Word Count 73,938
This is an AU/AR story
A sequel to Angry Hearts
The Tortured Gun Chapter 1
Clouds drifted lazily across the star speckled sky, a crescent moon peeped determinedly down and as Johnny watched the heavens through the open window, his mind wandered back to another night, a night that now seemed a life time away. He’d lain awake that night too, sleep kept at bay by the momentous decision he’d been forced to make. Did he return to Lancer with his father and brother? Did he try and make a new life with them? Did he work towards building the future his father had promised was his?
By the morning the decision had been made. Their joy had overwhelmed him, not even the conditions he’d then laid before them had dampened their euphoria. Yet in the end it was one of those conditions that had led him away from them.
Sleep evaded him tonight for the very same reason; a decision had to be made. Did he return to Lancer?
Again his mind replayed the events of the night.
Johnny Madrid had sat at a table at the rear of the saloon, his back to the wall, hat pulled low over his eyes. He had been acutely aware of the inhabitants of the busy saloon, and their activities. His powers of observation were honed to a fever pitch, his keen instincts, which had kept him alive and well so far, on full alert. Without seeming to take notice Johnny had intently observed the poker game being played to his right. With the left hand he held his glass of tequila, the right hand rested easily within reach of his Colt. The players were loud and rowdy, obviously drunk and getting drunker by the minute. Johnny knew well that alcohol and guns did not mix, and that trouble could come at any time. He had just decided to call it a night, get an early start in the morning when a familiar name was clearly heard.
“Yeah, he’s hiring guns. We could make a killing, or do some killing!” the speaker was a thin, dirty young man, only a few years older than Johnny himself. He wore his gun low, too low in Johnny’s opinion. With a loud mouth and an overdeveloped sense of bravado the young man had been strutting around the bar all night.
“You just can’t get enough, can you?” The men laughed in agreement. “Karl loves the sight of blood as long as it ain’t his.” Karl’s companion, a shorter man with an angry red scar on the left side of his face, slapped Karl on the back. Another round of laughter covered the din in the saloon.
“Hey, whatcha figure old man Lancer did to get Day’s attention?”
Johnny was immediately caught by their words. Madrid used all his self control not to physically react to the name of Lancer. He forced his breathing to remain slow and steady, his hand to nonchalantly lift the glass to his lips. There could only be one ranch big enough and one man well known enough to be the object of discussion this far south. Murdoch Lancer. Memories of Lancer and his family fought for dominance, threatening to drown him in the flood of emotion the mention of the name had brought forth. With a determined effort Johnny fought back the memories, shoving them into the deepest recess of his mind where he had stored them since leaving his home. He drank down the last of his tequila in one gulp and left the saloon, going back to his room at the hotel. He had barely entered his room when the mask of Madrid failed him for the first time in his life and Johnny Lancer felt tears sliding down his cheeks. He flopped down onto his bed, turning his head towards the window and the cool breeze that wafted over him carrying with it the sound of raucous laughter from the saloon below.
Lancer! The name had meant nothing to him once but in the few months he’d become, tried to become, Johnny Lancer, he’d grown to respect the name and the two men who shared it.
His tears continued to fall and he let them, needing the release. He’d held them in too long. They’d fallen freely as he’d rode away from his home; then as now there had been no one to witness his pain as he’d urged Barranca into a grief driven gallop. But as the miles passed beneath them the tears had slowly subsided and he’d sworn never to go back. He didn’t want to hurt like that ever again; he didn’t want to hurt them again. From the moment he’d made that vow he’d pushed all memory of them out of reach, no more tears would fall, not until tonight.
Now his mind refused to block the memories of the happiest time in his life. His heart ached for the warmth and the care they’d bestowed upon him and the love that had always been, and would always be, there for him. If he went back he knew it could prove impossible to leave a second time yet hadn’t it been just as impossible to stay? The risks had been too great. But did they need him? If Pardee was involved they did.
Johnny knew he had done the right thing, the only thing, when he had ridden away from Lancer. Or had he? He knew the risks involved in his profession, even if his family did not. They couldn’t, wouldn’t, accept the lifestyle of a gunfighter and the dangers inherent in his chosen occupation. He had left to spare them the grief he knew would follow him. Yet that pain was being inflicted on them all the same. And not by him. Johnny silently cursed fate and her ironic cruelty. Had he been mistaken? Could it have worked out had he stayed? Now that he knew Pardee’s attention was focused on Lancer, doubt began to assail him. If he had stayed he knew Lancer and all who called her home would have lived under the constant threat of gunplay. Yet now they faced the same threat and he was not there to protect them. His gun could have caused them pain had he stayed; now it could spare them from it if he went back.
Johnny Lancer looked into the face of Johnny Madrid, the two alter egos weighing each other, seeking answers to a dilemma he had never considered. Could his two opposite personalities make peace? Could they be one? Could they find a way to live at Lancer and be a productive member of the family? It seemed the very reason he had left his home was now the biggest reason to go back.
Dawn finally broke, the first rays of the sun falling unnoticed across Johnny’s face as he lay lost in thought. Sometime during the endless night he’d decided he had no other choice but to return to Lancer. No. It wasn’t a matter of choice; it was his duty to defend his family, to help defend their home… no, no it wasn’t a matter of duty either. He’d denied his feelings this last year, but now; knowing they were in danger, those feelings had surged to the fore and the urge to protect his family was overwhelming. He loved them! There, he’d admitted it, and he would let nothing, no one, do them any harm.
Finding the great room empty Scott Lancer had checked the time, one glance at the grandfather clock told him it was too early for his father to have retired, so where could he be? The answer came swiftly carried on a tidal wave of sadness, his father would be in Johnny’s room. The older man had taken to sitting up there at night, usually when everyone else had gone to their beds or like tonight, when the house was deserted and all he had were his own thoughts for company.
Murdoch didn’t spend long in there, sometimes just a few minutes, just long enough to absorb the comfort he found there. The room was just as Johnny had left it, lovingly cleaned and aired daily by Maria who insisted it be ready for the day their boy returned. Her faith put theirs to shame but as each day had passed with never a word from Johnny the less likely it seemed the boy would have a change of heart. Vain hope was all they’d had to cling to.
The year had passed so very slowly, the first few weeks marked by angry outbursts and bitter silences. Unbearable tension had filled the hacienda and had almost driven father and son apart until finally they had realized they weren’t just punishing themselves for Johnny’s departure, but punishing each other too. That was when they’d consciously started to get on with their lives.
Scott sighed heavily; he moved to stand before the great fireplace, seeking warmth but yet still so cold. The chill didn’t come from the night air but from the emptiness in his very soul. His heart had been ripped from his chest as he had stood watching his brother’s figure disappear that late afternoon a year ago. For the first couple of days he had jumped each time an approaching rider was heard. He would face the anguish of loss each time the rider came into view. Never before had he experienced such pain.
Slowly at first then with more frequency they would hear accounts of the gunfighter Johnny Madrid. His legend was growing at an alarming speed. Each time stories of his latest exploits were passed through the neighboring towns, the Lancer household would hold its breath; fear clutching their hearts until there were assured he had survived the newest threat.
Now a different threat gripped the great empire that was Lancer. A new threat loomed on the horizon in the form of Day Pardee. He had been methodically overtaking the smaller ranches and now he had fixed his attention on the Lancer spread. At first he was a minor inconvenience but his raids were growing more brazen, more dangerous with each passing day.
At first the attacks were simply downed fences, a few lost heads of cattle. Then one of their hands had been injured, and a growing number of vaqueros had left their employ. Scott knew that the hands had been intimidated but what could they do? Now left with only a skeleton crew made up of the stalwart and faithful they struggled to keep up with the day to day running of the ranch. As he stared into the dancing flames Scott’s thoughts settled on earlier that day and the fire that had raged in the south pasture. They’d somehow managed to save more than they’d lost but still it had been another costly blow, one they could ill afford.
The law, what law there was, seemed powerless or unwilling to step in and stop the land pirates and the death and destruction left in their wake. The fate of Lancer lay in his and his father’s hands and neither man was prepared to let their dream go without a fight, a fight that could see them pay the ultimate price. As Pardee had cut a swath across the surrounding area he’d slowly gathered strength, the smaller spreads had stood no chance but the larger ones like Lancer required more manpower and word was Day Pardee had sent out a call for guns. Would Johnny heed the call, would that bring him home?
The Tortured Gun Chapter 2
Johnny had been riding for the better part of the morning, the hours and the miles passing quickly but not quickly enough. His every thought was centered around his destination and as time passed the terrible sense of urgency that gripped him grew even stronger.
Vaguely familiar with the territory, the young rider was almost certain he would find a small creek an hour or so up ahead. He didn’t intend stopping there long; he’d let Barranca drink his fill, rest him a little while, then continue on with his journey.
He’d passed this very same way a month back, but he’d had the devil on his tail then and there had been little time to acknowledge any landmarks. Still he did remember the copse he was approaching. He’d spent an uncomfortable couple of hours hidden there as the federales tried unsuccessfully to pick up his trail. They’d almost captured him that day; he’d escaped by the skin of his teeth and he knew he wouldn’t be so lucky a second time. The young man had been left in no doubt of his fate if they had managed to run him down. He hoped, as forlorn as that hope was that they had forgotten all about their then quarry, having by now turned their attention to some other unfortunate soul.
One thing Johnny did know for sure was that he didn’t need that added complication right now and he certainly didn’t want to risk falling into the hands of the Captain of the federales again. They’d `met’ before, a couple of years back and it had been a painful experience on Johnny’s part. It had taken him a while to recover from the beating that had been dished out. The big man had his own particular brand of punishment for a half-breed thief! Johnny’s crime this time, not that it was a crime in his eyes, would merit more than a good kicking in his cell. For simply taking the side of some good people in need he now faced a death sentence.
Johnny pushed that thought to the back of his mind, trying to fix his wandering thoughts firmly on the surrounding area. He had to be alert to any signs of trouble; trouble was never very far away in this part of Mexico. But he failed to maintain his concentration as once again Lancer invaded his thoughts, the dangers of the terrain pushed to the periphery as Barranca loped steadily along. Johnny could almost smell the dishes he imagined Maria to be cooking at that moment.
//Maria! I didn’t even say goodbye to Maria! // that thought left him feeling deeply ashamed. He’d ridden away that day with little thought for anyone, not for their feelings anyway. His actions would have hurt her deeply; he hoped she could forgive him. Johnny’s mind replayed their first encounter; her embrace had left him moved and embarrassed, but he’d grown to accept her open displays of affection, and affection was something he’d sorely missed since he’d left Lancer. Truth be told, he missed a lot of things about Lancer, it was alright to admit that now that he was going back. //But not to stay// He quickly reminded himself. //Not to stay! //
Night was falling as he crossed the border but Johnny rode on wanting to put some more miles between him and any lingering threat. Eventually Johnny had called it a day, seeing to Barranca’s needs before sitting down by the camp fire to relish his first hot drink of the day. The night air was cooling around him and Johnny huddled beneath his blanket, the image of his warm, comfortable bed at Lancer infiltrating his thoughts. A smile formed on his lips as memories washed over him and he wondered what his family was doing right at that moment.
Still he struggled to formulate some plan. He couldn’t just ride up to the Hacienda and announce his arrival, could he? Would Pardee be camped about the ranch? No, knowing Pardee he would be holed up some place close, some place he could easily defend, yet close enough for quick, surprise attacks. As Johnny pondered his strategy, he realized how fiercely protective his thoughts and feelings for his family were becoming. More and more he began to doubt the wisdom of leaving Lancer. If he had stayed, would it have made a difference? Would Pardee have just moved on? Pardee was fast with a gun but Johnny knew he could take him in a face to face confrontation. Pardee knew it too but he was not one to engage Johnny in a face to face gunfight. He would make sure he had the upper hand. Oh Johnny knew Pardee would never shoot him in the back, but he wouldn’t face Johnny alone either.
Day Pardee was certainly a force to be reckoned with but the fact Johnny knew him and the way his mind worked could work to Lancer’s advantage. On that thought Johnny pulled his hat lower over his face and closed his eyes. He desperately needed to get a little shut eye. Wrapping the blanket tighter around him he sighed knowing he still had a couple more long days in the saddle before he once again set foot on Lancer.
* ** ***
Murdoch Lancer went about his morning ritual unable to ignore the bleary eyed reflection in the shaving mirror. He’d slept very little last night; actually he couldn’t remember the last good night’s sleep he’d had. That wasn’t quite true. He’d slept soundly up until Johnny had left and then from that first night he’d spent most of every subsequent night worrying over his younger son. Now his troubles had escalated ten fold, his family, his home, his very existence were under threat and fear for all he held dear stole all hope of finding any peace of mind.
As bad as the present situation was Murdoch knew he’d cope with it all a whole lot better if he knew where Johnny was. Was the boy safe? Was he hurt? Was he hungry? Was he even alive or was he lying in some unmarked grave with no one to grieve over him? There had been no word in over two months, not since word of a gunfight had circulated around the area. Johnny had been called out by the most well known gunfighter in Matamoras. He had outdrawn Carlos Sanchez and then disappeared. Rumors had abounded, had he been injured or worse? Was he laying low to recover from his injuries or was he simply avoiding further trouble? It was the not knowing which tortured the Lancer family.
Scott lay on his back, fingers laced behind his head, staring blankly up at the ceiling. His thoughts too were of a dark- haired, young man. He had spent the last year agonizing over the loss of his brother, second guessing everything they had said and done. No, not everything everyone had said and done just his words and actions. So many times he had told himself he would talk to Johnny. Yet he never had. He had never followed through on any of his promises to himself. Johnny had not known but he, himself, had. But would it have made a difference? Would asking about the theft of the chestnut gelding among other things, and the events leading up to it, have kept Johnny here? Probably not Scott acknowledged but maybe being able to release some of his guilt and pain would have made it easier for Johnny to settle down.
Scott sighed, his mind wandering once again to Johnny’s birthday. It had been the best day the family had spent together at Lancer. Still in the early days of recovering from Dancer’s bullet, Sam had allowed his patient downstairs. Johnny had seemed relaxed and content; he had even allowed his gun to be hung at the front door next to Scott’s rig and Murdoch’s. He had seemed unconcerned for the first time to be without it. Scott and Murdoch had exchanged smiles believing Johnny was finally learning to live with his past and moving on.
Dinner had been an extravagant affair; Maria had outdone herself presenting a feast fit for a king, and their `king’ for the day, although still very weak and easily tired, had managed to sample almost all of his favorite Mexican dishes. The evening shared with Paul and Teresa had passed in easy conversation and laughter. Finally Johnny had succumbed to the inevitable exhaustion and escorted by his brother had made his way on shaky legs back up to his room. The young man had been reluctant to accept his brother’s assistance but Scott had skillfully ignored his protests, removing the boy’s boots and helping him get ready for bed. He could still remember the warmth that had flowed through him on hearing a very
drowsy “Thanks brother.” Scott had then sat a while watching the sleeping form, pondering on what the year ahead would hold for their family. The possibility that Johnny would not be a part of that year had not entered his mind, so convinced he was then that Johnny had accepted them and Lancer as his home. Still, all these months later Scott remained convinced that Johnny had made a mistake, a mistake he would, given some time, see for himself. There was just one problem with his belief, Johnny as Madrid probably didn’t have much time left.
Shivering violently as the second gunshot reverberated through the still morning air; Scott urged his mount on as a terrible sense of dread rose sickeningly from the pit of his stomach. His father and Paul O’Brien had earlier rode out after the men who had made off with their prize stallion, Murdoch instructing him to gather some men together to stand guard over Teresa and the ranch. That done he’d raced to catch up with the two older men something telling him he would be needed.
Scott felt every hair on the back of his neck prickle as he slowed his horse to study the seemingly empty streets of Morro Coyo, the silence was ominous, something was very wrong. Anxious eyes searched desperately for any sign of his father and their Segundo. Scott’s horse carried him on, his heart thundering in his chest when he caught sight of two rider less horses, Murdoch’s and Paul’s.
“Pa? Paul? Scott shouted, the ensuing silence adding to the young man’s concern. He thought his heart would stop when his eyes then settled on the two lifeless figures laying sprawled on the ground, jumping frantically from his horse he ran towards them.
The Tortured Gun Chapter 3
As dusk fell around the hacienda so did some strange resemblance of calm. The horror and outrage that had carried the occupants through the endless day now slowly gave in to a numbing grief. One man lay dead, still the other lay fighting for his life. Their loved ones struggling to come to terms with the senseless murder and insurmountable loss of one good, loving and gentle man while praying for another equally as loved.
Scott had known immediately how seriously his father was wounded; the ugly hole in his back had bled heavily. The older man had groaned in pain as Scott had with urgent hands eased him onto his side, desperately demanding his father open his eyes. Murdoch Lancer had clawed his way back from the dark void to answer his son’s anguished plea but his first concern was not for himself but for the friend he knew lay beside him.
“Paul? How’s Paul, son?”
Scott had had to choke back his tears, his tongue tripping agonizingly over the words that would inflict only greater pain on his father.
“He’s dead, pa! Paul’s dead!!
Scott would never forget the stricken look on his father’s face, or the moan of disbelief and sorrow that had escaped from the older man’s throat on hearing his Segundo’s fate. Now, all these hours later as he sat beside his father willing him to live the image haunted Scott still.
The morning had passed in a blur of panic filled haste, towns folk suddenly no longer in fear for their own lives had descended upon them to do what they could to help. For Paul it meant gently lifting his lifeless form into the back of a wagon and covering him over with a blanket, respect all they could offer him in death. The Lancer patriarch had been laid along side his best friend, his elder son tending him while another old friend urged the team toward home.
Murdoch had lapsed in and out of consciousness; his concern again centered elsewhere as he’d repeatedly asked himself out aloud “How do I tell Teresa? How do I tell her that her daddy is dead?”
By the time the estancia loomed in sight Murdoch’s condition had deteriorated considerably. A couple of hands had ridden out to meet them and Scott had sent them directly back to forewarn everyone in advance of the tragedy that was approaching their door. He’d given specific instructions for Maria to be told. Teresa was going to need her.
Scott closed his eyes against that memory; he’d been the one to break the heart stopping news. Teresa had then begged her daddy to be all right, to wake up, her pleas accompanied with heartbreaking sobs. He’d felt so helpless right then. There was nothing he could say to comfort her, nothing he could do to ease her pain and then as he’d helped ease his father into what could turn out to be his death bed he was overwhelmed with a crushing pain all his own. The world had suddenly grown so very cold around him. Despair had washed over him and he had felt so very alone. He had needed his brother right then, needed him like never before. //Where are you Johnny? Please God, please bring him home//
Doctor Sam Jenkins had arrived soon after. He’d been unable to hide his utter shock and disbelief on hearing about Paul’s death but he’d worn his professional mask as he’d worked desperately to save his oldest friend’s life
“There’s nothing more I can do Scott! It’s up to him now.” Sam had as always been brutally frank, making it clear to the young man that his father now faced a battle with severe blood loss and the inevitable risk of infection.
The past hour had seen Murdoch Lancer’s temperature soar. Clutched in the grips of fever he’d fallen into delirium and now as he thrashed about in torment he called out for his younger son, begging him to come home.
Reluctantly Johnny pulled Barranca up and studied his surroundings. He was still a full day’s ride from Lancer but he had pushed the golden stallion hard, the animal’s exhaustion equal to his own. With a sigh of regret he dismounted, loosened the cinch and led the palomino to the edge of the nearby creek. Barranca shook mightily then lowered his muzzle into the cool water. As the stallion drank his fill, Johnny’s thoughts returned once again to the plan he had formulated during his journey. Murdoch and Scott would never understand. They would in fact most likely hate him for what he was about to do yet there was no other way. Johnny Madrid understood the ways of men like Pardee, creatures of habit with a single minded purpose. He knew Pardee could not be reasoned with nor could he be paid off.
When Barranca had satisfied his thirst Johnny led him to a small grove nearby. Quickly he stripped the saddle and exchanged the bridle for a halter. Barranca playfully shoved his muzzle into Johnny’s chest, accepting the young man’s loving caress then lowered his head to graze. For what seemed hours but was in fact merely minutes, Johnny stood with the golden stallion, arm thrown across the broad back, seeking the comfort of his only true friend. Darkness was fully descended when Johnny finally left the animals side and went in search of kindling. He lit a fire and prepared a pot of coffee. Johnny had no appetite but the warmth the coffee provided would be welcome against the cool night air.
As he sat brooding over his coffee, his mind went over his plan again. It was going to be risky but Johnny felt confident he could pull it off. His only regret was the pain it was going to cause his family. Murdoch and Scott would be disappointed in him to be sure. Johnny only hoped when it was all over that they would give him a chance to explain. It was with a heavy sense of despair that Johnny finally laid back, head against his saddle, eyes firmly fixed on the stars above.
Murdoch had finally fallen into a deep sleep, his thrashing and delirium retreating before his body’s sheer exhaustion. His breathing was evidence of the healing sleep which was so desperately needed. Scott yawned and rose from his chair beside Murdoch’s bed. He poured himself a cup of coffee from the pot Maria had left him and went to the window. The night was lit by the light of the full moon and cast shadows across Lancer. All was still and quiet yet Scott’s eyes searched the shadows for the men on guard which he knew were there. The remaining hands were loyal and would fight to the death for the Lancer family. He knew they would be vigilant and would not fall asleep. It gave Scott a small measure of comfort knowing they were safe, at least for this night. Pardee would be waiting for news of Murdoch’s condition. If the Lancer patriarch succumbed to his wounds Scott knew Pardee would be on them immediately. The thought of Pardee reminded Scott of circling vultures and he was aware of a rage he had never felt before. How dare they, how dare they attack his home, his family. Scott was going to make them pay for Paul’s death and his father’s injury.
The Tortured Gun Chapter 4
The once quiet and welcoming town of Moro Coyo now rang with unfriendly laughter and an alarming sense of danger, the townsfolk rarely braving the streets too afraid to venture out. Every day it seemed yet another stranger would ride in adding to Pardee’s might and casting an even darker shadow across Lancer. To any one who noticed the young man’s entry into town, with his hat pulled low across his face, he was just another gun.
Doctor Sam Jenkins eyed his patient with despair. He’d tried to reason with his old friend but nothing he’d said had had any impact. Paul’s funeral was to be held the very next day and Murdoch was insisting on being there to pay his respects and to say one last goodbye. Sam could understand the need to do so; the men had been very close, like brothers, but the Lancer patriarch was in no shape to leave his bed let alone the hacienda. All Sam could do now was support him and be there for both of them.
There was no question in Sam’s mind; Murdoch had taken Paul’s death very badly, shouldering all responsibility like he himself had fired the fatal bullet. The doctor had watched his friend age before his eyes and it grieved him to know that there was little he could do to help this family in their fight against the odds. And the odds were certainly stacked against them now. Sam watched as his friend drifted into a troubled sleep then turned to his son. The young man looked exhausted.
“Scott. You need to get some rest.”
“I’m fine.” Scott snapped, instantly regretting his tone “Sorry Sam. I’m fine really.” He ignored the skeptical look the comment earned him and opening the door led the way downstairs and into the great room. Teresa was waiting for them, her big brown eyes widening with expectation.
“He’s healing well Teresa, no need for you to worry.” Sam wrapped a comforting arm around the girl’s shoulders before releasing her and hinting that a strong black coffee would be much appreciated right about now. The two men watched as Teresa hurried towards the kitchen.
“How’s she doing Scott?” Sam lowered himself onto the couch, weary and stiff from several long and difficult days.
Scott shrugged “Not good!” He paused as memories of his `sisters’ distress tore through him. “She cries herself to sleep at night; wakes up screaming for Paul and needs constant reassurance that pa won’t die too!”
Sam knew the young man was struggling to cope with Teresa’s grief, and reassuring him that time would help heal some of her heartache wasn’t what he needed to hear right now.
He sighed, his own heart aching for the girl. “I’d say she was reacting normally to her father’s death and the circumstances surrounding it. All you and anyone else can do is be there for her, let her cry, comfort her and above all else be honest with her. She might need protecting physically but not emotionally. She needs to be aware of what’s going on around her so she can deal with it. You can’t protect her from life, no matter how harsh it is.”
Scott turned away and began to pace the floor. While his father had lain so ill he’d taken control of the household and the ranch. In light of everything that had happened, and was likely to happen, he’d seriously considered sending Teresa away to safety. “I’m…well, I’m considering sending her back east. Paul has a cousin there.”
Sam raised his eyebrows as he pondered the issue. “What does your father say?”
“I haven’t mentioned it to him yet.” Scott stopped his pacing and stared expectantly at Sam.
“And the reason for that being?”
“I know he won’t agree! I understand his reasons but…”
“And those reasons are?”
Scott glared at the older man; the doctor knew damn well why his father would want to keep Teresa by his side. “Because of my mother, but this is a different set of circumstances!”
“Yes it is. Teresa has just lost her father; she needs her family right now. Sending her away will mean only one thing to her, the loss of another father figure and a brother.”
“But she would be safe Sam!”
“I’m not going!” Teresa stated quietly, tears forming and flowing freely down her pale cheeks. She’d heard every word of their conversation and was seething inside. Skirts rustling with each angry step, she hurried to where Scott stood. “I’m not a child and YOU…” to make her point Teresa jabbed one finger into the much taller man’s chest, “Scott Lancer won’t treat me like one! It’s my decision and I’m staying whether you like it or not!” Backing away as Scott reached out to her; she turned on her heels and ran up to her room.
Johnny had reached Morro Coyo as the sun was setting throwing the town streets and structures into shadow and gloom. The dingy appearance of the clapboard buildings matched his mood and left him feeling particularly edgy this night. The atmosphere surrounding the town was heavy and foreboding, as if some disaster had befallen the small community, or was going to. Instincts at fever pitch, Johnny reined Barranca to a stop in front of the saloon. He cast a rapid look around, taking in the street and windows of adjacent structures. It had been a year since his flight from Lancer and he felt sure no one would recognize him. He had grown a good few inches and filled out. Yet while still slender and youthful, the rig hanging low on his hip would reveal his profession, if not who he was. If Pardee was still hiring guns, someone other than the town’s residents would be able to identify him.
Swinging his leg over the saddle, Johnny fluidly dismounted. He gave Barranca a loving pat, then settled his rig comfortably in place. Caution was the dominating thought in Johnny’s mind as he approached the batwing doors leading into the saloon. He could hear the tinny sound of a piano, the raucous laughter of the saloon girls and the lower tones of the men’s voices inside. Johnny Madrid entered the saloon, stepping smoothly to the left, back against the wall. As his eyes adjusted to the dim lighting, Johnny recognized some of the men
playing cards at a table on his right and one or two of the occupants leaning against the bar. Each was a gunman with a reputation of his own but none he couldn’t take if he were called out.
Strolling casually toward the bar, Johnny’s eyes and ears took in every sight and sound. He tensed as a glimmer of recognition crossed the barkeep’s face, relaxing only when the older man dismissed him as just another stranger in town.
“Tequila!” Johnny motioned toward the only vacant table. The barkeep nodded his understanding as the young gun hawk turned and made his way to the far corner of the room. Nodding a greeting to several pairs of expressionless eyes that met his Johnny seated himself so that every inch of the smoky room was visible; feeling the weight of disappointment when he realized Pardee was nowhere to be seen.
Several drinks later Johnny had overheard little of interest. His stomach growled relentlessly and just as he’d decided to enquire about a meal his appetite was quashed, replaced by gut wrenching horror. A stranger’s callous laughter mingled with the words of satisfaction for a job well done had carried across from a nearby table; they’d cut through Johnny like some blunt knife. Paul was dead! His father hovered between life and death!
Nausea welled up inside, his stomach roiled and a strange ache consumed him. His right hand nestled on his Colt as he fought to gain control of his seething emotions. With a great effort, Johnny forced back all emotion, all thought. There was no room for either thought or emotion in the game he was about to play. If he were to come out of this unscathed, and more importantly, succeed in protecting Lancer and all who called her home, he could not allow any distractions.
Johnny closed his eyes briefly, reached into the dark recesses of his mind and with all his being summoned Madrid. He needed more now than an icy stare, he needed the cold unfeeling heart that was his alter ego. Madrid responded to the summons, and took his place. Immediately Johnny’s heart beat and breathing became slow and steady, his attention once more coolly focused on the men before him. Pouring another shot of tequila, Johnny studied his now steady hand; once again Madrid was in firm control.
A door to his left creaked open and out stepped a raven haired girl, her waist encircled by the arm of the man he was seeking.
//Trust Day! // Johnny thought, killing and women were something he enjoyed equally.
Catching sight of the young gun fighter Pardee released his hold on the saloon girl; he whispered words of dismissal into her ear sending her reluctantly on her way. A lazy smile drifted across the older man’s face as he strolled purposefully over to join Johnny at the table. “Long time Johnny Madrid!”
“Yeah, a long time!” Johnny grinned back with no visible trace of the hatred he felt for the man sitting beside him.
“What’s your business here?” Pardee asked
“Day, I’m just looking!”
“For your best shot?” Pardee studied the young man’s face.
“Something like that yeah!”
“Well you found it! I could use you Johnny.”
The Tortured Gun Chapter 5
The day of Paul O’Brien’s funeral dawned as gray and dismal as the spirits of those who lived at Lancer. The great hacienda bore its pain with dignity and respect for its late foreman. Though it did not mourn alone, the sorrow therein bore testament to the reputation of its fallen comrade .The neighboring towns mourned silently with the Lancer ranch. Masses of flowers spilled off the tables and onto the floor. Food was piled on every available inch of space in the huge kitchen and filled the dining room table. Maria had taken charge of the steady stream of mourners and well wishers. Quietly and efficiently she handled the arrangements for the funeral and dinner afterwards.
Murdoch Lancer stared blindly out the window of his room, his mind and emotions as exhausted as his body, the effort to rise from his bed having exacted a tremendous toll. He had spent a sleepless night, tossing and turning, caught in the throes of a pain he had never known a man could experience. There was nowhere to turn, no thought he could bear, no memory pleasant. His body ached with a now welcome pain, the only indication he still lived. The pain radiating from his back down through his hips and into his legs was equaled
only by the pain in his heart. As far back as he could remember, pain had been a constant presence in his life. The pain of losing Catherine, then Maria and his son, rivaled by the pain of losing his boy yet again and now this, the loss of his best friend Paul. It seemed his life was marked by loss and pain.
He could hear the great house stirring, sounds filtered through his bedroom door, the sound of Maria and Felicia moving in the kitchen, muffled movements coming from Scott’s room next door. Only Teresa was disturbingly quiet. The girl had been inconsolable, her grief without measure or bounds. She had alternated between bouts of heart wrenching sobs, and then periods of stony silence where she retreated into a world no one else could enter. Murdoch was at a loss, he knew he had to reach the girl and Scott, he had to be strong for them but honestly he did not know how he could. His own grief was a consuming entity which threatened to choke the breath out of him. The weight on his chest seemed smothering.
Johnny stopped pacing when he reached the window of his hotel room. Absentmindedly his hand reached out and drew back the faded lace curtain covering the window. As the day dawned he thought how fitting it was that even Mother Nature showed her respects. He had not known Paul O’Brien but a few weeks yet it was enough for him to know no finer man had crossed his path. //With the exception of Scott and his father//. Scott; It still surprised him how easily thoughts of Scott Lancer could overtake him. The memory of his brother curled his lips at the corners in spite of the dark day and the even darker event which would occur. He wondered how Teresa was handling things and who was holding her, wiping away her tears. His father maybe. Johnny hoped so; he’d once found comfort in Murdoch’s arms. Teresa would too. Johnny sighed; he could just imagine her pain. Losing someone you loved in such a violent way hurt so very badly, the pain was indescribable and the anguish endless as you tortured yourself with the whys and the what ifs. Teresa didn’t deserve such heartache, no one did.
Teresa had loved her father dearly and Paul had adored his daughter. Their relationship had fascinated Johnny. She could wrap her daddy around her little finger yet he could be quite strict too, never angry or violent but firm. Yes, Paul had been a good father to Teresa. How alone and scared she must be feeling right now. Johnny knew that ache and fear only too well. Still she still had Murdoch and Scott, given a little time she would allow them to take over Paul’s role; a little shamefully Johnny admitted to himself that he envied her having them in her life.
Turning away from the window he began to pace again. Torn by indecision he tried desperately to walk the tension out but nothing could ease the agony. Finally it was his heart and not his head that made the decision for him. Snatching his hat and rig from the bed Johnny made for the door hoping he could slip out of town unnoticed.
Teresa looked hesitantly into her mirror, hating the little girl who stared back. Tears trickled relentlessly down the ashen cheeks, the child in her powerless to stop them. She’d tried so hard to be brave, to control her emotions, to save her tears for the privacy of her room but her tears insisted on falling at all times of the day. It seemed the least thing would set them off taking her by surprise and overpowering her resolve. How was she ever going to get through today?
But it was all right to cry, wasn’t it? That’s what everyone told her, they said it was a good thing, a healing thing but if that were true why didn’t they let her see their tears and why didn’t she feel any the better for the millions of tears she had already shed? The pain wasn’t any less; the anger she felt just seemed to grow stronger by the day, and a chilling bitterness was beginning to eat away at her inside.
She’d never hated anyone before but she did now. She hated Pardee and his men, every last one of them. They had turned her world upside down, mercilessly shot down the two men she’d loved most in the world, robbing her forever of her father and his love, leaving only heartache and pain in their wake. But deep down inside she still had hope, they hadn’t taken that away from her. Murdoch and Scott would fight to make things right and Johnny…well, Johnny would come home now, wouldn’t he? Yes, of course he would and he would
fight along side his family.
A light tap on her door heralded the arrival of Maria. Leaping to her feet Teresa ran into the open arms, her anguished sobs echoing down the hallway into Murdoch’s room. Maria welcomed the girl into her arms and pulled her close. Her own heart beat so loudly as to almost drown the girl’s heart wrenching sobs. Maria felt tears trickle down her own cheeks as she held the trembling form. As one they stayed, entwined in each other’s arms, holding tight as if to life itself. Slowly the young girl’s sobs eased, her trembling slowed and she stood, her head buried in Maria’s arms, until she had regained some semblance of control.
“Aw chica, it is so difficult, no?” Maria whispered.
A barely perceptible nod then, “I can’t believe it. What has happened? How did it all go so wrong?” Tear stained eyes slowly rose until they were looking Maria full in the face. “Why Maria? What did he do that he deserved this?”
“Shhh, Teresa. No one can say but we must be strong, we must go on. Somehow we must make the Senor proud of us, no?”
“Si, Maria, si.” A slight nod followed the whispered words but the tears had ceased and Maria could see the courage of Paul O’Brien shining in his daughter’s eyes.
“Maria’s with Teresa.” Scott assured his father, guiding him away from the door and back over to the bed. He hadn’t liked the way the color had drained from the older man’s face or his unsteady gait as he’d quickly moved to comfort the sobbing girl. He knew in his mind that his father wasn’t recovered enough to attend Paul’s funeral but his heart told him that neither hell nor high water would prevent him doing so. “You should be resting. I’ll go down stairs and check that everything is ready then I’ll bring the buggy round to the door. We have plenty of time so sit here and please pa, try and rest.”
Murdoch nodded and watched his son leave the room, relieved to be sitting down, perhaps the room would stop spinning now. Sam was right //Well, when wasn’t he?// He was so very weak, he could barely stand but stand he would. He owed Paul a great debt, his daughter too, and standing along side his best friend’s final resting place was the least he could do. Teresa needed him to be there, so did Scott and perhaps even more importantly he needed to be there to show Pardee that he hadn’t won and wouldn’t without a fight. The Lancer’s had to show some solidarity now. If only Johnny would return. He was so certain the boy would come home, but so far there was no sign of him and nothing to say he would. All Murdoch had was his belief in his son.
A feather light knock on the door stole his attention away from Johnny “Come in!” he called expecting to see Maria but it was Teresa who stepped into the room. Murdoch smiled sadly, gone were the tears and with them Murdoch realized a little of her innocence. Before him stood a poised young lady, hair drawn up and secured beneath a plain black bonnet, her simple black dress touched the floor, rustling as she walked gracefully towards him, a small but determined smile sat upon her lips and in her hands she clutched one solitary red rose.
“Are you ready honey?” Murdoch asked, getting to his feet.
“Yes.” Teresa tucked her arm inside Murdoch’s and the two walked slowly downstairs, each supporting the other.
The Tortured Gun Chapter 6
The journey from the Hacienda to the small Lancer family burial ground was a quiet one. It was only fitting that Paul was to be laid to rest in the family cemetery; he was family and always had been. Murdoch sat tall and proud on the buggy’s front seat, Teresa next to him, her posture and bearing as regal as that of the man beside her. Scott followed behind on Charlie, head held high, as if in the most formal of all military dress parades. At a respectful distance came the hands of Lancer ranch, including Maria and Cipriano in yet another buggy, and most of the population of the neighboring towns.
Scott had taken a cursory glance around at the milling throng as he had mounted. His heart swelled with pride at the multitude of the people present. If Paul was somehow able to look down and witness this outpouring of support and love, Scott knew he would have been well pleased. Without another backward glance he had turned Charlie and followed his father.
Murdoch Lancer was in agony, his soul and his body barely able to suppress the pain. Yet he was determined to follow his chosen course of action. Paul O’Brien would be honored and Murdoch was going to be the first to do so. He was aware of the many buggies and horsemen who followed at a discreet distance. The number of people attending bore solemn testimony to the character of the man they had come to bid farewell to. Paul O’Brien had been well respected and loved by all who had been fortunate enough to know him. Murdoch’s breath caught in his throat as another familiar ache gripped his heart. As if aware of his inner agony, Teresa placed her small hand in his. He squeezed her hand gently, mutual understanding bonding them now in a way that would forever change their relationship.
The Lancer patriarch drew a deep breath, pushing back the pain. Ahead now the entrance to the small family resting place loomed, the gate wide open like loving arms waiting to receive a cherished one. Murdoch squared his shoulders once more, sat up even taller and prepared to lead the group of mourners through the very difficult period now upon them. He knew they were all looking to him to set the example. Pardee could not defeat them as long as Murdoch Lancer led them. He could not succumb to the pain or the overwhelming sense of loss. He had to find a way to go on, the first order of business being to give Paul a proper farewell.
In one accord, the golden stallion and his rider traveled the distance to Lancer with slow, steady steps. With heavy heart, Johnny turned Barranca in the direction of the familiar knoll
overlooking home.//Home, it was home, a home he had found and then lost. Lord, was he ever going to live without anguish, without regret.// All too soon Johnny reached his destination and pulled Barranca in. He sat deep in the saddle, shoulders burdened by the weight of grief. Grief permeated the very air as if even nature mourned; the very trees seemed to bow under the pain. But in the midst of despair hope still remained. It was an idea which shook Johnny to the core. The overcast sky could not dim the glow of warmth which swelled in Johnny’s chest at sight of the land Murdoch had called the ‘most beautiful place in the world’ on that day so long ago.
Movement in the distance captured Johnny’s attention. A large crowd of riders and buggies were making their way to a destination Johnny could not see. He knew where they were going though and his eyes swept the surrounding terrain, seeking a route to the family cemetery. He could not afford to be spotted, for his plan to work he could not appear to have any interest in or any concern for the Lancer family; he could do nothing to make Pardee suspicious of him.
Satisfied his vantage point was safe from enemy eyes; Johnny stared down at the solemn procession. Anxious eyes locked on the man he’d feared would die too, relief surged through him quickly followed by a wave of warmth. There was no denying his feelings for his father now. The blue eyes lingered for long moments on the Lancer patriarch as he reassured himself of his father’s well being. Slowly they moved to the girl who sat beside him and then on to settle on the figure who rode alone behind them. Johnny’s heart lurched; guilt eating him up inside, he should be riding along side his brother. He should be down there paying his respects to a man who’d welcomed him into the fold with an open heart, a man whose death he maybe could have prevented if he hadn’t left. Again a wave of guilt threatened to overcome him.
“I will make it up to you, all of you, I swear it,” he vowed softly. Resolve once more hardened Johnny’s heart.
The procession drew to a halt and the mourners slowly gathered around the graveside. Johnny couldn’t hear the words being spoken but could imagine the sentiments being expressed. Snatches of a hymn floated by carried on the breeze and he strained to hear the harmonious voices. Oddly enough it made him feel a part of the sad farewell.
He’d been intent on slipping away before the service was over, but Johnny was now struggling with having to turn his back on his family. They were so very close, he could be with them in a matter of minutes and maybe then the terrible ache would go away. But the temptation was squashed as quickly as it had come. There would be time enough later for that. When this was over he would go back to Lancer, beg his family’s forgiveness, and take his place as a member of the family. If they would have him. That was the ultimate pain, the thought they might not want him back, that they would not be able to accept him. He had been such a fool, such a hot head, unwilling to listen to reason, to see any side but his own. Perhaps if he had stayed he would not now be watching the funeral of a dear friend.
The mourners began to drift away, allowing the immediate family some privacy. Johnny’s eyes remained fixed on the three figures left standing together. Teresa stood between Scott and Murdoch each hand clasped securely in one of theirs. They stood silently, heads bowed for several minutes, before reluctantly turning away to walk slowly toward Maria, Cipriano and Sam Jenkins.
Despite telling himself he had to head back to town Johnny continued to watch the small group of people below unable to tear his eyes away. Maria folded her arms around Teresa and Johnny knew it was only now the girl was giving in to her grief. His heart ached for her, he longed to offer her some comfort too but all he could say, if given the chance was sorry and that one word held no comfort at all. Suddenly his father’s steady pace faltered and he stumbled forward. Johnny watched heart in his mouth as Scott and the doctor helped the obviously sick man up into the buggy. The only thing that stopped him breaking cover and racing down to them then was Murdoch’s hand as he waved away their concern.
Johnny waited until he could no longer see any of the mourners before he cautiously urged Barranca forward. The stallion snorted, tossing his heavy mane, and with barely concealed eagerness made his way down the hill. It was all Johnny could do to keep the stallion’s strides shortened to a walk. He could feel the energy pulsing in the body beneath him and knew Barranca yearned to run. Never had he held the stallion back this long. Yet the animal seemed to understand the sacred nature of their destination and surrendered his will to that of his rider.
Johnny’s eyes swept the area around the cemetery once more before he nimbly dismounted and ground tied Barranca. With sure footsteps he approached Paul’s final resting place, his nostrils assailed by the scent of newly turned earth. He removed his hat, bowed his head, eyes closed.
“I am sorry I wasn’t here,” he whispered. “I don’t know if I could have made a difference that day but I swear to you, I will make a difference from now on. I will avenge you and watch over Teresa and Murdoch and Scott. Forgive me, please.” A single tear broke through Madrid’s control and trickled down his cheek. For a long moment
Johnny stood frozen in place. At long last he raised his head, no sign of his grief visible, no tears, instead a cold, hard countenance as never before seen. He returned to Barranca, mounted and settled his hat firmly on his head.
With that Johnny urged Barranca in the other direction, back to Morro Coyo. When he was sure no one could hear him, he leaned forward in the saddle and released the stallion, whose strides lengthened into blinding speed. With each stride of the giant horse, Johnny Lancer was pushed further down, until by the time Johnny had approached the edge of Morro Coyo, it was as if Johnny Lancer had never been born.
The Tortured Gun Chapter 7
Murdoch braced himself for the ordeal ahead then began to take the stairs at what seemed to him to be barely more than a snail’s pace. Each step knifed a searing pain through his back radiating agonizingly down into his leg. By the time he reached the last stair he was panting heavily and fine beads of sweat covered his brow. He stopped briefly, closing his eyes as he gathered the strength needed to make it the rest of the way. Shuffling stiffly along the passageway relief flooded through him as he closed the bedroom door behind him, finally able to shut out the world.
The Lancer patriarch had spent half an hour or so mingling with the guests, thanking people, trying to reassure some and advise others on the present situation but the strain had proved just too much. Scott had known and had steered him toward a chair where he’d sat briefly before deciding he could take no more. When everyone else had appeared preoccupied he’d slipped, hopefully unnoticed, out of the great room and had headed for the sanctuary of his younger son’s room and the small amount of comfort he would find there. Easing himself down Murdoch stretched out on top of the bed and closed his eyes, sleep claiming him instantly.
Scott listened intently, ear pressed to the bedroom door. The creaking of the bed closely followed by his father’s rhythmic breathing peppered with gentle snoring told him all he wanted to know. Turning swiftly the elder Lancer son made his way back down stairs to where Doctor Sam Jenkins anxiously awaited him.
“Well?” The doctor had been talking to Scott when they’d noticed the pale and subdued form limp from the room. They’d both followed at a discreet distance.
“He’s asleep.” Scott answered, unable to keep the concern out of his voice.
“Good, that’s just what he needs right now. He did too much today.” The older man shook his head sadly as his next words left his lips “And then there’s Johnny, your father was convinced the boy would come home, the disappointment is crushing him.”
“I know.” Scott sighed “We all felt…still feel he will. I can’t explain it Sam, I just `know’ he’ll come back.”
Sam wrapped a reassuring arm around the young man and guided him back into the midst of the mourners. Scott moved slowly through the great room, accepting the offered condolences with his usual grace and polite control. A sea of sorrowful faces swam before him, the men gently patting his shoulder; the women hugging him with tear stained eyes. Almost overcome by emotion, Scott soon found himself drawn into a worrying conversation with several local men.
“They say Pardee’s got at least twenty men working for him now Scott!” Joel Lang’s brown eyes flashed angrily. “A handful of them killers hang around town durin’ the day, the rest of `em only show their faces at night, drinkin’, gamblin’ and shootin’ the place up! It ain’t a safe place to be, day or night.”
The small rotund Clem Sharpe nodded vigorously “They’ve started intimidating folk who ride in for supplies. I’ve been going elsewhere for mine, got me a wife and two kids to think about. What I can’t get from Green River we’re havin’ to do without!”
It was starkly apparent to Scott that many of Lancer’s outlying neighbors were struggling to withstand the hardships imposed by the land pirate’s various and calculated misdeeds. The young man did his best to bolster their flagging spirits and weakening resolves but he knew words were weightless against the threat of such a foe and that it was really only a successful act, a show of strength or of defiance that would help fortify them against the enemy. It seemed they all looked to the might of Lancer to provide such fortitude now, but tragedy had brought Lancer almost to its knees, circumstance weakening and almost breaking its will. Yet, if Lancer didn’t take control they would all fall as one.
Tomorrow, Scott promised himself, he would ride into Morro Coyo, get the supplies they themselves were in need of and check out the situation for himself. If Lancer was to defeat Pardee then they needed to know exactly what they were up against. Rumor and hearsay were not enough to go by, they needed facts.
“Consider that a temporary inconvenience Clem!” Scott squeezed the older man’s arm reassuringly before moving away to talk to some other guests.
With a sigh of relief Scott bid the last of the well wishers good bye and shut the massive front door. He leaned heavily against the old oak and closed his eyes against the tears that suddenly threatened. He’d battled victoriously with his own emotions these last few days and he told himself firmly that now wasn’t the time to succumb.
“Everyone gone?” A soft voice broke through his exhaustion. Scott opened his eyes to find Teresa watching him. Dark shadows under the girl’s lifeless eyes were the only indication of what she had endured this day. He’d watched with pride as she had assumed the role of hostess, sedately and confidently stepping into the shoes of the lady of the house, a position left empty for too many years.
“You have become quite a young lady, Teresa. You handled yourself like a mature woman. You are sure a Lancer.” Scott whispered. A faint light could be seen in the girl’s face only to be quickly snuffed out by the flood of emotion and memories of the day. He wrapped the suddenly forlorn figure in his arms and Teresa melted against him.
“Thank you Scott. I didn’t want to worry Murdoch. He needed all the support we could give him.” The wisdom of her words struck Scott immediately and he knew she belonged here.
“Yes he did. He needs you Teresa, we both do. But this isn’t about us. It’s what you need that’s important now.”
“I want to stay here with Murdoch, with you. Please don’t send me away Scott.” Teresa pleaded.
Scott hugged the trembling form tighter still making a silent vow to do everything in his power to keep the girl safe. “You’re not going anywhere Teresa, I promise.”
The miles back to town flew by in a blur. Barranca’s mighty strides flowed effortlessly; the stallion sensed his rider’s despair but gave in to the overwhelming joy of running. The stallion had been born and bred to run and it was with a great effort that Johnny finally slowed the powerful animal beneath him. Barranca snorted and shook his head, his tail whipping in frustration but he submitted to his rider’s will. Johnny sat still upon the broad back; head bowed and fatefully embraced the calming presence of Madrid. Johnny Lancer was gone, dead; anger at the treachery wrought upon his family by Pardee had seen to that. It was with a tragic sense of finality that Johnny now accepted his fate. He couldn’t go back. His anger would not be denied, he had made a vow at Paul’s grave and he would keep it, even if it meant his death.
It had been a difficult endeavor upon which he had embarked when he had returned to Morro Coyo but now that he fully realized the situation, it was going to be almost impossible. His anger and determination to avenge Paul and his father would be his only strength and yet it would also be his downfall. It had nearly destroyed him when he had heard of Paul O’Brien’s death and now to realize how close he had come to losing his father was almost more than he could bear. Every nerve in him screamed for action no demanded it. Every fiber of his being wanted to seek out Pardee, shove his gun against the man’s head and pull the trigger. Yet he knew he could not kill the man in cold blood. His father would not
understand, or approve, even now. Johnny Lancer could not anyway, but now Johnny Lancer was dead as well, lying in the grave where Paul O’Brien now rested. Well what Lancer could not do, Madrid could. So be it.
Johnny Madrid raised his head, his icy gaze sweeping the area around him. He could not fully remember reaching the town limits. His grief had more than overwhelmed him. He would not allow that to happen again. No matter what the cost or how difficult the situation, Madrid would never bow to Lancer again, he silently vowed, not until he could look his father in the eye and explain what he had done. He rode down the middle of the main street back to the saloon where he had first encountered Pardee. Johnny sat low in the saddle, eyes straight ahead, hat pulled low, as Barranca pranced beneath him.
One block from the saloon Johnny pulled Barranca to an abrupt halt. The stallion reared at the unusually curt tug on the bridle shaking his head to loosen the tight grip on his tender mouth. Johnny soothed the animal realizing his unkind treatment, yet searching for the source of the gunfire that had captured his attention. His gaze was drawn to a small man further down the street leading a tiny, old burro. The frail man was dancing a jig and struggling to maintain his grasp on the burro’s lead while a group of four men took turns peppering the ground at his feet with bullets. Their raucous laughter could easily be heard even where Johnny sat his mount.
With icy resolve Johnny nudged Barranca in the direction of the old man and his donkey. He lithely dismounted parallel to the elderly Mexican gentleman.
“Lo siento, senor, Por favor….” The man pleaded.
“Relax. It will be alright. Go on home now.” Johnny softly ordered. With the gunmen’s attention temporarily off him, the older man bowed and began backing away.
Johnny loosely tied the Palomino and turned to face the old man’s abusers. “Ya like to pick on helpless folk, do ya?” he drawled. “How about try someone more your size.” he challenged.
“Mister, you sure ‘nough are looking for a permanent home in the hereafter, ain’t ya?” The speaker spat his wad of chew which landed at Johnny’s feet.
“Ya know it’s a good day to die. Want to try me?” The tall, thin man registered the challenge with a bare nod. “Look, boys, we got a live one.” His hand hovered above his Colt, fingers flexing nervously.
“Ya feel lucky? Go for it.” Johnny’s softly spoken words hung in the air between them. He watched carefully for the tell tale flicker in his opponent’s eyes. When it came his hand reached for his gun.
The Tortured Gun Chapter 8
“I wouldn’t!” The soft drawl sliced through the ominous silence, the commanding tone in the voice instantly claiming the attention of Johnny’s opponent. Pardee stepped out from the saloon “You looking for me, Johnny Madrid?”
Johnny grinned at the now visibly shaken challenger before him, amused at the effect the mere mention of his name had had on the man.
“I was but your friend here has other plans for me!” Johnny drawled flexing his right hand as it hovered dangerously close to his side.
“Not any more it seems!” Pardee grinned motioning inside the saloon “Come on in Madrid we need to talk!”
Johnny strolled toward the saloon, the group of men that congregated by the doors stepping quickly aside. “Another time maybe?” Johnny glanced briefly at the man he’d been within seconds of killing, the ice in his voice chilling the air around him.
The tequila flowed freely along with the conversation but Johnny drank a lot less than he appeared to do, knowing he needed to keep his wits about him. He listened with mock appreciation as Day boasted about his campaign victories to date, his senses becoming finely attuned when the older man began filling him in on his plans to defeat the estancia that stood between him and his remaining goal.
Lancer had been severely weakened it seemed but its tenacious owner didn’t know when to admit defeat. Pardee spoke of Murdoch Lancer with great irritation and just as he was about to divulge what next he had in mind they were interrupted by a request from one of Pardee’s men for a word with him in private. Johnny watched the tall figure stroll outside then leaned back in his chair, his thoughts on the two men Day had just reluctantly admitted to having become thorns in his side. A warm sense of pride flooded Johnny’s soul. His old man and brother were certainly a force to be reckoned with. He’d learned that lesson himself a year ago as they’d battled to get through a lifetime of lies to reach him.
They had approached the task differently, so differently in fact that Johnny had questioned his father’s courage then, but not for long and certainly not now. Shame flared inside as he remembered the insults, scorn and sass he’d hurled at Murdoch Lancer and the quiet control the man had used to stop himself from reacting to his son’s anger fuelled words. Scott hadn’t been so accommodating, his brother had more than once tackled him. That thought brought a small grin to Johnny’s face. Scott Lancer had turned on him several times, using
words and even his fists in defense of his…their father. In the end they’d both managed to break down his barriers and Johnny knew now why they’d been so successful. The driving force behind both men had been love, love for him! Yet he’d still run from them and his reasons for doing so now seemed so pitiful.
Johnny turned to face Pardee and the men who now flanked him, cursing his lapse into reverie as he noted Pardee’s gun was now trained on him.
“Hands where I can see them Madrid or should that be Lancer?”
“You want to make something of that Day? I can’t help whose pup I am. Ain’t proud of it neither.” The softly spoken words rang with challenge and Johnny’s gaze seemed to bore a hole through the taller man. Johnny had made no move to raise his hands or surrender his weapon, a fact not lost on Day Pardee. With a calm composure that made other men envious, Johnny raised his glass and downed the tequila.
“You are a Lancer then, ain’t ya?” Pardee questioned but without the commanding tone which he had previously used. “Ya wanna explain then?” he drawled. Pardee lowered his weapon and waved his men off, then sat in the chair opposite Johnny.
“Yeah, Murdoch Lancer bedded my mother but he ain’t ever been a father to me. He run my mama and me off right after I was born. I guess he couldn’t handle having a half – breed for a son. My mother died running from the old man. Don’t rightly blame her for leaving though. Never would have figured a man like that could hit on a woman.” The venom dripped unexpectedly off Johnny’s lips. He had lived his entire life working toward achieving vengeance on the man he had blamed for his mother’s death and his own miserable existence. Now to hear the words actually being spoken as though they were about to become a reality brought the memories flooding back in all their vivid detail. “Yeah, must have been a real disappointment for the old man to sire a half-breed when he has the perfect son already. That dandy was mighty uppity. He needs to be taken down a peg or two and I am just the man to do it.”
Day Pardee noticed the emotion lacing through the words of the deadliest gunfighter he had ever known and under his detached exterior he shrank before them. The transformation in Madrid was as horrifying as it was unexpected. With a great effort to appear unconcerned Pardee tilted the chair he was sitting on back on two legs and solemnly observed the man who sat across the table from him. There were still things that didn’t add up; he’d need them explained to his satisfaction before he could trust the young gunfighter again.
“Word is you were livin’ with him for a spell?”
“Yeah I was but not through choice…well not really!” Johnny’s eyes blazed angrily “I was fifteen; festerin’ in some jail cell when he turns up with that son of his and tells me he wants me home!” Pausing for effect Johnny stared down into his empty glass “I believed him and let him haul me back here.” Filling his glass Johnny laughed bitterly “Yeah, he wanted me alright, for a punching bag! Those fists of his earned him a bullet in the head. Killed the old bastard or so I thought! Shouldn’t have run, should have stayed and finished the job.” Snatching up his glass Johnny swallowed the contents in one gulp “I don’t intend making that same mistake again but I think I will help myself to his spread before I kill him!”
“All right, Johnny. Easy Now. No need to get so touchy. Just trying to figure out your angle. Don’t go getting too greedy on me, ok?” Day chuckled softly and waited as Johnny composed himself. Watching the young gunhawk, Day pondered the hate filled words which still hung in the air between them. //Yeah, old man Lancer must have really done a number on the boy.//Day had never seen Johnny Madrid so angry about anything. //It was going to be mighty interesting to see how far Madrid would go to even the score, mighty interesting
“Not a problem, Day. I just have an agenda of my own. I think it will fit in with your plans right nicely. One thing though.” Johnny leaned across the table “I take him down.”
“Sure Johnny whatever you say.”
The day’s events had weighed heavily on Johnny’s mind and he’d spent the night tossing and turning, snatching only a few hours of much needed sleep. He’d tried to block all thoughts of his family and the grief they were living with but images of them at Paul’s graveside had haunted his wakeful hours and had even reached into the realms of sleep. And now he’d been recognized, by whom he didn’t know, he’d been foolishly naïve to hope to the contrary. Word of his return would inevitably reach Lancer and it was the unknown consequences of that which served to haunt him the most. He hadn’t bargained for the strength of feelings that constantly bombarded his iron resolve, and it was becoming an unending battle to keep them in check. Solitude was proving too easy a medium for those emotions to develop yet he wanted, needed that time alone, he just didn’t know why. One thing he did know was that Day had swallowed all his lies and that fact had, instead of providing the relief it should have, only served to trouble him deeply. How easy it had been to defile his father and brother, how easily the hate filled words had tumbled from his mouth. No matter how many times he told himself to the contrary he couldn’t help feeling he’d betrayed them, and he realized that his actions could, and probably would, widen the chasm he had put between them. Throwing his legs over the side of the bed Johnny stretched and yawned before lithely springing to his feet, the endless growling of his stomach pressing the issue of a meal to the forefront of his mind. Stepping to the window he pulled back the curtain to study the street below. It was late morning but the town seemed deserted or had done, a wagon now trundled into sight, the team pulling it looked strangely familiar. Johnny froze. The man urging the horses on was his brother.
Oblivious to the fact he was being watched; Scott Lancer pulled the team to a halt in front of the general store. He hated coming into town for supplies but Lancer was in dire need. The reception had depleted their reserves more than had been anticipated. The turnout for Paul O’Brien’s funeral had been gratifying to the Lancer family. It had been an event worthy of the man in whose honor it had been held. After endless talk of the activity currently overwhelming the quiet little town Scott found he had to admit to a certain morbid curiosity. The talk which had circulated last night during the reception had haunted him all night. He had tossed and turned, sleep refusing his silent invitation.
With a sigh, he climbed down from the wagon and entered the store.
The Tortured Gun Chapter 9
Scott handed Senor Baldamero the list of items Lancer required, all the time attempting to answer the older man’s rapid succession of questions. The warm, enthusiastic welcome and the sincere concern expressed for him and his family bringing an appreciative smile to the handsome face.
As the store keeper disappeared into a side room Scott stared around the well stocked shelves, the absence of the usual hoard of customers a stark reminder of what dangers now gripped the town. Normally the small family run store would be ringing with chatter and good natured laughter but not today. Strolling over to the window the elder Lancer son’s keen, blue eyes surveyed the street; there was not one living soul to be seen anywhere. The only tangible presence seemed to be the heavy and dark atmosphere that shrouded the whole town.
But just minutes later as he strode to the wagon, arms laden with goods, Scott had the uneasy feeling he was no longer alone. His eyes were drawn toward the saloon and the three men who stood by the now open door.
Pacing the length of his room in long irritable strides Johnny tried to reason out his brother’s presence. //Had Scott come looking for him? Did he know he was back? No! Scott wouldn’t have come looking for him with a wagon and he wouldn’t go looking in the general store for him neither!//
Stopping briefly by the window the blue eyes searched expectantly for another glimpse of his brother but Scott was still inside the store. Johnny resumed his pacing and his mind instantly returned to his troubled thoughts.
//Just what would he have said to Scott if he had come knocking on his door?// More importantly, and what troubled him the most, was what would his brother have to say to him? What would he do, how would his brother react to seeing him again? Johnny felt certain he knew the answer to that and the thought warmed him briefly but not for long. Johnny Lancer was dead. He had died while standing beside the grave of a fine man. On his wild ride to town, Johnny Madrid had reclaimed his rightful place and formulated his plan. If Scott had wind of his apparent treachery it wouldn’t be a welcome he’d be offering.
“Damn you, Scott Lancer” Johnny’s indecision finally found a voice, part of him wanted his brother to storm into his room, demand an explanation and then talk him, even bully him, into going home. Yet that could never happen. The Lancers could never reclaim him again. Johnny Lancer did not exist and Johnny Madrid was not a welcome addition to the Lancer household. Once his father and Scott knew him for who he was they wouldn’t want him there. The stubborn, and if Johnny were honest, the scared of returning home part of him, didn’t
want Scott to find out he was back, not yet anyway and maybe not ever. Perhaps that was the real reason behind this `go it alone plan’ of his, perhaps what it all boiled down to in the end was him wanting to save Lancer only to then be able to ride away before his family had chance to confront him again.
Movement down on the street caught his eye and Johnny watched the tall figure move toward the wagon.
//He’s come into town for supplies…alone! How foolish was that? Scott was armed yes, but still, hadn’t he learned anything from the attack on Paul and his…their father? Did Murdoch know he was there? Johnny felt sure the old man didn’t, so just what was his fool brother thinking, maybe he wasn’t thinking at all?//
Johnny felt his anger rise and mix with concern when he spied Pardee’s men, the wolves were gathering and obviously for a reason. He watched intently as his brother made his way back inside the store, Pardee’s men talking amongst themselves then moving purposefully across the street.
“Damn!” The word exploded from Johnny’s mouth as he turned on his heels and headed out of his room. With a jerk he settled his hat firmly in place. Fierce strides carried him swiftly down the stairs and out the door of the hotel. Pardee’s men could be seen moving toward the general store from Johnny’s left. Their intended quarry was loading the wagon with no apparent awareness of the impending danger. Johnny slowed his strides, he knew he couldn’t reach Scott before the three men; their position put them in much closer proximity to Scott. However Madrid was certain they would back down when he made his presence known.
“Hey dandy.” this from the man whom Johnny had faced down just a few days earlier. “You sure lookin purty this morning. You need help lifting those boxes? We sure wouldn’t want ya to strain anything.” he jeered.
Scott froze as the unfamiliar voice demanded his attention, the box in his hands forgotten. Slowly, deliberately he turned to face the owner of the voice. “You talking to me?” he questioned his face a study in concentration.
“Yeah you, purty boy. You shoulda known better than to come to our town all alone. Why didn’t you bring your little baby sister?”
“I am not looking for any trouble, friend.” Scott returned his voice soft but firm.
“Yeah well, trouble has found you.” with that Jake McAllister lunged at Scott, his left fist aiming for Scott’s head. Scott had seen the arm tense, and with fluid grace avoided the blow. He turned sharply to his left, his right fist catching McAllister solidly in the man’s stomach. With a whoosh, Scott heard the breath leave his opponent. Before he realized what was happening Scott’s arms were grabbed from behind effectively preventing any further attempt to fight back. Blow after blow pelted him in the face, his stomach.
“You trying to cut into my turf?” a soft but strangely familiar voice demanded. McAllister faced the new threat, the smirk on his face fading as he met the cold, deadly eyes of Johnny Madrid. The change in the atmosphere surrounding the five men was instant, the heat of the day cooling to numbing cold at the soft challenge of Madrid. Icy fingers tickled Scott’s spine, he felt himself shiver involuntarily. No doubt Pardee’s men were aware of the same drop in temperature. “He’s mine. If anyone is going to work him over it will be me. You got a problem with that?’
“I heard you tell Pardee you wanted the ole man. This here ain’t nothing but an eastern dandy. What you want with him?
“I know you would never challenge me, would you Jake?”
During the exchange, Scott had an opportunity to examine his brother. The young man before him was indeed his brother but he was not the same young man the Lancers had found in the jail cell and brought home over a year ago. Johnny was taller, still slender but he had filled out, muscles hard and tight. He still wore the extravagant clothing he had favored then and his rig was strapped securely around his slim hips. The fingers of his right hand hung loosely, hovering over his Colt, their intent obvious. But it was his countenance that was a shock. Johnny’s face was still, emotionless, his eyes terrifying. No mercy, no light, no life, only death could be seen there. Scott’s death or the death of anyone who dared challenge him. Scott realized he had been holding his breath, the shock of seeing his brother robbing him of the ability to move, to think, to even feel. This Johnny was not his brother; this man
was alive for one purpose, to kill. Scott felt his world tilt crazily, his blood pounded in his head. The man named Johnny Madrid had come not to his aid but to pass judgment, to kill him. An agony of spirit such as Scott had never known overwhelmed, despair tearing his heart in two. He was going to die at the hand of his brother.
Wisely McAllister decided he would have his chance with Scott Lancer, and even Johnny Madrid, but it was not to be this day, not here, not now. With clenched jaw, he stepped aside, making room for Madrid to pass and come to a stop close to their captive. As if entranced Scott studied Johnny’s face. There was no recognition in the young man, nothing to give Scott hope. Did Johnny even know him? Did he know Johnny? Had he ever?
“Johnny? It’s me, Scott.” Scott gently reminded him.
“You think I would forget my own `brother’?” Johnny sneered. “An arrogant, no account greenhorn? You must have me mixed up with someone who cares.” Johnny’s left hand grabbed Scott by the hair and jerked him painfully upright. “You don’t speak to me unless I tell you to, you got that?” The question was not a question but an order and Scott could only nod.
“You go home, you tell the old man I am coming for him. You tell him I have a promise to keep. You hear me?” With that Johnny pulled his Colt and leveled it at his prey.
“Johnny what has happened to you?” With the speed of a snake, Johnny moved. //He’s going to kill me.// The realization of this was the last thing Scott knew before sudden darkness claimed him.
The Tortured Gun Chapter 10
It was, Murdoch told himself, not only the start of another new day but the first day in a new and decidedly uncertain chapter in his life, one he was now ready and determined to face. Yesterday everything had seemed so ugly and bleak; his heart had been weighed down by grief and despair, loss the only tangible thing he could find to cling to in life. Today as he watched the sun rise over Lancer he was ashamed of ever having felt that way, ashamed of forgetting the blessings that surrounded him.
He’d slept well last night, exhaustion dragging him down and holding him in its dark depths. There had been no nightmares, no harrowing images to haunt his waking hours and he felt surprisingly refreshed. Refreshed and seemingly able to see things clearly again.
Paul was gone and he would forever miss his best friend but life went on, had to go on. Teresa needed a father and he would become the father she needed. Scott, as mature and as wise as the young man was, needed him too; they were his reasons to live, Lancer his reason to fight. And yes he would have to fight to keep it but what better cause to fight for than his children’s future. He was damned if he was going to let the likes of Pardee rob them of that.
As for Johnny, well the past half hour of heart crushing deliberations had seen Murdoch finally come to accept that the boy would only be a part of his life if held secure in his heart and
remembered in his prayers. Yesterday that hadn’t been nearly enough but from today it was going to have to suffice.
Pushing any further thought of his younger son into the recesses of his mind Murdoch opened his bedroom door and made his way slowly downstairs. For the first time in days his mouth watered at the aromas that drifted up from the kitchen, a wry smile crept across the still pallid face as his thoughts settled on Maria, there would be no scolding for him this morning, he was sure he could eat whatever she set before him.
Stepping into what he considered the heart of his home he was greeted with a kiss on his freshly shaven cheek, Teresa’s smile fortifying him still further. Maria cast a motherly eye in his direction and he smiled back a greeting. As he’d expected the older woman immediately began filling a plate, heaping upon it enough bacon and eggs to satisfy an army before placing it expectantly before her beloved patron.
“Gracias Maria.” Murdoch stared down at his breakfast, no longer so sure he could do it justice, but he was determined to try. Picking up his fork he suddenly realized his elder son was missing.
“Has Scott eaten?” Murdoch’s eyes moved from Maria to Teresa.
“Yes” Teresa took her place at the table. “He wanted to get an early start.”
“An early start for what?”
“I don’t know!” Teresa’s face mirrored Murdoch’s bewilderment “He didn’t say.”
The bright light hurt his eyes even though he knew he had them tightly closed. Thunder roared in his ears and the jolting of the ground he lay on sent spasms of pain throughout his whole body. With tightly clenched teeth to stifle a moan, Scott rolled over on his right side, willing the earth to stop shaking. Something hard and lumpy prodded his tender side; ribs must be bruised or broken but how and when. He was having a hard time wrapping his mind around the whys and hows of his situation and he fought the inky blackness which beckoned him once more. With a start he realized he wasn’t on the ground at all. The earth was not trembling; he was in the buckboard, a sack of potatoes wedged between him and the side of the wagon. Scott bit his lip against another groan and with supreme effort sat up, holding his breath against the pain that wracked his head and mid section. He raised his head and took in his surroundings. The horses were on the trail to Lancer unguided by anything save the desire to get home. The supplies were still in the bed of the buckboard as he had left them before Pardee’s goons had attacked him. Gingerly he touched the source of the pain in his head, gasping when his hand found the blood still trickling from the place where Johnny’s gun had struck him. Horrified he remembered in a rush. He could still see the cold, deadly face of the man who had once been his brother. He was no longer that man, something had changed him. Scott had thought Johnny was coming to his aid when he had first approached the small group of men who had been punishing him with their fists. He had been shocked, to say the least, when Johnny had been offended at being left out of the beating of his brother.Johnny had not come to help but to throw a couple of his own punches.
What had happened to his brother in the year since he had left Lancer? Scott and Murdoch and the rest of Lancer had longed for the day Johnny would return. But never in their wildest imagination had they expected Johnny to return this way. To not only take a stand against Lancer but to actually contribute to the beating of his own brother was beyond comprehension. Damn, it was going to destroy Murdoch to hear Johnny had pistol whipped Scott and was riding with Day Pardee. It took all of Scott’s control not to cry out. They had
lost Johnny forever it seemed. All hope was gone. Worse yet was the thought which now assailed Scott’s mind and demanded attention. Would they be forced to stare down the barrel of a gun at Johnny Lancer when the final confrontation came? Scott had never felt so beaten, in spirit and body, as he did now, as the buckboard passed beneath the gleaming white arches leading to the hacienda.
Murdoch had spent several hours at his desk catching up on paper work and updating the ledgers. It was a task he hated but an essential one and one that could no longer be put off. Teresa had plied him with coffee and several slices of his favourite cake, a most welcome diversion from the columns of figures that at times caused his aging brain and eyes to ache. Finally with a resigned sigh he snapped the ledger shut.
The bank balance was far from what he’d call healthy but it couldn’t be deemed beyond repair. Hard work and determination would restore the coffers but as long as Pardee remained in the picture it would be an uphill and possibly a futile battle.
//Pardee…// Murdoch told himself resolutely //…was going to have to be removed from the equation//
The still healing wound in his back protested fiercely as Murdoch rose from his chair but he ignored it and reaching for the cane Sam had ordered him to use he forced his reluctant feet to carry him out through the open French window.
It was now well past noon and Scott had yet to put in an appearance not that that was anything unusual. The young man had been putting in extra long hours these last few months, working from sun up to long after the sun went down, but since Paul’s death he’d made a point of checking on his father several times through the day. Murdoch felt uneasy; something about his elder son’s protracted absence troubled him. Perhaps it was just that he was unaware of the young man’s whereabouts today or maybe it was because some instinct told him there was something wrong.
By the time he’d limped into the barn he was ready to sit down again. He hated the lingering weakness from his injury, knew he was perhaps pushing himself too hard but told himself that pampering himself wasn’t the answer either.
For one long moment after catching sight of Scott’s horse standing contentedly in its stall Murdoch knew relief, but only until he realized the wagon was gone, the wagon they used solely for picking up supplies. Stepping back into the sunshine as quickly as his sour leg would allow the gray haired Lancer shielded his eyes and scoured the surrounding area.
//Thank God!// An audible sigh of relief escaped the patriarch’s lips. The wagon was now trundling in his direction, Scott up front guiding the team home. But something was wrong, the young man was almost bent double, and despite the heat of the afternoon he wore no hat.
Murdoch lurched forward cursing his infirmity as it hindered his attempts to reach his son. Just yards away now he called out his son’s name and as Scott raised his head Murdoch balked at the bruised and bloody mess that was once a handsome face.
Scott gasped several times under the doctor’s painstaking examination and expert treatment, the binding of his ribs causing him some great discomfort so too the suturing of the head wound. But his physical discomfort was nothing compared to the emotional pain that gripped him.
So far he’d not been able to share his news with his father; he’d passed out as he’d attempted to climb down from the wagon, coming to in his bed to find Maria and Teresa fussing over him. He’d decided to spare them the heartache for as long as possible but it wouldn’t be fair to keep it from his father. The older man could sense he was keeping something back though and as soon as Sam had finished his ministrations Scott swore he’d tell his father about Johnny.
Satisfied with his handiwork, Sam Jenkins stepped away from the bed and began gathering up his medical supplies. “I want you to stay in that bed a couple of days and then take it easy. You are lucky your skull is still in one piece.” With an unusual expression of affection, Sam turned away from Scott and faced the elder Lancer. “I’m sure you want a moment alone. I will wait for you downstairs.”
“Thanks, Sam. I appreciate all you have done.”
Softly closing the door behind him, Sam left the two men alone. With a gentleness his size belied, Murdoch gently swept Scott’s hair from his brow.
“What happened, son? Who did this to you?”
“It was Johnny, pa.” Scott whispered. Horrified Scott watched as Murdoch fell into the chair, shock enveloping his entire being.
Tortured Gun Chapter 11
Johnny downed the tequila in one gulp and gestured for a refill. Without hesitation the barkeeper jumped to do his bidding. It was never a good day to cross Johnny Madrid but today would be far worse. Madrid’s mood was darker than the barkeeper had ever seen it. Johnny never acknowledged the older man’s presence; he merely reached for his now full glass and took a gulp, this time slower, more deliberate. He knew he could not retreat to the safety of his room, he had to make a reasonable appearance but the memory of Scott’s face when he had recognized Johnny’s intentions haunted Johnny. He had hurt his brother far more than a blow to the head. He had struck him where the damage was greater, his heart, his trust.
McAllister had ordered his two compadres to load Scott into the wagon and then slapped the horse’s flanks, sending him pounding for home. Johnny had nonchalantly waved the three men off as they had offered congratulations for the message he was sending home to Lancer. With casual, unhurried footsteps Johnny had entered the saloon and taken his customary seat at the rear, back to the wall.
Pardee was apparently whiling away an hour or so in Dolores’s company but no matter the size of the smile the raven haired beauty put on Day’s face Johnny knew he’d take greater pleasure in the news Madrid had proved his loyalty to the cause.
//Loyalty to the cause// Johnny almost snorted at that thought. His loyalty was with Lancer yet he’d just rendered his own brother unconscious to prove the very opposite. That wasn’t the reason for his actions of course just an unexpected bonus, he’d wanted Scott out of harms way and fast, sparing him any further abuse and maybe even saving him from the same fate as Paul. He’d done what he’d had to do but it had sickened him to his very stomach.
Johnny had watched the array of emotions play across his brothers bloodied face, shock, joy, disbelief and finally resignation. Yes he’d done an excellent job of convincing both sides of his loyalty to Pardee.
“Here get this down you!” Sam Jenkins forced a sparkling crystal glass in his old friend’s hand motioning for him to drink its contents. When Murdoch had finally stumbled into the great room the doctor had been appalled by the anguish etched on the elder Lancer’s face. Steering the visibly shaken man to the couch he’d listened with stunned fascination as Murdoch had with a distinct tremor in his voice told him of his younger son’s return and his apparent allegiance to the enemy. It was beyond all comprehension and Sam knew it had utterly devastated the boy’s father and brother. He’d not been able to find any words of comfort, what could anyone say to lessen the impact of such a merciless blow. Instead as unusual as it was for him, he’d turned to the contents of a decanter and poured both himself and Murdoch Lancer a hefty nip of liquid courage. It wasn’t until he turned to walk back to his old friend that he noticed a deathly pale Teresa standing by the door.
With the footsteps of one who has been struck Teresa entered the room. She came to a stop just short of Sam’s open embrace and turned to face her guardian. “Johnny is home? He did this to Scott?” she asked, horror lacing her words.
At her soft whisper, Murdoch finally noticed her presence and stood making a move in her direction. “Honey, come here.” He took another step toward the young girl, surprised to see her backing away.
“I don’t believe it. I don’t. He wouldn’t hurt Scott, he wouldn’t hurt anyone. You have to be wrong. You all are wrong!” Teresa turned and ran from the room, the loud crashing of the front door echoing through the great house.
“Murdoch, let her go.” Sam gently advised his friend.
Teresa ran until her breath failed her, her blood shrilling a crescendo in her ears, drowning out all reason, all thought. She came to a stop dropping to her knees; head bowed she finally gave in to her emotions and sobbed into her hands, her body wracked by the intensity of her sorrow.
It was all too much to bear, too awful to accept. It couldn’t possible be true but Murdoch and Scott wouldn’t lie about such a thing. They’d made a mistake, yes that was it, Scott had made a dreadful mistake. Johnny wouldn’t hurt him, not any of them; he loved them! She knew he did. But her guardian had looked so stricken, the pain evident in his eyes just like the day Johnny had left and Murdoch had been forced to acknowledge he was losing his son for a second time.
She hadn’t been able to understand the situation then either, she had demanded they go after him and bring him back. Tears had fallen down her cheeks as she’d screamed at Murdoch to fetch Johnny home. Her father had sat her down and dried those stubborn tears telling her gently in the rich soothing tones that she missed so much that Johnny couldn’t be forced into staying, that life had knocked independence into him and that nothing his father or brother could say would change his mind. It had to be the boy’s decision but one day hopefully he’d realize the mistake he had made and come home.
How she longed for her father now, how desperately she needed to feel his strong arms around her. How she craved his wise words and to hear his voice again. How she wanted him to put her world right.
“Why?” Murdoch stared into his glass, the contents untouched. “Why Sam? I don’t understand why that boy is siding with Pardee against his own family. I can’t believe that he could actually hurt his brother in such a cold and callous way. I don’t want to believe that he’s threatened me. That isn’t the boy I remember, that isn’t the boy I brought home that day. He hated me then yes, but he had reason to and even though he hated me he gave me a chance. He didn’t hate me when he left, I’d earned his respect by then, his trust and he loved…” Murdoch swallowed the lump gathering in his throat and stared into his friend’s empathic gray eyes “At the very least I thought he’d come to accept… to believe that I loved him, that I had always loved him.”
“He did Murdoch and yes, he did love you that was plain for everyone to see. I don’t suppose he could tell you or knew how to show you but that boy loved both you and Scott and that was the very reason he left. Was it not?”
“I thought so, that’s why none of this makes sense. I have to see him; I have to talk to him.” Murdoch lurched to his feet limping determinedly toward the door. Sam followed quickly. Reaching out he caught hold of his friend’s arm, yanking him backward and bringing the taller man to an abrupt halt.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
“I’m going to bring that boy home where he belongs!”
“No, you are not!” Sam stated flatly moving to stand between Murdoch and the front door. “You’re in no condition to sit a horse let alone ride to Morro Coyo!”
“Damn it Sam, get out of my way, I need to talk to my son!” Murdoch’s eyes flashed angrily but the doctor held his ground. Quickly contemplating the situation the doctor’s reply came in a calm but determined voice.
“No. I think it would be better for all concerned if I be the one to talk to him!”
“You? No! No Sam I can’t let you!”
“Why? Do you think he’ll pistol whip me too?” Sam challenged.
“No!” Murdoch was appalled at the suggestion but was immediately and sickeningly reminded of his elder son’s injury.
Seeing the confusion and grief on the patriarch’s face Sam wrapped his arm around the rancher’s waist and guided him back toward the couch.
“We don’t know for sure what’s happening with Johnny and until we do I think you should take that threat seriously. He’s been gone a year. Anything could have happened to inflame his hatred for you. Let me talk to him.”
“But Pardee’s men!” Murdoch couldn’t allow another man to die in his name.
“Pardee’s men give me a wide berth; they know I’m the only doctor around here. But if you ride into town you know damn well one of them will pick you off and that boy upstairs needs you. Teresa needs you, now more than ever. You go talk to her and I’ll see what Johnny has to say for himself!”
As Sam’s buggy jolted into a steady pace its destination Morro Coyo, Murdoch forced himself to think about the task in hand. Troubled eyes searched the area, his feet leading him toward the small orchard and hopefully Teresa.
It was obvious she’d cried her heart out, her brown eyes were swollen and red but there were no tears to be seen now and as she walked toward him Murdoch wondered just how in control of her emotion Teresa really was. He opened his arms and this time she didn’t turn away, she stepped into his embrace and hugged him tightly. “Teresa!”
“I’m sorry about before.” Teresa whispered, ashamed of her earlier display. Her guardian didn’t need the added burden of a hysterical child; he had enough on his plate already.
Murdoch sighed; Teresa was apologizing for her pain, pain she had every right to feel.
“It hurts I know, sometimes it seems that’s all there is inside but…”
“I hate him!” Teresa whispered so softly Murdoch felt sure he’d heard incorrectly.
Pulling herself away and out of the embrace Teresa stared up into Murdoch’s questioning eyes.
“I hate him; I don’t ever want to see Johnny again!” Turning swiftly Teresa ran toward the hacienda leaving Murdoch wondering just who the girl was really trying to convince.
The foot steps on the stairs caught Johnny’s attention and he listened, expecting them to pass on by his room as they had done every other time. But they didn’t and Johnny was instantly on his feet, gun in hand before the light rap came on his door.
“Yeah?” He called and was taken completely aback by the reply.
“It’s Sam Jenkins!”
Johnny knew his only option was to open the door, the doc was as stubborn as a mule, but wary of a trap Johnny opened it slowly and only wide enough to see his visitor’s face. It obviously wasn’t wide enough for the doctor who angrily pushed his way past Johnny and into the room, turning to look the young man directly in the eye. “Well?” Sam demanded.
Johnny closed the door re-holstering his gun. He knew exactly what Sam was asking him but couldn’t begin to answer lest he spilled everything.
“What’d you want doc? Now isn’t a good time!” Johnny drawled. Strolling casually toward the window he felt a hand on his arm, tightening painfully and swinging him around to once more look into the doctor’s eyes.
“Get your hand off me!” Johnny snarled. He didn’t like the way this was going, knew he wouldn’t like what the doctor seemed so set on saying to him.
“Aren’t you even going to ask me how he is?” Sam ground out somewhat surprised when the young man actually looked away. Things obviously weren’t what they seemed but then, how were they exactly?
“Your brother has two broken ribs and six stitches in his scalp…” Sam broke off as Johnny wrenched himself free of his grasp, turning his back on the doctor.
The older man sighed unsure of where to take the conversation next, maybe if he continued to push? “Your father wanted to come himself…” Sam watched the boy’s shoulder’s tense “he wanted to ask you to go home…” the dark head bowed and the doctor pursed his lips before continuing softly “home where despite what you did today he still believes you belong!”
No one was around when she finally reached the barn. Teresa slipped unnoticed through the massive door and headed for her horse’s stall. Quickly she saddled and bridled Dancer and then led her outside. Once last glance around assured her she had been unseen. Resisting the urge to press her filly into a gallop right then and there, she slowly walked out of the yard, under the white arches and at last pressed the swift little filly into a gallop. It seemed to take a lifetime to reach the edge of town but actually she had made good time. The sun was reluctantly surrendering possession of the heavens to the new moon, shadows lengthening, a cool breeze was blowing. As if aware for the first time of the danger she had willingly placed herself in, she drew up and studied the street. Where would Johnny be? Where should she start? With all the courage of her father, Teresa reined her mount toward the saloon. She knew respectable women did not frequent the establishment but she was on a mission and would not be denied.
At the hitching rail in front of the saloon her courage failed her when two big gruff hands grabbed her about her waist and pulled her from the saddle.
“Well, well, what have we here? Hey look, boys, another one of them Lancers has come a calling. But I am sure we can show this one a better time than her brother.” Jake McAllister drew her nearer; she could feel his hot, putrid breath on her face, the strong odor of alcohol made her stomach roil.
“You put me down right this minute, do you hear me?” she wailed.
The Tortured Gun Chapter 12
Johnny’s relaxed posture belied the torrent of contradictory emotions that flooded his soul, the inner struggle of his alter egos threatening to consume him. With steely resolve he pushed the emotions back into the darkness of his secret place, locking them securely in the inner room of his mind where Johnny Lancer now lived. Taking a deep cleansing breath, Johnny Madrid turned to face his antagonist.
“Home?” Madrid’s soft voice chilled the air, his eyes dark with danger and something else, death.
Sam Jenkins had heard of the icy phenomenon that was Johnny Madrid, even Murdoch Lancer had described the feeling of looking into the eyes of death but Sam was unprepared for the impact of that stare. Icy fingers tickled his spine and Sam shuddered in spite of the warmth of the room. “I think you had best leave now. This conversation is over.” Madrid drawled ominously. “Oh and you can give Murdoch Lancer a message for me. You tell him not to send any more errand boys. You tell him I will shoot the next one on sight. Oh and while you are at it, tell Scott he is lucky to be alive. You got that?”
Unable to fully comprehend the change in the young man standing before him, Sam Jenkins merely nodded. With one last hopeful look, Sam turned and left the room.
Johnny stared after the doctor uncomfortably aware that the older man hadn’t seemed convinced by his words or stance. Thankfully he’d not pursued the matter but Johnny had been left in no doubt that Sam had left deliberating over their encounter and Johnny found himself troubled by just what message the doctor would pass on to his father. He certainly didn’t want his old man riding into town on the strength of it. Right at that very moment a drink sounded like a very good idea. Reaching for his hat Johnny set it firmly in place before opening the door and making his way over to the saloon.
Murdoch watched as his elder son tossed and turned in a fitful sleep. There seemed no escape from the troubles that had befallen Lancer, not even at rest. Johnny was obviously haunting his brother’s dreams as he did his father’s thoughts and what troubled thoughts they were. Johnny fists may not have been responsible for the bruises that littered Scott’s body or the broken ribs that Sam had so recently bound but his words had cut deep and mercilessly leaving wounds that could so easily fester and poison the soul. The gun he had once used to save Teresa’s life had today been brutally used against his brother. Murdoch had earlier told Sam that those weren’t the actions of Johnny Lancer but had it been Johnny Lancer standing there or Johnny Madrid? Murdoch had a year ago accepted as painful as it was that Johnny was both. When he’d first come home Johnny had been mostly Lancer turning to, and into, Madrid only when he felt the need to protect himself. Surely he hadn’t felt he needed to protect himself against his own brother? Perhaps the last year had proved harder on Johnny than Murdoch could imagine. Life had maybe dealt the boy enough hurt and hardship to harden his heart against everything, even the very things he had once cared so much about. Murdoch knew his younger son had hated him once and he fully understood the boy’s reasons but Johnny had never hated Scott, he’d had no reason to Johnny hadn’t trusted his brother but Scott had been determined to put that right and had to his father’s great pride been the first to earn the boy’s trust.
It had soon become obvious to Murdoch that his elder son had become the object of some hero worship. That thought made Murdoch smile but the smile faded quickly when his eyes again fell upon his son’s battered face. What had happened to that hero worship? Where had all the hard earned respect and trust gone? Johnny had stood by and done absolutely nothing to prevent the beating of his brother, making it plain that he too wanted a piece of the action. Johnny Lancer wouldn’t have done those things but Johnny Madrid would! No! Murdoch had great difficulty believing that either, Madrid couldn’t be that cold or calculating surely. Madrid was a part of Johnny and a part Johnny had absolute control over. Madrid was a role he played and played so very well. Murdoch had witnessed the transformation himself and it had unnerved him but still, it had always been his boy behind the mask! Had Johnny been wearing that mask today? If so why? Murdoch wished with all his heart that Johnny had had good reason to do what he did but what possible reason could there be? If he’d been trying to protect Scott then Johnny would naturally turn into Madrid but he hadn’t been protecting his brother, he hadn’t been protecting Scott from Pardee’s men. Something in those words troubled Murdoch and he repeated them over and over in his head until finally there appeared a glimmer of hope //Johnny hadn’t been protecting Scott from Pardee’s men or had he?//
Teresa shivered uncontrollably; she had never been so scared in her life before or so very foolish! What would Murdoch say, what would Scott say and Maria! Maria, the normally kind, gentle and so very loving Maria would wipe the floor with her! That was if she ever saw her again! Would she see any of them ever again? Tears threatened but she forbid them to fall, no matter what she wasn’t going to cry. ”Here drink this.”
Teresa looked up into the kindly face, taking the proffered glass of water into her trembling hands “Thank you!” she said softly managing a small smile for the dark haired saloon girl.
“What are those men going to do to me?” Teresa asked a hint of her fiery temper just beneath the calm words. “Are they going to let me go?”
“Now honey, I wouldn’t know anything about that. I just thought you could use something cool to drink after your long ride. You are a brave young lady to come here all alone. Were you looking for something? Or someone?”
“I came for, never mind. I just wanted to take a long ride.” the lie dripped off Teresa’s lips like warm honey, her long dark lashes veiling the truth in her eyes. “What’s your name?”
“You never mind about names. Finish your drink. I will check on you later.”
With that the woman swept from the room, the door hissing softly behind her, then the sound of a key in the lock echoed through the now quiet room. Teresa waited a few more minutes until the sound of retreating footsteps could no longer be heard. Satisfied the woman was gone; Teresa jumped to her feet and began to examine the room seeking a way out, any way at all. She was in the storeroom at the rear of the saloon. Large kegs of beer were stacked against the walls on either side of the door to the saloon. Various sacks of potatoes, onions and dried beans were strewn haphazardly around the room and stacked precariously high on the wall opposite the door. Curiously Teresa faced the wall hidden by the sacks of vegetables. Something niggled at the back of her mind, something she couldn’t put a finger on. The wall of vegetables seemed innocent enough yet she couldn’t deny her instincts. With a heavy sigh Teresa began pulling the sacks away from the wall.
As Johnny crossed the deserted street he immediately sensed a change in the atmosphere, starkly obvious was the silence radiating from the usually raucous saloon. He turned to look up the street and saw to his relief Sam’s buggy disappearing in a cloud of dust. At least he wasn’t heading toward Lancer. Stepping into the smoky room Johnny was surprised to see a large number of Pardee’s men huddled around several tables all listening intently to Pardee who upon seeing Johnny halted his conversation and grinned broadly in his direction. ”Hey Madrid I’ve got a surprise for you!”
”Yeah?” Johnny grinned and sauntered over to join Pardee, gesturing to the chair alongside Pardee. Its occupant grudgingly stood and Johnny took the vacated space. ”And what would that be Day?” Johnny studied the older man’s face; it was clear there had been some sort of development in his dealings with Lancer.
”Something we’re gonna be able to use to our advantage.”
Laughter echoed around the room and Johnny began to feel very uneasy.
”Come on I’ll show you!”
Johnny stood and followed the taller man toward the storeroom his sixth sense telling him he wasn’t going to like what he found on the other side of the door.
Pardee tucked the key back into his pocket before throwing the door open and gesturing to Johnny to step inside. Blue eyes quickly searched the dimly lit room, widening in horror when they fell upon the girl he’d imagined to be safely back at Lancer. Johnny took in Teresa’s disheveled appearance and alarm bells rang, her dress was torn, the long wavy hair she’d always struggled to tame with ribbons and pins hung loosely around her shoulders, tears shone in the big brown eyes and one very angry bruise covered almost all of her right cheek. Before Johnny could react Teresa was on her feet running toward him, the slap she delivered to his face resounding loudly around the small room.
The Tortured Gun Chapter 13
Teresa’s hands balled into angry fists and she pounded them fiercely against Johnny’s chest “How could you? How could you Johnny?”
A stunned Johnny allowed the girl to briefly vent her anger before trying to take control of the situation by grasping both of her wrists.
“Cut it out or you’ll get a taste of the same!” he warned menacingly, fully aware that Pardee was now flanked by several of his men and the audience was growing quickly. All seemed amused at the feisty display before them.
“Ooh, you dare lay a hand on me, Johnny Lancer!” Teresa squealed, lashing out with her booted foot to kick Johnny in the shin.
The men roared with laughter at the girl’s antics and Johnny found himself admiring Teresa’s spirit as painful as it was proving to be for him. Momentarily releasing one of Teresa’s wrists Johnny spun the girl around wrapping one arm around her waist. Trapping the free and dangerously flailing hand in his, he then forced Teresa’s other hand behind her back silently acknowledging the fact he would be hurting her but right at that moment he had no other choice. Still the girl’s struggles continued and Johnny winced when her foot made agonizing contact with his ankle.
“That’s Madrid, little lady. Johnny Madrid and don’t you forget it. You hear me?” Johnny drawled in Teresa’s ear.
“You need some help Madrid?” Pardee laughed “It looks like you finally met your match.”
“She never did like me!” Johnny grinned back trying desperately to think of a way to get Teresa out of the situation.
“That’s not true!” Teresa stopped her struggling immediately and twisted her head around to look up at Johnny even more confused and hurt by his words.
Johnny felt his heart constrict as the two big brown eyes searched his, looking, he knew, for any sign of the boy she had once teased and plagued so mercilessly with her demands for attention. She searched his face, looking for the boy she’d somehow, despite everything he was, everything he’d done, managed to love. It hurt to see the pain and bewilderment in the eyes that had once looked at him with complete trust but he couldn’t look away, not even when the troubled brown eyes brimmed with tears nor when the tiny droplets began to trickle down the pale and bruised cheeks. He felt all the fight drain out of the young girl then, tremors running through her as she bowed her head and began to weep silently.
How he wanted to wipe away those tears, hug the trembling form to him and tell her that everything would be alright but he couldn’t and not just because Pardee was standing there, no, the situation was spiraling out of control. He hadn’t bargained on Teresa falling into Day’s hands, but now the enemy had the ace they needed.
He slackened his grip a little and Teresa pulled herself free of his arms to walk quickly back to the corner of the room where she resumed her seat and with a little effort her composure. After calmly staring at the girl for a moment, Johnny Madrid scanned the room, searching for any way out besides the obvious exit through the saloon. His eyes studied the far wall covered by sacks of various food items.
Teresa intently studied Johnny’s face, nothing in his expression revealed his thoughts, he was a complete stranger. She was aware of the momentary pause in Johnny’s examination of the room and knew he was contemplating the wall behind her. With icy resolve Johnny let his gaze once more linger on Teresa, his expression unreadable.
“Come on Madrid we’ve got things to discuss.” The fun apparently over Pardee broke the silence eager to set his plans in motion.
Johnny strolled casually out of the storeroom aware Teresa’s eyes were following his every move, the disgust he knew was there cutting through him like a knife.
His surroundings spun incessantly around him but Scott stepped determinedly toward the stairs.
//Concussion!// He told himself, he’d had it before, twice in fact and both times previously had been the result of an encounter with a horse, the angry bucking variety! The thunder trapped within his skull reminded him that neither occasion had proved as severe as this. What he wouldn’t give to return to his bed, to lay his pounding head on the down filled pillows and close his aching eyes. //Later// he told himself because right now he knew there was something wrong at Lancer; the raised, urgent voices downstairs told him that. What was it exactly that everyone else had for some reason neglected to tell him?
Fine beads of perspiration were glistening on Scott’s forehead by the time he reached the bottom of the stairs. Gulping in some air to quell the overwhelming nausea he then headed toward the great room. His legs felt like jelly and each step required immense concentration but finally he entered the great room only to find it empty.
The front door stood open and Scott strained to hear the voices that drifted in from outside. He stumbled towards the door desperate to know what was going on. Stepping into the fresh evening air his head cleared a little but his concern grew when his eyes found his father. The older man was talking animatedly with a seemingly agitated Cipriano. Jess was leading several horses including Murdoch’s out from the barn toward half a dozen of their already mounted men.
“Pa!” Scott yelled, concern laced the word. His father had had strict orders from Sam not to sit a horse for another month at least. The grey haired man turned in his direction concern spreading across the weathered face; he moved quickly toward his son, Cipriano following behind.
“Scott! You should be in bed!”
“What’s going on?” Scott demanded grateful for the steadying arm his father threw around him.
Murdoch hesitated; he hadn’t wanted Scott to find out, not yet anyway but there was no keeping it from him now.
“Her pony’s gone; no one has seen her in hours.” Murdoch elaborated.
“I’ll help you look!” Scott interrupted gesturing toward the barn “Jess would you saddle my horse too.”
The ranch hand looked to Murdoch who shook his head.
“No son! I want you here, she may return and…”
“No!” Scott snapped eyeing his father suspiciously “There’s something you’re not telling me?” Fear flared as the truth dawned on the elder Lancer son. “She knows about Johnny doesn’t she? She’s gone to find him!”
“We don’t know that for sure.”
“But you’re going to Morro Coyo to look for her?” Scott studied his father’s face finding the truth there. “Then I’m coming too. Jess! Would you please saddle my horse!”
“No! You’re hurt you’ll only slow us down!” Murdoch declared desperate to keep his injured son at Lancer.
“I’m going with you!” Scott’s voice rang resolutely; his gaze drifting meaningfully towards Jess again, this time the older man turned on his heels and headed back to the barn to ready Scott’s mount.
Scott’s eyes bored into his fathers “Have you forgotten that boy promised to kill you?” His voice soared echoing through the still night.
“That isn’t what he said!” Murdoch shot back angrily; he wouldn’t believe that of Johnny.
“Not in so many words no, but that IS what he meant!” Scott insisted glaring up at his father unable to understand the older man’s words to the contrary.
Murdoch placed both his hands on Scott’s shoulders and squeezed them gently, reining in his turbulent emotions. “No I don’t think that was what he meant. Something tells me…” Murdoch’s tone softened wary of the reaction his next words would receive “to trust him!”
“Trust him! After what he did to me?” Scott exclaimed shrugging off his father’s hands in disgust.
“Yes! Despite what he did to you. I well, I…” Murdoch shook his head at a loss as to how to explain the gut feeling he had about his younger son. “I just don’t believe we should give up on him Scott.” Murdoch’s eyes pleaded for understanding.
Scott stared into the pale blue eyes, the desperation he found there echoing his own. He wanted to believe in his brother too but the boys actions had shaken him to the core, badly damaging the faith he had had in him, how could it not? Yet he still loved his brother, the unconditional love of family holding true. Perhaps that was what their father was clinging to; the fact that Johnny had once loved them, albeit in his own guarded way. But just how strong had that love been? They had been strangers to him, and the few months he’d been home had been troubled, difficult times when he’d visibly struggled with his feelings for them. Had those feelings waned into insignificance this past year? It was possible; and a possibility they neither of them had considered until today. Scott could understand his father’s reluctance to face it as fact; Murdoch Lancer loved, wanted and needed his son, of course he wouldn’t want to give up on him. But no matter how much he loved his brother Scott knew he couldn’t allow himself to see things that same way. There was just too much at stake, his father’s life and now Teresa’s. As far as Scott was concerned Johnny was now an unknown commodity and until he had evidence to the contrary he’d be viewing him as the
enemy. Looking away from his father’s intense gaze Scott stated quietly
“Let’s ride, we’ve lost too much time already.”
Teresa stood quietly, listening to the sound of retreating footsteps. With a swoosh she let out her breath, unaware even that she had been holding it, then turned her attention to the wall behind her. She knew the wall had caught Johnny’s interest as it had hers. Though, admittedly, she did not know the man who had held her tightly and endured her assault, an odd feeling of hope was making itself known. Perhaps Johnny had been trying to tell her something. Perhaps there was more to his deception than met the eye. Perhaps things were not as they appeared; Johnny Madrid may be in control, at least for now, but Teresa felt sure somewhere in his chest the heart of Johnny Lancer was still beating. Certainly he had given
her no indication that he cared, or even that she meant anything to him. Yet in her youth and new found awareness of the cruelty of the world, faith in the bond they had once shared refused to be ignored. //Later. I will think about this later// She told herself.
Resolutely she began dragging the sacks away from the wall, being careful to make little if any noise. The sacks were large and awkward and she found herself soon winded by her efforts. A particularly heavy sack suddenly fell from the pile which remained near the wall, its balance upset by the smaller sacks Teresa had tugged away. As a shaft of moonlight cut through the darkness in the room, Teresa allowed a small smile of victory to cross her face.
Murdoch reined in his mount at the edge of town and threw up an arm to signal a stop to Scott and the men. Carefully he surveyed the street, now strangely deserted. A couple of blocks up the road the tinny sound of an out of tune piano floated upon the breeze and could be clearly heard. Obviously Pardee was in the saloon enjoying his feeling of victory. No doubt he did feel victorious, the beating of the eldest Lancer son boosting his confidence. Feeling decidedly uneasy Murdoch Lancer urged his horse down the main street of Morro Coyo. As the party from Lancer approached the saloon, Murdoch again drew to a halt, his unease now tangible. Sweat dripped down his back, his hip and leg screamed in protest at the prolonged time spent in the saddle. With ill concealed effort he swung around in the saddle.
“You men wait here. I’m going in the saloon. Keep your weapons at the ready” he ordered.
“I’m going with you.” Scott protested.
A movement up the block caught Murdoch’s attention and he jerked erect in the saddle once more. Pardee!
“Nobody get hasty. Hold up here.” Murdoch indicated with a wave of his hand.
Out of the corner of his eye Scott noticed a movement. His hand went to the weapon at his hip. Teresa!
“Pa!” Scott yelled.
The Tortured Gun Chapter 14
Johnny scowled at his glass of tequila, his mind a whirlwind of conflicting thoughts. The last thing he had expected was that fool Teresa to come after him. Not only had she endangered herself but she had put him in an almost impossible position. How was he going to get them out of this? He certainly couldn’t pistol whip her though after the way she had attacked him… At that thought Johnny smiled in spite of himself. She had spunk that was for sure. A Lancer through and through whether she had been born one or not. His mind went round and round but always came to rest on the Lancers. Murdoch and Scott would be worried sick and hot on Teresa’s heels. They would be coming into Morro Coyo any time now, that much he was sure of. Having Murdoch and Scott in such close proximity with Pardee was inherently dangerous. With Teresa between them it was deadly. //Think Madrid, think//
“No Lancers in that glass, Madrid.” Pardee laughed.
Johnny raised his eyes, allowing the full impact of his stare to weigh Pardee down. As expected Pardee broke the eye contact by pulling out a chair and falling into it.
“She is quite a hell cat, now isn’t she?” he mused.
“Yeah, I got the bruises to prove it.”
“That was such a display. She sure gave you what for.” Pardee could no longer contain his amusement. With gut splitting howls, he laughed at the sight of Johnny Madrid being whipped by a slight girl.
Teresa’s heart beat furiously in her chest, she was so very scared but equally as determined to get herself out of the mess she’d so foolishly gotten herself into. So far it had been easy, too easy perhaps and as she crept along the alley toward the main street she realized the hardest part was yet to come. She knew her pony would not be where she’d left it so her next move was to take the first horse she found //Take? Steal! No, no borrow!! Stop it Teresa! Now isn’t the time to worry about right and wrong!// she scolded herself. Just how silly was she! Tears sprung to her eyes as fear suddenly got the better of her, but she blinked them away and told herself firmly that she could do this, she had to, she had something very important to tell Murdoch and Scott Lancer, something they desperately needed to know.
The main street was just feet away when she heard the sound of approaching riders. She crouched down behind a crate terrified she’d be seen or that the thundering in her chest would be heard. Gripped by terror she clamped her mouth shut to stifle the sobs that threatened, but her terror soon gave way to unspeakable relief when she heard the voice of her guardian. In an instant she was on her feet and running toward the men she now recognized.
Johnny glared at Pardee hating to be the brunt of another man’s jokes yet he had to admit that the sight of a slight girl having her way with a mighty gun fighter must have been comical, to say the least. For the second time Johnny Madrid felt an uncharacteristic smile tug at the corner of his mouth.
“All right now, Day, you’ve had your fun. We have some business.” Johnny growled but the unmistakable ring of laughter could be clearly heard in his voice.
Of all the men he had ridden with Day Pardee was the only man who had ever seen Johnny Madrid amused. The two gunhawks enjoyed an odd relationship, each a predator while yet the prey. Johnny couldn’t honestly say he liked Pardee, nor could Pardee admit the same but the alliance was mutually beneficial. Madrid knew in the end one of them would kill the other, he was even more sure of this fact now that Pardee had attacked Lancer, yet the intensity of the anger and hatred he felt for his old compadre was shocking to him. That he
would be the victor was undeniable; Johnny knew it and perhaps Day knew it too.
With supreme effort, Day brought his laughter under control and attempted to focus on the conversation at hand. With a vicious gesture he wiped his eyes and leaned forward on his elbows. “I believe we now have the leverage we need to bring Lancer to her knees.” he gloated. “By now Lancer is finding out the girl is missing. They will be frantically trying to find her. I only wish I could see their expressions when they realize she has left the ranch.” The evil gleam in Pardee’s eyes was not lost on Johnny and with more than a little effort Johnny’s anger remained safely hidden behind the mask of Madrid.
“I will be the one to let Lancer know. I have an old score to settle.” Johnny insisted, making no effort to hide the hatred behind the words. Satisfied that Pardee had misunderstood the object of that hatred, he sat back and took a long swallow of his tequila. With a wave of his hand Johnny beckoned the barkeep.
“Another bottle, por favor.”
With a suddenness that had both Johnny and Pardee reaching for their guns, the sound of galloping hooves, men yelling and a girl’s shriek exploded throughout the relative quiet of the saloon. As one the occupants of the saloon were on their feet and heading for the door. Johnny and Pardee pushed through the crowd and found themselves in the middle of the street, Pardee’s men flanking them to the right and left. Facing northward, Johnny’s eyes fell on Teresa, now running desperately toward Jess White.
Arms outstretched Teresa felt Jess grasp her hand, yanking her painfully off the ground and swinging her up and around to sit behind him.
“Get her home!” Scott hollered gun drawn, eyes locked on his brother.
“Hold tight!” Jess ordered as he urged his horse into a gallop.
Teresa wrapped her arms tightly around the ranch hand, her cheek pressed up against his back. She clung on desperately as their mount hurtled through the deserted streets. Behind her all hell was breaking loose. Angry voices and deadly gunfire filled the air.
Scott’s shout had alerted Murdoch to Teresa’s presence; he’d held his breath until the girl had disappeared safely into the night, only then had he acknowledged who it was that had been standing side by side with Pardee. He’d then turned back to hungrily drink in the sight of his younger son. He hadn’t recognized Johnny at first mistaking him for yet another of Pardee’s faceless killers. The boy had grown, physically matured, but the eyes that now stared back at him hadn’t changed, no, those were the blue eyes he remembered from always.
“Johnny?” He mouthed silently, a plea he knew would go unanswered but one he had to make. Still he wasn’t prepared for the response it brought.
“The old man’s mine!”
The Tortured Gun Chapter 15
With a deep sigh of relief, Johnny calmly reloaded and then holstered his still hot Colt.
“Well, that went well.” Pardee murmured from behind Johnny.
“Yeah but we lost our ace. How the hell did the girl get out?”
“Not to worry, John. We will have our day. Come on I’m buying.”
With one last look at the settling dust, now the only testimony to the rapidly retreating riders, Johnny turned and entered the saloon. A little later as they shared a bottle of tequila Pardee had, as Johnny had anticipated, rubbed a little salt into his wounded pride. The older man’s eyes had sparkled with amusement as he’d commiserated with Johnny about his off day. First a scrap of a girl gives you what for then you go and miss your mark!”
“Yeah, well third time lucky!” Johnny had spat convincingly, leaping to his feet his chair crashing backward to the floor. He’d stormed away from the table his black mood evident for all to see, then as he’d stepped out into the quiet street he’d allowed himself a small smile of satisfaction. It seemed his hatred for Lancer remained unquestioned.
Pardee watched the young gun hawk cross the street, gulping down a mouthful of amber liquid as the boy disappeared into the shadows. The kid was good, he’d give him that but not nearly as clever as he thought!
Day Pardee trusted no one but himself, he certainly didn’t place one ounce of trust in the cocksure young gun hawk! He’d wanted to believe Johnny’s story, had furtively hoped the boy’s explanation of the events of the last year had been correct. Johnny Madrid would, after all, be beneficial to the cause.
It had taken a while and the information had come perhaps a little late but it seemed the boy hadn’t been completely honest with him, had twisted and failed to mention certain facts.
His behavior was convincing alright, he’d taken part in the assault on his brother, had taken the wind out of the O’Brien girls sail’s, and had almost killed his father! Almost! Johnny Madrid didn’t miss and that fact was what had sealed Johnny Lancer’s fate.
As dawn broke over Lancer Murdoch sat alone at the kitchen table reflecting on the events of the previous night. Considering the circumstances they had been unbelievably fortunate to have lost only one man. Walt had taken a bullet in his shoulder, Raul one in the leg. Mercifully neither man’s injury was life threatening, but Manuel had not faired as well. A bullet had ripped into his chest and despite doing everything possible Doctor Sam Jenkins had been unable to save the vaquero’s life. Tomorrow Lancer would bury yet another loyal and respected employee. Murdoch would make sure his widow was provided for, his children would never go without but still he knew he could never repay the debt he owed that family. Guilt and regret weighed heavy on his shoulders but incredibly there was now an even heavier burden to carry and that lay across his very soul.
He poured himself more coffee twisting the steaming mug round and around in his restless hands. Soon he was staring unseeingly into its contents his thoughts revolving around his younger son.
//The old man’s mine//
Strange the things you think about at such times. Murdoch’s first thought had been that Johnny’s voice was deeper than he had remembered it! A ridiculous thought of course, especially as the boy who’d uttered those words had been calmly and coldly aiming a gun directly at him at the time.
Guns had exploded into life around them but Murdoch had continued to stare calmly down the barrel of that Colt, then slowly he’d met his son’s eyes. He wasn’t sure what he’d seen in the vivid blue depths but it hadn’t been what he’d so feared and he had been unable to look away. A split second later Johnny had pulled the trigger. The boy had held his gaze even as the bullet’s momentum lifted the hat from his head sending it toppling to rest in the dirt. It was then that he’d seen it, the briefest flicker but it had most definitely been there. Johnny Lancer had been looking out through those blue eyes and Murdoch knew instinctively what his boy was trying to tell him. That truth was the burden that weighed so heavy upon him now.
He’d desperately wanted to tell his son to stop his foolishness, to abandon whatever plan he had and get his hide home. He’d wanted to reach out and haul his stubborn butt up behind him and high tail it back to Lancer where a painful spell in the barn would teach him not to ever scare his old man like that again. Instead he’d found himself struggling to control the startled horse beneath him, his inner voice telling him to pull out, that they had what they’d come for and that Johnny would be a whole lot safer without their presence. And so with a heavy heart he’d turned his back on his younger son praying to God that it wouldn’t be the last time he saw him alive. Johnny was playing a very dangerous game; a game Murdoch knew could cost his son his life. He shuddered, what were the chances of a seventeen year old boy outwitting a man like Day Pardee.
Everything had, as he’d discussed things with Scott and Sam last night, fallen into place. As troubling as it was for both men to acknowledge, Johnny’s actions now made sense! It really was the most stupid thing the boy could have done but Murdoch knew Johnny would have his reasons for doing what he did.
Both he and Scott had known in their hearts that Johnny would come home once he got wind of their troubles. What they hadn’t taken into consideration was Johnny’s youth and the stubborn streak of wild independence that ran right through him. Of course he’d want to do things his own way!
The more Murdoch had thought about it the clearer it had become. Johnny’s deep rooted insecurities had prevented him from simply riding into Lancer. The thought saddened the Lancer patriarch but he knew it was true. They had done their best to hold Johnny here with them but their best had not been good enough and the boy had bolted like a skittish colt the first time his past had come knocking on their door. They hadn’t been able to reason with him, he could neither understand nor accept how much he meant to them, that his actually leaving was more devastating than any trouble the name Madrid could entice to their door.
Inevitably it had been the feelings he had for them that had driven him away, and now a year later he would of course be even less sure of his place at Lancer. How were they going to persuade their lost boy to come home this time?
The lace curtain fluttered in the early morning breeze, the cool air filling the darkened room flowing unnoticed over its only occupant. Johnny stirred from his fitful sleep, rolling onto his back he stared up at the ceiling his waking thoughts of his father and the love and trust he had seen in the pale blue eyes. It had momentarily stunned him but then inexplicably spurred him on. Already confident in his ability to make the shot, his target had made it even easier for him, eyes locked on his, those eyes mercifully devoid of the emotions Johnny had expected to find there.
He’d not been able to maintain the pretence, he’d given something away in that instant, something he knew Murdoch Lancer had not missed, and so, gun rock-steady in his hand he’d pulled the trigger, his aim never so true.
His father’s hat had taken flight, dramatically hitting the ground and spooking his already jittery mount. It had reared up frantically pawing the empty air adding to the chaos around them. Johnny had dived for cover then, discharging his gun repeatedly, giving the impression needed to maintain his ruse. He’d glanced in the direction he’d last seen his brother, relief exploding inside when he saw the blond hauling a wounded ranch hand up behind him to then head hell bent for leather out of town.
Throwing back the covers Johnny sat at the side of the bed and yawned. His stomach grumbled noisily and his thoughts turned to satisfying his hunger. The hotel provided good enough fare he supposed but it couldn’t compare to the feast Maria had always set before him.
//Damn// there he was again, letting his mind wander into dangerous territory. Hadn’t he sworn not to go there, to bury such thoughts where they wouldn’t interfere with the job in hand. He stomped to the dresser emptying the contents of the water pitcher into a bowl and began his morning ritual, readying himself for whatever the day would bring.
Scott rolled stiffly and painfully over onto his back thankful for the arrival of the dawn which ended any pretence of sleep. He had lain awake all night listening to the deep resonant chords of the grandfather clock in the great room, his mind on the day’s events.
The sights and sounds of the showdown in town were forever etched in his mind. He could still smell the acrid odor of discharging weapons; hear the cries of the wounded men, the shrill screams of frightened horses, and the shrieks of the innocent bystanders who found themselves unfortunate enough to be caught outdoors when hell had erupted in their quiet town.
With supreme relief he had seen Jess White scoop Teresa up onto his mount and spur the animal toward home. Grateful that the girl was at last out of danger he had turned his attention back to the gunfight unfolding around him. Shocked, he realized he had taken his attention off the men who were now sending a steady barrage of bullets his way. With weapon drawn he had joined in the battle, relieved when a gunman whose sights were clearly set on Murdoch went down under his careful aim. A man appeared on his left, again with sights set on Murdoch, and for Scott time suddenly stood still. Johnny! The sights and sounds of the fight retreated and all that remained were the three Lancers. As if entranced Scott watched horrified as Murdoch reined in his mount and faced his younger son. A bolt of electricity sizzled between the two men, men Scott loved, men who were going to die at the hand of the other. But there was something in the look exchanged between the two, something tangible yet indefinable. Scott witnessed a flicker cross Murdoch’s face, a flicker of hope, recognition. Murdoch sat tall in the saddle and waited, waited for what?
Johnny’s aim was true; Murdoch’s hat was lifted violently off his head and ended in the dust under the feet of Murdoch’s mount. The animal was suddenly rearing, twisting, turning in an effort to escape the turmoil which surrounded him.
“Get the hell out of here!” Murdoch yelled and like a withdrawing flood Lancer and her men retreated, mission accomplished their destination home.
Their urgent pace had carried them swiftly back to Lancer; to finally ride wearily into the courtyard. Willing hands had reached out to help the injured and the dying and several long difficult hours later they had, father, son and Dr Sam Jenkins sat around the fire unraveling events. A deeply remorseful Teresa had long since gone to her bed the girl having learned a terrible lesson in consequences and yet another one on the harshness of life. Her tearful depiction of her encounter with Johnny had further confirmed Murdoch’s belief in Johnny and Scott had felt all his own lingering doubts seep away. Sam had gone on to tell them of what he had witnessed himself, what he now recognized to be Johnny’s inner struggle with his actions.
The trio had mulled over the situation alarmed at the risks the boy was taking but at a loss as to how to help him, frightened any interference would work against him. Scott had eventually been persuaded, or rather bullied, by Sam to retire in the early hours. He’d somehow forgotten his own injuries, the rush of adrenaline having swamped his own discomfort but as he’d lain fully clothed atop his bed he had realized just how much he needed to lie down. Sleep had proved elusive, concern for his brother inhibiting that need but at least he’d rested physically, and that would have to be enough because something told him that today would prove decisive for Lancer that things were finally going to come to a head.
The Tortured Gun Chapter 16
“You wanted to see me, Day?” Jake McAllister asked. “Heard you had a job for me.”
“Yeah, Jake, sit on down. Have a drink.” Day was silent as he poured a drink for the new arrival and refilled his own glass. With a heavy sigh, he leaned back in the chair and took a swallow of the amber liquid, his eyes focused on a point somewhere beyond Jake’s head.
Jake McAllister waited patiently. He had been riding with Day Pardee for years, and he understood the thought process Day went through to arrive at the solution to whatever was troubling him. In a small border town a few years back, he had seen Pardee shoot a young gunhawk for interrupting that process, and had learned this lesson at the expense of that young man. //Better him than me.// Jake allowed himself a slight grin at the memory; he was smarter than he looked.
“Send the men out to that small ranch east of Lancer. It’s time to step up the action. Oh, and Jake, I want you to keep on eye on Madrid,” Day requested quietly. Finally, he fixed his gaze on Jake.
“Not a problem, Day. I don’t trust him, haven’t since he signed on.”
“Yeah well, we will know soon enough. I think our split will be a bit bigger than we had thought.” Jake’s sinister smile was equaled only by the smile Day now wore. In one accord the two men toasted each other then downed their drinks.
Jake McAllister, his expression knowing and smug, strode boldly to Johnny’s table at the back of the saloon.
“Day has a job for us,” he informed the younger man.
“You are interrupting my breakfast.”
“Madrid, don’t take that tone with me!” Jake growled, attempting to intimidate the young man and failing miserably.
Johnny studied the man who stood towering over him and reached for another slice of bacon. “You got something to say? Say it. Or get the hell out of my sight. You are spoiling my appetite.”
A thundercloud settled over Jake’s face. He released his breath with a hiss and quickly calculated his odds. Deciding they were too much in Madrid’s favor, Jake opted instead to inform the younger gunhawk of Day’s orders.
Johnny deliberately yawned, his boredom with Jake’s monologue obvious and offensive.
“Thanks, you may go now.” With that, Johnny blatantly dismissed Pardee’s messenger, much as a teacher dismissed her class.
Jake was accustomed to giving orders. He had been Pardee’s right hand man for years until this upstart of a kid came along. With ill concealed fury at Johnny’s lack of respect, Jake fought the impulse to draw then and there on the younger gunhawk. Instead, he turned and stomped out of the saloon, his face a dark and twisted study in evil. //It is going to be a pleasure indeed to kill that kid.//
Day’s brazen plot horrified Johnny as he had listened to Jake’s recitation. Johnny’s old compadre had indeed fallen. What was it the Bible called them? Fallen angels? Johnny would never have believed Day could fall so far, seemingly into the very heart of hell itself. What had happened to the man? Day had always walked on the other side of the law, had reveled in defying the very institution of law and order. Indeed, he seemed to thrive on flaunting his disregard for right and wrong in the face of those whose lot in life it was to uphold these higher ideals. He had maintained a certain code of honor, had not tolerated behavior that did not conform to his standards, yet his plan, as outlined by McAllister, testified to the depths of his fall from grace.
Johnny ate his breakfast slowly and leisurely, the very epitome of relaxation and calm, his dark thoughts hidden from all who chanced to look his way. Beneath the cool exterior, however, a fire raged, anger and hate burning through his very soul. He had never felt himself capable of a hatred this consuming, even his loathing of his father paled in comparison. At this moment, he felt he could commit cold-blooded murder. With a nonchalant disregard for time, Johnny leisurely stood, settled his hat firmly on his head and made his way outside to join the men waiting for him.
As was his custom, Johnny quickly scanned the street and neighboring buildings. Satisfied with his inspection, he strode to the giant stallion standing apart from the other horses tied at the hitching post outside the saloon. Barranca was still wild in many ways, his nature to fight other horses still deeply ingrained in his heart. As impatient as his owner was calm, Barranca fretfully tossed his head then stomped his front hoof, his displeasure at being idle for so long obvious to all. Johnny patted the sleek golden neck then leaped gracefully into the saddle.
“Damn animal is too uppity if you ask me,” Jake McAllister grumbled.
“I don’t recall asking you.”
“Ok, let’s moving,” McAllister ordered.
Scott found his father and Sam in the great room, sitting silently and nursing their coffees. The atmosphere in the room hung heavy, foreboding and ominous. He made his way to the side table, needing the warmth and comfort of the hot brew he knew Maria had left there. He poured a cup, added sugar then turned to study the two older men, his nerves screaming at the forced quiet.
“OK, so someone say something. I am going to jump out of my skin if we don’t get to it.” Purposely he strode to the window and threw open the heavy drapes. Sunlight immediately streamed into the room, chasing the shadows into the farthest corners, its victory over the darkness complete.
Murdoch blinked his eyes at the sudden brightness in the room. “Son, that was harsh.”
“Yes, well, I wonder why we are sitting here in the dark as if we are in mourning. Why are you so glum? Come on, Sam, Murdoch. Say something.” Scott leaned forward on his toes as if willing the two older men to submit to his will.
“OK, so Johnny may not have gone bad then. But how can we even be sure? His words have not exactly been the words of a man who cares about Lancer. He could be playing us still. And if he isn’t, then how do we help him?” Sam mused, as if to himself.
“Hey, last night we had agreed. We said we would wait for an opening and see if he needs our help. Now by the light of day, you are changing your position. Why?”
“No, Scott. We are just being practical. We can’t be sure of anything.” Murdoch rose to his feet and turned to face his oldest son.
“Practical? We had better be ready. Pardee will be coming for us soon… and Johnny too. I have a plan.” Scott allowed a small smile to grace his handsome face, confidence oozing from every pore.
Jake McAllister led the men toward the Farley ranch, which lay to the south of the Lancer spread. Johnny recognized the terrain, knew Lancer lay just over the knoll to his left. Homesickness swept in waves over him, his family was so close yet so far. The crack in the door of his mind opened wider still and Johnny Lancer fought to escape. With deliberate violence he, again for the second time since the dawn, threw the memories of the love that was Lancer into the dark place and firmly slammed the door shut. He settled deeper into
the saddle, took a deep breath and let Johnny Madrid take control once more. Johnny Lancer was dead, he had to be, or neither Madrid nor Lancer would survive.
Miguel rode at a steady clip, anxious to take his patron’s message to Senor Farley. Murdoch Lancer had sent many messengers such as himself to the neighboring spreads, each carrying word of the meeting being organized at Lancer for day after tomorrow. Miguel had no idea what the agenda for the meeting was, he knew only that he trusted the Patron and the young Senor so whatever was being planned would, without a doubt, save them all. He was well pleased to have been chosen to take the Patron’s words to the other ranchers.
Miguel’s attention was captured by a huge cloud of dust which appeared to his right, on a course which would take them parallel to his own, heading toward the Farley spread. He didn’t recognize any of the riders at this distance, yet a feeling of dread overwhelmed him. Instantly on the alert, he drew up his mount then reached for the glasses in his saddle bags. Pardee! A flash of gold and he knew Johnny was with them. Johnny! Barranca was running apart from the leaders, his movements, even at this distance, stilted and awkward. Something was wrong. Miguel replaced the glasses in his saddle bags and struggled to find a way to get Johnny’s attention. Fearlessly, he spurred his gelding into a run; he had to reach the youngest Lancer.
Barranca snorted into the wind, his joy at running apparent to his young rider. It was becoming more and more difficult to restrain the huge stallion, his frustration mounting with each stride, his need to get ahead of the lead horses making his head bob up and down as he attempted to get the bit between his teeth. Johnny pulled him up a little more, shortening the stallion’s strides yet again, and felt the muscles between his knees tense even more. He knew he couldn’t restrain the mighty stallion for long; his last tug on the reins was violently opposed as Barranca twisted his head in an effort to relieve the hold on his mouth.
Johnny saw the man bearing down on them and instantly recognized Miguel. The mask of Madrid held though the heart of Lancer leaped violently in his chest. He let the reins out on notch and Barranca surged forward quickly overtaking McAllister.
“We got company,” he yelled into the wind created by the galloping stallion. Johnny nodded in Miguel’s direction. “I’ll take care of him.”
Jake threw a curt nod in Johnny’s direction then turned away from him, his attention focused solely on the job at hand. With a gentle tug Johnny pulled up the stallion and let the lead riders draw away. Whatever patience the mighty stallion had was destroyed by the last tug on the reins. Barranca exploded, he twisted his head while turning his body the opposite direction. Johnny felt the stallion reach for the bit, grab it and then he was running, snorting his pleasure, head high, nostrils distended. Johnny allowed him to run for a few moments before gently steering him in Miguel’s direction.
“Senor, Johnny, I am so glad to see you. El Patron and the young Senor have been so worried,” Miguel yelled when Johnny was within hearing distance.
“What the hell are you doing out here? You trying to get yourself killed?” Johnny raged.
“Senor, I do not understand. What you do with those men? They are muy mal men, muy mal. You should be home. You should no be with them.”
“Look, Miguel, I can’t explain. You need to turn around and go back to Lancer right now, do you hear me?” Johnny pleaded.
Miguel sat back in the saddle, confusion clearly etched in his wizened face. “Lo siento, senor, I do not understand.”
“Tell Murdoch to stay out of my way. Tell him it will be over soon,” Johnny instructed in clipped tines, each word being ground out between clenched teeth. “And tell Boston, to keep his head down. You got that?”
Miguel did not react; he merely sat staring at the youngest Lancer as if he thought Johnny had been in the sun too long.
“Get the hell out of here! Now!” Johnny thundered as the sound of hoof beats were heard coming up behind him.
With one last look at his employer’s son, Miguel whirled the gelding around and spurred him into a gallop.
Johnny whirled Barranca around and faced the oncoming rider. He carefully settled his hat more firmly on his head, the movement effectively concealing his face as the mask of Madrid slipped comfortably once more into place. With a nonchalance which belied his inner turmoil, he observed the gunman who was now reining his horse to stop before him.
Idaho Joe arrogantly inspected the man before him who sat so still, so casually, on the dancing golden stallion. He had heard of Johnny Madrid, had imagined being the one to take him down, to usurp the gunhawk’s reputation. He had expected an older man, a bigger man, but the youth before him was as hard as any gunfighter he had ever encountered. Blue eyes peered casually at him, the intensity of the ice in their depths expected, but unnerving. Yet, there was something else in them, something which spoke of danger, of death, something he had never before seen. Now, finally face to face with the young man Idaho Joe had envisioned meeting, he felt something else, fear. Swallowing his feeling of unease, determined to maintain control, Idaho Joe waved his hand in the direction taken by the departing Mexican
“Well, what was that all about?” the newcomer demanded. His eyes lingered on the dust being kicked up by Miguel’s horse, the only evidence remaining of the old man’s presence.
“You really don’t want to take that tone with me, do you?” Johnny drawled ominously, his right hand now resting easily next to the colt on his hip. He casually observed Pardee’s henchman, the corner of his mouth twitching up in a disdainful smirk.
“Yeah, well, McAllister sent me to lend you a hand.”
“You think you can help me? I don’t think there is anything you can do to help anyone.” Johnny mocked softly, confidently, aware of the fear the older man was trying unsuccessfully to hide.
Idaho Joe bristled at the undisguised challenge in the soft voice, reason evaporating in the face of the perceived insolence.
“That is enough boy! You best be apologizing. I ain’t gonna listen to no more of your lip!” Idaho roared as he leaped off his horse.
With a grin of victory, Johnny calmly dismounted. As the giant stallion moved to his right, Johnny lightly slapped the golden flanks hastening him out of the line of fire. Satisfied the animal was out of harm’s way, he turned to face the figure who loomed over him. Idaho Joe was a huge man, all of six feet, and he outweighed Johnny by at least 75 pounds. In a battle of fists, Johnny knew he would have his hands full. In a battle with firearms, Idaho Joe was about to make the same mistake Johnny had seen many other unfortunate gunfighters make. Idaho wrongly believed his superior size would aid him in facing down a younger opponent. He quickly found out just how wrong he was.
Idaho never touched his colt, he never saw the boy move, he was only aware he was falling, then darkness claimed him once and for all. Johnny remained crouched, weapon at the ready, eyes on the fallen man. As the dark angel took Idaho Joe to his final resting place, Johnny stood, carefully checked and reloaded his colt, then whistled softly to Barranca. The stallion responded to his master’s call and came quickly to his side.
“Easy, big boy,” Johnny whispered, stroking the velvety muzzle. With one last look at the dead man, Johnny sprang into the saddle and turned in the direction McAllister had gone. Needing no urging, Barranca’s strides lengthened and Johnny leaned low over the stallion’s withers. Surprisingly, Johnny felt no pleasure in the speed, or the strength, of the mighty stallion. Instead, he felt as if he had died with Idaho Joe, as if he had been dying a slow, agonizing death since he had first come home to Morro Coyo. As surely as he was pursuing McAllister, his own private demons now pursued him — demons of the men who had killed those he loved, of the men he had killed, and even those of the men he was going to kill. They now wailed in protest that Johnny Madrid Lancer lived still. Their rage that he still lived and they did not was palpable, weighty and even the power of the animal between Johnny’s knees was not enough to outrun them. They tore at his very soul, torturing him with a pain that took his breath. He could not remember a time when he had not battled these ghosts, but now they called to him from the agony of the hell he had sent them to.
Smoke appeared on the horizon, thick and black, but the fire was not the eternal blaze of hell. It was, rather, the house and barn of a neighboring ranch which now loomed directly ahead. With supreme effort, Johnny gathered his wits, reined in his thoughts as surely as he shortened the strides of the flying golden giant. He willed the voices to stop, closed the door once more on the dark place in his mind and allowed his instincts to take command. His tortured soul gladly submitted to the persona of Madrid.
Dinner was a dismal affair, Murdoch, Scott and Sam merely toying with their food while Teresa made an effort to fill the silence with chatter. Guiltily the three men surveyed the spread put before them and acknowledged that Maria’s fine fare would go to waste but none had the heart, or appetite, to do it justice. Their souls ached, their sense of failure overwhelming, each knowing disaster loomed on the horizon and each feeling powerless to stop it. Defeat seemed eminent, if not for Lancer, then for Johnny. What good did it do to win the battle for the ranch if it cost them their boy?
They had spent the better part of the day exploring, and as quickly discarding, every idea, plan and plot they had come up with to help the youngest Lancer. It seemed hopeless and each dealt with the possibility that they were going to lose Johnny in brooding, dark despair, the knowledge weighing on their minds and souls like lead. The pretence of eating their meal was soon abandoned and in one accord, the three men retired to the great room.
Woodenly Scott moved to the bar and poured out three large snifters of scotch. With nods of appreciation, Murdoch and Sam accepted the proffered drinks. The silence in the room screamed at Scott, his nerves soon joined in the crescendo.
“We can’t continue this way,” Scott finally advised the two older men, his voice uncharacteristically loud. “This waiting is good for Pardee and bad for us. We will get edgy, careless and make a mistake that could get us, or Johnny, killed. We have to start at the beginning and see what we missed.” He searched the eyes of the two older men, his own eyes pleading and desperate.
“Son, don’t you think we know that?” Murdoch answered his own voice hollow.
“Then let’s stop feeling sorry for ourselves and figure this out. It’s a simple military problem. One, identify the enemy, two, locate him, three, engage him,” Scott dictated, easily reverting back to his military training, his words echoing those spoken to him by General Sheridan during the war. As his memory of the war and the General’s instruction flooded his mind, a strange sense of peace engulfed his soul. It was a matter of strategy, military planning. He could do this. It wasn’t anything he hadn’t already had to do. Confidence
quickly replaced despair on Scott’s countenance, his eyes mirroring his newly discovered strength.
Teresa sighed heavily, the house had not been the same since she had been rescued and brought home. At her young age, she was still painfully aware that her actions had caused even more grief, her carelessness resulting in one man’s death and two other’s injuries. When they had arrived home late yesterday afternoon, she had begged forgiveness of her guardian and Scott and then cried herself to sleep in Maria’s arms, her sobs haunting and mournful. Today had dawned gray and dismal, as if Mother Nature was sharing in the sorrow of the Lancer household. Funny how it seemed Mother Nature was in agreement with the emotions of the family. The day of her father’s funeral had been dark as well, the sun losing the battle for dominion of the heavens, the rain beating the earth mercilessly. Now on this day, the tears of heaven threatened to once more fall, the sky bowing beneath the weight of rain-laden clouds.
Lonely and despondent, Teresa sought out the comfort of her pony. It would be a long time before she was allowed to venture further than the fields immediately surrounding the hacienda. Indeed, she had been forbidden to even mount the pony for unspecified period of time, her punishment for leaving Lancer. Still she enjoyed spending time in the barn with Starlight, a habit she admitted she had adopted from her brother. The animal’s warmth and companionship offered her solace and she buried her face in the thick long mane.
A sudden crack of thunder broke the quietness of the barn, the sound reverberating off the very walls. Teresa jumped, her unexpected movement startling Starlight. The pony neighed in protest and backed further into his stall. More thunder, then hoof beats pounded in unison with the oncoming storm. A shout went up from the lookout on guard to the west then the alarm sounded, urgent and persistent. Lancer woke violently from her self imposed slumber, men running out of the bunkhouse in varying degrees of undress. Teresa cautiously went to the large door of the barn and peered out. A rider was bearing down rapidly, his horse being pushed to its limit. As the figure drew nearer, Teresa could make out the rider, could hear his urgent shout.
“Senor Lancer, Senor Lancer. Por favor.”
Lancer awoke violently, aroused out of her slumber by the frantic cries of the oncoming rider and the endless clang of the alarm. Murdoch Lancer strode rapidly through the French doors of the great room, aware that Scott and Sam were hard on his heels. A sense of urgency overpowered the mighty hacienda. Lancers and hands alike were rushing to intercept the rider, who approached as if hell itself were pursuing him. Though unseen, the devils now besetting the ranch were no less visible than the men who ran helter-skelter, preparing for
the battle to come.
Miguel brought the laboring gelding to a sliding stop, the animal nearly collapsing from its efforts. Covered in foam, blood tinged nostrils flared as it sucked in air. Murdoch appraised the condition of the gelding’s rider, instantly aware that Miguel was in no better shape than the animal. Normally a gentle soul, compassionate and earnest, the news he bore had to be severe for the man to have ridden the animal into the ground.
“Miguel, what the hell is it?” Murdoch demanded, an ominous weight settling on his shoulders like a cloak. He waited with bated breath, his stomach curling in upon itself, while his breathing almost as erratic as that of his faithful cow hand,
“Senor Murdoch, it is the Senor Johnny. He is riding with the muy mal gringo. They go to the Farley ranch, Senor. It is no good thing.”
“Did you see Johnny?”
“Si, Senor, he give a message for the senores.” Miguel accepted the glass of water being placed forcefully in his hands by Sam and gulped greedily.
“Senor Johnny, he say to stay away, he say it will be over soon,” Miguel recited between gasps. “Senor?” Miguel paused, his eyes frantically searching the sea of faces that swam before him. Upon finding the object of his search, Miguel grasped Scott’s arm and whispered, his voice hushed and urgent, “He say, Senor Scott should keep his head down.”
Scott listened intently, focused solely on the weather beaten face of Miguel, searching for understanding, searching for something more than just mere words. His instincts told him Johnny had been trying to convey a message of some importance, yet, try as he might he could not wrap his mind around the elusive meaning within the simple words.
With a start, he jerked his mind back to the scene before him. For the second time in as many days he had felt himself losing control of his emotions, which had been so deeply ingrained in him since his childhood. The stress of the situation, the death of Paul O’Brien, the shooting of Murdoch, concern and fear for his brother had combined to make Scott Lancer feel powerless, helpless, and he hated his perceived weakness. He had to be strong for his father, for Teresa, for Johnny. He had to. Shakily, he headed for the barn as Murdoch gave the order.
“Mount up, NOW!”
Johnny drew rein on the small knoll overlooking the Farley ranch. Barranca shook his head at the snug hold on his tender mouth and danced a gig underneath his youthful rider. Absently, Johnny stroked the arched neck, feeling in the iron-hard muscles the tension which mirrored his own. Ice ran through Johnny’s veins, his eyes narrowed and hardened.
Anger once more rose in Madrid’s chest. Barely contained, thrusting through his soul like a dagger, the wound bled profusely into the recesses of his mind. The darkness, which had haunted him since he was a child, loomed ever closer.
Death had come to the humble spread, the reaper merciless and thorough. From his vantage point, Johnny Madrid could clearly see the carnage that lay before him. Richard Farley hung off a beam protruding from the loft at the front of the barn, his neck twisted at a most gruesome angle. Sarah Farley was nowhere to be seen, yet Johnny knew she had met with the same fate. Now McAllister could be seen in front of the small burning house, barking orders, as a general would in the midst of war. Men scurried to do his bidding, gleefully using the livestock as moving targets, the squeals of dying pigs, and horses wafting through the air. One young mare fought bravely, as three of the men dropped lassoes around her graceful neck, her eyes wild with terror. With the grin of Satan himself, McAllister leveled his Colt and ended her fear. If Day were wicked, McAllister was evil incarnate.
The sky overhead darkened and hovered, brooding as if in anguish at the transgressions wrought upon the innocents that no longer lived beneath it. Johnny watched as the clouds swirled lower and lower in the sky, descending upon the horror below and he prayed they would squash any hope of escape for the perpetrators of the vile deeds. Yet McAllister would escape once more, he would live to see one more day. But only one more Johnny Madrid vowed, consciously adding the Farley’s to the growing list of deaths he would avenge. //You shall face the same fate as those whose graves you now dance upon!// he swore.
With little more than a touch of his heels, Johnny urged Barranca forward. McAllister turned in his saddle; impatiently he pushed his piebald gelding forward to meet the dark-haired gunhawk
“You took your own sweet time. Missed all the fun,” he sneered.
“Yeah, well, I had some fun of my own,” Johnny coolly replied.
“Where is Idaho?” McAllister’s eyes narrowed. Instantly suspicious, he glared at the younger man. “I sent him back to help you.”
“I would have asked for it, if I needed his help. Or yours. I told you to stay out of my way.”
“You seen him then?”
“I saw him. He’s crow bait,” Johnny shot back, the challenge hanging in the air between the two men.
McAllister urged his horse closer. Leaning over the saddle in Johnny’s direction, he opened his mouth to speak. As the piebald drew nearer, Barranca suddenly exploded, rearing high in the air, his clarion call of challenge intimidating the piebald. Johnny skillfully brought the stallion down as the gelding did a two-step backwards.
“He don’t like to be crowded and neither do I. If you feel lucky, go ahead and try crowding me again.” The anger of the last two days smoldered in the blue eyes, the meaning clear for Jake to see.
“Another day, Madrid.
“Why not now? Whatcha waiting for?” Johnny pressed. The darkness beckoned, Lancer died a little more, the voices of Madrid’s demons whispered furiously on the wind.
“No, I will tell you when.” McAllister gulped and pulled the piebald further away, the glimpse of hell he had seen in the blue eyes breaking what resolve and courage he had left. Inwardly, he seethed as he recognized the smirks on the faces of those men watching. Realizing he had again lost the battle of wits and words, he jerked the piebald painfully around and dug in his spurs.
“Let’s ride!” he ordered.
Johnny took a deep cleansing breath, his nerves stinging with shock at the power of the rage he had almost embraced. With a last sorrowful look around, he put Barranca into a steady lope after McAllister and headed back toward Morro Coyo.
The Tortured Gun chapter 19
The storm passed quickly, the thunder rolling a steady cadence of doom, lightning violently marring the sky. Mother Nature raged, she ranted, howling her fury, demanding justice. In her grief she pounded the earth with her tears of anguish, the rain punishing the ground rather than nourishing it. The earth shrank before her, trees bending in submission to the wind, fragile stalks of grass flattened under the beating rain. The flames engulfing the Farley home retreated before the storm, struggling to maintain their hold only to die in agony as the torrents of rain assailed them. With one last final hiss of protest, the fire died, raising black wispy fingers in acknowledgement of Mother Nature’s superiority. Now all that remained of the house was a smoldering shell, the stone fireplace standing in open defiance of the flames that had devoured the structure.
It was those same ghostly fingers, their meaning clear, mocking; which now beckoned the oncoming riders, enticing them nearer. So it was a solemn group that approached the Farley ranch. What little hope Murdoch Lancer had of finding his neighbors alive died as he topped the small knoll. The lone fireplace rose from the ashes like a stone marking a grave. Indeed, it now was a graveyard, bodies of livestock littering the grounds in varying poses of flight, cut down as they fled. Yet, it was the barn that commanded his attention, the gruesome remains of Richard Farley still swinging from the loft. Murdoch felt the sudden sting of tears, his chest constricted at the knowledge they were too late. Scott brought Charlie to a halt beside his father, his face a study in control. With no word spoken, the remaining men riding with them silently went about their work, the task of burying yet another neighbor burdening them beyond the ability to speak. Murdoch and Scott Lancer sat side by side, watching, sharing their grief, yet again, in stoic silence.
Gently, reverently, Richard Farley was cut down, his body wrapped respectfully in a blanket retrieved from Miguel’s saddlebags. Jess White detached himself from the small group of men digging Farley’s grave and approached the two men who sat so still, so quiet.
“Yes, Jess. What is it?” Scott answered for his father.
“We haven’t found the missus. Sir, she must be here somewhere.”
“Of course, have the men fan out and begin a search of the barn and surrounding fields,” Murdoch quietly instructed. “Scott, check out the shed over there behind….” His voice trailed off.
Scott nodded his understanding. Resolutely, as if in the throes of a waking nightmare, he rode toward the shed.
Murdoch watched his son, studiously observing as Scott swung stiffly out of the saddle, hitched up his gunbelt and stepped through the door of the small building. He found himself holding his breath, could hear his heart pounding, his eyes widening as Scott lurched through the door, bent over and heaved violently.
Dreamlike, Murdoch spurred his gelding into a run, sliding to a stop only when he reached his oldest boy. He reached out to take his son into his arms, and was stopped by the stricken look on Scott’s face. Unable to speak, the younger man could only nod in the direction of the door. On leaden legs, Murdoch walked stiffly to the door. With one more look at his son, he entered the shed.
“Oh my God,” Murdoch Lancer croaked.
Day Pardee drummed his fingers erratically on the table, a half-empty bottle stood at his left elbow. With a scowl he poured himself another round and tossed it down.
“Damn, damn it all to hell,” he muttered. The situation was rapidly deteriorating and spiraling out of control. When McAllister had given his report of the day’s events, Pardee had alternated between anger and horror. He had silently fumed when advised that Madrid had gunned down Idaho Joe. Idaho wasn’t the fastest gun Pardee had ever met, but the man was a decent shot and took orders without question. Likewise, he’d been satisfied to learn the Farley spread had been taken, but he wasn’t prepared for the details surrounding the Farley woman’s death. He had never heard of such brutality, in fact, he would have killed any man for such treatment of the weaker sex, but this was not the time to press his standards of behavior on the men. They were pumped, ready, eager, with a lust for blood in their eyes and Pardee knew they would fight all the better for it. Moral was at an all time high and he could ill afford to dampen the men’s spirits. McAllister, however, was becoming more of a problem than even Madrid.
The squeaking of the batwing doors caught Day’s attention. Johnny Madrid strolled casually into the saloon and took a place at the end of the bar, leaning on his left elbow, right hand hovering close to his hip. Madrid moved with the grace of a cat, but even though relaxed in appearance, Pardee knew the boy’s muscles were tight and ready to spring into action. Any man would be dead, to be sure, who would believe he could best Johnny Madrid even at a time such as this. Pardee had seen it too often. A gunman, out to make a name for himself, calling out the dark-haired young man, fatally assuming the boy was off-guard. // Perhaps it’s time to set Madrid after McAllister. Let the boy be of some use.//
“Then tomorrow we take Lancer.” With a slight smile, Day Pardee poured another drink, waving it in the direction of the young gunhawk.
An hour later, Murdoch and Scott found themselves standing beside three freshly dug graves, flanked by the men who so bravely supported Lancer. Heads bowed, hats in hand, the men listened as the Lancer patriarch spoke over the Farley’s, bidding them farewell and wishing them peace in the next life. Shock and disbelief were prevalent, preventing speech. Even had the men had words to utter, they were unable to comprehend the man who could do such a thing.
Scott stood close to his father, his eyes tightly closed to block out the vision of Sarah Farley which still swam before him. She had been violated and tortured, leaving no doubt that her death had been excruciating. The man responsible had taken great pleasure in dismembering her body.
Scott was not aware of the hand on his arm, of his feet carrying him to his horse, or of arms hoisting him into the saddle. It seemed as suddenly as he was in the saddle he was being dragged from it and steered to his room. He took no notice when his boots were pulled off, nor was he aware of someone removing his pants and shirt. He knew only that there was a cushion of softness under his body. Scott barely felt the prick in his arm, then a feeling of warmth gently crept over his body until blackness claimed him and he knew no more.
“Will he be all right?” Murdoch questioned softly.
“He has experienced a major shock and his system has shut down. It’s a form of self- preservation. It had to be something very traumatic to cause such a reaction.” Sam Jenkins spoke slowly, patiently, as if speaking to a small child. “What happened out there Murdoch?”
“They tortured Sarah. They even cut ….”Murdoch’s voice trailed off, his eyes haunted and filled with pain. He stared at his long-time friend, begging him to understand what he could not say. “Sam, the baby,” he finally managed to whisper, so softly Sam thought he might have imagined it.
Dr. Sam Jenkins stood staring, his jaw dropping as realization struck him, Murdoch’s meaning clear. “Oh my God, Murdoch, why? Why would anyone do such a thing?”
Jake McAllister relieved himself behind the saloon, a cigar clamped tightly in his teeth. In an otherwise disappointing day, his encounter with the Farley woman had been the only bright spot. It had pleasured him to hear her sobs, to feel her body writhing beneath him as she struggled to escape. He had taken her brutally, repeatedly. He had felt so powerful then as he had raised the knife, plunged it into her belly all the while grinning at her wide- eyed pleas for mercy. She had died knowing he was killing her child, aborting it before it had a chance to draw its first breath. The baby was a girl, much smaller than he had expected for the mother’s huge size. He hadn’t even needed a knife to rob the child of breath. For the first time, in his twisted, evil life, he could honestly say he had killed with his bare hands.
He hitched up his pants, strapped on his gunbelt and headed for the back door of the saloon. Now for a good stiff drink, a thick steak and then he would look for the damn kid. No, he corrected himself; he would kill the kid first. He was so tired of the boy’s insolence, his disrespect. Didn’t the kid know Jake McAllister had sold his soul? That he was beyond redemption? That he couldn’t be defeated? Well Johnny Madrid was about to find out. The kid needed killing. He had humiliated him for the last time. Tonight, Johnny Madrid was going to die. McAllister’s thirst for blood demanded one last victim. He would drink again or die trying. He grinned maniacally as he passed the barkeep in the storeroom, the man making a mad dive to the left, in order to avoid a man who appeared as the devil himself.
Scott opened his eyes, peering intently into the darkness, struggling to determine where he was laying. Vague memories of the day before assaulted him, returning in a rush and he tasted bile. //God, Sarah Farley// Scott sat up, swung his feet over the edge of the bed and waited for the nausea to pass. When at last the room ceased its wild spinning, he staggered to the window. A soft breeze caressed his cheek, its touch tender, cooling the heat of despair. All the horrors of the war had not prepared him for the atrocity that had greeted him when he had entered the shed. It had been more than he could bear, yet now Scott felt more than horror. He felt anger, shame. The monster responsible for the gruesome death of a mother and her child deserved to die, would die. Yet, shame weighed heavily on the blond Lancer. He had let Murdoch down. He had not been there for his father to lean on, and instead, he had retreated into a silent world of nothingness. Murdoch! Where was he? Was he all right? Who had helped him through the long ride home, the endless night?
Keep your head down…
Unbidden, the words sprang into Scott’s head, distracting him, bringing him out of his self imposed prison of guilt.
Keep your head down,
Keep your head down,
Keep your head down…
The words took on a mystical shape, a vapor that swirled around and around the room, whispering louder and louder, growing more and more insistent. It rose, twisting, turning, and encircling Scott, touching him, begging for understanding. With a sudden jerk, Scott turned and fled the room, shame burning his cheeks at his foolishness. What was Johnny trying to tell him?
At the top of the stairs Scott stopped his headlong rush, took several cleansing breaths, and felt his well-trained self-control reassert itself. Once more in command of his faculties, he continued on his way downstairs. A fire still flickered in the large fireplace that dominated the right wall of the great room. The tongues of flames that danced on the wall broke the gloom of predawn. Scott made his way through the dimly lit room to the sideboard, threading his way around the furniture. At the bar he poured a large glass of the best Scotch and moved to stand before the fireplace.
“Couldn’t sleep?” The voice startled Scott, and he spun around to face the speaker.
“Murdoch, why are you still up?’
“Same reason you are, Son.”
“I am sorry. I…” Scott stammered.
“Son, there is no reason to be ashamed. What happened today was horrific.” Murdoch moved to stand beside his son. Tenderly he laid his hand on Scott’s shoulder, turning the younger man around to stare him in the eyes.
“Murdoch, what bothers me most is I think I could kill the man who did this, in cold blood. I think I could do it,” Scott admitted.
“You are not alone, Son.”
Johnny heard McAllister’s heavy, determined tread before the man’s image appeared in the mirror over the bar. A fire as intense as the one that had destroyed the Farley home began a slow burn in his stomach, the heat of the flames moving into his limbs, smoldering in his blood. Fire and ice collided, blended in the enigma that was Madrid. He was aware of Pardee sitting at a table at the rear of the room, intently observing the event unfolding before him. Johnny knew Pardee would not interfere, would make no move to back any play. He also knew that Pardee hoped he would die at McAllister’s hand.
“It’s time, Madrid!” McAllister bellowed from across the room. Chairs scraped and tables were overturned as the occupants of the saloon scrambled to get out of the way, yet, still maintain a bird’s eye view of the long awaited duel. Like vultures, the men and saloon girls gawked with ill-concealed hunger. Greedily, they soaked up the tension, comparing the icy fire of Madrid to the barely restrained energy of McAllister.
“Anytime, Jake. You can go to hell as slow or as fast as you like. I would be more than happy to send you on your way.”
“You sure talk big, Madrid. `Bout time someone shut your yap once and for all. Grab leather, you bastard!” McAllister shouted.
It was not his words, or his hands, which killed Jake McAllister, but the flicker in his eyes, the flash of movement that Johnny had learned to watch for. Johnny moved then, suddenly, powerfully, accurately.
As if in slow motion, Jake McAllister saw the bullet leave the chamber of Johnny’s gun, spinning lazily across the length of the room, his name clearly written on the small orb. As the bullet struck McAllister in the chest, a small puff of dust floated in the breeze created by the impact, then an ever-widening crimson stain spread from the center of his shirt. He gazed in surprise at the wound, wondering how it had come to be. Where was his gun he wondered, had he fired? Why was Madrid standing over him? Then he was falling. A dark shadow hovered over him, grinning, its teeth jagged, orange eyes watching him. It reached out a ghastly hand, touched his shoulder and the heat burned into his flesh. The voices of the men he had killed screamed for his blood and McAllister completed his fall into hell.
With a sigh, Johnny straightened, inspected and reloaded his colt, before gently replacing it in his holster. Turning back to the bar, he reached for his glass, the barkeep hurrying to refill it before Johnny could grasp it. Silently, Johnny eyed his reflection. //That one was for you Mrs. Farley. One down, one to go.// Johnny’s eyes met Day’s. He lifted his glass in a salute, acknowledging Day’s congratulations.
With an even greater respect for the exhibition of skill and speed, the crowd parted then, to make a path for Johnny Madrid as he strolled to the table where Day Pardee sat waiting for him.
The shadows lengthened, and the sun retreated before the darkness. The battle between the sun and the moon ended as it always had, and darkness crept over the earth. Mother Nature demanded her way; she needed her rest and she would have it. As the earth cried out in fear of the blackness that enveloped her, the moon granted her mercy, rising like a phoenix from the ashes, and kissing her with a silver glow. Gratefully, Mother Nature sighed, her breath soothing the night, sweeping away the heat of the day. She slept under the ever-watchful eye of the full moon, safe, contented, like a woman in the arms of her lover.
Day Pardee studied the younger man sitting so quietly across from him. Since the men had returned from the Farley ranch, Day had been aware of a change in the dark-haired youth. The effect was profound, and Day Pardee was decidedly uneasy. He had always known it was better to ride with Johnny Madrid than to face him. Many times he had seen Madrid in action, had seen him out draw the fastest men south of the border, but tonight’s exhibition had left him more than a little chilled. While they had never been friends, their relationship had been one of mutual respect. Until now that is. Now he was aware of something else, something that until an hour ago had been unknown. Day Pardee was afraid and he hated his fear. No, he hated the dark-haired gunslinger.
“Nice shooting, Johnny,” Day Pardee drawled.
Without a word, Johnny nodded his acknowledgement of the compliment. Slowly the dark head was lifted, until icy blue eyes met gray ones.
“You wanted McAllister to take me, didn’t you Day?”
“Johnny, my boy, you wound me,” Day countered, a small grin tugging the corners of his mouth.
Day forced back an involuntary shudder as Madrid returned the smile, but it was Lucifer himself who spoke through the hushed voice, “Don’t worry about it, Day. We got time.”
Dr. Sam Jenkins swirled the amber liquid in the snifter, mesmerized by the delicate ripples floating within the crystal prison. A cool breeze floated in through the open window, the heat in the living room ebbed away. He raised his glass to his lips, took a tentative sip of the soothing beverage, enjoying the sensation of warmth spreading from his belly to his limbs. As the heavenly brew worked its magic, he sighed in contentment, much like the proverbial cat. Leisurely, he stretched his long legs, careful not spill his brandy. //I could almost purr.// He chuckled to himself as the thought flitted through his mind.
As the old house settled itself for the long night, Sam allowed his thoughts to return to the events of the evening. His light-hearted mood of moments before melted away as the memories came flooding back. Dinner with the Lancers had been unlike any he could remember, lacking the customary banter, and laughter. Murdoch had been pensive, morose, his somber mood equally matched by Scott Lancer’s. Scott was suffering silently, but it had not gone unnoticed. Something was troubling the young man, weighing him down, dimming the fire in his soul and the light in his eyes. Solemn, brooding, he had pushed his plate away, opting instead for a hefty glass of scotch. Sam, admittedly, was worried. The situation with Pardee was quickly coming to a head. They would need their wits, and full use of their faculties. Stress was slowly, but surely, taking its toll on the oldest Lancer son, indeed, on all of them.
Scott Lancer was one of the strongest young men Sam had ever met, warm, compassionate, and upright. He was a noble young man, a son to be proud of, and Murdoch Lancer was proud of his oldest boy. His joy in the man Scott had become was obvious to all who encountered the Lancer family. Yet, Scott was struggling under a burden he had not shared with his father. Something was gnawing at the young man, robbing him of his usually stoic, good nature. The events surrounding the deaths of the Farley’s, the unborn baby in particular, had shaken the young Lancer. The child’s horrific death had been too much for even the hardest of individuals to accept. Yet, the death of the Farley child, as cruel as it was, was secondary to the struggle Scott was engaged in. Sam Jenkins knew Johnny Madrid was the specter that haunted Scott, and he silently vowed to aid his young friend.
Sleep danced around the shadows in the room, once more eluding Johnny Madrid. He struggled to claim her, to bend her to his will, but while she remained near at hand, she was never within reach. She laughed at him, mocking his pain, a temptress offering promises he would never realize. Frustrated, he sprang from the bed, and paced the floor. His
nerves were frayed by exhaustion, and the endless battle between Madrid and Lancer. Since his return home, Johnny Lancer had been asking questions, demanding an audience, battling harder each day to overcome his alter ego. Yet, Madrid would not relent, could not give in to the voice that was screaming louder each day. Johnny Lancer was dying, a slow, painful death, but he was not going to die quietly. His voice was insistent, agonizing and Johnny knew he was fighting a war that would cost him his soul.
Johnny drew a deep, cleansing breath, and Madrid once more asserted his dominance over Lancer. With one last plea, Lancer retreated reluctantly into the dark place. Johnny trudged to the window and peered intently outside. Morro Coyo slept quiet and serene, its warring factions reaching a truce in slumber. The moon smiled down, satisfied with a job well done, while the Mother of all Creation slept soundly. //That makes one of us.//
Nerves screaming for relief, his body punished beyond its ability to endure, Johnny stalked out of the room, determined to numb the pain one way or the other.
Johnny smiled, a broad smile that lit his eyes, turning the deep blue orbs into sapphires. Lithely, he leapt onto the stallion’s back. The stallion rose high, twisted and turned, all four hooves leaving the ground as if to take flight. The boy on its back masterfully brought the stallion to earth time and time again, as the animal sought to unseat the rider who sat confidently upon it.
Then Johnny was before him. Holding the stallion’s reins, he patted the arched, golden neck, as he studied his older brother. Laughter flickered briefly in his eyes, before the familiar mask of Madrid took its customary place. Scott saw Johnny’s mouth moving, he strained to hear the words being spoken.
What is it, Johnny? What’s wrong? What are you trying to tell me?
Scott, keep your head down…
What is it, Johnny?? What’s wrong?
Scott jerked awake, the effects of the dream shaking him, stealing his breath, the answer to the riddle once more just beyond reach.
“Damn,” he cursed.
Barranca snorted his pleasure, his strides becoming longer and faster as he chased the moon. The silver orb stayed just ahead of the flying golden stallion, teasing the mighty animal to greater speed. Accepting the challenge, the stallion pressed on, his ears now pinned back as his body settled lower and stretched for even more speed.
The young man on the stallion’s back sat still, enjoying the feel of powerful muscles as they carried him onward. Johnny let the Palomino run, his own soul reveling in the exhilaration of flight. Gradually, Johnny slowed the stallion and with a start, he realized he had reached the knoll over-looking Lancer. //The most beautiful place on earth.// Memories of the man who had spoken those words flooded his soul, momentarily throwing him off guard.
Johnny sat quietly, staring down at the sleeping hacienda. For once, Barranca stood still, as if he recognized the burden under which his young rider struggled. //Wonder if they are asleep? Wonder if they are even thinking about me?//
“What the hell are you doing here?”
The unexpected voice startled Johnny. He felt Barranca jump beneath him, as his own shock unsettled the stallion. Lancer awakened, hope strengthening him once more. The voice had energized him and with one last effort, he rallied, gathering himself for a fierce battle, but it was not enough. Lancer’s attempt to rise was squashed. Madrid maintained firm control.
“Scott,” Madrid hissed. Like magic, Johnny’s gun appeared in his hand, leveled on a place in the middle of Scott’s chest. While Johnny Lancer pounded on the door of the dark place, Madrid stared at the man before him, his finger slowly tightening on the trigger.
“Are you going to shoot me?” Scott asked incredulously.
Saul Wickett, Stick, as most people called him, was more than ordinary. With dull brown hair, flat eyes, and drab clothing, Stick was so nondescript as to be virtually invisible. Though over six feet tall, even his extraordinary height was not enough to over come his lack of character. While the gunmen he rode with enjoyed the attention and notoriety their reputations afforded them, he preferred to blend into the crowd. With neither the speed with a colt, nor the intelligence of his companions, Stick had learned well how to use the element of surprise to his advantage. Like a coiled snake, his presence went undetected until it was too late for his intended victim to react, most being unaware of the threat he posed, until it
was far too late.
Stick accepted the fact that he was not the fastest gunslinger, nor was he the smartest, but he was loyal to his friends, and the number of his friends could be counted on one finger. So it was now, upon hearing of Jake McAllister’s death at the hands of Johnny Madrid, that an anger began to build within Stick’s chest. A strange light began to burn in the once dead eyes, a light that was not unnoticed by those gunfighters now lounging around outside the saloon. With a determination never before seen, Stick entered the saloon, his eyes
scanning the interior and settling on Day Pardee.
Day waited while Stick settled his long, lanky frame into the chair opposite his own. Silently Day poured a shot of whiskey and handed the glass to the newcomer.
“You wanted to see me, Pardee?”
“Yeah, I guess you heard? Jake is dead.”
“Where is the son of a bitch who done it? I am gonna rip his heart out with my bare hands,” Stick vowed. “Where is Madrid?”
“Easy there, easy. You’ll get your chance. I have a plan.” A sly grin twisted Day Pardee’s features. “Here’s what we are going to do.”
Murdoch starred deeply into the fire, unseeing, worry pinching his face, squeezing his chest. It would soon be over, he knew, but what would be the final cost? The battle for the land that he had once loved more than anything on God’s green earth, was now threatening to cost him something far more precious. Already, so many had paid the ultimate price. Now his sons’ lives hung in the balance. Scott was struggling with some unknown burden and Johnny Lancer was dead. //There I said it. Jesus. My boy!//
Murdoch knew the man riding with Day Pardee was Johnny Madrid, that Madrid had killed his youngest son. That Johnny Lancer would never have participated in the raid on the Farley spread. Or had he? Could Johnny have fallen so far in the last year?? But what about the message he had detected in Johnny’s eyes during the shootout in town? Had he imagined it? Then there was the cryptic message Miguel had carried to them. Try as he might to understand what Johnny Lancer, or Madrid, had been saying, its meaning was hidden, yet, significant, but why? Something in the words so urgently spoken by Miguel had gripped his oldest, and was now tearing the heart out of him. The doubt and questions swirled around in Murdoch Lancer’s mind, taunting him.
The horror at the Farley ranch had been the final blow, the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, and now Scott was carrying an unspoken burden. The Lancer patriarch had heard the dream that had disturbed Scott’s well-needed slumber; he had heard Scott leave the house, and then the sound of pounding hooves as his son had fled the hacienda. Murdoch had wrestled with the urge to stop the young man’s departure, but realized the ride, and the night air, might do the boy some good.
Scott stood, as if rooted to the very ground, morbid fascination keeping his eyes glued to the odd looking colt that was Johnny Madrid’s trademark weapon. The barrel of the gun remained fixed, steady, its owner’s hand unwavering. Unable to move, to think, Scott felt the sweat dripping down his spine, and under his arms. The air between the two men grew heavy, weighty, and time stood still, as if she, too, was afraid to move. Scott felt his chest constricting, now aware that he had been holding his breath. The need for oxygen seemed to break the spell, and as he took a deep breath, fear released her grip on his mind, if not his body.
Carefully, as if walking on eggs, Scott took a step to his left, horrified when the colt swung with him.
“Johnny, it’s me,” he whispered. “It’s me, Scott.” The icy blue eyes of his brother never faltered; the gaze all the more terrifying for its lack of recognition. Johnny’s face was chiseled steel, expressionless, and the ghostly specter of death hovered at his right shoulder, wrapping its dead hands around Johnny’s as his finger caressed the trigger.
A strange light flickered in the frozen depths of Madrid’s eyes, but was abruptly extinguished as the windows to Johnny’s soul shuttered close.
“You should know better than to sneak up on me,” Johnny whispered, his voice cold, deadly, with no hint of the brother Scott had known, only briefly, a year ago.
The Colt dipped once, was brought forcefully back on target, dipped again. Suddenly, the golden stallion surged forward, leaping immediately into a gallop at its rider’s bidding. The grim specter wailed mournfully in disappointment, as its vessel of death disappeared in the distance heading for Morro Coyo.
Shaken, trembling, Scott sank to his knees. “Oh God, Johnny,” he murmured.
Time ticked by slowly, the minutes seeming like hours, before Murdoch heard the sound of approaching hoof beats. The rider came in slowly, subdued, quite unlike the manner in which he had left. Moments later, the familiar tread of his oldest son drew nearer, then massive front door swung open, and closed softly on well-oiled hinges. Murdoch turned expectantly to face the door through which he knew Scott would enter the great room. The young man came to a stop a mere two feet from his father, his face strained, telling the older man everything words could not.
“Well?” Murdoch questioned.
“Yes, yes, I found him,” Scott whispered.
Johnny brought Barranca to a halt on the outskirts of Morro Coyo. With a heavy heart he dismounted and ground hitched the stallion. In spite of their headlong flight in the cool night air, sweat drenched Johnny’s shirt and dripped into his eyes. He removed his hat, appalled to find his hands trembling, and wiped the sweat from his brow. The encounter with Scott had shaken him more than he had, at first, realized. Could he have shot his brother? The voice of Johnny Lancer was strangely quiet, as if his death had become a reality. We’re fallen angels the good book says, men beyond redemption. The voice from his past echoed through his mind, blending with the chorus that screamed even louder from the very pit of hell. The darkness was closing in faster with each passing moment, and Johnny despaired of ever escaping his eminent doom. It was only a matter of time, before he crossed the divide and was lost. With grim resolve, he turned his gaze toward the heavens.
“I will finish this first. I will keep my oaths to Paul O’Brien and the Farley’s. Then you can have my soul,” he vowed. Inside his prison, Johnny Lancer felt the last ribbons of hope disappear as Johnny Madrid stood laughing at him.
The streets of town were deserted when Johnny drew rein at the livery stable. Lovingly, he tended to the stallion, taking extra care in currying the palomino’s coat until it gleamed golden in the faint light of the moon. With a final pat of the sleek neck, he made his way to the door of the barn. Once again confident and in control, Madrid paused outside the barn door. He tested the position of his gunbelt, relishing the comforting feel of the rig as it encircled his slender hips.
Faint laughter, and the tinny sound of the piano, drifted up the street from the saloon. //A nightcap is in order.// He smiled to himself, pleased to once more feel the confidence and strength flowing through him. He would deal with Lancer later he determined, but right now he needed the icy calm of Madrid.
Outside the batwing doors, instinct halted his steps, alarms shrilling in his head. Experience had taught him well, instincts made the difference between life and death, and Johnny never failed to heed their warning. Quickly he scanned the interior of the saloon searching for the source of the tension that now danced within his being. The occupants of the saloon did not warrant a second glance, and he quickly discounted them as threats; save the two men who sat at a rear table, heads close together in conference. Day Pardee and another man, a non-descript man whom Johnny had not yet met, raised their glasses in a toast, unaware of the eyes which observed them, a knowing gleam shining from the cool blue depths.
The grandfather clock in the hall loudly ticked the hours, the deep, throaty tone keeping time with the heartbeats of the great house’s occupants. The sound echoed throughout the hacienda, ominous, unnerving. Normally a peaceful, comforting presence, each beat now threatened the security of the Lancer household. As Mother Nature slumbered on oblivious to the impending doom the dawn would bring, Father Time paced angrily, his footsteps tense with fear and dread, his frustration mounting. Outside the sun began her assault on the
silvery orb that had dominated the heaven through the long dark hours. The moon retreated before her, submitting to her until their dance should begin again. At dusk he would challenge her authority but for now the sun would reign supreme.
In the great room, four men stood in silence; the three older men patiently awaiting the words of the fourth, younger man. Scott Lancer was aware of the eyes that were now fixed upon him, the anxiety they were desperately attempting to convey. He closed his eyes against the weight of their stares and surrendered to the memory that preyed upon his senses. He had felt a great sense of relief, and joy, upon finding his brother on Lancer land, but his joy had been short lived. He had been shocked to the core when the colt was turned on him, its
barrel yawning deep and black like the mouth of Hades.
In a dreamlike trance, he had held his breath, waiting for the thunder of the weapon; the pain in his chest, hoping death would claim him quickly. As he had awaited his last breath, the realization that it was his brother killing him had become surreal. Scott had silently prayed for the dream to pass, the nightmare to end. It had ended, abruptly, unexpectedly as a mighty, golden stallion had charged past him, throwing dust and rock upon Scott’s back and legs in the momentum of its departure.
As the shock slowly left his body, so did his ability to stand and Scott had sunk to the ground, his stomach roiling, threatening to betray him. It had taken long moments for Scott to find the strength to rise; he had stumbled to his horse on legs made of lead. How he had made it home, he didn’t know. With a start, Scott jerked back to the present. He was still in the great room; his father, Cipriano, and Miguel stood peering at him intently; concern the common emotion on each beloved face.
“Scott? What happened? You said you found Johnny,” his father gently prodded.
“I did. He was on the knoll. He was just sitting there, watching. I think I caught him off guard.”
“What did he say?” Murdoch Lancer urgently implored. It had not escaped his notice that Scott had said he caught Johnny off guard. Johnny was obviously suffering as much as his family. //No one catches Johnny off guard.// the thought shocked Murdoch Lancer to his very core.
“He drew down on me. I thought he was going to kill me,” Scott whispered. “He didn’t appear to recognize me, at least not at first. Just when I thought he was actually going to shoot me, he warned me to stay home. Then he rode away, hell bent for leather.”
“He drew on you? My God, has he turned? Is he lost to us? Holy Mary of God, what do I do now? Will I have to kill my own flesh and blood?” Murdoch turned away as yet another horror flashed before his eyes, a vision of his youngest son laying in a pool of blood, shot down by Lancer’s own men. A mere heartbeat ago, hope had surged within the chest of the Lancer Patriarch only to be defeated by this new blow.
“No, no Murdoch. I don’t believe it will come to that. He wouldn’t shoot me. He wouldn’t fire on his family. He must be up to something!” Scott was now pacing the floor, his steps keeping time with the grandfather clock. The sound of the footsteps of the agitated, young man, and the ticking of the clock, grew to a nerve-wracking crescendo.
“Scott, stop!” Cipriano shouted, the intensity of his plea shocking all four men into stunned silence, rendering them incapable of movement.
“Senor Lancer, what do we do then?” Miguel hesitantly inquired.
“We stick to the plan.”
Teresa had stood outside the door of the great room; unashamed she had listened to the words exchanged by the men she could not see. All were men she loved, men she thought of as family, yet, now they spoke as strangers. //Johnny couldn’t have shot Scott! He wouldn’t do that. He was family too. He loved them. He had helped her escape!// In the last few days she had come to accept that Johnny had shown her the way out of the storeroom, as his eyes had lingered on her, and then flicked in the direction of the window. Now men she loved and respected were in the next room, going over details, planning the defeat of Pardee and his men. They had calmly laid out their plan, their voices devoid of any emotion. //What is wrong with them?// With a soft whimper, Teresa turned and fled to her room.
Cipriano sat patiently upon his gray gelding, as the Lancer hands mounted; he listened to his employer’s orders. All ready the dawn was creeping over the horizon, faint pink softness that kissed the sky.
“Make sure you are seen leaving and heading for the mountains, then cut through the pass and get back here immediately. You have to be in position within the hour,” Murdoch repeated.
“Yes sir, we will be here, and ready,” Cipriano replied. “Vayamos, muchachos,” he barked, turning his gelding abruptly to the south. The cloud of dust left in the wake of the galloping throng swirled in small cyclones, its small particles stinging the eyes of the men left behind. Without a word, Murdoch and Scott Lancer returned to the hacienda, the remaining men going about their assigned duties with no further direction.
Barranca snorted as fine particles of dust invaded his tender nostrils. His displeasure at his forced inactivity was clear to see as he tossed his head, the heavy mane slapping his neck with each movement. As Stick eyed the mighty stallion, a strange fire gleamed in his eyes, and lust consumed his heart. He would have his revenge, and gain a powerful steed; the magnificent beast would be his.
Dawn came violently, suddenly, as the blinding shafts of light exploded across the earth. Defeated, the moon shrank back before the intense white heat, its resolve all but destroyed. Tonight it would have its chance but for now the silvery sphere retreated to a dark place in the heavens, safe from the prying eyes of its nemesis. As the fingers of light reached out and claimed its domain, the heat pierced through the remaining cool night air.
Johnny had no appetite, tension twisted his stomach into tight knots, chilled him to the bone. The voices from the darkness mocked him, enjoying his pain, anticipating his arrival. Determined to delay his final encounter with the owners of the voices, Johnny left his room and headed for the livery stable. Grooming the stallion never failed to soothe his nerves, settle his turmoil, and he desperately needed the comfort Barranca afforded him. Today he would be with his family as they welcomed him home. Or he would join the evil he had
successfully out run, and outgunned, all his short life. Madrid battled the fear, knowing any lack of control would doom him to the hell that had been tormenting him for so long.
Pausing briefly to allow his eyes to adjust to the light, Johnny realized he was not alone in the barn. Suddenly Barranca screamed, anger and frustration evident in the sound as he challenged the unseen intruder. Lithely, quietly Johnny approached the figure that was attempting to enter the stallion’s stall. Like a mountain lion bringing down its prey, Johnny reached the man, spun him around. Johnny’s left fist connected with the man’s jaw, the sound cracking in the quietness of the barn. Stick went down under the unexpected assault, shock crossing his plain features.
“I suggest you stay out of my that stall, unless you want to try me,” Johnny growled, his intentions clear, as his right hand fondled the colt on his hip.
“I was just admiring the horse. No problem,” Stick soothed, his voice slimy and deceitful. Without another word, he scrambled to his feet and backed away, his eyes firmly fixed on Madrid’s, the unfamiliar gleam burning once more in their depths.
The sun reigned once more, her heat exploring the bodies of the men gathered outside the saloon, her fingers stroking their now moist flesh, as waves of perspiration rolled down each man’s back. Johnny stood seemingly at ease, yet the inner turmoil remained, intermingled now with a sensation that something was seriously amiss. Stick was nowhere to be seen, an observation which was, in itself, striking given the man’s ability to blend into a crowd. His absence preyed upon Johnny’s all ready taunt nerves, the sensation he had overlooked a significant piece of Pardee’s plan mocking and insulting his well honed instincts.
“Ok, this is it. We ride against Lancer today. We will eat breakfast in style. Madrid, you are with me. The rest of you will fan out, take your assigned positions.” Day Pardee ordered, as he mounted his bay gelding. “Let’s ride!”
Keep your head down…
Johnny stood before him, strapping a deadly weapon around slender hips, eyes boring holes into the older man. With a final tug at the gunbelt, he assured himself of its proper placement.
“Where are you going?” asked Teresa, a mixture of curiosity and dread in her voice. She sat motionless on the top rail of the corral, her eyes wide in wonder as the intentions of the young gunfighter became clear.
“To town, to break open one of those twenty dollar gold pieces,” Johnny answered.
“Johnny, I’ll go with you,” Scott had offered.
“Oh no Boston. A dandy like you? They will tear you apart, back shoot you for sure,” he countered.
“What happened to the code of honor the west is known for?”
“Well, it’s like this, brother. You gotta do it to them before they do it to you. Besides I wouldn’t want to have to kill someone to save your hide,” Johnny said firmly.
“I can take care of myself!”
“Look, you can do what you want but these guys will blow your head off if you get in their way.” The concern in the younger man’s voice was unmistakable.
“I am going to town to buy some new clothes, and new clothes I will buy,” Scott stated simply, firmly.
“Brother, if you insist on going in, keep your head down.”
Scott jumped up from the sofa, his heart thundering in his ears, his breath coming in shallow gasps. As if the angels in Heaven were bowing down, taking his burden, he felt the weight that had lain so heavily on his slender shoulders diminishing until it was no more. //A warning. It was a warning. Day would come today, and Johnny wanted to warn me, us. He hasn’t turned. He is bringing them to us.// The thought exploded in his mind, the warning clear as a mountain pool, cold as the threat that was coming with the heat of the rising sun.
The sun mounted higher in the blue ocean above, her majestic return to dominance of the heavens unchallenged. Mother Nature stretched lazily and commanded the warmth and light to cover the earth, and the sun obeyed. Once more the cycle was complete, the partners in the dance having met, locked arms, and waltzed to the final beats of Nature’s serenade. With a final bow the moon took its leave, content to bide its time.
As the brilliance of the sun reached down and kissed the earth, the men under her pushed their mounts as hard as they dared. The rough terrain of the pass hindered their headlong rush toward the awaiting hacienda, while the hearts of the men thundered with the overwhelming sense of urgency. Cipriano resisted the desire to throw restraint to the wind, wisdom dictating caution, not speed. The gelding was sure-footed, trustworthy, and the rider on its back allowed the animal to choose its path. At last the glistening white hacienda loomed in the distance, and Cipriano drew a quick sigh of relief. All seemed quiet and still, they had made the trek in time.
Stick slithered into the shadows of the barn, unnoticed by the blacksmith standing at his forge. With little effort he silently strode to the stall where his bay stood waiting, head over the door, ears pricked forward. With all haste he saddled the animal, led him out the door at the rear of the barn, and silently mounted. Grinning his eerie grin, Stick pressed his spurs viciously into the gelding’s tender flanks, and was gone in a small cloud of dust with none the wiser.
Johnny’s nerves were on fire, the flames singing in his blood, and racing up and down his spine. The heat burned his stomach, singed his hands and feet, adrenaline flooded his being, as his heart pounded at an increased tempo, supplying the additional blood flow in response to the demands on the young man’s system. The dark-haired gunslinger was painfully aware of the absence of Stick, yet, the veneer of Madrid remained intact. Outwardly, he leaned back on the chest of the golden stallion that stood uncharacteristically quiet beneath the weight of its young rider, who rested so calm, so cool, so composed.
Day Pardee studied the young man standing so still to his left. He knew his henchman would be in position, yet, the attitude of Madrid was unsettling, to say the least. His men mounted up, turned in readiness to face their leader, their attention firmly fixed on him as they awaited the order to move out. With catlike grace Johnny sprang into his saddle, returning Day’s glance expectantly. Once more Day felt the heavy presence he had experienced when McAllister had been escorted into the hereafter, and shivered involuntarily.//Damn you Madrid. You can’t possibly know!//
Day turned his gray north, toward Lancer, toward victory, his confidence once more securely anchored in his superior strategy. Behind him, Johnny Madrid studied the straight back, a fire smoldering in the white-hot depths of the blue eyes.
“Ok, I want men on the roof, over there, there, and more there,” Scott barked at the men who milled around him, his arms gesturing with each order given. “Hurry now, they will be here any minute.”
Confident his orders were being followed, Scott strode purposely into the hacienda, into the great room. His footsteps clicked on the tile floor, mimicking the staccato beating of his heart. He came to a halt at the massive cabinet that housed the rifles and seized his favorite weapon. With a surety that comes from years of practice he inspected the Winchester, then secured the Winchester under his arm. Out of the corner of his eye, the oldest Lancer son was aware of Teresa slipping into the room, her eyes wide with alarm.
Day signaled a halt on the knoll over looking Lancer. With a wave of his hand he dismissed the men, sending them to their assigned positions. Johnny drew rein beside him, the young man’s hat now resting casually on the back of his head. He leaned forward in the saddle and stroked the golden neck, aware of the tightly bunched muscles under his hand.
With never a backward glance Day dismounted, ground hitched his mount and moved to the cover of the great oak tree that stood like a monument overlooking the Lancer hacienda. A shrewd man, Day had quickly determined this to be an ideal location from which to oversee the actions of the men below.
After a moment Johnny likewise dismounted, pausing to stroke the sleek neck of the stallion before dropping the animal’s reins and moving to the left. He flexed his right hand, then removed the safety thong from the Colt.
“Day?” He questioned softly.
“What is it, Madrid?”
“The men in position?”
Scott whirled around at the softly spoken question, forcing himself to relax, to breath, when his eyes met those of his father.
“Yes sir, we are ready.”
“Are you sure it will be today?”
Teresa now moved boldly into the center of the room, her countenance conveying the question she knew her guardian was also asking. Fear gripped her, as a mighty fist choked off her breath.
“Murdoch, I know it. I finally figured out Johnny’s message, he was trying…”
Scott’s words were cut off abruptly by the frantic clanging of the alarm. As one the three occupants in the great room jumped toward the French doors. Scott grabbed the nearest curtain, tearing frantically at the material in his haste to open them.
“Teresa, get me my rifle!” Murdoch bellowed.
Outside the men sprang into action, answering the summons of the warning bell. Nerves, which had been tightly strung as they awaited the inevitable attack relaxed, action releasing the pent up tension, a welcome relief from day’s of waiting.
Scott and Murdoch Lancer ran from the great room, each man grateful that the moment had finally come, the end was near, one way or another it would end today. As one they mounted the outer stairs and faced the way from which danger would soon appear.
The Tortured Gun Chapter 25
Pardee finally saw the truth in Johnny’s eyes, the younger man no longer trying or wanting to hide it.
“So, you are a Lancer?”
“Yeah!” The great weight lifted from Johnny’s shoulders, at last he was able to admit what had previously hurt, and shamed him, to so vehemently deny.
Pardee gestured toward the white hacienda. “Do they still see you as one?”
The question threw Johnny momentarily; it mirrored exactly the thoughts that tormented him.
“I doubt it,” Johnny admitted. “But this is my land and I want you off.”
Pardee continued, seeing the doubt flicker, albeit briefly in the blue eyes. “So why side with them now? Why turn on your own kind?”
“You are not my kind, never was, never will be,” Johnny drawled icily, the voice of Lucifer once more speaking to Day through the dark-haired vessel of death. The ghostly apparition that had claimed McAllister settled on Johnny’s shoulders, firmly wrapping its icy grip around the younger man’s right hand.
“You’re foolin’ yourself, Johnny boy!” The older man sneered “You’re no different from me and you know it. They know it too; they ain’t gonna want you back, no matter what you do now.”
Pardee looked into the blue eyes of the young gunhawk, searching for a sign; any sign that Madrid could be swayed from exacting his revenge, but instead saw only death, his death. The apparition smiled at him, welcoming and certain. Once more death hungered, its appetite insatiable, it’s craving for another sacrifice unyielding. Desperately Day sought an avenue of retreat, a road on which to flee, but the apparition rose higher, grew larger, grinning eerily, evil oozing from its pores. In a last attempt at escape, yet, realizing it was hopeless; Day clawed at his holster, and knew he was all ready dead.
The fatal bullet ripped through flesh and muscle, mercilessly shattering bone to reach its intended target, rupturing and stilling the thundering mass to then continue on its vengeful trail. The spectre that had haunted Johnny Madrid, and tormented Johnny Lancer, screamed in victory. Triumphantly it claimed yet another soul, separating it from its earthly form and delivering it to the black hereafter. The spectre momentarily released its grip on Johnny Madrid who stood over the lifeless body, allowing himself a brief moment to savor the sweet taste of revenge, his only regret that death for this enemy had been instant.
For Day Pardee there had been no pain, no anguish, no suffering, unlike that of his victims and their families. Johnny had seen fear in Day’s eyes but that fear hadn’t been nearly enough to satisfy the intense hunger that burned within him. But then, would anything, could anything, ever placate or dampen the smouldering rage he felt when he imagined Paul’s death, Teresa’s sorrow and his father’s fight for life.
Although Pardee had not been physically responsible for the unimaginable terror and agony of the innocent woman and child slain so brutally and sadistically, that horrific deed had occurred because of his wanton greed. Ending his life had been something Johnny had ravenously craved like thirst craved moisture. He’d wanted to empty the Colt into the corpse, anger still demanding further redress, more blood, but he’d told himself Pardee wasn’t worth another bullet, and with a wry smile, that Day couldn’t get any deader anyway!
As Day disappeared into the black cavern, Johnny stood upon the precipice and surveyed the pathway to hell, teetering precariously between the road that would render him beyond redemption and the road leading home, toward salvation, love and family. The world stopped turning, darkness fell upon him, and time stood still. Eternity paused, Mother Nature, and Father Time held their breath, anxiously awaiting his decision. The voices whispered, each whisper becoming louder, more intense, more persuasive, and Johnny felt the temptation, he at last was prepared to succumb to it. Weariness settled upon him, weighing him down, draining his strength. His ability to resist faded, and as he leaned finally into his fate, he knew he would be damned for all eternity.
Fearing his eminent death, Johnny Lancer made one last impassioned plea, he rallied, his heart and soul in one accord, and with all the love he possessed he screamed for a chance. One last chance, for life, for love, for his family. Madrid hesitated, his foot still poised over the gaping pit, a shudder wracking his body. As uncertainty flooded his being, again Lancer begged for an audience, hope energizing his pleas. As a blind man who can suddenly see, Johnny witnessed the parade of his life, and a sea of faces swam before his eyes; Paul O’Brien, Miguel, Teresa, and then his father and Scott, each face full of love and trust.
Through the haze Scott reached out a hand, urging him to hold on, to stay where he was safe, needed and loved. Smoky blue eyes implored him, pleading, brimming with passion and Johnny felt a tremor course through him as his brother’s love touched him hot as a flame. //Hold on brother, don’t let go, never let go!// Scott’s eyes drilled into his core, pulling on all that was good and pure in the younger man, and Johnny Lancer felt Madrid’s grip loosen.
As if Fate itself had aligned herself with the Lancers, and feared the fall of their youngest son, she quickly searched for a means to intervene, and her eyes sought out the giant, golden horse standing as if he, too, was awaiting the decision at hand. The stallion responded to fate’s urging, and reared high in the air, pawing in his frustration, impatience over the forced inactivity beyond its ability to endure. Barranca’s clarion call of challenge jerked Johnny out of the darkness. Quickly Johnny Lancer turned in the direction of the stallion, every nerve tingling as the adrenaline seared through his veins. Home! He was going home. The decision made, Johnny sprang lithely into the saddle and turned Barranca toward the hacienda. Lightness and warmth filled his soul now as urgency to get home flooded his being. In the heavens the cry of victory was raised as the depths moaned in disappointment.
Yes, there were doubts, so many uncertainties and Pardee’s words had given them still further substance but faith, belief in what he’d left at Lancer, warred to wipe them out. Hadn’t they begged him not to leave, told him, promised him there was nothing they couldn’t conquer, not as long as they stood together, the Lancer family side by side.
Bullets ripped into the old oak tree, now standing like a sentinel over the fallen gunfighter. Pardee’s men who had mere moments ago positioned themselves further up the knoll had witnessed the duel, had seen their leader fall, and now rage drove them headlong toward Johnny. Each man swearing a silent oath of lethal retribution for such treachery. Madrid was a dead man he just didn’t know it yet.
“Get him! Get him!” One voice soared above the rest, the distance closing between them and their prey.
“Barranca, we have to get home!” Johnny yelled into the wind, knowing this was his last chance and if he didn’t make it home now, he never would. Bullets rained around him, and Hell and death roared their fury as the stallion jumped into a gallop pursued by the demons themselves. Johnny Lancer was going home.
Mouth dry, pulse quickening with anticipation, Scott’s eyes narrowed on the fast approaching riders. Calmly he called out instructions. “Hold your fire; they’re still out of range.”
The men waited, eager, ready for battle, united in a cause. Adrenaline flowed, pumping courage and strength through their every vein. They knowingly accepted death as a possibility but not defeat, no; defeat for Lancer was not an option.
Scott raised his rifle, made ready his aim. “Here comes the first one! He’s mine!”
Murdoch’s gaze settled on the golden stallion seemingly leading the charge. The rider sat so still in the saddle, making no move, asking nothing, knowing his horse was giving all it had to give. A rider who even at this distance was all too familiar, and so very precious. As Murdoch watched, his heart in his throat, the mighty stallion gathered its muscles and launched itself into the air, clearing the first fence. Onward they came, showers of bullets pelting the ground behind them, and the Lancer Patriarch knew that the stallion’s determination to reach the safety of home would not be denied. His boy was coming home!
“Wait. It’s Johnny!” Murdoch roared.
He could see them now, his family. They were poised, ready, waiting for the showdown. Scott had heeded his warning; his brother had listened and believed, trusted his word despite all he had done. Hope soared and he turned, levelling his weapon, the cold steel belching death. Out of the corner of his eye he saw his victim fall and disappear into a watery grave.
//One less// Johnny told himself but this time the satisfaction was short lived as a bullet pierced his back embedding itself deep within muscle. Agony flared, white hot flames igniting, licking intolerable through his entire torso. Sinew and bone contorted rebelling into excruciating spasm and he fell willingly into the waiting black nothingness, his body falling limply to the ground.
“Johnny!” The scream was ripped from his throat as Scott Lancer watched his brother fall, and death once more proclaimed its victory.
The Tortured Gun Chapter 26
Unaware of the bullets that exploded against the wall behind him, or of the shouts of his men, Murdoch stood staring at the still form of his son, willing him to move, to give a sign that he lived still. Yet, the boy remained motionless, lifeless, as he had fallen. The stallion nuzzled the young Lancer’s hair, as if he too shared Murdoch’s pain, then reluctantly moved away as if in resignation that its youthful master was gone.
Horror, disbelief and then there was nothing! Suddenly the sorrow, the pain, evaporated and he was left feeling nothing except for a chilling numbness that crept through him as it hemorrhaged out from the epicentre that was his shattered heart. His dark-haired, blue-eyed, so very precious, younger son, the one true blessing from his brief but much cherished union with Maria, lay dead. His child had been stolen from him again but this time the boy was beyond any means of ever being found, not in this lifetime, not in this world and maybe not even in the next. Johnny was lost to him for eternity.
Closing his eyes Murdoch drew in a deep, steadying breath but movement beside him bade him open them, and face the suddenly much colder and uglier world. Scott brushed passed him, his footsteps urgent, the anguish on his face cutting through his father like a knife.
Murdoch stumbled down the stone steps desperate to reach his elder son.
“Scott. It’s no use!”
Somehow the words registered and Scott stopped abruptly turning to face his father, as the older man attempted to give voice to the bewilderment that had beset him.
“I don’t know. I don’t understand what that boy was trying to do!”
”He was coming back to us!” Teresa screamed as tears spilled down her ashen cheeks.
Scott bowed his head, hands clenched around his rifle. //Yes! Johnny had been coming back to them// Its what they had all prayed for but not like this, not just to be laid to rest beneath Lancer soil. It wasn’t supposed to end this way, any victory for Lancer would be an empty one now. The blonde head snapped up, the handsome features rigid with determination, he wouldn’t let his brother’s death be in vain.
//Please God. Please don’t let Johnny be dead// Teresa had prayed as she’d watched him fall lifeless to the ground and she was still praying now, silently repeating the mantra over and over just like she had when they’d brought her father home to her. How she’d begged God then, begged and bargained with the very one her daddy had believed heard their every word, and she’d been so very certain he would hear and answer her desperate plea. But he had not been listening then and he was not listening now. Johnny lay where he had fallen, eyes shuttered closed, so still and heartbreakingly alone.
Teresa longed to run to him, to hold him and call his name, demand that he open his eyes and his heart, and hear what she suddenly had the greatest need to impart. She wanted him to know how much he was loved and wanted, and how desperately they needed him; she wanted to tell him because she was sure he didn’t know. Surely Johnny wouldn’t leave them if he knew just how much he meant to them all?
Wiping furiously at the tears that blinded her she choked back a sob and silently chided herself for losing control, there would be plenty of time for that later, right now a war raged around her, death stalked open mouthed, its appetite insatiable and Teresa was determined to help suckle that greed. With trembling fingers she reloaded her guardian’s rifle hoping that it would be one of those very cartridges that sent Johnny’s killer screaming into hell.
The evil exuded onto the land, spreading out and contaminating everything it touched. Its sole wish to deliver death to all that called it home, but this evil had not been prepared for its mighty foe and it squirmed, and writhed, in confusion. With Pardee dead, the head of the vile serpent had been removed and it floundered blindly. Still it remained dangerous, deadly, as its venom continued to ooze, taking life even as it withered, at its deadliest in its death throes.
The high riders once so sure, and confident, now scrambled confused and dazed, seeking another leader. Now fearful eyes searched for guidance, instruction, only to meet by the thunder of the Lancer guns. As one, the men reacted, levelling weapons in the direction from which the assault now came. Instinct asserted itself as the desperate men now fought for their lives, escape paramount in their minds. Gone were the dreams of wealth and splendor, now only self preservation existed. Like waters released by a broken dam, the flood of men spilled across the range. It was each man for himself, as they fought for life, and escape. Horses now were in short supply as the frightened animals fled the scene of the battle. Compadres now turned against each other as they struggled to mount the remaining horses and flee.
Gunfire resounded endlessly, every intake of breath tainted with the acrid taste of gunpowder. As life ebbed for some, determination in others was reborn and the battle for Lancer raged on. Grief fuelled Scott’s aggression, his urge to kill, to remove each and every last threat. Lancer had lost too much to the enemy already, he wasn’t prepared to lose anything more, not that he believed the pain could get any worse, or his sorrow any deeper. He would show no mercy, annihilating every son of a bitch that came into his line of fire. As each target fell he hungered for another.
His weapon grew hot in his hands, but still he fired, reloaded and fired again. As if to mock his pain, death had felled Scott’s brother within fifty feet of the courtyard. Johnny had come so close, so close and yet so far. The injustice of it tore at Scott’s mind and heart. For weeks he had been consumed with nightmares of losing his brother, and had struggled to find
a way to save him from the inevitable end his allegiance to Pardee had secured him. Yet, in spite of his best efforts he had failed, and now Johnny lay dead just feet away. Renewed anger drove him onward; boldly he moved forward toward his enemy, each step bringing him closer to the objects of his hatred, and to the body of his brother. Blinded to all but the foes retreating in front of him, Scott was unaware of the new threat that stalked him, moving steadily closer.
The evil was beaten, her grip on the land destroyed, her reign of terror ended and still Lancer fought, each man firing round after round. Months of pent up energy and fear now manifested itself in each explosion of their weapons. In the midst of the carnage one man lay still, a final sacrifice to the mighty, evil beast that had gripped the ranch, and as the men fired over the body of Lancer’s beloved son, their anger mounted, that anger matched only by one other.
Stick slunk in the shadows, biding his time, his thirst for Lancer blood still unquenched and by far unequalled. He’d missed his chance with the kid but killing his old man and brother would help offset his disappointment and if he could just get his hands on the tiny brunette he’d, well, he’d make it a day to remember. The girl would have to keep, right now it was Madrid’s brother who held his attention. The tall blond strode purposefully, yet unknowingly, to stand in the center of his field of vision. Could it get any easier? He smiled, the expression resembling an evil grimace.
Murdoch watched his elder son through knowing eyes; the boy was exacting his own form of revenge, executing everything that moved, everything that held a connection to his brother’s death. The fight was, in truth, over but Scott fought on, and he would let him. //Damn them all to hell anyway! Hadn’t they destroyed the very heart of Lancer!//
“What the?” Murdoch mumbled out loud. Something had caught his eye and he was instantly on guard. //There it was again! A flash, sunlight on metal?//
Squinting against the dazzling morning sun he strained to focus. Who was it back there? Was it one of the vaqueros? No! Murdoch didn’t believe it was, none of his men would act so furtively.
Yet someone was there, shadow and substance could not conceal the height of the thin man. No, Lancer did not employ the man, his height alone made him noteworthy; surely Murdoch would recognize such a man. As the full force of this knowledge impressed itself upon Murdoch’s mind, he immediately realized the threat. Scott was mere yards away, concentrating on the remaining high riders, oblivious to the man’s presence. As his roaring heart seemed to stagger to a stop, the Lancer Patriarch bellowed a warning, “Scott!”
Two guns fired, two men fell, and the grim specter that had haunted the land, declared her final victory….
The Tortured Gun Chapter 27
Fate marched arrogantly forward, surveying the battle that slowly died around her, her predetermined outcome unwavering. Her will would not be swayed. The destiny of the men on either side had been decided, the die cast and she would not be moved. With regal bearing she swept across the land claiming the men who would fall, as the arms of both Heaven and Hell opened wide to receive their new arrivals. Lady Fate now studied the dark haired gunman, her concentration fierce and probing. His soul was enigmatic, a contradiction, both darkness and light. Yet, there was more to the man than met the eye. She looked deeper, and smiled at what she found within him. Yes, there was still work for him to do here, still goodness and love within the innermost reaches of his soul. Her decision made she moved on, her attention now beyond the fallen gunhawk on the tall, slender man ahead, and the evil that now stalked him.
Consciousness came upon him slowly and at first the awareness was unwelcome as he struggled to discern the confusing array of noises that bombarded his senses. Gunfire melded with the panicked bugling of horses, men’s voices soared in alarm and pain. Where was he? He didn’t know! What was happening? He didn’t know that either, all he was sure of was the pain that radiated agonizingly through his back. He forced his eyes open and almost instantly recognized his surroundings. //Lancer, he was home!//
//Home// the pain faded into insignificance as the warmth he’d so missed, and for so long craved, flooded through him; it felt good to be home even if it was under such dire circumstances. Dazed he lay still, needing a little time to assess the situation unfolding around him. Blue eyes studied the area surreptitiously; it seemed Pardee’s men were retreating, forced back by a determination and power greater than their own. Just off to his left stood his brother, firing his smoking Winchester at the remaining high riders, his face a study in concentration. Johnny watched Scott, fascinated by the seemingly determined manner in which he handled the weapon, his eyes locked on his prey, each and every bullet fired from the rifle systematically and ruthlessly eliminating the enemy, courage and resolve evident in his lethal stance. Scott appeared as a man possessed; the characteristic kindness strikingly absent from his eyes. Johnny wondered at the change in his brother.
As the pain returned it intensified, it took his breath away, and a new sensation assailed him. Instincts, that had for so long served him well, now screamed a warning. Johnny battled his way through the haze of pain, calling on the strength of Madrid, and focused beyond his brother. Pardee was dead, as was McAllister, yet Stick remained. Yes he was there, a ghostly shadow, creeping ever closer, holding tightly to the hand of death, as they sought one last victim. Madrid had one more shot, one last chance to make things right and he struggled to rise. Johnny’s hand rose, as if of its own accord.
Stick left the comparable safety of the shadows, sure of his target, victory at hand. A smile not unlike that of Lucifer himself marred the nondescript features, rendering his countenance both twisted and sinister. He raised his Colt, grinning joyously as he sighted the small of his victim’s back. As his fingers tightened on the trigger, he was suddenly aware of another figure rising from the ground like a resurrected avenger, simultaneously bringing his Colt to bear upon the lean assassin. As one the Colts roared, smoke billowed from their muzzles, and both men fell to the ground.
As his elder son’s name had been torn in horror from his lips, fear had tightened its grip around Murdoch’s heart, its icy tendrils reaching out to wrap themselves around his very soul. But before he had had a chance to move, or to even draw another terrified breath, his younger son was miraculously on his feet, the Colt in his hand exploding into life.
”Johnny!” Murdoch could barely whisper his son’s name, all the air sucked from his lungs as a myriad of emotions swamped him, driving him almost to his knees. Paralyzed with profound relief, all he was capable of doing was widen his eyes in utter amazement and drink in the glorious sight of both his sons, both living, both standing before him! But the relief was short lived as Johnny’s knees buckled beneath him and the young man crumpled to the ground.
Murdoch stumbled forward, his legs heavy, leaden with renewed concern. He forced his reluctant feet onward but just seconds later shuffled to an abrupt halt as he watched his elder son gently haul his brother to a sitting position and lean him against a tree. Johnny was conscious and even from that distance Murdoch could see a smile on his boy’s face.
Johnny slapped the concerned hands away; he didn’t want to be fussed over. He was certain he didn’t deserve it from them; still he couldn’t avoid the blue eyes that searched his, eyes that shone with love and true concern for him. He stared back; the smile that radiated from his brother’s face proved overwhelmingly contagious, and he soon found his own somber countenance rebelling into a somewhat self-conscious grin.
“We’d just about given up on you, boy!” Scott’s eyes twinkled merrily, his tone unexpectedly light and teasing.
“Yeah well!” Johnny’s smile widened as he gazed up into the empathic face, “You had your plan and I had mine!” Emotions suddenly surged through his being as Johnny remembered the events of the last few weeks. He had to look away as the stark image of the beating Scott had endured in town flashed through his mind. Now his eyes found and settled on the tall rancher and the much smaller figure who stood seemingly frozen by the courtyard. He studied them briefly, wondering what they would make of his actions. Would they understand, could they forgive as easily as it appeared his brother had? He turned his head away; reluctantly dragging his gaze from the loved ones he’d for so long a time wanted to set eyes on. Suddenly he was very unsure, and admittedly terrified, of what their reactions, and in particular his father’s, might be. His courage deserted him and he felt unable to meet his brother’s eyes, instead he stared over to where his latest kill lay. The body reminded him of exactly what he was, what they must think him to be, a killer!
The troubled eyes narrowed in alarm; there was still life in that body! It still moved and it held death in its bloodied hand.
“Look out!” Johnny hissed the warning as he fumbled uselessly for his own gun that now lay a foot or so away from him.
Scott instantly heeded and reacted to his brother’s frantic plea, spinning around to face the threat head on. The Winchester answered his urgent demand and this time there would be no mistake. The bullet entered and exited Stick’s skull, leaving a pair of soulless eyes to stare unseeingly up at the cloudless sky. Hell accepted her final victim and quietly withdrew, content to bide its time. There would be another day.
Johnny nodded his approval; still a little shocked he’d not quite sent the bastard to hell himself. //You’re slippin’ Johnny boy!//
“That was good shootin’ “
Scott grinned and nodded his agreement “Thank you brother”
Johnny stared thoughtfully at the proffered hand, but couldn’t quite bring himself to reach out to it, and so ignored the offer of help simultaneously acknowledging his own stubbornness. He forced himself to his feet, blanching and gasping at the pain that seared through just about every part of him. He swayed as his head began to spin and his stomach started to roil, suddenly he felt even more ill and he had to fight furiously to stave off the encroaching darkness. Scott’s hand instantly reached out to him, clutching at his jacket and Johnny was grateful for the steadying effect it had on his precarious balance. He gripped his brother’s forearm, the physical contact breathing renewed strength into him.
“Take your time!” Scott instructed softly “Take your time.”
Johnny smiled, patting his brother’s arm reassuringly before relinquishing his hold. The hacienda wasn’t that far away and he was determined to get there on his own two feet. He wanted to greet his father face to face; he wanted to look into his Old Man’s eyes. He wanted, needed, to see the love he’d seen shining there a year ago. He had to know, he had to be sure that nothing had changed. His mind told him it was too much to expect but his heart told him differently. He hadn’t listened to his heart in a very long time, and truth be told, he was so scared of it leading him astray now. Johnny Madrid felt fear, overwhelming fear, and this time a Colt could not settle his fight. This time he would have to fight with the one thing he had never before used, his heart and soul. No quick draw could resolve this conflict. Taking a deep, albeit painful breath, he turned to face his father, stepping tentatively towards the older man before softly dismissing his brother.
“I can make it”
Scott nodded his understanding but Johnny knew his brother wasn’t convinced, the proof visible in the way the older man walked beside him, mere inches away, eyes fixed on him as if waiting for the moment he…
The world suddenly tilted crazily, the ground lurching and bucking beneath his so very shaky feet. Johnny felt himself falling, saw two arms coming toward him and surrendered to their love and strength. Peace such as he had never before experienced enveloped him, and with a sigh of contentment Johnny joyously submitted to the comfort of those arms around him, as the velvet night claimed him.
Murdoch watched his elder son walking toward him, his younger boy draped securely over Scott’s shoulder. He swallowed the lump in his throat, reined in his tumultuous emotions and slipped one arm around the now openly sobbing Teresa.
They faced yet another fight now. No! Not one but two. Ahead lay two fierce battles and the Lancer patriarch was equally determined to win them both, the first was to get their boy well…the second, and probably the hardest, fight of all… to persuade him to stay.
The Tortured Gun Chapter 28
Scott studied his trembling hands, willing them to be still. Resolutely he won the battle, then turned to the bed where his brother now lay, the younger man unconscious and bleeding heavily. A hurried examination had revealed that the bullet lay deeply embedded, and their father had been adamant about the need to remove it immediately, believing emphatically that the boy would bleed to death long before a doctor could get there. Still Dr Jenkins had been sent for, his skill needed for the many other men left injured and dying.
The idea of taking a knife and coldly cutting into his brother’s flesh sickened Scott, but he believed it was something he himself had to do. As Maria and Teresa had efficiently prepared for the necessary surgery, father and son had discussed who would be the one to perform it. Murdoch believed it was his responsibility but had had to concede that Scott was the best man for the job. It hadn’t been easy for the patriarch to relinquish the task, and he had not wanted to put his elder son through such a harrowing experience, but Johnny’s life depended on him making the right decision and he was sure Scott could remove the bullet successfully.
Pain, like none he had ever experienced, crashed around him like a tidal wave, punishing and excruciating. As each wave crested higher, each more intense, he sought to escape, only to be pressed further down as the swell washed over him with renewed vigor. Voices, gentle, reassuring, yet annoyingly insistent permeated through his agony. He groaned his understanding; he wanted to comply, to obey their instructions, and he tensed fiercely. Gritting his teeth, one hand balled into a white knuckled fist, while the other flailed wildly seeking some anchor and finding it when it was clasped securely in another, much bigger hand.
Something probed his burning flesh, adding to his anguish, ceaselessly inflicting even more agony. The pain quickly grew unbearable and he began to buck and thrash wildly desperate for relief, frantic to avoid the endless torture. Yet, even as he tossed, a weight settled on his shoulders, pressing him further down. Panic ignited at the force used and he cried out, cursing the hands that held him prisoner and, despite his pleas, continued to inflict pain.
The voices grew louder, firmer, but the concern there never wavered, and Johnny knew they would do whatever they had to do. The situation was out of his control and he had to accept that. Suddenly he realized what he had to do, he had to trust them. Resigned he surrendered to the blackness that beckoned him and allowed the darkness to end his torment.
Murdoch sighed audibly, relief flooding through him when Johnny finally passed out. They had not expected him to regain consciousness yet, had desperately hoped he wouldn’t be aware of anything, but as Scott made the first incision Johnny had stirred. Confused and in pain he’d fought them, unknowingly making the procedure even more dangerous and distressing.
Relaxing his grip on his son’s shoulders Murdoch caressed the sweat matted hair, and studied the unconscious boy’s profile. There was so much he wanted to say to him, so much he wanted to ask, and he wouldn’t hold back this time. He’d make the boy listen; make him understand, forcibly or by any means necessary. Last year he’d allowed the boy to leave, watched helplessly as he’d ridden away from Lancer. His words had been useless against Johnny’s insecurities and fears. Well, he would find the right words this time, he was determined Johnny would remain at Lancer. Nothing, no one, would come between them ever again.
There they were again, the voices, incessantly nagging yet at the same time strangely warm and encouraging. They called his name, over and over, demanding he fight his way out of the dark void that held him captive. If only they’d leave him alone, let him rest a spell, gather some strength but no, they seemed to think he needed help, their help and they stubbornly refused to let up as if scared he’d sink even lower into the bottomless emptiness, beyond their reach and lost for ever.
He was fighting of course, but perhaps not as hard as he should. He knew why too; he was loath to face his fears and was in truth grateful for the weightless anchor that hindered his progress. He’d been knowingly swimming against the tide, but not for much longer; it seemed his dalliance had not gone unnoticed.
//You have much to give, young man.// the voice soft as silk, velvety as the dusk echoed through the fog. He twisted his head, seeking the source of the voice, which now stroked his heated flesh, the touch cooling the icy flames. Lady Fate drew nearer, a gentle smile gracing her beautiful features.//You must listen, you must understand. It is time to go home.// She raised a hand gesturing to the hacienda gleaming white in the moonlit night. Hypnotically her words and presence swept over him, bidding him look and listen. Unable to resist Johnny studied Lancer and his soul found the peace he had for so long sought. With a lingering smile the Lady moved away, disappearing into the darkness as night covered her once more.
The spell broken, Johnny climbed toward the light. The darkness gently released him and blue eyes opened. He lifted his head and recognized the room he had once called his. A sweet breeze flowed through the open window; curtains lifted and fell in rhythm with an unheard song as Mother Nature cooed to the peaceful earth. In the distance he could hear the sound of cows lowing, a horse whinnying.
“Welcome back,” a soft voice whispered.
“Scott?” He turned his head eager to set eyes on the owner of the voice. A warm smile greeted him and a hand squeezed his reassuringly.
“You gave us quite a scare!”
“Scott? Are you ok? Is Lancer safe?”
The soft intensity of the voice shook the eldest Lancer son. That Johnny, who had but days ago been so near death’s door, would be more concerned for the ranch and her inhabitants reinforced Scott’s belief that their boy had indeed come home. Memories of the beating he had endured, Teresa’s capture, and all the pain and sorrow faded into nothingness as the joy of the prodigal son’s return washed swiftly over him. Some how they would get through to Johnny this time, somehow they would convince him that his place was here, with them.
“Or so help me Jesus, I will hog tie you and lock you in this room.”
“What?” Johnny was eying his brother with a curious mixture of alarm and wonder. Scott found himself smiling despite the confused expression on his sibling’s face, no, because of the expression.
“Never mind Johnny, I was just thinking out loud,” Scott hurriedly explained. “Do you think you could eat something?”
Johnny ignored the question; he had a burning one of his own. “Where’s Murdoch?”
There was no mistaking the apprehension in his brother’s voice or the searching look in the blue eyes.
“Pa’s just checking on the men, he’ll be right back.” Scott wanted desperately to reassure his brother, he didn’t want the boy to get any wrong ideas. “He’s hardly left your side Johnny; he’s been so worried about you.”
The blue eyes looked down and away and Scott knew the younger man was having difficulty with that concept. Before he could add any further credence to his statement the bedroom door opened and their father strode in.
Johnny started violently and forced himself to make eye contact with the older man.
“John?” The tired, worry worn features instantly relaxed into a broad smile of delight. “Thank God!” The tall rancher hurried toward the bed sitting down along side his younger son. One long arm snaked out and his huge hand gently brushed the rebellious dark bangs away from Johnny’s brow, tentatively feeling for any lingering fever. “How’d you feel son?” The aged blue eyes searched the pale and troubled face.
“Hungry!” Johnny forced the word out.
“Good!” Murdoch raised an eyebrow. The reply hadn’t been quite what he’d expected but still it was a good sign. He turned to Scott “I think a little of Maria’s broth is called for.”
“Yes sir.” Scott jumped to his feet “I’ll go get some.”
Johnny watched horrified as his brother left the room; he hadn’t intended for him to leave, he’d hoped furtively his father would. He’d clumsily tried to put off their first encounter and had failed miserably. A glass appeared before his eyes, its contents capturing his attention. His dry mouth was suddenly desperate to feel the cool liquid slip between his equally dry lips.
“Perhaps we should start with this!” Murdoch gestured with the glass of water.
Johnny nodded, grateful for even the slightest distraction.
Unable to contain his elation Scott bounded down the stairs bursting excitedly in through the kitchen door to find two sets of expectant eyes locked on him. “Johnny’s awake and hungry!”
The women fell into each other’s arms, hugging each other tightly. Teresa squealing in delight Maria bursting into tears of relief.
Scott looked on appreciatively; the mood in the hacienda had in mere minutes lightened one hundred fold.
Teresa slowly pulled away from the fierce embrace and wiped her happy tears away. Eager to see her brother she made for the door.
“Wait Teresa.” Scott wrapped a restraining arm around the young girl’s shoulders. “They need some time alone.”
Teresa slid to a stop and turned expectant eyes on her brother. Her full lips trembled as an array of emotions crossed her countenance. Fearfully, as if afraid of the answer yet seeking reassurance, she voiced the concern she knew they all were feeling.
“Is he going to stay this time, Scott?”
“I don’t know honey, but we are all going to do our best to see that he does. Surely he has come to understand how much we need him here. Don’t worry, I told him I would hog tie him if he doesn’t agree to stay.”
The grin which leaped across Scott’s mouth was contagious and three faces shared the joyous moment. Their boy was home and on the road toward recovery. The knowledge he was at least in the hacienda bolstered their courage and determination that together they would get through to him. In one accord, their resolve silently sealed, they went about the task at hand, preparing a first meal for Johnny Lancer.
The Tortured Gun Chapter 29
Despite both his father and brother’s coaxing, he’d only managed to take a few spoonfuls of broth. He was too sore, too tired, but mostly just very overwhelmed. He obediently swallowed yet another mouthful, but this time his eyes drifted shut and blatantly refused to open again, his mind wandering contentedly over the past half hour.
Just minutes after Scott had left the two of them alone, his father had looked intently into his eyes and said quite simply “Welcome home son, we’ve missed you.”
The words he wanted to say in return had refused to come; instead his tongue had rebelled and formed the very first thought he’d had when he’d learned of Paul’s death. “I’m sorry about Paul!”
Murdoch had nodded, head bowing in sad contemplation before again meeting his younger son’s gaze.
“I miss him and, of course Teresa misses her daddy. He was a good man and a good friend.” A slight smile formed on the older man’s lips and he hesitated a little before making his next thoughts known. “He was so sure you’d come home. The times when I was left floundering in despair he would say to me “Give the boy some time Murdo! You’ll see, he knows where he belongs!” And he was right, wasn’t he son!”
It hadn’t been a question but a statement and Johnny had been unable to look away from his father. This time his tongue was unable to utter anything but the truth.
That one little word, the simple acknowledgement of the honest and heartfelt truth, had slipped out so easily and so readily, and it had taken him completely by surprise, yet he’d never been so sure of anything in his life before. All the doubts, his lingering concerns, seemed to have been washed away, the snide voice of unworthiness silenced, the harping dread quashed. It felt so right to be lying in his own bed in his own room. Lancer was the only place he’d ever truly felt he belonged. He’d been wrong to leave, yet at the time he’d convinced himself he was doing it for all the right reasons. He’d made a mistake then and he’d made an even bigger mistake by not returning home. He’d had what he believed to be good reason for infiltrating Pardee’s gang, but that wasn’t the only reason he’d not ridden straight on home. No! He’d been too damn scared to walk through the front door, scared of their reaction and too damn proud to admit he’d been wrong in leaving. Not any more though.
Some how he’d managed to say all the older man needed to hear in those three words. He’d been gently embraced and quietly reassured, all proving just a little too much and he’d failed to control his emotions. Not that his loss of control mattered to either of them, it only served to help them both.
Scott had returned a little while later, determined to get some nourishment down his sibling’s throat. The broth was good, but as its warmth soothed him it also made him drowsy, and soon he was battling with sleep and quickly loosing the fight.
The grandfather clock in the hall steadfastly counted the minutes as the occupants of the great room sat in silence, each nursing a brandy, each lost in his own thoughts. For the first time in months, since Day Pardee had darkened their range, peace reigned supreme. There was no need for words; each knew the other was savoring the moment. The war for the ranch was over, they had survived and their long lost boy was home and on his way to recovery. The night was dark yet comforting, no longer ominous or threatening. Instead it wrapped tender arms around the hacienda and gently held her, as if to offer her comfort and hope. The dawn would bring the bright light of a new day and each man found his thoughts exploring the future with optimism.
Their first battle had been fought and won, in just a matter of days Johnny had bravely faced death and overcome her call. He lay soundly sleeping, the healing sleep his body so hungrily craved. Triumphantly father and son raised their glasses in a silent toast, congratulating each other for their success. As one they sighed and leaned contentedly back in their respective chairs, studying the glowing embers in the fireplace.
“It’s hard to believe its over, isn’t it?” Murdoch’s softly spoken question echoed the thoughts that danced in Scott Lancer’s head.
“Yes sir, it is. With the exception of Paul, sir, we came out much better than I had hoped. It’s good to be able to finally draw a breath without the pain of dread.”
Murdoch closed his eyes and nodded in silent agreement. Except for the presence of his dear friend, Lancer was now reunited and could only go from strength to strength. There was so much to do, so much had been lost, stock, property, and sadly and regrettably, much man power. It wouldn’t be easy but Murdoch was determined to rebuild his empire, and both his sons would be beside him every step of the way.
The lone figure surveyed the devastation, ashes and blackened stone now all that remained of what had once been a loving and happy home. Pale gray eyes glistened with unshed tears of sorrow, but she would let not one fall, she refused to let her grief flow so easily, she would hold it all inside, fuelling the strength she would need to satisfy her quest for justice. Innocent blood stained the land, wickedness had tread an evil path across it, its heinous crime robbing her of a much cherished daughter, a fine son-in-law and also and this the agony that was almost too much to bear, a much wanted grandchild. Such evil was hard to imagine, impossible to understand and she was sure even in God’s eyes unforgivable.
Martha Thomas swallowed the bile that rose up inside, turned to where her loved ones lay and swore a silent oath. //I won’t rest until Johnny Madrid is burning in hell//
Teresa’s happy chatter carried in through the open window, Scott smiled to himself, pleased to hear echo’s of the not so distant past. The ugliness had to be put behind them and they were all striving to do just that and move on, life was beginning again for all of them. Setting down the book he’d been reading he stared down at his brother, the younger man was asleep but his rest grew increasingly fitful as he slowly surfaced to awareness, the blue eyes would soon open and Scott looked forward to that moment and spending some time with Johnny.
Striding toward the window he stared out at the land that had cost them so very much to hold on to, there had been times when he’d secretly questioned its worth, on hindsight he realized it was worth every tear and drop of blood shed, they’d secured a safe and prosperous future for all who lived and worked there. Movement just beyond the Lancer arch caught his eye; the doctor’s buggy was now trundling towards the hacienda. Scott smiled again; Sam would be pleased with his patient’s condition.
Dr Sam Jenkins snapped the reins gently urging his horse on, he’d been out and about since dawn and his day was still far from over. So far today he’d delivered a healthy baby boy, set a broken arm, removed a pebble from a squirming, squealing two year olds ear and sadly paid his respects to a dear old soul who’d finally decided she’d had enough of her earthly life and moved on to the next!
On the whole it had been a fairly good morning, well it had until he’d met up with Jefferson O’Toole, that encounter had been a sour one to say the least. Sam had never liked the man, and despite his supposedly good breeding found him to be little more than a trouble maker, someone who thrived on bad feelings and upset and sadly it looked like O’Toole was wanting and more importantly willing to stir up a mess of trouble for the Lancer’s.
Jefferson had asked “how’s that half breed son of Murdoch’s doing?” and had been decidedly pleased to hear the “killer” was still pretty sick. Sam had warned him to watch his mouth, told him that the boy had played a big part in saving Lancer but O’Toole had scoffed at that observation. From their often heated conversation Sam had realized there was bad feeling in some quarters where Johnny was concerned and Jefferson O’Toole was determined to take advantage of such dissention. The doctor was now faced with telling the boy’s father, he didn’t relish the idea of delivering such a blow to his old friend.
Quietly, unnoticed, the solitary figure slipped into Morro Coyo, intent on the comparable solitude of her hotel room. Once inside, she drew the curtains before lighting the lamp and removing her cloak. Her heart felt heavy, numb, the weight of her burden stooping her slender shoulders. Though frail in appearance, she was strong, much stronger for the anger and rage which consumed her, filling her with a determination she had never before experienced. Once the task before her was accomplished she would rest, but not yet, not until the innocent blood that cried to her from beyond the grave had been avenged. She would not rest until justice was done, and the souls of her loved ones had journeyed to the peace she knew they deserved.
With bitter resolve, her mouth a thin line, she sat at the small table and began to make her plans…..
The Tortured Gun Chapter 30
“Well, I’d say your brother missed his calling!” Doctor Sam Jenkins carefully studied the neatly sutured, infection free, nicely healing bullet wound. The older man smiled his appreciation before adding “You can roll over now, I’ve seen enough.”
Johnny rolled onto his back, pulling himself up into a sitting position, quickly regretting his hasty movements.
Sam shook his head at the young man’s grimace of pain “You’d better not open that wound. I’m not so sure I could do as good a job as Scott!”
Johnny grinned almost shyly; he didn’t believe that for one minute but still, he appreciated the doctor’s friendly banter, fully aware that the older man was doing his level best to put him at ease. Their last encounter had been a tense and unpleasant one but it seemed Sam Jenkins was as forgiving as he was compassionate.
As the doctor washed his hands he cast a confident eye in Johnny’s direction “Well John, you’re doing just fine, not ready to do anything more strenuous than rest of course but you’ll soon be back on your feet and I repeat YOUR FEET and not astride anything with legs that number greater than two, not until I say differently!” The gray eyes held his patient’s suddenly wary gaze “Is that understood young man?”
“Yes sir.” Johnny promised a little half heartedly; maybe his brother would exercise Barranca for him? Then again, maybe not. The stallion was a one man horse and Johnny wanted it to stay that way, the palomino was the only thing Johnny could truly call his own. Once more memories of the recent past washed over him, each vying for attention but one stood out, dominating his mind.
“Sam, I need to see my brother. Could you send him up?” The whispered request seemed taunt and strained, even to Johnny’s ears. He lifted tortured eyes to the old doctor. “I need to talk to him.”
Sam studied the young man lying in the bed so still and pensive and wondered what was on the boy’s mind. The enigma of Johnny Lancer was more puzzling with each encounter, yet Sam knew the Lancers would reach him. They would unravel the mystery, make sense of the dilemma, solve the riddle. Lady fate had spared him, not once but twice, and Sam believed in fate. She wanted the boy home and home he would stay.
“Hey, how are you doing? Are you hungry?” Scott enquired cheerfully while a sense of foreboding sat heavily in his stomach. Scott had worried he would lose his lunch when the aged doctor had relayed Johnny’s request. Even the reassurance he had seen in the wizened face had had little effect and the obvious unease of the young man before him now only served to heighten his concern.
“Johnny?” Scott contemplated the bowed head, the restless fingers that drummed an erratic rhythm on the bed.
“What is it?” He finally demanded his tone unintentionally harsh. The blue eyes instantly met his and Scott was surprised by what he saw there, fear and uncertainty.
“I guess I’ve got some explaining to do,” Johnny uttered hesitantly.
Scott sighed inwardly; he’d not expected this conversation to take place just yet. He had hoped his brother would regain some of his strength before they tackled what could prove highly emotional issues. He stepped towards the bed, telling himself that now was as good a time as any to clear the air.
“I’m sorry, Murdoch. I know that’s the last thing you needed to hear right now but forewarned is forearmed.” Sam watched the storm settle on his old friend’s face and waited for the inevitable clap of thunder, but it didn’t come; instead Murdoch sank down onto the couch, his head shaking in disbelief.
“I should have known; I should have expected this. I’ve just been so relieved to have that boy home that I’ve not given anything else much thought. O’Toole would make something out of Johnny’s actions, and he won’t be the only one!” Murdoch ran a weary hand through his hair, his main concern now how to make such dissenters understand what his boy had been trying to do.
Another storm brewed in the room over Murdoch’s head. As Sam awaited the thunder below, so too, Scott awaited the crack of the lightning above. He sank into the chair beside Johnny’s bed, his breathing erratic, his heart pounding madly in his chest. Visions of the horrors of the past weeks launched a new assault on senses that had all ready been punished beyond their endurance. His mind twisted and turned seeking to grasp the event that had precipitated Johnny’s need to talk.
Questions swirled like dust devils, each succeeding only in clouding the answers Scott now sought. The hopelessness of the quest settled like a tangible weight upon Scott’s shoulder. Resignedly he voiced his thoughts, the desire for answers choking him but the thirst to understand pushing him relentlessly forward.
“Explain what? If you mean the beating in town…” his voice trailed off as Johnny raised a hand to silence him.
“No, Scott.” Johnny shrunk back against his pillows, deflating a little more as the enormity of his perceived transgressions hit him “I was talking about that night, the one on the knoll, when I drew on you.” Johnny’s throaty whisper was barely audible yet the words pummeled Scott’s soul as if they had been shouted. The room grew still, as if all sound had ceased in the earth, the heavens also holding their breath and straining to hear. “I hadn’t realized where I was, finding myself there, so close to home, so close to the Old Man, and you, well…I thought about riding home. I was angry at myself for wanting to, but angrier still for not having the courage to do so. I didn’t realize it was you and when I did I was angry at you for being there. It made it harder for me to ride away, and riding away was all I believed I could do.”
“You were scared to come home?” Scott ventured softly, it seemed their father’s assumptions had been correct and remembering the so very vulnerable boy they’d found in the jail cell he could honestly admit to understanding Johnny’s fears.
The blue eyes flashed bitterly “I didn’t do much in the last year to make the Old Man proud!”
“He loves you, there’s nothing you could do to ever change that.”
Johnny hung his head “Not even riding with Pardee, pistol whipping you…”
“You had your plan…”
“And you always believed that?” Johnny’s head snapped up, eyes searching his brother’s.
“No, not always. We didn’t know what to think at times, but we always wanted to believe in you, we tried desperately to Johnny.” Scott’s voice rang with sincerity.
“I had to get inside, don’t you see? I know how men like Pardee work. They cut off the head of the snake and that…that is Murdoch. I had to be where I could keep an eye on things. Keep the lid on the pot.” Johnny’s passionate tirade staggered to a halt, his energy all but spent in the plea for understanding.
Scott sat motionless, stunned beyond the ability to voice his thoughts. That Johnny would deliberately put himself in harm’s way to protect his father had not been a complete surprise, but the earnest love that had laced his words had caught the older Lancer son off guard. He studied the dark head, the younger man’s eyes hidden from view, and prayed that Johnny would not now retreat behind the facade of Madrid. That Madrid had saved Johnny’s life was without question, but Johnny could not be reached behind the protection of his alter ego, and Scott desperately wanted to touch his brother’s heart and soul. He needed to! Scott felt as if they stood once more on a precipice, now was his chance to reach the boy, make him understand. Silently the oldest Lancer son studied the younger man and willed him to remain open, to listen, not to retreat.
As if in response to the silent prayer, the dark head lifted, and Johnny Lancer gazed timidly at his brother, the gleam of unshed tears glazing the vivid blue eyes.
Tenderly Scott reached for his brother, drawing him into an embrace, tears stinging his eyes as he felt arms around him, returning the gesture.
The grey eyes flitted inquisitively around the great room, the first impression gained being of wealth. Martha Thomas had not been so blessed, although she’d never known the other extreme either. Isaiah, her late husband had been a good provider and they’d never known a hungry day, though there had been some lean years. Still, with God’s grace they had raised five children, four fine sons and one beautiful daughter. Sarah had been the apple of her mother’s eye and she’d missed her dearly when she’d moved away with her new husband. Her weekly letters had been eagerly awaited and cherished, Martha reading them over and over until she knew each one off by heart. Then worryingly the longed for letter did not come, instead, days later a telegram arrived bearing the unbearable.
Martha had left immediately but the journey had taken so long, leaving her with no opportunity to say a proper goodbye. How she’d longed to look upon her child’s face, hold her in her arms one last time and tell her how much she was loved but a cold mound of earth was all that had been waiting for her. She’d wanted her own heart to stop beating then but almost immediately it had begun to thunder within her chest with renewed purpose. Footsteps broke her reverie and Martha turned to greet the tall stranger.
“Mrs Thomas!” Murdoch found his outstretched hand clasped firmly, the quiet smile on the unexpected visitors face helping alleviate a little of his concern on how to greet the so recently and horrifically bereaved mother.
“Mr Lancer, I hope you don’t mind me dropping by, I just wanted to thank you for all you’ve done.”
The Tortured Gun Chapter 31
Everything was so far going to plan, she had successfully made the desired impression on Murdoch Lancer and he had insisted she stay with them rather than incur the expense of the hotel in town. Having made a credible gesture of protest Martha Thomas had then gracefully accepted the kind offer promising to tie up a few loose ends and return the next day. Unfortunately, and quite frustratingly, she had not managed to set eyes on Madrid, and although her soul burned to put a face to the name she told herself she could wait. Still, she had met the other members of the Lancer household and was satisfied she could manipulate them exactly as she had hoped.
Taking the planned detour on the way back to Morro Coyo, the small, dark-haired woman stopped to lay some flowers on the graves of her daughter and son-in-law. In hushed tones she’d informed them of her progress to date before climbing back into the rented buggy and heading back into town.
Swiftly she made her way to the hotel where she paid her bill and expressed her intention to check out the following morning. With the promise of a sizeable tip the clerk graciously agreed to return her horse and rig to the livery and make arrangements for the rental of the rig once more the following afternoon. With her business concluded, she found herself with time on her hands and made her way to the cafe. She had not eaten properly since her arrival in town, grief rendering her unable to eat, but now her body was making its need of nourishment known, and loudly. The cafe was empty when she entered, and she welcomed the solitude. Soon a plate laden with steak, and mashed potatoes smothered in gravy, was placed before her, accompanied by a steaming cup of coffee. As she cradled the warm brew, she reviewed her plan.
The passing years and hard toil may have tarnished her beauty somewhat but Martha was fully aware that she could still draw the attention of men, albeit men of a certain age, and if she wasn’t very much mistaken she’d caught Murdoch Lancer’s eye today. Such an occurrence had never entered her head, but now that it had she was sure she could use his interest to her great advantage.
“She’s a fine woman.” Murdoch reflected eyeing his elder son over his coffee cup. Scott absently nodded his agreement.
“She’s bearing up very well under the circumstances.” Murdoch continued; he’d been greatly impressed by Martha Thomas’ courage and dignity.
“I’m so pleased you persuaded her to stay here, she needs friends around her now.” Teresa leaned over and hugged her guardian.
“Yes she does, and I’ve decided that if she does decide to rebuild the Farley homestead then I’ll do everything I can to help her. It’s the least Lancer can do.”
Scott made no comment, his mind still lingering over the encounter with his younger sibling. It had gone well, Johnny had not retreated into the world of Madrid, beyond his reach; instead, he had chosen to meet his brother head on, man to man, heart to heart. Johnny had seemed more relaxed and secure than Scott had ever seen him. Scott knew they had a long way to go to make the younger Lancer accept his destiny here at Lancer but buoyed by the gesture of Johnny’s embrace Scott felt his spirit soaring for the first time in over a year. Their dream of a complete family was within their grasp, it would require patience and perseverance but Scott was optimistic. He smiled into his coffee, unaware of the stares of the two other Lancers sitting around the dining room table.
“Something on your mind, son?” Murdoch’s softly voiced question broke into his thoughts.
“Yes sir, I was thinking that we may finally realize our dream. Johnny was so open this afternoon, as if he is ready to assume his place here. Now if nothing should happen to disrupt his sense of security, we may actually be able to convince him to stay.”
The frankness and hope threading through Scott’s words instantly infected Murdoch with the joy he knew his oldest son felt. A matching smile appeared on the weathered features of the Lancer patriarch. “Then we wont let anything come between Johnny and us, nothing,” he declared.
Out side Lady Fate turned from the window, a frown marring her serene countenance.
“It was a fool thing to do!” Johnny stated gravely before finding himself conceding in a much softer tone “but a brave one too, I guess!” He’d wanted to ring her neck when he’d seen her there, had had a hard time covering his shock and horror at the danger she’d placed herself in, but rightly or wrongly he’d also felt a large measure of pride!
Teresa’s tear filled eyes slowly met his “I didn’t stop to think; I just wanted to see you, talk to you, make you come home. I…I made a terrible mistake.” Tears trickled down the flushed cheeks, shame and regret flooding her being. A man had died in the resulting attempt to rescue her from Pardee’s clutches and there was nothing she could ever do to change that.
The urge to comfort the girl was so very strong but Johnny knew there was nothing he could say or do to ease her anguish. He knew all about guilt, how great a burden it was and how it stayed with you always. He longed to take that burden from her; at least help her carry it, after all, it was his actions that had drawn her into town that fateful night. “None of this would have happened if I…”
Teresa jumped to her feet her still moist eyes flashing in disbelief “Don’t you dare try to take the blame Johnny Lancer!”
Johnny watched the girl flounce in indignation from his room and cringed as the door slammed behind a rustle of skirts. He’d managed to say the wrong thing despite his best intentions and they’d been getting on so well up until that point. They’d spent the last couple of hours or so tentatively feeling their way around matters that were hard to discuss, yet impossible to ignore and had, he felt, covered a lot of ground laying a great deal of unease and uncertainty to rest. Now he wasn’t sure where he stood with the dark-haired wild cat, obviously not where he’d hoped.
It was just that Teresa looked up to Scott, adored her big brother and suddenly Johnny had wanted that same kind of relationship. Yes, she’d driven him mad with her unwanted attention last year but he could now admit to secretly enjoying it! If he was to stay at Lancer, and he truly wanted to, he needed to fit in, to find his own little niche. He wanted to feel he belonged, that he’d earned the right to be there. He wanted to be more to them than just Johnny; he wanted to be brother and son in more than name. The door opened and Johnny peered hopefully in its direction, wanting to make his peace with Teresa but instead it was his father’s tall frame that appeared.
“Is she alright?” Johnny asked shamefaced.
Murdoch smiled “That’s exactly what she sent me up here to ask you!”
The blue eyes locked on restless fingers “I’m fine”
“And so is Teresa.” Murdoch eased himself down to sit on Johnny’s bed “It’s just going to take a little time and patience son, but we’ll get there I promise.
Johnny nodded, pleased to be able to put his trust in someone. One thing he was sure about was that his father never made a promise he wouldn’t move hell or high water to keep.
Martha was up with the dawn, her eagerness to return to Lancer and set her plan in motion robbing her of the ability, or even the need, to sleep. She paid special attention to her morning ritual, taking extra care with her hair and face, wanting to be sure she could press her advantage over the Lancer patriarch. Satisfied she was at her best, she smiled grimly at her reflection. Once more she swore a silent oath to avenge her slain family, tears making her normally faded eyes twinkle with her hidden agenda.
Behind her, Lady Fate sadly shook her head, helplessness making her heart heavy with sorrow. So much pain, so much loss, and now the innocent were to suffer even more. With a tenderness that belied her reputation Fate softly touched Martha’s cheek, a silent plea for understanding falling on deaf ears as Martha nodded in satisfaction and turned from the mirror, oblivious to the presence observing her actions. With a cursory sweep, Martha picked up her valise and swept from the room, gently closing the door behind her. Lady Fate wept at her departure.
Scott had set out immediately after breakfast; his father had suddenly realised and then insisted that someone should ride into town and escort Mrs Thomas back to the ranch, and Scott had been deemed the right man for the job! He’d been instructed to take the best buggy and make every effort to see to the good lady’s comfort. The elder Lancer son had struggled to hide his mirth; it seemed his father wanted to make a good and lasting impression and he could only imagine the reasons behind his father’s objectives.
Wanting to get there before the lady concerned made her own way to Lancer; Scott arrived just as Morro Coyo was coming to life. How the atmosphere had changed there, the black cloud that had hung so ominously above it had dispersed into a terrible memory and the townsfolk were resolutely getting on with their lives. Pardee may have been transported to hell but there were still signs of his invasion, though they were slowly, but surely, being erased. Scott could hear the proof of that as he brought the team to a halt outside the hotel. The distinctive sound of nails being hammered into wood meant only one thing, repairs were well under way. Still, there were some things that wouldn’t be so easy to repair; there were some who doubted Johnny’s credibility. Rumor mongers were maliciously spreading a tale of treachery, and a subsequent and questionable change of heart, and there, just across the street was the man Scott believed responsible, Jefferson O’Toole. Much to Scott’s dismay it seemed that O’Toole was heading purposefully in his direction.
The Tortured Gun Chapter 32
He wasn’t sure how he felt about having a stranger in the house, not as things stood, and certainly not someone who was so tragically involved in recent events. But it hadn’t come as any surprise to hear that his father had invited Martha Thomas to stay; he’d realized early on that his father was a compassionate and benevolent man. Murdoch had asked him if he had any objections and Johnny had said no without hesitation. The woman was alone and far from home, and he understood his father’s reasons for wanting to provide the help and support she would need. Still her presence was bound to have some sort of effect on the family; he could only hope it would be a positive one. He was also hoping to be allowed out of his room today, the four walls were closing in on him now that he was feeling a little better. He was much stronger and in his opinion ready for a trip downstairs, and maybe even out to the barn to check on Barranca! Truth be told he was eager to look around and reacquaint himself with the vast hacienda. Sam was due to call later that morning and depending on his findings Johnny would hopefully be allowed to take another step towards settling back in at Lancer.
Jefferson O’Toole stood only five feet, eight inches, but what he lacked in height he more than made up for in attitude, wearing an air of self worth rivaled only by his tailor made suits. A handsome specimen of manhood, he possessed confidence and arrogance, and believed himself to be an authority on any number of subjects, certainly on all subjects around which any given conversation may have centered. He possessed wealth and influence, being descended from a long line of successful politicians and there remained no man in the town of Morro Coyo fearless enough, or ignorant enough, to dare defy him. Jefferson O’Toole functioned daily with only two simple strategies; he was always right and when wrong he debated until his opponent tired of the disagreement and conceded defeat.
Always perfectly groomed, not a hair out of place, he fancied himself quite the ladies’ man but seemed oblivious of the fact he was much more enamored of himself than any lady unfortunate enough to make his acquaintance. Many a fine young woman had been, at first glance, smitten with the good looks and charm of Mr O’Toole only to have her hopes of a future with her perfect man dashed as she was suddenly confronted with the fact that her prince was a delusion. Many hearts had been broken, the women knowing they were no more than a trophy on a predator’s arm. It had not taken long for word of the esteemed O’Toole’s disregard for the feelings of the fairer sex to spread among the single women. He, however, seemed blissfully unaware of the rumors, continuing instead to consider himself the catch of the town.
So it was with regal bearing and haughty composure that Jefferson O’Toole made his way to the carriage now standing before the hotel. The Lancers had long been a thorn in O’Toole’s side, their popularity and position in town surpassed his own, and more importantly they had long failed to recognize his standing in the community. Their presence was irritating to say the least but finally he felt he had attained a position of leverage and Jefferson O’Toole was prepared to press his advantage. With head held high, and shoulders squared, he came to a stop no more than two feet from Scott Lancer.
Scott stood straight and tall, shoulders back, prepared for the unpleasant confrontation he knew was coming. With little obvious regard for the other man’s position in the social structure of the town, he knew he could not appear concerned about the man’s opinion or attitude. Using his superior height to his advantage Scott regarded his adversary.
“Mr Lancer, good day,” O’Toole greeted the Lancer son with disdain. “Picking up supplies?”
“No, I have other business.” Scott began to walk away, already his hackles were rising.
“I see.” The smaller man smarted at the brisk dismissal; no one turned their back on Jefferson O’Toole. His voice rose noticeably, its insistent tone demanding Scott’s attention “There are a few things I feel we need to discuss.”
“And what might they be?” Scott snapped, reluctantly turning to face the irritation face on.
“I believe we have certain family matters to discuss.”
Scott’s eyes widened in disbelief, his tone echoing his utter annoyance “Family matters? No sir, I don’t believe we have anything to discuss. Your family is of no interest to me and my family is no concern of yours! Family business is just that!” Scott was surprised by how easily the venomous words slid past his normally civilized, polite tongue. O’Toole and his pompous arrogance irked the younger man more than he had been prepared to admit.
“There is no call, young man, for such rudeness! I believe harboring a gunfighter who is obviously a threat to our peaceful existence is a matter of the town’s business!” O’Toole was taken aback by the strength of his opposition.
That he had expected little resistance was insulting and Scott bristled even more. “Johnny Lancer is my brother and you will treat him with the same respect I am given. We alone will decide who is welcome at Lancer and who is not. I would appreciate it if you kept your opinion to yourself and your nose out of Lancer business.”
“If only it were just my opinion, but unfortunately it is not. That half- breed killer is not welcome here in Morro Coyo; I simply wanted to make the town’s feelings known to you. I trust you will at least make sure your father is aware of our wishes.”
Scott seethed, itching to knock the smug expression off O’Toole’s face and force his rancid words back down his throat. With supreme control the elder Lancer son swallowed his rage. “We have nothing more to discuss O’Toole.” With that Scott stalked boldly into the hotel.
Once he had turned his back on O’Toole, shame flooded Scott’s cheeks, never before had he spoken so openly, and with such disregard for good manners, but the sudden flush disappeared as quickly as it had come, anger once more dominating his emotions. How dare O’Toole speak about his brother like that, how dare he or anyone force their misguided opinions on others. They had to be made to listen to the Lancer’s side of the story, hear and believe it. Yes, there were those like O’Toole who preferred hearsay to facts, thrived on other peoples misery but on the whole the people here, and the surrounding ranches and homesteads were good, honest people. They had accepted Johnny into the fold before, welcomed him, even if a little uneasily at first. They would do so again, all they needed to know was the truth.
“Scott?” A concerned voice broke through his thoughts.
“Mrs. Thomas! Good morning, ma’am.” Scott fought to regain his composure.
“Is something wrong?”
“No ma’am.” Scott had no intention of broaching the distasteful topic here in the middle of the hotel foyer but told himself he would fill Martha Thomas in on the matter on the ride home. As a guest of Lancer she had every right to know. Instead he smiled, turning on the Lancer charm “My father sent me, he wanted to make sure you arrived safely.”
Martha Thomas smiled in delight, but there was something else responsible for her quickening heartbeat, it seemed she was not the only one out to rid the area of a killer. Having heard the heated exchange between the two men she had been initially troubled but had soon realized O’Toole was someone else she could use to her advantage, and use him she would.
Scott quietly loaded Martha’s valise into the back of the carriage before offering her a hand up. Once settled on the thickly cushioned seat, she waited patiently while he circled the rig and joined her. Resolutely Scott forced the encounter with O’Toole from his mind, concentrating instead on the woman at his side. Martha proved to be a most pleasant companion, and Scott silently applauded her ability to conceal her grief, marveling at her self-control. That she was in mourning was evident by the dark clothing she wore, yet her manner was both dignified and composed. She was both gracious and intelligent and he slowly found himself relaxing into her easy conversation.
“So, have you completely recovered from the attack of Pardee and his men? I understand you lost quite a few hands. It must be difficult to replace so many men with qualified cowpokes.”
Scott made no attempt to hide his amusement at her terminology, and was favored with a dazzling smile.
“Yes, we have a full work crew. Most of the men came back after the fight.”
“You took them back after they deserted you?”
“Most of the men have families, and while the men are loyal to Lancer, each had to do what was best for their own households. It wouldn’t be right to hold that against them.” The explanation seemed reasonable, yet Scott remembered the initial anger his father had felt when faced with ten of their best hands who advised the Lancers they were leaving and demanding their final pay. Murdoch had quickly smothered his anger, understanding and compassion ruling over his feelings of betrayal. Still, it had been a very disappointed Murdoch Lancer who had stood on the veranda and watched the men leave but he’d turned that disappointment into determination and that determination had won through.
Martha softly expressed her understanding and Scott felt the time was right to explain the circumstances of Johnny’s return.
He couldn’t wait any longer, in his eyes he’d waited long enough. Hadn’t he done as he was told? He’d ate his lunch, took a nap and now he was supposed to be taking his first steps to freedom, except he was alone and he’d promised his father he wouldn’t leave his room without assistance! His father, Murdoch…”Pa!” Johnny shrugged as the word passed his lips, he still wasn’t comfortable with it, had avoided using it since it had tripped so willingly off his tongue the other day. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to, it was just that it made him feel…well he wasn’t sure how it made him feel or why it was so hard to address his father that way and…well, never mind that now, now wasn’t the time to be mulling it over. He stood stiffly, wincing as his tender flesh protested and walked determinedly towards his bedroom door. //Surely the Old Man would understand!//
Once outside his room Johnny realized why his father had been so insistent on someone being there to help him. He felt so weak, those few steps he’d just taken having already drained most of his strength; his legs were so shaky making his gait unsteady and laboriously slow. He was just about to admit defeat and turn around when he heard a door open along the hallway. He peered behind him expecting a familiar face but instead a stranger walked toward him.
“Ma’am!” Johnny smiled a tentative greeting; this had to be Martha Thomas.
Martha stared in utter surprise at the young man before her; she hadn’t realized just how young Madrid was. Compassion stirred within her breast but not for long as a greater emotion fought for control. Hate surged through her and she felt it take hold, its ugly persona soon overriding her own and she let it willingly, surrendering to its chill, letting it chase away any remaining warmth in her heart.
Johnny shivered as the gray eyes bored mercilessly into his own, the hatred he saw there paralyzing him and robbing him of his next breath, he wanted to look away, to escape the loathing that poured from the woman’s soul, certain it was powerful enough to devour his own. Unbidden, the mask of Madrid slid over his face, effectively protecting him from the aura of the woman before him, repulsing the hate, sending it violently back toward her. Suddenly her countenance changed, softening into a mask of deceit, the gray eyes looking beyond him, now radiating warmth and concern. He twisted his head around eager to see what was responsible for the dramatic transformation and saw his father walking towards them.
“John?” Murdoch uttered in alarm hurrying toward the pale and obviously exhausted boy.
“I…I was just…” Johnny began to explain but as his father’s arm swept around him the roaring in his ears began, heralding the darkness he knew was about to claim him, he didn’t fight it, he couldn’t anyway!
He willed his heavy eyelids open aware he was once again in his bed. Johnny sighed knowing by the half light that dusk was falling; he’d slept a long time. He knew he wasn’t alone; he was aware of a feminine presence beside him and inhaled deeply. He recognized the fragrance, he’d smelt it somewhere before, but it wasn’t Teresa’s! He turned his head around desperate to allay his fears but instead they were confirmed. Johnny Madrid stared up into the piercing gray eyes, once again shaken by the depth of revulsion he found there, unable to understand why she should hate him that much. He was just about to speak, his tongue ready to pose that very question when she turned swiftly away, gracefully walking across the room to the door where she exited without looking back. A deep sigh of relief escaped his lips; the woman scared him…no! No! It was her intentions that scared him, he could admit that if only to himself and it was going to take all of Johnny Lancer’s self control not to give in to Madrid. He would get to the bottom of this without the help of the gunfighter.
The Tortured Gun Chapter 33
After Scott’s decidedly unpleasant brush with O’Toole in town the day before, the Lancer Patriarch had decided he needed to take matters into his own hands and had set off for Morro Coyo immediately after breakfast. He’d told Johnny he had business to attend to and would be back for a family lunch. He hadn’t lied to the boy; he’d just been a little economical with the truth. He’d tell Johnny exactly what was going on when he believed his son was recovered enough. As far as he was concerned he’d made a parental decision, something Johnny was just going to have to get used to!
Murdoch was aware of several sets of hidden eyes burning into his back as he rode into town. His determination grew; his boy had almost died trying to protect his family and these people. Johnny might not have gone about it in a conventional manner but he’d had his reasons and he had in the process killed Pardee and the monstrous McAllister. How much proof did they want of Johnny’s loyalties?
Murdoch dismounted in front of Boldermero’s general store, pausing only to stretch his aching back before settling his hat firmly on his head. He squared his shoulders, pulling himself up to his full height and entered the store, his stride both purposeful and determined. Senor Boldermero halted sweeping in mid arch and turned to face the new comer. Expectantly he greeted the Lancer patriarch and laid his broom aside.
“Senor Lancer, what can I do for you today?” He questioned tentatively.
“We need to talk.”
Stepping out into the bright sunlight, Murdoch pulled his hat a little lower over his eyes, shielding them from the intense glare. His conversation with Senor Boldermero had gone very well, not that he had expected it to go any other way. The storekeeper was a fair and honest man and he’d listened quietly as Murdoch had explained the truth behind Johnny’s apparent siding with Pardee. The explanation had been enough to convince the storekeeper but the tall rancher knew not everyone would listen as readily. The only other encounter that had gone smoothly, and to Murdoch’s satisfaction, was with James Mitchell, the family attorney. Mitchell had been concerned and outraged at the attitude that was consuming the town, like a plague, as he had put it. They had brooded over their brandy, discussing many different means to an end, the end in question being the acceptance of Johnny Madrid as a member of the Lancer household and the community. Neither had been extremely optimistic, it was going to be a long, drawn out business to overcome the distrust that was being generated by O’Toole and his posturing but both men swore they would not submit to his attempts at intimidation.
Feeling more uneasy than ever, Murdoch took one last look around and mounted his bay. The feeling he was in for a tougher war than he had engaged in against Pardee weighed him down, but he deliberately shrugged off the burden and turned his gelding toward home.
The blue eyes scoured the great room, drinking in every little detail. It didn’t look any different; everything was just as he remembered it, just as he’d left it. It was if time had stood still but he knew the grand time piece had continued to mark the passage of time, a not so silent witness to the irreversible changes that had taken place; and sadly, some things would never be the same again.
The grip on his arm tightened gently and Johnny recognized his brother’s subtle show of encouragement for what it was and stepped further into the room. All heads turned in his direction, Teresa, his father and Martha Thomas. The petite brunette was looking directly at him. What seemed like a genuine smile graced her face and her gray eyes were now devoid of anything but warmth. She turned and spoke softly to the tall man beside her. Johnny couldn’t hear the words but what ever she had said had brought a broad smile to his father’s face. Her behavior continued to unnerve the youngest Lancer, so too the fact his father seemed so at ease with their guest. It was obvious to Johnny that the older man liked her, it seemed they all did.
Lady Fate searched the faces of the room’s occupants, settling at last on Martha Thomas. Sorrowfully she shook her head, the knowledge that death again stalked the Lancer household as undeniable as the steady march of Father Time.
Lunch had passed pleasantly enough, Scott skillfully steering the conversation onto safe topics. Johnny had listened intently but had contributed very little to the exchanges and thankfully no one had pushed him. They all seemed quietly aware of his discomfort but not the real reason behind it. As the meal concluded Teresa and Martha cleared away the dishes, while Murdoch and his sons retreated to the great room. Johnny moved to sit on the couch where his father and brother soon joined him.
“Something troubling you, Johnny?” Murdoch cast a concerned eye over his dark haired son, sensing the boy had something on his mind.
The unexpected question forced the issue and Johnny found himself asking how long Martha Thomas would be staying. His father and brother glanced at each other, obviously curious as to why it should be of such concern to him.
“I don’t honestly know. Is there a problem, John?”
Johnny shook his head no, he wasn’t ready to explain, had nothing tangible to offer them in way of an explanation. “Just wonderin is all.” Johnny knew his reply had left both men unconvinced, but for now it seemed they would let the matter rest.
Johnny hesitantly stood, waiting momentarily for his legs to accept his weight, before moving toward the fireplace. He was aware of the eyes on his back, studying, searching and he felt the familiar stirring in his mind as Madrid rose, yawned and waited. How easy it would be to retreat to the safe place behind his alter ego, yet Johnny realized he had to start living as a Lancer. He had to allow Lancer to become stronger, at least as strong as Madrid. His two selves had to find a way to co-exist, and Johnny knew he had to start now. With a sigh he shook his head, indicating that Madrid should simply continue to wait. Reluctantly he sensed the presence of Madrid release his soul.
Once composed and calm, Johnny turned back to his family. They had not moved, as if they too had witnessed the inner conversation, and were awaiting the outcome.
“I’m gonna go check on Barranca,” Johnny spoke softly, yet firmly.
“It’s too soon, son!” Murdoch rose and moved toward his youngest son. A gleam flickered deep in the blue eyes and with a barely perceptible wave of his hand Johnny stopped the approach of his father.
“I’m alright, Murdoch, uh, pa. I just have to move a bit.”
“I’ll go with you.” Scott stated getting to his feet and moving towards the door before Johnny had time to protest.
“Then I have no objections.” Murdoch turned away swiftly, pointedly avoiding eye contact with his younger son as he strolled over to his desk.
Johnny sighed and did his best to mask his annoyance knowing that they meant well, that they cared; he was going to have to get used to this sort of thing all over again. As Scott disappeared through the door Johnny stepped after him, finding the taller man waiting for him just outside, a mischievous grin plastered on his face.
“It was either me or pa!”
Johnny simply rolled his eyes; he didn’t know who fussed more Scott or his father. The two brothers fell into step, side by side, and began a leisurely stroll toward the corral. Johnny felt the tension ebb away as the sun’s warmth caressed his face and the light breeze playfully fingered his hair. A smile began to pull at the corners of his mouth; he had one more question to ask and then he was going to make the most of this all too short taste of freedom.
Murdoch stared out through the open door, his heart swelling with pride as he watched his two sons make their way to the palomino. It was an image he’d so long hoped to see again, but there had been times, the very blackest of times, when he’d believed it all an impossible dream. The rustling of skirts drew his attention and he smiled down into gray eyes.
“Johnny thinks the world of that horse!”
“Does he!” Martha replied a little distractedly, her mind now mulling over that very fact.
Barranca circled the corral, head held high and ears pricked forward as he awaited the arrival of his master. Excitedly he whinnied a greeting, then paused to impatiently paw the ground with a foreleg. With a big grin Johnny slipped between the rails, laughing as the huge stallion moved to meet him. Barranca lowered his head, blowing softly through his nostrils as the young man scratched behind his ears.
“Where’d Murdoch go this morning?” Johnny glanced sideways at his brother as he stroked Barranca’s neck, the horse gently nickering his delight at being reunited with his compadre.
“Pa…” Scott emphasized the word “went to town on business, he told you.”
“Yeah he did, but it’s what he didn’t tell me that interests me!” Johnny looked his brother full in the face “What ain’t he telling me, Scott?” he demanded.
Scott held the younger man’s gaze “He’s doing what he thinks is best for you!”
The blue eyes widened in anger “I asked you a question!”
“And I’ll answer it. I just want to make sure you understand something first.” Scott replied evenly.
“What?” Johnny snapped.
“That you have to respect the love and concern he has for you!”
Johnny flushed and looked away, thrown by the comment.
Knowing he’d got his message across Scott began to explain the situation. “There’s been the inevitable backlash to what you did, rumors and lies. Pa wanted to tell people face to face how it really was fill them in on the facts and quash any misunderstandings; he knows he can’t keep it from you indefinitely, just until you were ready to hear it.”
“Did they listen?” Johnny asked searching his brother’s face
“That bad feeling ain’t gonna go away, Scott.”
“No, not without a fight!” Scott reached out to squeeze his brother’s arm determined to get a certain point across this time “Johnny, we, as a family, can work this out!”
//We as a family can work this out!// Scott had said those very same words to him that day he’d left Lancer, he’d wanted desperately to believe it possible then and was even more desperate to believe it now! Just what was his problem? Was it a question of trust? Was it that he didn’t understand the depth of their commitment to him, to family? Well he certainly hadn’t understood what family was until he’d come to Lancer, and he’d not known what unconditional love was until he’d turned all his hate and anger on them and watched them absorb every verbal blow and still willingly come back for more. Together his father and brother had conquered his hatred and mistrust; together they’d fought that bitter ugly war and won.
Suddenly it seemed nothing was impossible “Yeah…” Johnny’s voice rang with conviction “we as a family can work this out.”
The silhouette slipped unseen into the night, the full moon casting just enough light to illuminate the way. Silent footsteps hurried towards the barn, hesitating briefly before opening the door, the figure finally stepped inside.
Barranca nickered nervously sensing the imminent danger.
An evil grin crossed her face; her eyes gleamed with the madness that was slowly eating away at her soul and her mind. Her descent into the world of insanity progressed faster with each moment the boy lived. Her life now held but one purpose, the death of Johnny Madrid Lancer. It mattered not at all what name he called himself, she called him murderer, and he would pay for his crime.
His death, however, would be painful, torturous, and he would be helpless to prevent the agony his family would endure. With no thought of anything save the prospect of watching the boy grieve, she measured out a generous helping of oats into a nearby bucket. She opened a small box and sprinkled the contents into the oats, a wicked giggle slipping past her lips. Satisfied she made her way to giant stallion standing tensely in his stall.
As she reached the stall door, Barranca flattened his ears, tossed his heavy mane, and plunged toward her. She stumbled backward, out of reach of the snapping teeth, all attempts to open the door forgotten. Recovering her composure, she approached once more, the bucket held well in front of her. Tentatively she reached through the opening in the bars of the stall and poured the oats into the manger. Barranca half reared and lunged again.
“Here, boy, I have something for you,” she cackled softly.
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“Johnny! Johnny!” The urgent voice quickly roused him from his slumber; he opened bleary eyes to find his father leaning over him, the older man’s hand gently gripping his shoulder.
“What? What is it? What’s wrong?” Johnny’s pulse quickened and his mind raced in anticipation; one look at his father’s anxious face told him something bad had happened.
“Its Barranca son, he’s…” Murdoch had hurriedly explained Barranca’s plight, trying to prepare his son for what he would find out in the barn.
Johnny had leapt from his bed quickly pulling on his pants, his trembling fingers hindering his progress. His shirt, boots and even his gun all left behind in his haste to reach the stricken animal. Heart in his mouth, panic rising in his chest, he’d run to the barn, his injury and the resulting lingering weakness ignored, but it had been shaky legs that had carried him in through the barn door.
Horrified blue eyes fell upon the stallion. The animal lay pitifully on the floor, gripped by some alarming ailment. Johnny fell to his knees along side his brother who was trying to soothe the distressed stallion.
“What is it?”
“It’s not colic, I’m sure of that!” Scott declared, yet Barranca’s sudden illness was proving a mystery to him.
With trembling hands, Johnny stroked the stallion, searching every inch of the once powerful animal. Terror seized him as he found no wound, no injury, no apparent reason for the animal’s distress. Fighting panic, his breathing as labored as that of his beloved stallion, Johnny sought to control the overwhelming emotions that threatened to sweep him away, rendering him all but useless to his horse. With no hesitation he closed his eyes, opened the door and summoned Madrid. With a confident smile Madrid rose and came forward.
Scott sat helplessly in the stall’s straw, next to his brother, carefully exploring, then rejecting, one diagnosis after the other. He had seen many fallen animals, horses and cattle alike, and there was something vaguely familiar about the agony gripping the palomino. Yet, the cause eluded him, dancing into view momentarily, only to slip away, like a temptress selling her wares. He turned his gaze on his younger sibling, saw the mask of Madrid settle firmly on the boy’s face. At once the younger man’s trembling hands became steady, sure, as peace settled on the slender shoulders like a cloak. He was not surprised to see Madrid make an appearance; he knew Madrid would always be with them, protecting Johnny and his family. With a small nod of acknowledgement Scott began a search of the stall.
Johnny rose, his mind returning to a far away place, another life, another time. In his mind’s eye, he could see another animal, a bull, writhing in the hot Mexican sun, his death throes violent and undeniable. The bull had broken free of the herd, its thirst driving it into the water hole before the vaqueros could push it back. It had drunk long and deep and almost immediately been stricken. Poison! Silently Johnny inspected the stall, the water bucket was still full, its contents crystal clear and fresh. Tentatively he dipped a finger in the liquid, without hesitation bringing it to his lips. The taste was sweet, refreshing. His eyes fell on the manger; uneaten oats remained in the container. Johnny was aware of Scott standing shoulder to shoulder, his eyes also surveying the contents of the manger. The two siblings eyed the sweetfeed, then exchanged a look, both now certain of the cause of Barranca’s mysterious illness.
“He always finishes his feed,” Johnny whispered into Scott’s ear.
“He isn’t foundered. Poison?”
“That would be my guess, Boston. But he didn’t finish so maybe he didn’t eat enough.” The eyes, dark as a velvet night searched his brother’s face, hope demanding a response.
“Johnny lets get him up.”
Murdoch had listened intently to his sons’ conversation //Poison! Who would do such a thing?// Sadly the patriarch had realized that with all the ill will aimed at Johnny right now there could be numerous possibilities; they would probably never know the identity of the man responsible. He’d stared at his younger son, his heart breaking for the boy. Murdoch knew how much the palomino meant to Johnny, knew that the special bond they shared had been borne out of trust and had grown into a unique friendship. If the horse were to die, and in Murdoch’s wealth of experience it seemed a real possibility, Johnny would be devastated, life dealing yet another cruel and unjust blow to someone who’d already had more than his fair share of hurt. Anger had flared up inside, the patriarch finding a meager amount of consolation in the oath he’d swore silently to himself //If they ever did find the man responsible he would deal with the culprit himself!//
The drama had then begun to rapidly unfold around him, shaking him out of the paralyzing dread that had held him in its grips. He’d watched with pride as his elder son had taken control of the situation, calmly reeling off instructions, galvanizing the gathering vaquero’s into action. Johnny had obeyed his brother without question, kneeling beside his horse, offering a steady stream of encouragement amid the continuing melee. But still the stallion had withstood the urgent pleas and eager hands that had strove to pull and push him to his feet.
Again Scott had taken the lead, calling for ropes and some means of leverage and in no time at all or so it seemed the weakening animal was being hauled to its feet. They had won the first round but the fight was far from over, keeping the horse on his feet could prove an impossible task
Martha Thomas sat calmly at the kitchen table, her slender fingers expertly peeling and preparing vegetables for the evening meal. Raised voices and hurried footsteps had earlier rescued her from yet another restive and haunted night, her dreams now a continuous parade of horrific images, anguished and torturous screams for mercy and help. Tears would always be present on her cheeks when waking, her damp pillow testimony of her grief but once awake the tears were vehemently banished and revenge would flood her soul and she would again conquer her broiling emotions. Pity the only thing she allowed herself to feel other than hate, pity for the killer’s family, they were blinded to his guilt, blinded to his black soul. That very first day here his father had spoken of his son’s part in destroying the evil that had so wickedly slain her family. He’d hoped she knew, to offer her some comfort in knowing that the evil was no more, but she was not as foolish as Murdoch Lancer. The man’s heart ruled his head, he wanted to believe his son’s lies and his brother was no better! He’d spoken with obvious pride when telling her of the gunslinger’s endeavors to save the ranch. Yes, she pitied them both, knowing the longer they continued to support his lies the more they would regret their stupidity.
She’d watched Madrid run to the barn, her bedroom window an excellent vantage point. His father had been fast on his heels and she’d enjoyed watching the ensuing panic play out.
Finally deciding the time was right to make an appearance downstairs, she’d left her room and headed for the kitchen. There she’d found a tearful Teresa and had comforted her like only a mother could comfort a child, gaining the girl’s trust still further.
The morning had past in a flurry of activity and she’d made a point of being visibly involved, helping Maria prepare sandwiches, hot coffee and most importantly providing a reassuring presence for Murdoch Lancer. Her voice softly offering the words she knew he needed to hear, her arm entwining seemingly naturally with his, and her hand patting his reassuringly but lingering there just a little longer than necessary. Despite everything that was going on around him Murdoch Lancer was aware of her, aware in just the way she wanted him to be.
Quieter now and so still, almost lifeless, the exhausted animal lay a heartbreakingly pitiful shade of the magnificent creature he’d been just the night before. Twice now they’d had no option but to let him lie down and rest but only briefly, just long enough to gather some stamina, but this time it looked like the fight to get him back on his feet would prove even harder, this time it seemed all the fight had drained from the horse.
Johnny rearranged the blanket that covered the palomino, needing to do something, anything for his friend. He stood slowly ignoring the blue eyes that watched him so intently and leaned against the stall, the solid structure offering the physical support his weary body needed. He was exhausted, not that he would ever admit it, Barranca needed him and he wasn’t about to let him down. His heart and mind were fixed solely on getting the stallion through the crisis but his concentration was suddenly broken when he saw yet another old friend standing quietly in the corner of the barn. Johnny was delighted to see the chestnut again, even managing a genuine smile as he wandered over to say hello. The gelding had been a big part of his life for several long and lonely years but the horse had never truly been his, not like Barranca was his and he could never escape the memories associated with him.
There was no forgetting the fact he’d stolen the chestnut, a crime he could so easily have dangled from a rope for but he’d committed an even bigger sin barely minutes before leaping up into its saddle and fleeing into the night. He shivered at the memory; his face, hands, clothes had all been covered in blood and not all the blood was his.
Scott followed his brother, grateful for the distraction; the fight to save the palomino was draining both physically and emotionally. Johnny was in need of some kind of diversion no matter how brief. A shadow had fallen across the younger man’s face, his countenance now dark and troubled.
“Johnny!” Scott called his brother’s name for a second time, but the boy remained lost in thought, somewhere miles away. He touched his arm gently but Johnny started violently and the elder Lancer son’s concern grew.
“Johnny? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing” Johnny lied, turning his back on his brother as he tried to regain his composure but the great weight now bearing down upon him made the fight a futile one.
“It doesn’t look like nothing to me!” Scott stated. Wrapping his arm around the trembling shoulders he steered his brother over to a bale of hay and demanded he sit.
“You can tell me,” Scott insisted softly, wondering just how to convince his brother of that.
“I nearly did once!” Johnny whispered sounding almost dazed as his mind wandered back a year to a journey into Morro Coyo when he’d inexplicably opened up and told Scott he’d stolen the chestnut. He’d been stunned by his brother’s reaction but he’d not been ready to share the rest of that nightmare. Was he ready now?
Scott’s eyes moved from his brother back to the chestnut, the same memory filtering through to the fore. “Why did you steal him?” A straight question might just get him a straight answer.
Johnny shuddered, now wasn’t the time but then there never would be a right time to tell his family what he’d done that night.
“I needed to get away!” Johnny looked down at his hands; he could still see the blood, his mama’s blood, its coppery smell filling his senses.
“Away from what?” Scott pressed, painfully aware of his brother’s erratic breathing, and the beads of perspiration covering his face.
“What I’d done,” Johnny whispered.
Scott swallowed hard “What had you done?”
Johnny and Scott failed to appear at dinner, the meal passing solemnly, the empty chairs bearing silent testimony of the anguish hovering like a specter over the hacienda. Murdoch was withdrawn, pensive, his thoughts dark and brooding. Martha watched as Teresa stabbed absently at her plate, finally forsaking the meager attempts to eat and taking her plate instead to the kitchen. Murdoch also rose, his destination unspoken, yet known. Martha was left alone, with her thoughts and her memories, the madness enveloping her once more manifesting in a strange gleam in her eyes.
“Sarah, my dear, would you care for anything else? You hardly touched your super.” A soft cackle broke through Martha’s tightly closed lips. Lady Fate stood in the doorway to the dining room, her attention enslaved by the grieving woman sitting so alone and in so much agony. The Lady raised her eyes towards the heavens and wept, a single tear falling on Martha’s head.
The Tortured Gun Chapter 35
Martha rose slowly; absently smoothing her dress, then ran a hand across her well groomed hair. “Have to get these dishes done Sarah. They won’t clean themselves. But you need your rest, won’t be long before the little one makes an appearance.” With a joyful smile of anticipation she cast a look toward the stairs where Sarah had disappeared. Yessiree wouldn’t be long now!
“Martha? Did you say something?” The gentle voice brought Martha around with a jerk.
”Sarah, I thought you were upstairs resting.”
“No, I was in the kitchen. Sarah?? Are you alright? Who were you talking to?” Puzzled, Teresa ran her gaze around the dining room.
“Oh no one, my dear. I must have been thinking out loud.” With a slight smile, Martha put her arms around the younger woman and ushered her back into the kitchen.
Murdoch strode quickly toward the barn, drawn by the need to be with his sons, and in particular his youngest. He’d done his utmost to support Johnny today offering advice and encouragement, and simply by just being there, just as a father should, but he doubted that he’d been of any real help to the boy. Boy! Murdoch frowned at the term. Johnny Lancer had run bare foot to the barn, looking every inch a scared seventeen year old boy, but Lancer had soon been eclipsed by Madrid and that same scared boy had turned into a hard and unyielding man, hiding his fear and grief from them and even from himself. It saddened Murdoch greatly at times like this he and Scott had always turned to each other for support. They had seen each other through some very difficult situations and it had served to strengthen and deepen their bond. Johnny needed his father and brother right now, not Madrid. If only Johnny would turn to them now and not to his alter ego. If only he would lower his guard a little and let them in, if only…¦if only he realized that his family could and would get him through this. God knows they wanted to.
Hovering silently just inside the door Murdoch was aware that something had changed in his absence. He studied the palomino, the animal seemed no better or worse so that wasn’t the reason the brothers were now huddled so closely together. Pale blue eyes narrowed, focusing intently on his sons; Scott’s arm was wrapped supportively around Johnny, the dark head was bowed, shoulders slumped. It seemed Madrid had relinquished his control, handing the mantle to someone more than willing to fill his shoes.
Grudgingly, the patriarch edged back outside, not wanting to intrude on a private moment, yet a little disappointed that he’d not been the one Johnny had turned to. Still he understood the reasons why, and was grateful Scott had succeeded where he had so far failed. He decided to give them a little more time alone then join them later; hopefully Madrid would still be taking a back seat.
In companionable silence Martha and Teresa tidied up the dining room, then set about washing the dishes. No words were spoken, no words were necessary; it was as if they had been in the kitchen side by side for years. In harmony they fell into a warm, comfortable routine, Teresa washed the dishes while Martha dried. As they labored together, Teresa wondered if this was what it meant to have a mother. Her own mother had died many years before, now the woman beside her shared the pain of the loss of loved ones. She too, had lost her family, Teresa reminded herself, and their common anguish drew Teresa to this woman. A bond was forming, a bond of grief and regret.
Watching the two women at work, Lady Fate sighed deeply. How she wished it could be so, that future events could be avoided. How she wished she could spare them the pain that was yet to come. She had withheld her judgment, spared the life of the young man, secured the safety of the great ranch. Yet, the darkness was never content, its hunger never satisfied and powerful as she was, Lady Fate knew she could not change the inevitable, undeniable truth. Death would claim one more. Sadly she left the kitchen, leaving the two women to their chores.
The older woman stole a secretive look at the girl beside her and began to softly hum.
Johnny wiped angrily at a stray tear, then shrugging his brother’s arm away he jumped to his feet, blindly stumbling the short distance to where Barranca lay. What had he done? He’d never meant to tell Scott everything! Not every sordid little detail! The bare facts would have been enough! Now, he couldn’t look his brother in the face, he didn’t want to see the shock and horror in the blue eyes, and more importantly he didn’t want to see the disgust and shame, and surely Scott had to be feeling that, at least.
His brother remained seated, distancing himself no doubt, and suddenly Johnny felt very alone, and alone was something he hadn’t felt since coming back to Lancer. He knelt down and stroked the palomino’s sweat streaked neck, needing physical contact with someone; something that was incapable of judging him. Suddenly that was so very important, still there was something even more important, something that he’d pushed so thoughtlessly and selfishly to the back of his mind, he had to concentrate on that now.
His hand moved purposefully up towards the golden head. Finding its goal, trembling fingers then felt for a reassuring sign; but the blood pounded alarmingly fast beneath them and dread once more began to rise, panic answering its fear filled call. Again he felt the overpowering need to summon Madrid. He closed his eyes but they were instantly forced open when a hand settled on his shoulder, squeezing reassuringly, and at the same time demanding acknowledgement. He looked up into his brother’s eyes; understanding radiated back, but for some reason the compassion there ignited his simmering anger and he pulled away, standing to then stride agitatedly toward the door where he stopped and swung around to face Scott. His words flowed quietly but bitterly out at his brother.
“Don’t tell me you understand because you don’t! Don’t tell me it’s alright because it ain’t…”
Scott was ready for the anger, and slowly he moved towards it, absorbing Johnny’s anguish-fuelled ire as his words continued to pummel him. Just feet away he began to speak “You’re right, I can’t tell you I understand! How could I? I wasn’t there, it didn’t happen to me! And I won’t tell you that what you did that night doesn’t change the way I feel about you, because that’s not what you want to hear is it, brother? No! You expect me; or rather you want me, to judge you, to condemn you just like you have done.”
“No!” Johnny ground out, confused by his brother’s reasoning. “No, that’s not true!”
The despair in the younger man’s voice tore through Scott’s soul, he felt like he himself were also being torn in two, by the past, Johnny’s past and he felt powerless to stop it. He only knew he had to reach his brother, he had to convince him he was loved, with a love that would not judge, nor fail. Hope had risen in his heart as Johnny had poured out the story of his mother’s death, his need to avenge her overshadowed only by fear for his own life. Covered in his mother’s blood, and the blood of her killer, Johnny had run into the night on a stolen chestnut gelding.
Taking another step toward the younger man, Scott was halted abruptly as the mask of Madrid slipped once more across Johnny’s face.
“As Murdoch said, the past is the past, brother.”
“You’re hiding behind words now Johnny, words and Madrid!” Scott stated calmly, a lot more calmly than he felt.
Consternation flashed in the vivid blue eyes and Scott pressed on “You didn’t need to hide behind either five minutes ago. I’m sorry you feel you have to now.”
The dark head bowed as the inner battle raged. Finally, defeated, Madrid took his leave, retreating to once more languish in the all too familiar dark recesses until summoned again, leaving a very confused Johnny Lancer in his wake.
Johnny struggled to make sense of his actions, he’d trusted his brother, more than he’d realized it seemed! He’d never before put such trust in someone and perhaps it was that realization that had frightened him. Fear had taken hold and he’d been so scared his brother would let him down this time, but like all the times before Scott had remained true and Johnny acknowledged with a soaring heart that he was going to have to accept that as fact.
Scott waited for the blue eyes to meet his and hoped he’d read the message there correctly. “You’re the one playing judge and jury here, brother! You’ve tried and convicted yourself of a crime that didn’t take place, and until you accept you did what you had to do, that you acted purely in self defense, then you’ll always be a prisoner of guilt!” Scott stood still awaiting the reaction he was sure was to come.
//Self defense!// Scott was right. It had been self defense, he’d been seconds away from certain death and mind-numbingly terrified when he’d pulled the trigger. It was only afterwards that he’d told himself that what he’d done was motivated by revenge, that he’d purposefully blasted the murdering bastard for what he’d so brutally done, for what he’d so coldly taken from him. He’d taken everything from him that night…all he had, all he loved, and or so he’d believed at the time, the only living soul to ever love him! Johnny hung his head again as tears threatened. He’d never let himself get close to anyone or anything again, not until he’d come to Lancer. Here he’d allowed himself to care and be cared for; he’d left Lancer simply because he’d cared so much, because he knew what love was again and he didn’t think he could bear the pain of its loss. Still, he’d not been able to close his heart completely and his heart had led him home. There was no escaping the hurt that always seemed to go hand in hand with love, he’d hurt his family, he’d hurt himself! Now he found himself asking again if it was worth all the pain. He wondered what his brother would say to that and met his unwavering gaze, instantly finding the answer.
Scott was so very wise, wise to the world and wise to its people, he’d certainly worked out what made his younger brother tick. Scott could read him like a book and that was a strangely comforting thought, so was his most recent advice, advice Johnny swore he’d do his best to follow.
Like a drowning man, Johnny reached out for the safety and security of his brother’s love, and sighed, relief washing over him as Scott wrapped his arms around him in a tight embrace.
The Tortured Gun Chapter 36
Johnny suddenly broke the embrace, turning his back on his brother as he fought for control. He stepped away a few paces, the movement giving him the moments he needed to regain his composure. With a heavy sigh he flung away the last remnants of the past, the memories and the pain, at least for now. There were other, more pressing, matters to tend to and the past would still be there, lurking in the shadows, stalking him, until another place and time when Johnny knew a confrontation was unavoidable.
Scott stood waiting, watching, knowing they had made real progress in their relationship, yet, also knowing Johnny could very well resort once more to his alter ego, thus effectively negating all forward momentum. The eldest Lancer son realized they were fighting Johnny’s past, his perceived estimation of his self-worth and even fate herself. Silently he lifted a plea to the lady in question, hoping against hope she would once more grant them her favor. So it was with a tremendous, audible sigh of relief that he met the steady, piercing stare of Johnny Lancer. A smile tickled the handsome blond face, as he stepped forward and once more laid an arm across the slender shoulders of his brother.
“Enough reminiscing, we have a horse to tend to.” His words, lightly laced with hope and optimism earned him an answering smile as Johnny matched his strides toward the fallen stallion’s stall.
Eavesdropping was something Murdoch could never remember doing before, it was certainly something he himself frowned on, yet he’d stood and listened to his sons’ emotionally wrought exchange and felt not one ounce of guilt. He’d had no intention of listening in but once he’d heard the anguish and fear in his younger son’s voice he hadn’t been able to walk away.
It hadn’t taken Murdoch long to work out what his younger son had shared with his brother. He’d arrived too late to hear that part of their conversation and to some extent he was relieved. Both he and Scott were already aware of the bare facts; the Pinkerton report had outlined the events of that night painting a harrowing ordeal for the ten year old boy caught in the middle of the nightmare. It had sickened him, as it would any father, any decent man, and had served to torture his thoughts and dreams ever since. Murdoch wasn’t sure how he would have reacted hearing it from the boy himself but was certain he couldn’t have handled it as well as Scott had.
Taking a deep, fortifying breath Murdoch stepped back inside the barn knowing he was needed there now by both his sons, not that either one of them would ever acknowledge that.
“Any change?” The patriarch somehow managed to keep his voice even, hiding his true emotions as he strode over to join his sons. Johnny avoided eye contact, his attention once more on the stricken palomino. Scott glanced briefly at his father as he softly replied “No, no change at all.”
“Can I take a look at him?”
Johnny nodded, sitting back on his haunches to make room for his father, watching closely as the older man cast an experienced eye and an equally knowledgeable pair of hands over the animal.
“Well?” Johnny asked hoping his father would find something to reassure him.
Murdoch shrugged, the situation looked increasingly bleak. There had been little, if any, improvement in the horse’s condition during the day, each hour that passed lessening the palomino’s chances of recovery. The palomino refused to stand, water and nourishment ignored as the poison had continued to work its way through his system. Time was simply running out, if he wasn’t back on his feet and taking water soon they would lose him.
“It doesn’t look good son, the longer he’s down…”
“I know! I don’t need you to tell me that!” Johnny snapped.
Murdoch absorbed his son’s outburst, pursing his lips thoughtfully before abruptly rising and stalking from the stall. The sound of the door slamming shut reverberated through the barn, its echo condemning the youngest Lancer for his disrespect. Johnny turned tortured eyes on his brother, seeking reassurance.
“He knows you didn’t mean anything by it,” Scott answered the unspoken question, his slate blue eyes meeting stormy blue ones and holding. “He knows you are worried about Barranca.
Once more the barn door was opened Johnny gazing hopefully in its direction, sighing audibly as his father reentered flanked by Cipriano and Jesse.
“Throw the ropes over that beam, there, and there,” Murdoch ordered, gesturing to the massive supports which framed the huge barn. “We can use them as pulleys and pull the stallion up. Once he is standing we will secure them.”
An hour later, the four men stood panting, despair and defeat threatening to crush them. In spite of their efforts, the stallion still lay prone, the agony of attempting to regain his feet exhausting the once mighty animal. Johnny had thrown himself upon the palomino’s neck, his face buried in the thick silver mane. He stroked the golden neck, his fingers tracing the tiny blood vessels, now swollen from the stallion’s struggle. Barranca’s nostrils were distended, foam stained his flanks and his sides heaved as he labored to suck in gulps of precious life sustaining air.
Helplessly the men stood, knowing they had lost the battle, and the mighty animal was surely lost. With pain-filled eyes they observed the final moments of the beloved animal.
“Son, it’s over.” Murdoch gently laid a hand on the boy’s shoulders. “John, you have to let him go.”
“NO!” Johnny raged. He was on his feet in an instant, his anger lashing out at the hated words, slapping the older man and pushing him back. “Once more, we are gonna try once more. He will get up! Do ya hear me? He will, now grab the damn ropes and pull!”
Johnny’s fury was a live being, normally controlled and calculating under the cool exterior that was Madrid, it was now unleashed and demanding obedience.
“You pull, you hear me!” Johnny ordered, his voice leaving no doubt that he expected compliance, his words urging haste, yet laced with fear and desperation. Without another word, Johnny turned back to the stallion, confident his orders would be obeyed. He fell to his knees beside the stricken animal, nodding in satisfaction when the ropes became taut once more. Suddenly calm and confident, Johnny placed his mouth on the stallion’s ear. He whispered words of encouragement, begging his horse for one more effort. He lifted, pleaded and from deep within the golden stallion came one last response. Barranca rallied his heart and muscles in one accord and as a behemoth rising from the depths, the stallion rose, steadily, surely, painfully, until he stood, head hanging , his weight supported by the ropes around his girth.
“I say we ride there now and confront Murdoch Lancer, insist he listen to our demands, and ensure he acts on those demands!” Jefferson O’Toole sat back in his chair radiating an impassive air while the other occupants of the room erupted into passionate agreement. He was well satisfied with his performance, and gloated inwardly on Lancer’s imminent defeat.
He’d chosen his words carefully, and had in the past half hour, slowly and skillfully brought his audience to fever pitch, inciting each man present into an angry, vengeful defender of everything a good man stood for! Madrid was now a viable threat, to them, their women, children and their homes. The gunslinger a ruthless, merciless monster with the guile to exploit even a man as wise as Murdoch Lancer. The rancher had all their respect of course, he’d earned it over the years and they couldn’t condemn a man for believing in his own flesh and blood. Still it was their duty to open his eyes, lay bare the facts and make him face the truth! He’d thank them one day!
As the men began to spill out onto the street, O’Toole rose from his chair and made his way out to his waiting horse, nudging it into a gallop out of town and toward Lancer, the angry mob following behind.
The Tortured Gun Chapter 37
Martha watched unseen from the open door, the slightly more optimistic mood inside the barn dampening her spirits. She’d hoped the wretched creature would be dead by now, that its owner would be experiencing loss in some form, even if it were just a fraction of the sorrow she bore.
Loathing poured from her soul and she cursed the killer for forcing her hand, for making her walk such a hateful path. She’d been a good and decent woman; she’d only ever done good toward others yet look how she’d been repaid! Evil it seemed reaped much richer rewards but she wouldn’t let it win. This manifestation of evil would pay dearly for its sins even if it cost her very soul.
Her gray eyes burned into Johnny’s back as her thoughts grew more oppressive. Such a dark soul was incapable of loving anything. Madrid was using the Lancers, using their love for him against them, but they couldn’t see that, didn’t want to see it that way and so they too would suffer along side him. Serve them right, they knew of his atrocities, lied for him, covered for him and openly cared for him. It sickened Martha. It was too late for Madrid, the devil owned him but there was still a chance for his father and brother…if they were to have their eyes opened in some way! See the killer for the wickedness he truly was!
She renewed her vow to see justice was done, to make the evil that was Johnny Madrid Lancer pay for his atrocities. “It won’t be long, Sarah,” she cooed. “Not long at all. The evil one shall pay, he shall die and your new child will come into the world with no fear. Her life for Madrid’s. Yes, a life for a life.” Her softly spoken discourse was interrupted by a new sound and she turned toward the distant thundering of hooves, narrowing her eyes against the falling dusk, the failing light hindering her already poor sight.
The riders and she could see there were many, seemed eager, anxious to reach their destination. There was something about the figure leading the group of men, something familiar; he sat straight-backed, proud in the saddle, almost arrogant in his posture…Yes! It was O’Toole!
The realization that her reluctant ally was approaching stirred a strange feeling of glee within her chest. Buoyed by what she saw as sterling proof that she wasn’t alone in her quest, she stepped back into the shadows and waited for retribution of some kind to descend.
Murdoch held a pail of water up toward the stallion’s muzzle but the exhausted beast ignored it. He met his younger son’s gaze, the boy was equally as exhausted, his pallor evident through his tanned skin, the blue eyes dull and lacking in vitality. He didn’t know how Johnny was still standing; willpower and stubbornness were probably all that kept him upright, that and the love for his horse.
“Come on Barranca, for me, take some for me, please!” Johnny crooned into his palomino’s ear. He dipped his hand into the water’s cool depths then gently rubbed the moisture onto the pale gums and dry tongue of his compadre. “It’s good, see!” Again and again he plunged his hand into the water and repeated the exercise until his desperate efforts were rewarded by a snort from the horse. This time Johnny plunged both hands into the pail, scooping up a measure of the crystal clear liquid and holding it directly under Barranca’s nose. Slowly the horse, as if realizing he had no other option, began to drink, and to Johnny’s delight the more he drank the more he seemed to want!
“Thank God!” Murdoch smiled across at his older son whose own smile was doing a pretty good job of lighting up the entire barn.
The three men breathed a collective sigh of relief, certain now that the stallion was out of danger and would surely recover. Exhaustion and realization weighed heavily on their shoulders and each knew a bond had been formed in the fight for the stallion’s life, a bond that would not be broken. Weary, yet triumphant, smiles fought for dominance and conquered the exhaustion as the Lancers silently applauded each for a job well done. Yet their victory was to be short-lived, destiny would not be deterred.
Lady Fate smiled at the men in the barn standing united around the golden horse, yet she knew it was not to be. Peace would reign, but not now, not yet, and not before more blood had been spilled. In despair she left the barn, fully aware of the oncoming new threat.
“Senor Lancer!” Cipriano called from the door, beckoning to the other man to join him.
Murdoch reluctantly left his sons, his stomach fell to his knees; one look at the vaqueros face and he knew something was amiss, “What is it?”
”Riders, many riders!”
Murdoch strode out of the door, Scott alerted by the sudden activity followed closely behind.
“Can you make them out?”
Scott nodded and lowered his voice “O’Toole and at least half the men from town!”
Murdoch turned swiftly back to look in the barn, relieved to find Johnny engrossed in caring for his horse. “Keep your brother here!” With that Murdoch moved toward the hacienda.
“Pa! Not on your own!” Scott grasped his father’s arm stopping him abruptly.
“Do as I say, Scott,” Murdoch growled before striding out to await their uninvited guests.
Hopefully, Murdoch told himself, he could reason with the men, he’d known each one for years, considered them all…except for O’Toole, friends. He stood by the great oak door and as the horses drew to a halt he moved out to stand seemingly unconcerned in their midst.
“O’Toole!” Murdoch acknowledged the pompous fool staring confidently down at him. “And to what do I owe the pleasure?”
“We’re not here to exchange pleasantries, Lancer!”
“No, I realize there has to be something of major consequence to bring you and these men all the way out here…on a Saturday night too!”
“You know exactly why we’re here, that half-breed of yours! Where is he?”
Murdoch bristled. “You had best keep a civil tongue in your head O’Toole.”
“Would you prefer gun hawk!” O’Toole taunted.
Murdoch swallowed his anger. “My son is minding his own business and that’s something you should be doing.”
“We have made it plain how we feel Lancer. We have given you ample time to act but you have ignored Morro Coyo and the surrounding areas wishes and so, if you are not prepared to send that killer on his way, we will!” A chorus of agreement filled the still evening air.
Murdoch waited for the irate rumblings to die down before replying quietly.
“Johnny is my son, Lancer is his home. He’s going nowhere, that boy risked his life to save not only his home but all of yours too.”
Murdoch found his words drowned out by scornful comments and angry shouts of dissention. Again he waited for the men to fall silent. “Come inside and we’ll talk about this.”
“We’ve talked enough. Now get that boy out here Murdoch or we’ll be forced to go in after him!”
“There won’t be any need for that O’Toole!” Johnny’s voice startled his father and the older man turned to find his younger son flanked by his brother walking toward him, Cipriano and a growing number of the ranch hands gathering behind them. Scott was shaking his head to indicate he’d been unable to keep his brother away from the situation.
“John go inside!” Murdoch ordered.
O’Toole guffawed; pleased with the way the situation was playing out. “The boy has no respect for you Murdoch, like he has no respect for anyone or anything including a life!”
Murdoch ignored him his attention fixed on his younger son, quietly he pleaded “I said go inside! Let me deal with this.”
“No sir! I’m sorry but this concerns me. It’s not for you to defend me or my actions!” Johnny stepped lightly to the side, placing distance between himself, his brother and the other men who had silently, unwaveringly showed their support of the young gunhawk. Satisfied the others were out of harm’s way, he casually dropped his left hand to his hip.
“I have no quarrel with any of you, but if you think you can crowd me, try it.” The words were soft, almost a whisper yet their challenge and their intent spanned the distance between Johnny and O’Toole as surely as a shout.
Jefferson O’Toole reacted to the challenge as if he had been slapped across the face; the involuntary recoil was not unnoticed. Struggling to maintain his self control, he laughed, a forced, tremulous laugh, the sound of which only further unnerving the men who had only moments before been so sure of their objective and their ability to accomplish it. One man, a mere boy, was staring down their leader and they resolve began to crumble.
For several agonizing moments Martha had believed Madrid would remain blissfully unaware of the mob seeking him, his attention riveted on the palomino but it hadn’t been long before he’d noticed something was wrong. When the men’s shouts had carried across to the barn he’d known for sure there was trouble. His brother hadn’t attempted to lie about, or disguise, the threat, instead he’d tried to reason with the gunslinger, but his reasoning had fallen on deaf ears and Martha had watched the young man stride out to face his accusers with a growing sense of assurance that justice would yet be done.
She’d followed them discretely, trembling with anticipation, feeding off the anger and hatred that pulsed all around her, listening to Madrid’s father defend him yet again! How could he? She had sons, fine men they were too but if they were to ever turn bad she would not defend their crimes. She could never turn her back on them of course, not on her own blood but she could not have turned a blind eye like Murdoch Lancer had done. She strained to hear the older man’s quietly spoken words to his younger son. She hadn’t been able to make them out but she knew they were words of support. The man was weak, lacked integrity and grit; a real man would have done what was right, what needed to be done…maybe he needed some encouragement, maybe if he believed Madrid was responsible for the death of a loved one, even if it was indirectly…he’d be more willing to listen to O’Toole’s demands.
Slipping her hand purposefully into her skirt pocket she curled her fingers around the cold steel concealed there. She didn’t like guns and she’d been reluctant to buy the Derringer but once she knew for certain she’d be living under the same roof as Johnny Madrid she knew she would need the protection it offered. Now it offered the promise of something else.
There were so many men surrounding the three Lancers, innocent men she didn’t want to harm and so very carefully she took aim, a bullet to the head would be instant. Scott wouldn’t suffer…not like her Sarah had suffered. Pulling the trigger she whispered “This is for you Sarah!”
The Tortured Gun Chapter 38
“Are you satisfied now, O’Toole? You want some more blood? Well, you can have your fill; just make one move toward that gun.” Madrid’s icy voice flowed over the men who had not fled when Scott Lancer had fallen, slowing their blood as it chilled them to the bone. Heartbeats accelerated, pumping harder to meet the forced demands of their bodies as they reacted violently to the youngest Lancer’s threat. With barely a glance in O’Toole’s direction these men turned their horses and headed back the way they had come, galloping recklessly toward town.
Vaguely Johnny was aware of a flurry of activity as his father swept Scott into his arms and headed for the hacienda. Johnny’s deadly stare remained fixed on Jefferson O’Toole, the flames of anger spanning the distance between the two men. With ominous certainty, the promise unmistakable, Johnny directed his last comments to the man before him.
“You came out here to try to run me off. You caused the shooting of my brother, whether you pulled the trigger or not. “
“Now hold on, boy…!” Jefferson exploded.
“You mind your manners now, you hear me?”
“Why you insolent cur!”
“You need a lesson in proper etiquette. Don’t you know it’s impolite to come a visitin’ and misbehave this way? Perhaps you need a reminder of how fragile your life can be,” Johnny spoke softly, his right hand lovingly caressing the Colt on his hip.
With a jerk, Jefferson O’Toole remembered who exactly he was sparring with, the blood leaving his face as the realization struck him like a thunderbolt.
“There are ways, half-breed. I have time,” he snarled.
“Yeah, well, that depends on how fast you want to meet your maker.” Johnny laughed then, a soft, wicked laugh that trailed ghostly spasms down the older man’s spine. Viciously he turned his gelding, his spurs painfully ripping the animal’s flanks.
Satisfaction…yes that was the word, Martha had felt complete satisfaction as she’d watched the elder Lancer son crumple bonelessly to the ground, and the resulting horror mar the faces of the people who cared about him, who loved him. She had briefly savored his father’s agony before melding into the shadows and making her escape. The ensuing melee had worked to her advantage; several horses already made nervous by the tension in the air had reared and tried to unseat their riders when the ear splitting sound echoed around them. The two sides of the confrontation had each drawn their guns as they tried to apportion blame. By the time the unknown perpetrator was actively being sought, Martha was back in the safety of the hacienda standing anxiously by the great oak door calling into the ever darkening night for reassurance about the gunshot.
Murdoch Lancer had just minutes later carried his elder son in through the door, the young man limp in his arms showing no signs of life, and she’d gasped in horror, hand clasped to her mouth for effect. Teresa had run into the room then and Martha had instantly tried to comfort the girl, holding her as she sobbed and trembled with shock and fear. Madrid had been right behind his father and Martha had thought she’d seen tears glistening in the killer’s eyes. She was mistaken of course, she knew him to be incapable of such emotion!
That had been several hours ago, and in the sanctuary of her room Martha now paced the floor. She was angry with herself, disappointed she had failed so abysmally in her task! Scott lay in his room, his lingering unconsciousness giving his family some cause for concern, but still he lived! An inch or so to the left, or so the doctor had said, and the young man would be dead. Instead the bullet’s path had left a furrow in the flesh on the side of his head; the scalp wound bleeding profusely, but seemingly doing no permanent damage.
Madrid had barely left his brother’s side and she’d felt his icy stare on her as she’d calmly offered his father some words of reassurance. The older man had squeezed her hand gently, grateful she knew for her presence. She’d forced herself to meet the blue eyes as she had left the room, suspicion shone back and she had shivered violently, her footsteps quickening in her haste to escape their probing. Now she was afraid to go back, scared he would challenge her and that she would admit her guilt, it was too soon, she wasn’t ready, not yet.
Standing with his arms laid upon the massive hearth, Johnny watched the flames flickering as the last of the fire burned into nothingness. Though logs had been brought in and placed in the bin beside the huge fireplace, Johnny had made no effort to stoke the fire. He stared unseeing, his mind whirling in endless circles, ever seeking the reason for the events of the last few days. The horror of the land war with Pardee was easily understood, it was motivated by greed but this was different. Someone was exacting revenge for injuries, whether real or imagined, the acts being both cowardly and bold in that they were carried out with no regard for the possibility of being discovered. Someone wanted to hurt the Lancers, no, not the Lancers, him.
Johnny knew who that someone was but how was he to approach her? How could he ease her pain, thereby removing the driving force behind her ever escalating acts of violence? He knew this could not continue, he could not allow her to cause any more harm to man or beast but the answer to how eluded him. How did you reach someone who may all ready be too far gone? How did you bring someone back from the brink?
His exploration into the whys and hows of recent events was interrupted when his father entered the room, his footsteps those of a man burdened, in agony. Murdoch came to a stop a few feet behind the dark-haired youth.
“John, why don’t you stoke up the fire?” Though softly spoken, there remained an edge to his father’s voice. Johnny numbly sought out the kindling and the freshly cut firewood and piled it high, his motions automatic. The fire struggled to take hold and as the flames licked and curled higher he glanced over at his father. The older man now sat on the couch nursing a glass of brandy in his hands staring blankly into its depths. Johnny wondered what his reaction would be if he openly accused Martha Thomas of shooting Scott and of poisoning Barranca. The older man liked her, had or so it seemed taken quite a shine to her, she’d certainly charmed him in the short time she’d been at Lancer…part of her plan no doubt! When Murdoch looked at her he saw a kind and gentle woman, he had no reason to question her intentions and Johnny wasn’t sure his father would listen to his suspicions. He had no tangible proof to back his accusation up either, only a gut feeling and a man like Murdoch Lancer would want more than that surely?
Murdoch felt his younger son’s troubled gaze upon him and jolted himself out of his reverie “How is Barranca?”
The voice was strained, tired but heavy with concern, and Johnny moved to sit on the couch filled with a sudden need to be nearer the older man.
”He’s doing fine; Cipriano’s looking after him.”
Murdoch studied the pale drawn features of his younger son. “How about you, John? You really should be getting some rest, you’re exhausted.”
”I’m fine. It’s Scott you should be worried about!” Johnny snapped. What was his father worrying about him for? After all wasn’t he the reason his brother had been shot?
Murdoch gripped his son’s arm and stated firmly. “I’m worried about both of you! It’s only a few days since you were lying unconscious in your bed. I’m not going to forget the scare you gave me in a hurry believe me. Son, I know you’re worried about your brother but…”
”Shouldn’t he be awake by now?” Johnny demanded, his concern finally finding a voice.
”Sam said he could be out for hours, for us not to worry…Johnny, he’s going to be fine.” Murdoch tried to reassure his younger son, the boy certainly didn’t need anymore anguish right now. He’d been knocked flat by his palomino’s struggle for life.
There was no reason to believe Scott wouldn’t recover. Murdoch was of course still horrified at how close he’d come to losing the young man tonight. He couldn’t forget the shock of seeing him fall lifelessly to the ground. For several long agonizing minutes, as he’d searched for signs of life and examined the wound, he’d believed his elder boy dead. He couldn’t put into words the relief at finding life still flowing through the boy’s veins.
Scott had been lucky, they had all been so very lucky, fate seemed to be on their side but Murdoch couldn’t help but worry for how long. First Barranca and now Scott. What or who next? He’d asked the men to be more vigilant, and he truly believed all the men in his employ to be trustworthy, yet he couldn’t shrug off the feeling that it was someone in their midst who was responsible for their present troubles. He now feared for his family and especially for Johnny, certain their ‘enemies’ true intention was to simply hurt the boy in whatever means possible. So far they’d struck out at the things in his life that he loved most of all, punishing him cruelly, torturing him slowly, prolonging his agony. The patriarch knew he had to warn his son but how was he to do so without the boy blaming himself for what had happened so far. It was enough to make him leave Lancer again. Murdoch was determined not to let that happen, but the situation called for total honesty no matter the risks involved. Staring into the vivid blue eyes Murdoch decided it had to be faced head on and right now.
”John. I don’t believe O’Toole had anything to do with this. Yes, he rode out here to run you off, and as much as I dislike the man I’m certain he’s not a cold blooded killer and that he would never condone such either. I think whoever shot Scott took advantage of the situation, and would again. I’m not sure what we’re up against but I want you to be aware of the danger involved here, that you are…”
”I know!” Johnny cut his father off; surprised the older man was so discerning of the situation, and also a little ashamed for not having given the man any credit in reasoning out the matter for himself.
Murdoch studied his boy’s face, the handsome countenance suddenly troubled and wary, but wary of what exactly?
”What is it Johnny?” Murdoch’s hand tightened around his son’s forearm.
”I think I know who it is…pretty certain in fact!” Johnny’s tongue tripped nervously over the words. He wasn’t just voicing his beliefs here, he was asking his father to believe him, to trust his judgement and he was scared his father wouldn’t, couldn’t…that he just didn’t have enough faith in him.
”Who?” Murdoch demanded, why the hell hadn’t the boy said so before?
”Martha Thomas!” Johnny watched the disbelief cross his father’s face and his heart sank to the pit of his stomach.
”Martha?” Murdoch exclaimed, stunned at the accusation; the very thought of such a decent woman doing such things was laughable…or was it? There was something in the haunted sapphire eyes that told him his son was right, but he needed to know more.
”Why do you think that, John?”
Johnny shrugged, how did he put his suspicions into words.
”Has she said something to you?” Murdoch urged, something had to have happened for Johnny to be so convinced
”No, it just the way she looks at me. She hates me I know.” Johnny realised how boneless his accusation might seem to his father, but he waited as the older man seemed to ponder over his words.
When Murdoch came to think about it, he’d never actually seen Martha talk to Johnny. They’d been in the same room several times but she’d never directed a comment toward him, not directly, and she’d never actually commented on his son’s involvement in the death of her daughter’s killers. He didn’t expect gratitude of course but surely some kind of acknowledgement would be normal, if not to the boy but to himself.
The first day he’d met Martha Thomas he’d felt compelled to tell her of Johnny’s involvement and as he’d gently explained his son’s actions she had listened politely, but not one word had passed her lips. At the time Murdoch hadn’t thought anything about it. She was grieving and under the circumstances what could she have said, but now it did seem a little offish on her part, or was he simply reading too much into it now? He didn’t want to believe such ill of the woman, but his son seemed so sure and he trusted his boy’s instincts.
”I don’t expect you to believe me.” Johnny finally spoke unable to keep his fears to himself any longer.
”I do believe you, Johnny.” Murdoch gazed intently at his son, desperate to get that message across. “It’s just a little hard for me to get my head around, but I do believe you are right. The thing now is what to do about it…dear God!” Murdoch suddenly paled.
”What?” Johnny’s blood ran cold.
”Teresa wanted to sit with Scott, but I didn’t like the idea of her being alone…I asked Martha to sit with them both while I checked on you!”
The Tortured Gun Chapter 39
The gray eyes stared at the pale cheeks and shuttered eyes; the young man reminded her a little of her own son. Matthew her eldest boy was about the same age as Scott and shared the same blonde hair and build, but that was where the comparisons ended. Matthew would never have stood by and let a killer walk free amongst decent and God fearing folk.
//Oh well// she silently consoled her self //things may not have gone exactly to plan but at least she had managed to stir up a little worry and upset for the Lancer household…and this was just the beginning!//
Clasping Teresa’s hand in hers she patted it gently and was again reminded of how much the young girl resembled her Sarah. They had the same brown wavy hair, the same warmth filled brown eyes that would sparkle and glisten when happy…and Sarah had always been such a happy child, sweet, kind and so very loving. Some people were special, they stood out among the crowd; Sarah had been special, not because of her looks. Martha smiled indulgently at the thought…her Sarah had been a stunner but it wasn’t that sort of beauty that made her special. It was the beauty that radiated from within, her kind heart and her good, and so very loving, nature. How could anyone have hurt such a sweet soul? How could they have abused and tortured her so?
That was what Martha couldn’t bear, knowing how she’d suffered, how horrifically she’d died haunted her every waking moment, but she’d insisted on knowing all the details. She hadn’t been spared any either…and it was that knowledge that drove her on, that fortified her in her quest for justice. The so called men of the area were weak and cowardly but she was neither and she would make sure justice was done even if it meant her own form of justice.
The two sat in silence, Martha’s mind flitting through a host of happy memories, memories in which her dearly loved daughter still lived and breathed.
But the thoughts of the young girl sitting beside her were far from happy. Recent events weighed heavy on her young mind, //hadn’t they all been through enough! She’d lost her daddy, Murdoch had been shot, Johnny too, and just when it seemed things were settling down, that life was finally working out for all of them…this.
Barranca had been poisoned, Johnny pressured into leaving and then someone had tried to kill Scott. It was all such a nightmare…another one, and she couldn’t see an end to it.// As she stared at her brother she willed him to open his eyes, desperate for some proof that he would, as Sam had assured them all, recover.
As if in answer to her silent plea, Scott began to stir, moaning softly as awareness crept upon him.
”Stay with your brother, Sarah, I’ll fetch your pa.” Martha hurried from the room leaving a now quite anxious Teresa behind. She hadn’t liked the way the older woman had called her by her dead daughter’s name; it hadn’t been the first time of course and Teresa had previously excused similar slip ups with her name, telling herself that Sarah had to have been on the grieving mother’s mind. This time it was different, she’d made reference to Murdoch being her pa, Scott being her brother, and even though she saw them both that way, it wasn’t the way Martha had meant it. She waited nervously for her guardian to return, she’d tell him her fears, he’d know what to do.
She’d always been light on her feet, and despite her haste-filled tread the men in the great room had not heard her approach. Once she’d heard her name mentioned she’d stopped to listen and found herself the topic of their conversation. She could hear the voices and a word here and there, but was unsure of what was actually being said. She hesitated briefly, unsure of what to do, but stiffening her back and holding her head high she marched into the room.
Johnny was on his feet, back to the fireplace, eyes focused on her. Expectantly he watched her entrance into the Great Room. Inwardly Martha shrank before that icy stare, her heartbeats seemingly thundering in her chest loud enough for all to hear. With a haughty shake of her head, Martha turned her attention to the older man, now on his feet, moving toward her.
”Something wrong, Martha? How is Scott?” His voice seemed normal enough. There was no hint of suspicion or doubt, and Martha relaxed a little, apparently she was still safe, her secret hidden. With her most endearing smile, she took Murdoch’s arm and allowed him to lead her to the sofa. Gracefully she sat down, surprised when Murdoch failed to join her.
“No, Murdoch, nothing is wrong. Scott is waking up. I thought perhaps you would like to be there,” she purred silkily.
“Thank you, my dear. I surely would. Johnny fix Martha a drink. I will be with Scott.”
“Yes sir.” Johnny moved toward the bar, his movements reminding Martha of nothing less than a cat on the prowl. He handed her a snifter of brandy and resumed his place in front of the fire. Lithely, gracefully, he leaned one shoulder against the wall to the right of the massive hearth.
“So, exciting day, wasn’t it?” He asked the question as if he all ready knew the answer, that knowledge making Martha more agitated than she had been since her arrival. Something in the boy’s eyes, posture, was very disconcerting. It was all she could do not to shrink beneath the weight of his gaze.
“Yes, indeed. We are fortunate the shooter’s aim was not better.” Mentally Johnny noted it was the first time Martha had directed any comment at him.
“Yes, we were. But then again the shooter was lucky too.” The softly spoken words hit her like a slap in the face. The boy had issued the challenge, thrown down the gauntlet. Martha rose slowly, arrogantly. She faced the youngest Lancer, her eyes hard and cold. With dismay she realized the boy was holding her stare, the strength of his will pushing her back, overpowering her. Never before had anyone been able to intimidate her, out manoeuvre her; in the battle of wills she had always reigned supreme, but this young man was driving her back, repelling her without effort.
Angrily she turned, her back straight, head held high. “I will check on dinner,” she threw over her shoulder as she forced herself to walk slowly from the room.
A small smile of victory curved the lips of Johnny Madrid Lancer. Lady Fate rose from her seat in the corner. Silently, she had watched the battle of wills between two of the most powerful people she had ever known, youth versus age, love versus hate. Food for thought, she mused, as she left the room…
Scott moved his head just a fraction and again found the pain crescendo through his entire skull. He groaned and regretted that action too, everything seemed to aggravate the hammer pounding away mercilessly in his head.
A cool hand settled on his forehead and he forced his eyes open to meet the owner of the soothing voice that now called his name.
”Did that stallion throw me again, pa?” He whispered, the question a serious one, he had no recollection of what had actually transpired.
”No.” Murdoch couldn’t help but grin; just before they’d had the telegram saying Johnny had been found they had been breaking horses and there had been one particular horse that Scott had been determined to break and that particular horse had been just as determined to break Scott!
”I don’t believe you!” Scott managed to grin back, his eyes closing as he willingly slipped back into oblivion.
Murdoch sighed heavily, he’d wanted to warn Scott of the danger in their midst; right now his elder son was probably the most vulnerable target. It would have to wait and in the mean time he’d have to get Teresa to safety, he turned his attention to the young girl clasping her hand.
”Teresa I’m worried about Martha, I don’t think she’s dealing with her daughter’s death…”
Teresa’s mouth opened in surprise and she found herself spilling her own fears.
”She keeps calling me Sarah! I’ve heard her talking to her daughter too!”
Murdoch listened intently his concern growing.
”I see. Well I think that just proves our concerns are not unfounded and that’s why I want you to go and stay with…”
”No!” Teresa exclaimed “please don’t send me away!”
”Just for a few days honey, I promise. Just until we find a way to help her, she doesn’t know what she’s doing and I fear for your safety.
”But she wouldn’t hurt me! She seems to think I’m Sarah…” Teresa paled as she realized why her guardian was so concerned. “She poisoned Barranca, didn’t she…she shot Scott!”
Murdoch wrapped his arm around the trembling girl and hugged her to him.
”It seems so, we have no proof but both Johnny and I believe she did.”
”Why?” Teresa pleaded; life was again proving to be beyond her understanding.
”Sometimes grief is so intense; sometimes the loss of a loved one is just too much too bear and losing a child is the worst loss of all. I think her grief has turned in on her, made her ill, and distorted her beliefs.”
”But why here, why us…she seems to like us?”
”Johnny. At least that’s what we’ve managed to figure out, it’s common knowledge Johnny rode with Pardee and that Pardee’s men were responsible for the murders at the Farley homestead…”
”But Johnny wasn’t there, he told you he wasn’t!” Teresa insisted.
”Yes he did and I’ve gone out of my way to make sure everyone knows that and that he made sure the man responsible paid for what he did. I told Martha too, but I don’t believe it was what she wanted to hear. I believe Martha wants revenge and Johnny is the only one she can take that revenge on…she wants to hurt him like she’s been hurt!”
With Martha occupied in the kitchen it had been easy to slip Teresa out of the hacienda and into the waiting buggy. Cipriano had orders to take her the short distance to Maria’s where she would stay until sent for.
There had been tears but Murdoch had wiped them away promising the girl that everything would be alright. Johnny had been amazed at how she had taken that promise to heart, she didn’t believe for one minute that her guardian could be wrong. But Johnny wasn’t so confident; his father hadn’t seen the hate and determination in the gray eyes. Martha was a force to be reckoned with and her being a woman just served to complicate things.
Murdoch wanted to make whatever move they decided on tonight, insisting the sooner they removed the threat from Lancer the better. He just wasn’t sure how to do that without risking further injury; as far as they knew Martha still had a gun and Johnny was certain the gun used had been a Derringer and that could be concealed on her person.
As they sat beside Scott’s bed they quietly discussed possible options open to them, aware of a growing sense of urgency as they did so. As the door opened they both turned to find Martha smiling at them but this time the smile didn’t reach her eyes.
”Dinner is ready, you go eat. I’ll sit with Scott.”
The Tortured Gun Chapter 40
Murdoch stood and moved calmly toward Martha, inwardly desperate to keep up a charade of normality…if the situation they found themselves in could ever be deemed normal. “Johnny wants to sit with his brother a while longer, but I’m sure you don’t mind keeping me company!”
”No, of course not. But what about Teresa?” Martha asked somewhat puzzled as she realized the girl was no longer in the room.
Murdoch closed the bedroom door behind him then gently steered Martha down the hallway. “Teresa became a little upset and I thought it best she was quiet for a while, she’s in her room, and no…” noting the concern in the woman’s eyes Murdoch felt a fleeting moment of doubt, “there’s no need to check on her, Martha. I’ve just been in, just minutes before you came upstairs, and she was fast asleep.”
”Well, if you are sure Murdoch, but I don’t like to think of her all alone. She is just a child.”
”Not so much a child anymore. Teresa’s had to grow up fast with everything that’s happened these last few months. First her father, then Johnny and now Scott. She’s learned how harsh and cruel the world is, how callous and mindless some people can be.”
”Yes,” Martha agreed, adding pensively as she led the way downstairs. “She is such a lovely girl, Murdoch, a credit to you.” Taking the patriarch’s arm as they strolled into the great room Martha’s pain filled eyes met his. “As much as I love my boys, Sarah was always the apple of my eye…her being the only girl perhaps, and we were so very close. I was so proud of her, Murdoch.”
Murdoch had hoped he could steer the conversation onto Sarah, and it seemed he’d managed to without even trying. He’d hoped getting the bereaved mother to talk about her daughter would somehow help her accept the truth behind the murders. “And you had every right to be Martha. Sarah was a lovely young woman and a credit to you…to the way you raised her.” Gently gripping the slender shoulders he held the now tearful gaze.
”I did my best; I raised them all to have the right values and principles, to care about and be considerate of other people. I’d hoped I’d prepared them all, especially Sarah, for the world out there but I never realized what evil there was!”
Murdoch felt a shudder run through the small frame and wrapped his arm around the trembling shoulders. Leading Martha over toward the sofa he gently insisted she sit down.
Martha sat stiffly and folded her hands in her lap. Murdoch excruciatingly aware of the battle of emotions that now raged inside her, but he was totally unprepared for the smile that suddenly lit up her face, and the confident statement she then made.
”Sarah will make a wonderful mother, don’t you think Murdoch?”
As the door had closed behind his father and Martha Thomas, Johnny had moved to sit on his brother’s bed and silently contemplated the sleeping form. Broodingly he watched his brother’s chest gently rise and fall; Scott was sleeping peacefully, his face young and free of pain and worry. Tenderly Johnny stroked his hair, “no one is gonna hurt you again, Boston.” With a jerk Johnny realized he had spoken the words out loud and Scott’s slate blue eyes were open, studying him as if weighing the sincerity of the spoken promise, and the reason behind it. Lifting his right hand Scott gingerly felt the bandage on his head and tried to put the pieces together.
”The last thing I remember is…you facing O’Toole and then…nothing.”
”Someone shot you,” Johnny explained, his shoulders visibly slumping with the guilt he felt.
Scott studied the despondent face, eager to quash his brother’s fears “Johnny, you didn’t cause this. The person who pulled the trigger did this. You can’t assume responsibility for everyone.” Scott’s voice was soft, yet strong, his tone leaving little, if any, room for argument.
Nodding his understanding Johnny tried to turn the conversation away from him “How are you feeling?”
“Much better. I could use some water though.” Scott smiled as Johnny collided with the small end table, nearly knocking it over in his haste to retrieve the precious liquid.
“Easy, brother. I’m not going to die of thirst in the next couple of minutes,” he teased. Wincing slightly at the pain in his head, he pushed himself to a sitting position, accepting the glass in one hand.
“So, what happened to O’Toole?” Scott questioned between sips.
Grimly Johnny relayed the night’s events, Scott listening intently.
”Martha?” Scott exclaimed, initially stunned by his father and brother’s theory.
”Yeah, I know it ain’t easy to believe but I’m asking you to trust me on this Scott.” Johnny almost pleaded.
”I do, Johnny!” Scott hastily tried to reassure the younger man. “It’s just going to take a little while to sink in.”
”Yeah well, Murdoch…” Johnny began unsure of how to tell his brother what their father was up to. “He wants to try to talk to Martha, make her understand what happened; that I wasn’t there and the men who killed Sarah and the baby are dead. He thinks he can reason with her.
”Pa wants to try to reason with her,” Scott whispered, shock evident in the softly spoken words.
”Yeah.” Johnny sighed heavily his concern for his father finally getting the better of him. “He wanted to bring matters to a head. He’s sent Teresa over to Maria’s and he’s downstairs now… talking to Martha.”
”He’s talking to her now!” Scott uttered in alarm.
Johnny squirmed, he’d not liked the idea either, but his father had pulled rank and Johnny had found himself being talked into the idea. “He thinks she’s in need of some sympathy and understanding, that if he can just get her to talk, to admit to what she’s done.”
”Get me my clothes!” Scott ordered as he threw his legs over the side of the bed.
Johnny was on his feet in an instant, hands reaching out to steady his brother as the older man stood and began to sway on decidedly shaky legs. “Pa said…” Johnny started to protest; his brother was in no condition to be going anywhere.
”I can just imagine what he said,” Scott snapped as he reached for his pants “But if he thinks I’m lying here while he tries to reason with that mad woman then…”
”I told him you wouldn’t like it,” Johnny replied as he helped Scott into his shirt, his hands being slapped none to graciously away as he tried to do up the buttons.
”Boots?” Scott’s troubled eyes scoured the room.
”Boots? Oh yeah.” Johnny dived under the bed as he suddenly remembered kicking them there earlier when he’d helped undress his unconscious brother.
Dressed Scott suddenly felt very light headed and closed his eyes as the room spun around him.
”Scott?” Johnny gripped his brother’s arm convinced the older man was about to pass out.
Gulping in air Scott battled with the nausea that now threatened to overwhelm him.
”I’m fine. Now come on, let’s get down stairs.”
Murdoch was shaken by the way Martha Thomas seemed to slip in and out of insanity. One minute she seemed totally rational, the next living in a world that no longer existed, a world where her daughter was alive. ”Martha, do you remember why you’re here?” he asked gently.
”Why of course I do! The baby is due in just a few weeks and Sarah will need me.”
”But you’re not at Sarah’s. You’re at Lancer, and you’re here for a reason Martha. Something terrible happened, remember?” He didn’t want to make her face the harrowing events but he believed he had no other option. As long as her mind played such cruel tricks on her she was a very real threat to his family.
”I’m sure she’s carrying a girl, and I just know she’ll be the image of her mother.” Martha enthused ignoring Murdoch’s quietly spoken words.
”No.” Murdoch took the small hand in his. “Martha, there is no baby, not any more. Sarah died. You remember, don’t you?”
”No!” Martha stated vehemently. “Sarah is upstairs resting, you said so yourself!”
”Sarah is dead Martha, and you have to let her go, and along with her, all the hate you have for her killers. The men responsible are dead! You are misdirecting that hate, hurting innocent people and it has to stop!” Murdoch pleaded in desperation.
Jumping to her feet Martha pointed towards the door and toward Johnny as he entered the room with his brother.
”He is responsible and as long as I have any breath left in my body I will seek justice!” Turning to face the now standing Lancer patriarch, she looked at him through sorrowful eyes. “He will be made to pay for his sins, Murdoch and better in this life than the next.”
Quickly recognizing the rapidly deteriorating situation, Johnny moved to stand between his father and Martha, Scott hurriedly taking his place beside the two men. “Mrs. Thomas, let us help you,” Johnny urged, his eyes locked firmly on the woman before him.
“You! You killed her, you can’t bring her back! But I can send you to hell for what you have done!” Martha raged, her full attention and fury now directed at the youngest Lancer. “You won’t kill another innocent woman or baby! I will see you dead first!”
Trembling hands reached into the pocket of her dress, and came out with the Derringer. With sudden calm, Martha completed her descent into insanity, madness twisting her face into a maniacal grin.
”Martha give me the gun!” Murdoch implored moving around Johnny and edging nearer the woman. “Hasn’t there been enough killing, enough grief!”
In the corner Lady Fate stood despairing, her worst fears now bearing fruit. Another would die, and she stood helplessly, a silent witness to the tragedy unfolding before her. With all her heart, she raised tear stained eyes toward the heavens, and sent up one last prayer for the dark haired youth standing so fearlessly facing certain death.
The Derringer came to bear on Johnny, as collectively the three Lancers held their breath. At this distance she could not fail…..
Desperately Johnny sought the words needed to break through the walls of hate. “I was trying to help my family. I would have helped your family too if I could, but I wasn’t there. Believe me if I had been it would never have happened. I would never have stood by and let that happen. I’m sorry, truly sorry that I couldn’t help them. I couldn’t save Sarah but I made sure their killers…Sarah’s murderer, paid for what he did. I made sure he’d never hurt anyone ever again.”
”Liar!” Martha hissed, backing away a little, the three men now towering before her suddenly proving a little daunting.
”Alright!” Johnny exclaimed “I can’t make you believe me; I can’t take your pain away…but is killing me the answer? It won’t ease your pain, it will just add to it…but if that’s what you intend doing then get it over with!”
Time stood still, four lives hung in the balance, then with a small smile of resignation, Martha Thomas’ finger tightened on the trigger.
”No!” Scott’s voice echoed around the room in horror as the Derringer exploded into life.
The Tortured Gun Chapter 41
The morning ritualistic dance between the silvery moon and the golden orb now complete, the sun took her rightful place in the heavens. From her lofty throne she observed the small group gathered sorrowfully around the freshly dug grave. With each mournful toss of the shovel little puffs of dust rose into the air, small voices of protest lamenting yet another loss. As the last of the dirt was patted upon the mound which marked the grave, the earth opened her arms and lovingly accepted the new arrival.
“Ashes to ashes,” the minister recited, “dust to dust.”
The words were lost upon the small gathering, each painfully aware that this final loss had bought the peace Lancer had desperately pursued. The great ranch and its occupants were now safe, its security purchased with this, the last blood. Teresa sobbed her grief, turning to bury her face in the shoulder of the Lancer patriarch. Soundlessly he received her, his large hands gently stroking her hair. The man beside them stood silently, his own thoughts drowning in the futility of it all, the despair rendering him unable to do more than rage at the senselessness of the events that had transpired. So many lives lost so much pain and bloodshed.
As the minister moved away, the small group huddled even closer, seeking solace and comfort in closeness, the warmth of the sun doing little to overcome the chill in their souls. Gently Murdoch Lancer led the way to the waiting carriage, handing up the girl to the front seat, then taking his place beside her. The young man solemnly mounted his waiting steed and fell in beside the carriage. One last glance at the new headstone, one last silent prayer and the group moved away back toward the hacienda, toward hearth and home, and hopefully a new day.
Lady Fate, her work now accomplished, bid a final farewell to the mourners and returned to her place in time.
The young man stroked the golden neck, Barranca standing still, and strong once more under his hand. Anguish racked his slender frame, the pain still so new, the wound still open and bleeding. How could they go on? How could they find a way to leave the last days behind and forge ahead? So much had happened, so much had been ripped away, innocence lost, stolen by months of violence and upheaval. Barranca nickered softly as if voicing his understanding. With a gentle stroke of the velvety muzzle, the man turned toward the house. He knew Murdoch Lancer was waiting, the balance in the great house hinging on decisions, choices now made. A partnership would be forged anew or broken, it would be a new beginning, or the final end, of the patriarch’s hopes and dreams, and perhaps the hopes and dreams of all Lancer’s many occupants.. What was the answer? How could this partnership now work? Where would they find the courage to continue to build Lancer, to forge ahead? The agony of the last funeral had left a hole in his soul that he was not sure could ever be filled. A moment of anguish seized him, he clutched his stomach and fell to his knees, the pain overwhelming and yet, cleansing. This new thought gave him pause, cleansing and hope now rising undeniably in his heart. This was how it had to be, it should be. They had tried everything else save this. Perhaps Lady Fate was once more whispering in his ear. Regenerated and renewed he rose to his feet, shoulders squared and went in search of the one man who might understand.
At the massive front door he paused, courage failing him. With resolve he knew not that he possessed, he drew himself erect and entered the foyer. Murdoch would be in the great room, pacing, his suffering palpable and clear to all, Teresa also nearby wringing her hands, fear clutching her heart.
Yes he knew what to expect, searching looks and worried faces. He knew what they were thinking, what they were anticipating, but he hadn’t been able to put their minds at rest, and they’d not dared ask the question so ready on their lips. They were giving him the time he needed, the space he craved, hoping this time he’d think things out and make a different decision, one they could all live with. It was what they all wanted but no one more than he, and he’d spent the last few days quietly, on his own mostly, trying to reason out and rationalize that last unfathomable act. It had rocked him and set his new found world spinning on a precarious axis causing the great war to again rage inside.
Martha’s death was an impossible burden to bear, one they didn’t believe he should carry, but it wasn’t something he could dismiss as easily. The mind-numbing shock of witnessing her weapon rising to her head, ending her life, while they had moved futilely to stop the horror unfolding before them had taken a great toll on all of them, he in particular. Yet, in the midst of tragedy was relief. The knowledge it was over, the great hacienda had survived, and peace reigned once more was heady, intoxicating, yet laced with respect for the lives lost to accomplish that peace.
He had then retreated into the dark world that was his alone, a world where death, not life, was master, and the dark voices screamed for his blood. It was a world he had thought never to escape, yet here was freedom, peace, love. All he had to do was take the proffered gift of family that Lady Fate had led him to. The inner struggle had raged uncontrollably and he had allowed the war, understanding it was better to deal with his demons than try again to outrun, or outlive them. Wisdom in such a young life was a fight hard won, and the end would be fought as violently as the first skirmish. Madrid had warred with Lancer, scorning and detesting the new man, yet finally the two egos had come to an uneasy understanding. He was both, always had been, always would be. Where would he best serve his destiny? The agony of war had left him curled in a ball under the feet of a golden stallion, gathering his strength, a silent witness to the combatants engaged in a battle of life and death. That the stakes were so high came as no surprise to him, his life had been the very epitome of life and death struggles.
Days later the battle had finally been won but that worried him. Shouldn’t it have been easier this time, should he even have had to think twice? If it was that hard a decision to make then surely he’d made the right one last time.
Striding into the great room he found his father and brother standing by the hearth, each nursing a glass of brandy in their hands. They were both still in their funeral attire, their sombre faces reflecting the dark mood of the day.
He’d not been able to bring himself to go, it just didn’t seem right somehow, and they had understood, he hadn’t even needed to explain. He’d watched them leave that morning, swallowing the lump that had inexplicably formed in his throat as his pride in them surged up inside. They didn’t have to go, it wasn’t expected of them, but for them it was the right thing to do, the only thing left for them to do. They had willingly gone, and paid their respects to the very troubled soul who was now finally, and eternally, at peace. Their presence had, he knew, served to give the ceremony an air of dignity, there would be no one else; remaining family members lived too far away, and considering the circumstances, maybe were even a little reluctant to attend. It seemed not all families were as understanding or as forgiving as his.
“How’s Barranca?” Murdoch asked the unease in his voice unmistakable; his father knew that for as long as the palomino was recovering he would remain at Lancer.
“Another day or so and he’ll be ready for a run.” Johnny joined the two older men by the fireside toasting his hands, uncomfortably aware that they were watching his every move.
“Good!” his father had finally replied moving toward the couch, wearily dropping his heavy frame into the much needed comfort of the soft cushions.
“Where’s Teresa?” Johnny asked trying to lessen the tension.
“She’s in the kitchen with Maria; they’re making your favourite meal.” Murdoch sipped on his brandy brooding over the reasons the womenfolk were so intent on pampering Johnny.
Glancing at his brother Johnny forced his feet over to where his father now sat, tentatively sitting beside the older man. He’d avoided the issue too long, his family were suffering because of it and he couldn’t let it go on any longer.
“I know what you’re thinking. I know I’ve given you cause to worry these last few days but I had to be sure, sure that I’d made the right decision.” Both sets of blue eyes settled on him and he met each anxious gaze with a calm one of his own.
“I thought I’d made the right decision last time, I believed that leaving was the best thing for all of us and now I see it was the right thing…”
“Johnny…” The name erupted from the patriarch’s mouth on a wave of panic.
“No pa!” Johnny gripped his father’s arm reassuringly “Hear me out…please.”
Murdoch stared over at his older son, the fear in Scott’s eyes mirroring his own. Nodding his consent he lowered his eyes and studied the contents of his half empty glass.
“It was the right thing to do then. The right thing for me, I needed the last year, lonely and empty as it was to fully appreciate and accept what I’d left behind. Pardee, his men, the Farley’s they all made me realize what was important to me…my family and my home. I was home and I was home to stay, but then Martha Thomas…”
“She was ill Johnny!” Scott insisted, the direction the conversation was now taking disconcerting the normally calm and composed Lancer.
“I know,” Johnny replied quietly, “made ill by events I had no control over but it’s taken me a while to accept that!”
Scott glanced toward his father; and saw a glimmer of hope shining in his eyes.
“Like you said the other day, I’m not responsible for the actions of other people. Martha Thomas took her own life; she pulled the trigger and in doing so ended her own misery…for her perhaps the only way. At least she’s with her family now and I despite everything that’s happened, I’m with mine. It’s like it was meant to be, like fate intended it to be…and who am I to argue with fate?”
Silence filled the great room, the two older Lancers’ eyes locked on the youngest member. Unable to digest what seemed for all the world to be the words they had so wanted to hear!
It was more than they had dared hoped, almost certain the boy was working his way up to telling them he was leaving again. They had individually prepared their arguments against his decision but experience had told them they couldn’t hold onto Johnny, not if leaving was what he wanted to do. The burden had been enormous, unbearable but bear it they had, not wanting to pressurize the young man, as they had clung tenaciously to what had seemed at times the flimsiest of hopes.
Again they waited anxiously, knowing it couldn’t possibly be that easy or that simple.
Johnny shifted uncomfortably under the unwavering gazes; they’d both had plenty to say the last time, when he’d told them he was leaving. Now he’d let them know he was planning on staying they seemed to have lost their tongues; he wasn’t sure what to make of it all…and he still hadn’t laid out the conditions…that was it! That’s what they were waiting for!
Johnny was on his feet in an instant. Here then lay the final decision, one word, one wrong gesture and he knew it was over, all hope gone. “It won’t be easy, you know. Others will come when they hear Johnny Madrid has laid down his gun. I can’t do that, not for a while. Trouble will find me, even here. If you are sure you want me to stay then you have to understand the danger, and the way of my life. I have to stay sharp, practice, lots and lots of practice. I have to be ready, or any upcoming young gunhawk could take me…even here. Can you live with that? Can you trust my instincts?” Fearfully Johnny’s words hung like a cloud covering the three men. He held his breath awaiting the expected protest which never came. Instead his father rose swiftly to his feet and gripped both of Johnny’s shoulders gently.
”I know I’m speaking for both Scott and I when I say we understand and accept what you just said. All we want Johnny, all we have ever wanted is for you to be safe, for you to be happy and most of all we want you here, with us. No, of course it won’t be easy, and yes, trouble may come but after the last few months I don’t believe there’s anything this family can’t overcome, not as long as we’re together. “
Acknowledging his father’s words with a smile Johnny found himself being pulled into a hug, first by his father and then by his brother.
“I think you’d best go let the women know.” Murdoch encouraged wanting to put everyone’s mind at rest.
“Yeah! Better get that over with I suppose.” Johnny grinned shyly making his way to the kitchen. Stopping by the door he inhaled deeply preparing himself for their reaction… //Just how much hugging, kissing and fussing could a man take?// He asked himself silently, the answer came swiftly, so too the smile to his face!
“Are you sure about this? You sure you don’t want me to ride with you?” Scott’s voice was stronger than he felt, fear once more tickling his chest. Johnny was still not fully recovered, still not back to full strength but he was chomping at the bit, the youthful energy so far regained needing some release.
“Yeah Boston, I’m sure. I just need some air. Besides I want to let Barranca run, get the kinks outta his legs.”
“You be careful, son. Don’t take too long, ok?” Murdoch gripped Johnny’s shoulder briefly before moving away to allow Johnny to mount. Barranca tossed his head impatiently, his right foreleg pawing the ground. The urge to run, to feel the breeze in his face was infectious and Johnny patted his neck in agreement. With a barely perceptible shift in weight Johnny indicated his readiness. Barranca half reared and was gone in a flash of gold and silver. He ran with head high, nostrils distended, snorting his pleasure. Johnny leaned low over the golden stallion’s withers, asking nothing, content to let the stallion choose his way. As one, man and animal skimmed the earth; the wind whistling in their ears as they seemingly took to flight.
They stood there; father and son, long after their boy had disappeared into the horizon, both remembering another day long past when hope had slowly waned and they had sorrowfully acknowledged the fact that they had lost him…again.
But there were no such heavy or angry hearts today, no terrible sense of loss and hopelessness, only a sense of contentment and the knowledge that their wolf cub would return this time and soon.
The Tortured Gun Epilogue
Nose pressed up against the glass Johnny sighed as he realized it had become a habit now, a ritual even, but it was one he was more than happy to nurture. As soon as he was awake, the very minute his eyes opened to the new day, he’d jump lithely from his bed and stare out through the window, drinking in the sights and sounds of Lancer, of home.
And every morning he would find his feelings for his surroundings had grown a little stronger, his love for the place and its inhabitants had deepened, becoming more intense.
Today was a little different though, along with the sense of contentment and peace there was a sense of unease. Today he was riding into town with his father and brother, the first time since he’d made his true allegiance known. He was still viewed with suspicion by many, but according to his father the people that really mattered knew and accepted the truth. Still the thought troubled him, well the knowledge that one person in particular would be there troubled him, and that person was Jefferson O’Toole. Their last encounter could only be called acrimonious…nothing had changed to alter the man’s feelings toward him since then, so the visit could prove more than a little eventful. Johnny had been impatient to make the trip, to get it over with, but had bowed down to his father’s wishes that they let the dust settle a little first.
The day had dawned quickly enough, home affairs proving just as eventful as today promised to be.
One month had passed since Martha Thomas’ funeral and most of the events leading up to and surrounding her death had been resolutely laid to rest along with her.
Still it had proved a difficult month, Johnny struggling to again settle into the routines and restrictions of family and working life at Lancer. In the year he’d been away he’d returned to his old independent ways. Having to live by house rules, and around the hours marked by a time piece, had at times proved more than a little frustrating.
On several occasions he’d forgotten to remove his gun before sitting down to a family meal, his growling stomach silencing the little voice inside that was supposed to remind him of such things. He’d soon been reminded though by another kind of growl, only this one had come from his father!
His father was still, much to Johnny’s great annoyance, as insistent on him having some learning as he was before he’d left…more so it seemed, and he’d found himself most evenings staring reluctantly at a book. He’d been deliberately obstreperous at times, trying even his brother’s seemingly endless patience, rebelling against the measure of authority they seemed to think they now had over him. It was strange, part of him liked it, part of him hated it and those two warring factions had given him plenty to mull over. He knew everything they said and did was entirely for his benefit, that his welfare was their only concern and having someone care about him in that way felt good but still it rankled him. He wasn’t a child. He could take care of himself, and he’d gotten by on his own for a long time. It was, he supposed, all to do with pride and stubbornness, but they understood and had valiantly tried to accommodate his moodiness.
Unfortunately there had been times when the walls of the great hacienda had quaked under the rumblings of clashing wills and quick to ignite tempers. Murdoch was not as willing as he had been the first time around to tolerate his younger son’s sass or apparent lack of respect.
He’d been sent to his room on two such occasions. Johnny had stormed from the house the first time, believing himself at seventeen to be too old for such a punishment. As his temper had subsided though, he’d realized the words he’d hurled at his father had been spoken by an insolent, foul-mouthed kid. He had returned home late, long past his curfew, to find his father and brother waiting for him. Instantly he regretted the worry he’d obviously, and unnecessarily, caused them.
“I’m sorry.” The words had quietly passed his lips.
His father had nodded, simply relieved to see him home safe. “We kept supper for you.”
Alone in the kitchen he’d miserably pushed the food around his plate, chastising himself for his childlike behavior. The next time he’d heatedly sparred with Murdoch, letting slip a few obscenities and insults, he’d again found himself being ordered to… “Go to your room”… he’d thought twice about it…but gone he had.
He smiled at the ridiculous notion of Johnny Madrid being ‘punished’ that way. His smile widened as he remembered his father coming into his room a little later to check on him. They had talked then, calmly, soothing their ruffled feathers, and their understanding of each other had grown a little more because of it.
Things were now settling down, he was adjusting to life back at Lancer, and thankfully Lancer was adjusting to him.
The main thorn in his side though was still to be faced, and after breakfast he would find himself on his way to Morro Coyo. Whatever happened there today would put the lid on things with O’Toole, and hopefully in a way acceptable to everyone.
To say the journey to Morro Coyo was uneventful was to do an injustice to Mother Nature. Indeed she had conspired to offer the three men her best; the sky was heavy blue, cloudless; the sun smiled down upon them, as a cool breeze caressed their faces. Johnny rode leisurely in the saddle, his bearing relaxed and easy. Barranca pranced beneath him, the muscles between Johnny’s legs taunt and hard, the stallion’s desire to run tasking Johnny’s self-control. The young rider was as eager to indulge in flight as the mighty stallion, but instead Johnny held the golden giant to a trot, keeping step with Scott and the wagon. Expressing his displeasure at the enforced slow pace Barranca snorted repeatedly, tossing his head as his teeth sought the bit. A grin crossed Johnny’s face as he patted the straining neck once more. //Soon, amigo, soon.//
Scott brought the team to a halt outside of the general store, applying the break he then jumped down from the wagon, and waited for both his father and brother to alight from their mounts before the three of them entered the small building together.
Senor Baldomero greeted the Lancers warmly, and hospitably ushered them into the general store. After exchanging pleasantries he promptly set about filling their order, gathering the required items and placing them on the counter, all the while chattering incessantly. A soft chuckle escaped Johnny’s lips, as the thought the talkative shopkeeper was worse than a woman flitted through his mind. Johnny felt more than saw his father’s gaze settle on his back, and choked down any further laughter. A sideways glance at Scott told Johnny that his brother was entertaining the same thought. With a smothered grin, Scott settled his hat on the back of his head, shouldered the nearest sack and headed out the door, Johnny following closely on his heels.
The Lancer sons went to work without a word, carrying the various bundles to the wagon as quickly as the items appeared. As he stepped out on the boardwalk Johnny again scanned the street, his instincts warning him that the seemingly peaceful town was anything but peaceful. An undercurrent hummed just below the serene surface, a jolt of adrenaline needled his arms and back as he worked to load the wagon. A quick glance at Scott showed Johnny that while his brother was unaware of the potential threat, he was acutely attuned to Johnny’s heightened sense of foreboding. Scott searched the street, seeking the source of Johnny’s unease. In minutes their senses were rewarded as Jefferson O’Toole could be seen swaggering onto the street to head in their direction.
The brothers stood together idly, quietly waiting for the older man to reach them. But with only a sideways glance at Johnny, O’Toole stepped into the store striding over to where the Lancer patriarch stood chatting with the storekeeper.
“Baldomero! If you insist on supplying goods to these people I will have no option but to take my custom elsewhere.”
Raul Baldomero’s face clouded over with dismay; briefly he met the Lancer patriarch’s eye before boldly squaring up to O’Toole. “Then I must ask you to settle your account Senor O’Toole!”
Self importance had left no room in O’Toole’s mind for such a reply and he stood silently digesting the storekeeper’s words. Recovering his composure he snorted haughtily. “So you would rather trade with undesirables than with a man like myself?”
Baldomero drew himself up to his full height. “I would rather trade with a man of honor and integrity than one who seeks to cause ill will and resentment.”
“How dare you!” O’Toole fumed raising his hand to strike the older man only to find it caught in Murdoch’s vice like grip.
“No, O’Toole!” Murdoch snarled menacingly “This has gone far enough! Your argument is with me and my family…”
“And me in particular!” The calm, steel filled voice cut across Murdoch’s. “And that’s why I think O’Toole and I should finish this here and now.”
O’Toole wrenched his arm free from the ranchers grip and turned nervously toward Johnny. “I’m not wearing a gun!”
“You won’t need one…” Johnny couldn’t resist adding “hopefully!” as an afterthought.
Sweat glistened on O’Toole’s brow. “Then what…” He asked the tremor in his voice further proof of his fear.
“Simply this…I don’t want any trouble. I don’t look for it and I try to avoid it, but let me make this very clear; I don’t run from it either. Lancer is my home, you might as well get used to it. This town is big enough for all of us, but if it’s a fight you want, well, you will get it. Now, you got anything else you want to say to me?”
O’Toole stood speechless, his jaw gaping with the realization he had been out maneuvered by a kid, a gunhawk to be sure, but a kid nonetheless. Differing shades of crimson flushed his cheeks as his mouth moved silently, words having failed him. Suddenly aware of the gathering crowd in the boardwalk outside the general store, he turned once more to Murdoch Lancer but on finding only unmistakable pride on the older man’s face he simply offered a curt “Good day” before striding with as much dignity as he could muster out of the store.
The late morning sun beat down upon the three men as they made their way out of town, the heat making the saloon look even more inviting to one particular set of vivid blue eyes. Johnny licked his lips unconsciously, mentally tasting the drink he knew his father wouldn’t agree to him having and certainly not in there! He could, of course, argue against such a decision but he didn’t want to be the cause of any disagreements today.
It was several long and decidedly parched minutes later before he’d realized he was riding along alone; he turned in his saddle and watched silently as his father dismounted and secured his mount to a hitching rail. Scott jumping down from the wagon to then join his father by the doors of the saloon.
“What you doing?” Johnny shouted over at the two men.
“We thought we’d stop and have a beer.” Scott grinned back “A cold one!”
“A beer?” Johnny asked. So was he even going to be offered a sarsaparilla?
“But if you’d rather go on home son.” Murdoch stated trying hard not to smile at the confusion plastered across his younger son’s face.
“You mean…” Johnny grinned
“I mean I’d like to buy my sons a drink.” Murdoch’s face broke into a broad smile.
“Sounds good to me Old Man!” Johnny beamed leaping from Barranca and falling into step with the two older men. //Yessiree a beer with his father and brother sounded real good!//
Lacy & Seren
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