the consequences of Weir’s vindictiveness, and Murdoch suspected he wasn’t the only one.

Although he was worried beyond belief about Johnny, he was also very concerned about Teresa. A concern it was clear Scott, Sam and Jelly shared as well. To all intents and purposes, she was her usual practical self. Nursing Johnny with quiet efficiency and even helping Jelly rear the leggy palomino foal when she had an infrequent spare moment. But the light had died in her eye, and she spent hours either alone in her pantry, or out in the garden among her precious herb and flower-beds. Silent and pre-occupied with her thoughts. Leaving all the cooking to Maria or Juanita as she passed through the hacienda like a ghost of her former self.

Murdoch sighed with anxiety, looking up with a slight start as the front door opened and Scott’s quick footsteps echoed on the flagstones in the hallway. The minute he saw the strange look on his eldest son’s pale face, Murdoch knew something was wrong.

“What is it, what’s happened?”

Scott took off his hat and shook his head, quite unsure how to broach his news. He’d ridden into Morro Coyo to sign the release forms for Weir’s body, to watch as the man was buried in the little graveyard behind the Mission. Partly out of duty, but mainly because he wanted to see for himself as the final conclusion to this whole ghastly nightmare was put to rest. He took a deep breath.

“It’s Weir.”

“What about him. Did someone claim the body?”

“No . . .” Scott paused and poured himself a large whisky. “You’re not going to believe this, Murdoch . . .”

“Tell me!” Grated Murdoch impatiently, irritated and apprehensive all at once as Scott took a huge swallow of his drink and put the glass down slowly.

“Weir’s body. It’s gone.”

“What do you mean, it’s gone?”

“Just as I say. Jim Hoffman was ready to nail down the lid but the body’s gone. There’s no sign of it - as though it’s vanished into thin air.”

“Thet . . . thet cain’t be!”

It was Jelly’s voice behind them. Hesitant and quavery as the old man caught hold of the back of an armchair, his face so white, Scott was afraid he might faint.

Murdoch snorted out loud. “Why, there must be a mistake. Perhaps Hoffman buried the wrong body, made some kind of mix-up . . .”

“No.” Scott shook his head decisively. “There’s only been one other death since Tuesday. A Senora Morales. Eighty-five, four foot ten, and weighing-in at over two hundred pounds. No chance of a mix-up I’m afraid.”

“So where’s the body?”

“Nowhere’s anyone’ll ever find it, thets fer sure!” Jelly muttered darkly.

“Now, Jelly . . . ” frowned Murdoch, even though the hairs on the back of his own neck were standing up on end.

“Well, where is he then?” Demanded Jelly truculently. “I musta checked his pulse a dozen times ter make sure the bastard was dead.“

“Oh, he was dead alright,” agreed Scott. “By the time Cip and I got him into Morro Coyo that night, he was cold and stiff as a board.”

“Are you quite sure no one claimed him?” Murdoch asked.

“You cain’t claim the Devil.” Jelly mumbled under his breath. “He claims you.”

“Well he’s not claiming Johnny,” said Teresa from the archway behind them and they turned to see her pale face listening intently. “His fever’s broken. Sam says . . . Sam says . . .” Her voice wavered perilously as her hands flew up to her face. “I’m sorry. So sorry . . . It’s just that I’ve been so afraid, so scared.”

Murdoch was across the room at her side in a second, as Scott ran out through the archway and pounded up the stairs to his brother’s room. He met Sam Jenkins on the landing, wiping his hands on a towel. The doctor smiled wearily at him and gave a small nod.

“Teresa tell you?”

“She said his fever broke?”

“About three hours ago. Temperature’s going down, and he seems to be resting naturally for the first time in days. He’s not out of the woods yet, Scott, but things are definitely looking a bit more optimistic then they were.”

“Can I go in?”

“Of course you can. Just don’t try to wake him. I want him to come round when he’s ready, and perverse as it sounds, his body needs all the rest it can get. Maria’s sitting with him now.”

“Thanks, Sam. “

Scott pushed the door open quietly and nodded to Maria who sat in the armchair sewing, one eye on her beloved patient. As he crept in to stand at Johnny’s bedside, she placed a finger over her lips and he saw that she’d been crying too. Sighing slightly, he looked down at his brother’s face, pale and still against the pillow. There was a flush of sweat across his forehead as at long last, his body dealt efficiently with the fever that had racked it for nearly a week. Scott hoped this was truly the turning point they’d all been praying for.

How he wished he’d been here for Johnny. Wished he’d known what was happening, been able to help . . . All the time he’d been enjoying himself in Denver; flirting with the merry widow. It seemed so empty and shallow now. He was being irrational and he knew it. Johnny would be the first one to say it, too. But like Murdoch, he couldn’t help the feelings of guilt from eating away at him as he considered the ordeal Johnny, Jelly and Teresa had undergone. Maria too, he realised, looking up and smiling at her. For he knew just how fond she was of Johnny.

“You never do things the easy way, do you boy?”

His voice was soft as he put a gentle hand on Johnny’s brow and pushed aside the unruly fringe of black hair. What a strange mixture of codes and honours swirled inside this man who was his brother. He remembered with a sense of shame, his own initial reaction to the scruffy gunfighter who had climbed aboard the Stage on that first, fateful day when he’d arrived here at Lancer. No, that impression had not been favourable, but he recalled noticing even then, the man’s eyes were the most vivid shade of blue he’d ever seen. Sparkling with intelligence and gentle humour as the stranger had surveyed their fellow passengers without missing a single, solitary thing.

It hadn’t taken him long to realise it was how Johnny stayed alive. His observational skills were so finely honed, he could recall details almost exactly. How many men were stood at the bar; where the exits were in a room; what colour dress Teresa had worn . . .

It was a gift which had won over many a lady and it made him a devil to play poker with, but it had also saved his life on so many occasions, Scott was profoundly grateful he possessed it. By now he was used to the cursory and apparently casual glance Johnny swept round every room he entered. His eyes alert for ambush, his senses tuned to escape. Scott hadn’t known it that day on the Stage. He’d just been irritated by the humorous twinkle, annoyed by the impertinent stare. And as he watched him sleeping now, Scott knew exactly why Johnny had decided to go out after Weir. The man had threatened Teresa and Jelly. His home. Everything he held dear. Knowing that he and Murdoch were due home imminently would have made him feel cornered and at bay. Weir wanted Johnny Madrid and he was prepared to do anything to get him. Scott knew above all else, Johnny would have been unable to stomach that. To cope with the guilt of his past being used to hurt the people he loved in his present.

His reputation as a legend, his actions as Johnny Madrid. They had all been the source of this latest bout of trouble, and he would have felt honour-bound to deal with it alone. To deal with Absalom Weir.

Scott shivered slightly. Logic told him firmly the man was exactly that. Just a man. A con-man. A killer. A clever charlatan who used cunning and guile to frighten and blackmail and wheeler-deal; a snake-oil salesman with a twisted intellect and a sadistic gift for using people’s weaknesses against them. Imagination argued that there was perhaps, something very uncanny about Weir. His prowess as a hypnotist, his unerring ability for seizing upon the very thing that defined a person and using it for his own ends.

And now this business with his body. If Johnny survived, Scott didn’t know how he was going to tell him about that . . . He pulled himself up with a jerk. Not if. There was no if about it. Johnny was going to make it. He was going to be just fine, and everything would get back to normal around here soon. Murdoch could stop torturing himself with guilt and regret. Jelly would stop muttering under his breath and jumping out of his skin at every shadow. And Teresa . . . Scott was at a loss to know what was hurting Teresa so badly. Even during some of the dark times they’d had over the past three years, he’d never seen her act like this before. She was pale and quiet as a ghost. Shutting herself away from them when she wasn’t here with Johnny, or wandering amongst the flowers in her garden. He sighed and swallowed back the aching constriction in his throat. The hand that still lingered against Johnny’s skin stroking his forehead with wistful tenderness.

“Come on, little brother. Time to open up those baby-blues. We kinda need you round the old place again.”

But there was no movement from the man in the bed, and certainly no reply.
 

* * * * * * * *
 

Forty-eight hours later, Teresa stood motionless in the bedroom window and watched the sun beginning to set below the mountains. The splendid streaks of gold and blush-rose painting the sky usually made her heartbeat quicken with their beauty. But this evening they left her unmoved and cold. Cold as the ice in her soul.

The early flush of optimism they’d all felt two days ago when Johnny’s fever had broken, was fading now as he failed to regain consciousness. For the first time since she’d watched the ladder fall, Teresa was beginning to lose all hope. Johnny was going to die.

Was this what it felt like then, to lose the one you loved? This feeling of cold emptiness, of being hollow like there was nothing left inside you anymore? She’d known grief when her Daddy died. Furious, gut-wrenching grief as she’d cried and sobbed over his body. Unable even, to turn to Murdoch for comfort, because there was a chance she might lose him too. And maybe that had helped her in a perverse kind of way. The indulgence of wallowing in her own sorrow had been denied her as she’d fought so hard to save Murdoch’s life. Nursing him. Sitting with him as he’d raved with fever and cried out for Maria, a hard knot of determination growing inside her all the while as she vowed she wouldn’t lose him too.

And she hadn’t. He’d survived and convalesced. A cantankerous and frustrated patient, plotting and planning whilst she’d gotten on with running the Estancia. Pulling the threads of her tattered life back round her as she’d tried to persuade him to bring home both his sons.

But this, this was different. There was no anger, no fury, no raging. Just emptiness. An aching emptiness that made her wonder with macabre humour, if perhaps she’d died as well. Sometimes when she looked at herself in the mirror, she struggled to see her reflection anymore. A ghost girl that nobody saw.

A pair of swallows swooped and chased each other across the courtyard, diving under the eaves of the hacienda and winging out again. They came so close to the open window, she could see the little red caps on their heads. Scott’s horse Charlie snickered softly in the corral, and over in the vast green approach lawns, she could see the tall branches of the silver oaks
silhouetted against the stunning backdrop of sky.

This was her home. The only home she had ever known. It was beautiful, magnificent, and until the last couple of weeks, the safe haven she’d always believed it to be. Inviolate; even when it had been under attack by men like Day Pardee. But now, she only wanted to get away. She needed to get away. A slight moan, and she froze suddenly, her breath turning to frost in her throat. She turned slowly. Hardly daring to hope, as her heart stood still and he opened his eyes.

There was no pain yet, no discomfort. Just a kind of heavy haziness as though he was very drunk, or in that curious twilight state between waking and sleeping. Consciousness and dreams. Limbs like logs, mind slowly drifting. All sensations dulled and somnolent as he tried to piece things back together in his mind. To remember who he was, where he was; what had happened to him.

Then she was there above him. The warm fragrance of rosewater, rich, dark sweep of her hair. Pansy eyes swimming in tears as she bent down slowly, mouth warm and soft against his eyelids, his lips . . . As she kissed him, he could taste her tears. The liquid drip of them salty on his parched tongue, the feel of her skin smooth as velvet on his cheek.

Teresa.

Relief stole through him, cancelling out the burgeoning of pain as he realised he was home at Lancer. He was home, and she was safe. He was alive.

Teresa.

He couldn’t trust his voice to speak just yet, so he raised a shaky hand to her face and cupped her jaw instead. Drinking her in, love and regret mingled in his eyes as they begged for her forgiveness. Her eyelashes fluttered against his fingers as she turned her face into his caress. Words unnecessary between them now, as the moment stretched on and his mind began to clear.

The scarecrow’s mocking smile . . . Weir. Or was it Weir’s mocking smile? The bullet in his shoulder as it barrelled him backwards into the dust, and Teresa . . .Teresa, the .45 in her hand as the trigger kept clicking on the empty chamber.

“Oh Dios, lo siento . . .”

She shook her head softly at him. “It’s not your fault. He would have killed you.”

“But . . .”

“Hush. Don’t talk about it. It’s over.”

He sighed heavily, then wished he hadn’t, his body screaming in agony. “Murdoch?”

“He’s downstairs with Scott. They’ve both been worried out of their minds. We all have.“

He closed his eyes exhaustedly. “You understand why I had to go, querida?”

“Oh Johnny.” The breath caught raggedly in her throat, and he opened his eyes again as the tears ran down her face.

“Don’t cry, please don’t cry . . .”

“It scares me, Johnny. “

“What scares you?”

“This, all this. Not just Weir, but all the other men who’ve come looking for you. All those who might still come.“

Her voice faltered and she looked tiredly away. He began to feel afraid. More afraid then when he’d finally faced Weir.

“I don’t want it, Teresa.”

“I know, but they still come. Still come looking for Johnny Madrid.”

“But I’m not him anymore. I’m Johnny Lancer now. I’m not Madrid, I’m not Madrid . . .” He struggled up in distress. Flinching in agony as his shoulder burned and his ribcage grated. The room spinning wildly on its axis as he reached out to her in vain. “Teresa!”

She backed away from him and hovered by the door. “This isn’t the time to discuss it Johnny. I . . .I’ll go get Murdoch and Scott. You just lie back down and rest.”

“Teresa, please . . .”

She shook her head. Reminding him of a trapped animal, brown eyes huge and somehow blank, as she sought to escape his room.

“I’ll get Murdoch.“

“No, wait. Habla me - listen!“

But she had already gone, and he fell back limply onto the bed. The pain in his body was nothing in comparison to the pain within his heart. She’d gone, and he had the absurd feeling it was forever. A vague scent of roses left haunting the air.
 

* * * * * * * *
 

PART TWELVE.

On the fifth day after Johnny regained consciousness a second time, and once she knew for sure he would eventually recover from his injuries, Teresa made up her mind and went to see Murdoch.

She timed it carefully. Bearding him in the library after lunch when Scott and Jelly were out on the Estancia somewhere, and the rest of the hacienda slumbered in afternoon siesta. Old Maria asleep in her armchair next to the kitchen range, Johnny still on strict bed-rest till Sam Jenkins deemed it otherwise.

She stood in the doorway and watched him for a moment pouring over the huge accounting ledgers. It was a job she often helped him with because she knew he hated it. The two of them had spent many an hour wrestling with the figures and finances whilst she filled in the columns in her small, neat hand-writing.

Her heart contracted with love for him. She owed this man so much. Oh, she knew he could be difficult to live with sometimes. Short-tempered, bull-headed, cantankerous . . .

But he was also decent and honest. Kind-hearted beneath the gruff façade. A man she trusted with anything. With almost everything.

He looked up suddenly; seeing her standing there as a huge smile of welcome spread across his face. “You’re just in-time to save me from the dreaded ledgers, darling. Come on in. I was about to sneak out to the kitchen and see if there was any lemonade to take into the garden.”

She smiled back at him, but he saw the tears rush into her eyes and got up from the desk in concern. “Teresa?”

“I’m sorry, “ she scrubbed them ruefully away. “I wasn’t going to do this. “

He put a fatherly arm around her shoulders and led her across to the sofa. “What’s wrong? I wish you’d tell me.”

She sighed as she leant back against him. Trying to find the right words to ask for what she wanted, and all the time knowing there were none.

“A while ago, you offered me the chance to go to Boston for a year if I wanted to, and I said no.” She paused, taking a handkerchief from her pocket and blowing her nose determinedly. “The . . . the time wasn’t right then, but things are different now. You, Scott and Johnny are all getting along, you have Jelly to help Maria around the house and garden . . .”

“Are you saying you’ve changed your mind?”

She nodded emotionally. “Yes. If you’re still prepared to let me.”

He frowned and pulled her closer. “Of course I am. But tell me, has this got anything to do with Weir, with everything that’s happened?”

She was quiet for a moment. “Yes and no. It’s been hard, but there’s more to it then that. It’s me. Everything I am is defined by my life here at Lancer.“ She turned quickly in his arms, eyes pleading for understanding as they searched his face. “Please don’t misunderstand me, Murdoch, I love it here so much. Lancer means everything to me. You, Scott and . . .and Johnny . . . Jelly and Maria, everything. And that’s just it! I’ve never known anything else, gone anywhere else, or even barely seen anywhere else. You’ve been halfway across the world in a sailing ship. Scott too, and he fought his way through a war as well. Johnny’s had another life. He’s been another person, fought in a revolution. You’ve all done things and been places where you only had yourselves to rely on. I’ve been so sheltered here. “

“It’s not exactly the same thing,” said Murdoch slowly. “And the things Scott and Johnny have seen and done, well I wouldn’t ever
want to think of you in any kind of situation like that. It’s been more than tough enough for you here.” He shook his head.

“You’ve already seen and done far more than any young woman should ever have to. Put up with range wars, dug bullets out of men’s bodies, delivered babies, been threatened with guns . . .” He swallowed hard. “ Even buried your own daddy. Some people might say that was more than enough.”

“I’ve never minded any of it, “ she said softly, “except for losing my daddy. But I guess not many girls can say they’ve been lucky enough to be blessed with two wonderful fathers in one lifetime.“

Pulling her close, he kissed the top of her head. His emotions threatening to overcome him as the room blurred perilously before his eyes.

“And other than your daddy, no man ever loved a daughter more than I love you. You know that don’t you, Teresa?”

“Yes,“ she answered simply. “I know that.“

They sat side by side in warm silence for a minute or two, and then Murdoch sighed. “And that, I suppose, is why I have to let you go. You deserve the chance to see some of the world, to wear pretty dresses that cost more than the price of a good stallion; to hear the Opera, take carriage rides in parks, to be sent love letters from smitten beaux . . .”

She giggled at the mock indignation in his tone and the sound of her laughter did his heart good. It had been all too rare these last few weeks.

“A country hick like me, I don’t think so!”

He shook his head at her and smiled. “Take it from me, darling. They’ll be beating a pathway to your door. Of that I have no doubt.“ He was quiet for a moment then, desolation surging over him. “I’m going to miss you. We all are.“

“I’ll miss you all too . . .” Her voice wobbled. Suddenly, she thought of him. The blue of his eyes, his raven black hair. The rare gift of his laughter. She closed her eyes briefly, but the images refused to go away. His strength, also his gentleness. The look of vulnerability in his soul. His hands, oh God, his hands . . .

She bent her head in a vain attempt to hide the tears trembling on the tips of her eyelashes. Swallowing back her grief. “Thank you Murdoch.“
 

* * * * * * * *

Johnny looked wryly at Barranca as he looped his reins around the old corral fence. If he didn’t know any better, he could have sworn the palomino was laughing at his folly, and who was to say he was wrong.

“Bastante!”

He shook an admonitory finger and the pony puffed back at him scornfully, bending his head to crop dismissively at the grass. Johnny straightened up his shoulders and looked thoughtfully at the Hackett place. If anything, it was even more dilapidated and tumbledown than ever. A picture of woeful neglect. Forlorn and lonely. Empty and desolate. But somehow, it didn’t look evil anymore. Even Barranca was condescending enough to allow him to ride right up to the corral today. Seemingly unbothered by the place or his memories of it.

Johnny sighed, pulling the things he needed from his saddle-pack before turning to stride purposefully across to the dead cornfield. He stopped in front of the scarecrow and looked at it long and hard. A small, mirthless smile curved his lips.

“Time for the reckoning, my friend.“

It didn’t answer of course. Staring balefully back at him almost as if it knew exactly what he was about to do. He rolled up his shirt sleeves and gripped the axe. Swinging it experimentally once or twice to check out his shoulder. Grimacing slightly as the wound pulled a little and his ribs ached. He guessed he would be sore later on tonight.

It was a small price to pay for exorcising this particular ghost, and one he would have paid twice over. Four swift chops and it was down. Splayed out in the withered corn. A grotesque parody of a corpse with out-stretched arms, its face still grinning up at him as though daring him to go even further. He turned away, unable to look at it as he piled up some of the dead corn-stalks around it like a funeral pyre. Dousing it with a small amount of tequila as he took a hefty swig from the bottle and struck a match on his
boot.

It only took the one, and the whole lot went up like a torch. Fire engulfing the scarecrow in seconds as it writhed and spat in the flames. Watching it was grimly satisfying, but only went a little way towards easing the pain in his heart. A pain that threatened to burst through and overwhelm him if he was prepared to let it in.

It was thirteen weeks since he’d been shot. The first two weeks were a ghostly blank, the one after that was hazy. But since then, he’d passed the grindingly slow days of his recuperation in a daze of heartache and bitter recrimination.

Teresa had embarked on her journey to Boston before he’d been well enough to leave his bed. He’d been so weak and dizzy every time he sat up, that Sam Jenkins had been uncompromisingly strict with him. Unprepared to take any chances or risk any setbacks this time around. He hadn’t even been able to see her off on the stagecoach for the first leg of the long trip back East.
Confined to his room and unable to leave it even if he’d really wanted too.

Scott had gone with her. Murdoch would not allow her to travel across the whole breadth of the Country alone, and much as Johnny missed him, it was a relief not to have to face his brother’s sharp eyes. Scott saw too much, noticed too much. Asked too many questions. Questions he was not yet ready to answer. He didn’t know if he ever would be.

His pain he blamed on his injuries. The depression he’d hidden behind Doc Jenkins insistence he rest as much as possible. At least he’d had a viable reason to spend time alone. An excuse to hide away in his room. He pretended he was tired, pretended he was sleeping. Using the frequent headaches that still plagued him as justification for his reticence and solitude. But even so, he knew that Scott and Murdoch were worried about him. A fact which merely added to his burdens.

After Teresa had fled his room that first muddled day he’d woken, he’d never seen her on her own again. Never had the chance to really talk to her about everything which had happened between them. However much he’d wanted to, however much he’d tried.

She carefully avoided him as he sank into despair. Cheerful and sparkly, to all intents and purposes her old self as she chattered brightly about her coming adventure and how much she was looking forward to it. She spent all her free time making preparations and quizzing Scott about Boston and New York. Packing trunks and sorting out her belongings as the days passed in a flurry of quick and remorseless activity.

She and Scott were to stay with Harlan Garrett, Scott’s maternal Grandfather until after Christmas, and then she would attend the select ladies seminary in the city recommended to Murdoch by an old friend of his. She would be gone for over a year. But Johnny couldn’t imagine her ever coming back again. She was so beautiful, so special. He knew she’d be courted and feted
by the men in Boston. Rich wealthy men, friends of Harlan Garrett. Men who were cultured and educated men like Scott. Who could give her the kind of life she really deserved, with theatres and grand houses, foreign travel and fine dresses. Things he could never provide.

And when all was said and done, what was he really? A half-breed Mex with a dirty past. He’d brought her bad luck and danger, heartache and fear. Forced her to kill a man with his own gun. Who the hell was he to deny her the chance of something better?

It just didn’t stop it hurting. It hurt so very much. In his darker hours, he sometimes wished Weir’s aim had been better. That he could have escaped into oblivion. But he knew he was being selfish. He had a father and a brother who loved and worried about him. A maiden-aunt in Jelly, who’d been driving him crazy. Tiptoeing around him and treating him with unusual kid gloves for the last few weeks instead of his normal gruff, bad-humour. Even old Maria, doing her utmost to coax his appetite back and spoiling him like her long-lost son.

No. He owed them all a debt he could never even begin to repay, not least for depriving them of Teresa. He closed his eyes as the familiar pain ran him through once more. Seeing her again as he had on the first morning he’d woken after his fall. Hair dishevelled round her naked shoulders, the white lace of her chemise. Dark eyes, bruised pink lips . . .

Dios - he had to pull himself together again. Get on with his life, concentrate on getting fit and regaining his strength. Returning to some sort of normality once more. He just hadn’t worked out how yet.

The flames were dying now. Flickering round the charred head of the scarecrow as he stirred the remains with the toe of his boot and the whole thing disintegrated in a cloud of smoke and ashes. The symbolism wasn’t lost on him. It was over, and almost, Weir had won.

The evening breeze whispered through the dead cornstalks, and if he was being truly fanciful, Johnny could swear he heard Weir’s dry chuckle.

“Did you really believe you could cheat the Devil, Johnny Madrid?”

A single tear tracked down his cheek and he turned to leave. The pain in his heart a stony bitter ache, as he walked slowly back to where Barranca waited for him. The palomino was uneasy now, his ears pricked and twitching fitfully as he pulled back on the reins. As Johnny passed the silent ranch house, something caught his eye. Something which had not been there before.

He stopped. His stomach contracting with sudden dread as he mounted the steps and reached for it slowly. His cold hand loath to even touch it, as his fingers brushed against the ebon wood. Weir’s cane of course. The Devil’s mark.

The loose shingle flapped against the roof of the ranch house as it always did, the dying sun sank in a ball of red across the distant mountaintops. The ghost of the scarecrow mocked at him from the withered cornfield. But he’d just burned it. Hadn’t he?
 

THE END.
 

EPILOGUE

When at last, the maid had finished unpacking all her clothes, Teresa was left alone in the sumptuous suite of rooms. A bedroom, a dressing room, and her own luxurious bathroom. All furnished with antiques from England and carpets that sank as she walked
across them. Beautiful ornaments and paintings done in rich oils which reflected the glow from the candle-light, the coal fire that burned in the grate.

She took off her smart little travelling boots and undid her jacket. Curling up in the padded window-seat as she looked down at the busy, lamp lit street below. Carriages splashed past in the pouring rain and the shiny wet cobblestones were slick with puddles.

Scott had told her that in a couple of week’s time there would probably be snow. Not the thick, pure snow they had at home in the Sierras, but freezing, bone-biting snow that came in from the Atlantic. Icing everything up and usually ensuring a white Christmas. Her first ever Christmas away from home.

Harlan Garrett had agreed with Murdoch to host a party in her honour, after that, Scott would be leaving. Heading home for Lancer. Home . . .

She took a ragged breath and pulled the letter out of her pocket. She’d read it so often now, she knew every single word by heart. But even holding it, just touching the paper was comforting somehow. Knowing he’d held it. That it had been in contact with his skin . . .

Teresa ,

When you find this I will be gone. I hope you and Jelly can forgive me for lying to you both, but I can’t see any other way of keeping you safe. If things do go wrong, send a man for Val Crawford and tell Jelly to double the guards ‘till they catch Weir.

Tell Murdoch I’m sorry, that he gave me my life back. As for Scott, he’s all and more I ever wanted in a brother. I hope he knows that. I love them both. And you querida, there’s so much I want to say to you. So much I hope I’ll be able to say to you when all this is over.

If not, then I guess you know it anyway. Te amo. I may be the wrong brother for you, but in my heart I know I’m the right man. Hope that I can prove it someday.

Siempre,
Johnny.

Her hand shook as she pressed the paper to her lips, the rain on the windowpane like the rain in her heart. She already missed him so much, her whole body ached with hurt and she wondered for the thousandth time if she’d made a huge mistake.

She loved him so. All she could see, all she could remember when she thought back to those tortuous last days at Lancer, was the pain and confusion in his eyes as he’d looked for her. Begging her beseechingly without words just to talk to him. His weakness and exhaustion as he’d battled his injuries to get well enough to see her off, or maybe persuade her to stay. But Sam
Jenkins had forbidden it, and she’d been glad. One word from him and her resolve might have crumbled; a touch and she would have been lost.

Slowly and carefully, she folded the letter and crossed the room to the fireplace. She stared down at the flames through her tears as after a second’s brief hesitation, she dropped the letter onto the coals, watching the edges brown and curl as the fire claimed it. It felt symbolic of her new life. The Devil had cheated her out of everything she loved. Johnny, her family, her home. She didn’t know if she could win them back again, or if the pain in her heart would ever go away. But tomorrow was a new day, and she was Paul O’ Brien’s daughter. She would have courage, she would be strong. She knew it would be there, that Lancer would wait for her. The Devil would not win.
 
 
 

 

~end~

NOTE.
My use of the word “ sinister,” in reference to Weir’s left-handedness, comes from the Latin use of the word (sinister = left, dexter = right). It is not meant as an insult or slight to left-handed people, in fact, my own younger son is a little sinister himself. It used to be considered that left-handed folk were more likely to be endowed with supernatural abilities/or even cursed with them, depending on the period of time in which you lived. Not good to be a left-handed spinster in C15th England, for example. Or living perhaps, in Salem during the time of the infamous witch-trials.
Lisa.

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