Word Count 23,885
Johnny stepped into the darkened streets of Morro Coyo feeling no pain. He started whistling as he made his way to Barranca, intent on getting home at a ‘reasonable’ hour, as his old man had said. No point in making him mad again, he thought. Besides, it had been a good night. He’d won several poker hands and had a nice time with Sally upstairs. And, he thought with a grin, he was leaving his brother behind. Scott wasn’t ready to go yet so, Johnny figured he wouldn’t be the one getting the evil eye over breakfast in the morning.
Laughing softly, he patted Barranca’s neck as he came alongside and, with a flick of the wrist, released the reins from the hitching post then swung into the saddle. Settling his weight, he adjusted his hat and looked up at the full moon overhead. It was a beautiful fall night, the air had a crispness that rejuvenated a man’s spirits with just the smell. He could detect the burning of wood in fireplaces nearby and smiled once more.
He pressed his heels to Barranca’s sides and moved out at a slow walk, in no real hurry. Leaving the town limits, he looked around, noting the leafless trees and feeling the crunch of the now lifeless, paper thin remains beneath Barranca’s hooves. Somehow, that sound relaxed him even more. He liked this time of year. There was still plenty of green but the fall colors just set a body into an easy rhythm. When the sun hit those colors, he could think of nothing more beautiful.
He began whistling again as he started through the pass. It was surrounded on both sides by high cliffs that could make for a treacherous path. At night, the light fog swirled around the ground, hovering just over the leaf covered trail, disturbed only by the passing of man or beast. It was so quiet he thought he could hear his own heartbeat. Then, he heard something else.
Johnny pulled to a stop and looked around, straining to listen. He knew he’d heard something out there. He was just past the cliffs on his left, the right still spread out another few hundred feet. There was a small clearing now that led into the woods not fifty feet away. The fog was thicker here, reaching almost to his knees as he sat the horse. Squinting his eyes, he thought he saw movement and his right hand settled on his gun.
The fog swirled menacingly around him. The shadows deepened and the air grew damp. Apprehensively, he clutched his Colt, ready to react at the first sign of danger. But he heard and saw nothing. The sound that had penetrated the warm glow of alcohol had seemingly ceased, if he had heard anything at all. In fact, the silence was overwhelming, unearthly.
Johnny’s nerves screamed in his ears, his body tensed. He stared harder into the mist surrounding him. Unknowingly, he tightened his grip on the reins, pulling Barranca’s tender mouth painfully. The palomino shook his head in protest at the tight grip. Disturbed by the tension in his rider, the stallion pawed the ground nervously, snorting loudly. Alerted to the animal’s discomfort, Johnny forced himself to relax, chiding himself for abusing his mount.
Suddenly, a shadow grew in the darkness, separating itself from the fog. It drew nearer, taking on form and features. Johnny’s attention was captured by the manifestation. He rubbed his eyes, seeking to determine if it were real or merely a figment of an overactive imagination.
“Juanito,” came the soft voice.” Juanito.” Â Feminine, familiar, the shape came closer still. She wore a long, flowing gown of light color which hugged her curvy figure daringly. Her face was hidden by the dark, flowing tresses cascading to her tiny waist.
Shocked, Johnny’s mouth gaped open. His hand dropped from the gun nestled in his holster, his body suddenly felt leaden.” Mama?” he choked. “Usted?”
But she was gone, vanished into the fog, as if she had never been there. Johnny drew in a deep breath and laughed nervously, the sound of his own voice seeming loud in the silent darkness.” Guess that will teach me to drink whiskey instead of tequila.”
He patted Barranca’s muscular neck and urged him forward.” Let’s get home, fella, okay?”
Morning dawned in all her glory, rays of pink and gold reaching from the heavens to the earth, dispelling the night’s darkness. Â The chill of the evening retreated before the warmth of the sun.
As the day broke, Johnny awoke from a restless sleep. Â He struggled to free his legs from the tangle of blankets and groaned as he realized he was still fully clothed. His head ached with the residual effects of a wild night on the town. Wiping an arm across his brow, he succeeded in throwing back the covers and rolling to a sitting position.
Leaning over, elbows resting on his knees and head firmly planted in his hands, he allowed another groan before vigorously scrubbing his face and pulling himself together. Slowly, he stood and walked to the wash basin to begin his morning routine.
He paused with razor in midair as memory washed over him of the ride home last night. Suddenly, he shivered, watching in fascination as his hand began to tremble. Lowering it quickly and dropping the blade into the basin, he stepped away from the dresser and closed his eyes. Slow, even breaths were pulled in and blown out until he felt his heart rate slow to a normal rhythm.
Crazy, he thought then went back to his shave. He pushed the idea he’d seen his mother’s ghost out of his mind and finished dressing, another idea forming. One much more enjoyable. He hadn’t heard Scott come in last night and was anxious to find out how his brother had fared. Hopefully, Scott was much worse off. He couldn’t imagine the man wasn’t, since Johnny was now only left with a dull headache.
Grabbing his gunbelt, he headed out the door, hurrying to the kitchen to see if the older man had yet risen.
As suspected, Scott sat at the kitchen table, his head cradled in one hand, elbow on the table surface. Johnny raised a brow then grinned at the pallor of his brother’s face. When he settled his gaze on Murdoch, the grin slid away. It was obvious the man was unhappy, more than unhappy. Johnny fought the smile. Well, why not? He thought. It’s usually me that gets that look.
“Good morning!” he called loudly and cheerfully.
Scott’s shoulders bunched and he rolled his head in his hand so he could peek out at Johnny. A frown greeted his brother followed by a low moan.
“Something wrong, Scott? Are you sick?” Johnny asked , the most innocent of faces made.
“God will get you for this, Johnny,” Scott muttered.
Johnny’s eyes widened then he laughed softly. Before he could form a retort, Murdoch’s baritone broke in.” Scott, you need to clear out Murphy Creek today.”
Scott’s head came up too quickly and he closed his eyes, his hand covering them a second before sliding down his face.” That’s a two hour ride.”
“And?” Murdoch growled. When Scott had nothing to say, he turned his attention to Johnny, lowering his voice a decibel.” I need you to check the cattle in the east pasture and make sure they’re rounded up. Check for strays then ride over to the south pasture and check that fence line. I want to get those cattle moved by the end of the week.”
Johnny only nodded his understanding, his mouth full and his enjoyment of Scott’s misery waning. The man really did look bad. He decided once they left Murdoch’s sight, he’d offer to switch jobs with his brother.
“Now that’s settled, I want to discuss something else.” Murdoch turned his chair toward Scott and rested his right arm on the table, his left hand on his knee as he studied his older son.” I’m disappointed in you, Scott. I expect Johnny to get out of control at times because he’s younger and not as settled but, you know better.”
The blond head came up slowly as Scott straightened his shoulders and glared – or tried to – at his father.” Is that a fact?”
“Yes, that is a fact. I expect you to be more mature and responsible than this.”
Johnny was as stunned as his brother by Murdoch’s dressing down. He’d never heard such words aimed at his brother before. Softly, he pled his brother’s case.” Hey, Murdoch, take it easy. Everyone needs to cut loose once in a while.”
Murdoch turned his head toward his younger son.” This doesn’t concern you, Johnny. I’m talking to Scott who, I believe, is capable of speaking for himself .”
“Yes, I am quite capable, Sir. I realize I got a bit carried away last night and I’m paying for it now. It’s enough of a reminder. I don’t need to be chastised like a child.” He wanted to shout the words but he knew his head would simply roll off his shoulders if he tried.
“Apparently, you do, Scott. What were you thinking? Getting drunk and stumbling in here at two o’clock in the morning.”
Johnny sat back in his chair and stared at his brother. Two o’clock ! He didn’t know how Scott was sitting there at all. Somewhat impressed, Johnny still felt out of place and thought about slipping quietly out of the room.
“Obviously, I wasn’t thinking. I was enjoying myself for a change. Even responsible people can do that, Murdoch. Perhaps you should try it sometime. It might wipe that frown off your face for an hour or so.”
Johnny slid out of his chair and lightly stepped toward the door. He wasn’t about to get in the middle of this. His brother had lost his mind somewhere along the line and Johnny had no intentions of listening to the two of them go at it.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
Johnny stopped, frozen in step. Jesus, Scott! Why’d you do that? Slowly, he turned back.” Just thought I’d get out of the way, brother.”
“Sit down. I’ve been in the middle of enough of your arguments with our father. It’s your turn.”
Murdoch was seething.” Johnny doesn’t need to hear this, Scott. And don’t think you’re going to distract me from that comment you just made.”
“I wasn’t trying to but, like I said, I’ve had to endure enough from you two. He can damned well endure this!”
Johnny sat back down, knowing his brother was right. He’d thought Scott wouldn’t want an audience but, at this point, maybe his brother needed some support. And, he’d give it because Murdoch was being an ass. Besides, Scott didn’t look so good.
“How dare you make such a remark? I deserve some respect, young man!” Murdoch’s voice had gone back up as his rage grew and Johnny leaned as far away as he could get.
“As do I, Sir! I’ve done everything asked of me. I’ve followed your edicts without question but I am a grown man and if I want to ‘cut loose’ ONCE in a year, I will and I don’t expect to be sat down for it!”
Murdoch tapped his index finger on the table top.” When your amusement interferes with the running of this ranch, I WILL have a say in it, Scott!”
Standing up slowly, Scott pressed his lips together for a minute.” My amusement hasn’t interfered with anything, Sir. As you can see, I am up and at the table on time and I’m going to work as usual.”
Murdoch sat back and looked up at his son, nodding his head.” Fine. Let’s see just how far you get today.”
Face rigid, Scott turned on his heel and stormed out the back door.
Johnny stood quickly and headed after his brother. He paused at the door and turned back to his father.” He’s right and you know it.” Without waiting for a reply, he left to find Scott.
Johnny found Scott in the barn, head down, leaning against the shoulder of his bay stallion. Unaware of Johnny’s approach, he suddenly fled the stall and made his way to the back of the barn. The sounds of retching could be distinctly heard and Johnny’s heart went out to his brother. Thinking quickly, he retrieved a pail and ran to the trough, pumped water into the bucket then returned to the cool, dimly lit interior of the barn. He was sitting on a bale of hay, pail between his feet , Â studying his hands when Scott returned from outdoors, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. When he saw Johnny, Scott walked over and sat beside him.
Johnny took his bandana from around his neck, dipped it in the water and gently placed it around his brother’s neck. Â “Murdoch got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning. He’ll be in a better mood this evening, you’ll see.”
Scott lifted his head; his blue grey eyes stared thankfully into his brother’s face.” You know that isn’t so, brother.”
“Yeah, I guess not,” Johnny laughed gently.” Still in all, he was wrong and even if he never says it, he knows it. He knows we know it, too.”
Scott grimaced.” Don’t do that.”
“Try to make me laugh. It feels like my head is going to float off my shoulders and Teresa wouldn’t like it if I made an appearance at the barbeque this weekend without it. The headless horseman is supposed to be a myth.”
A flicker of distress crossed Johnny’s face, the memory of last night’s apparition suddenly springing into his mind. As quickly as it had come, the expression disappeared and Scott wondered if he had seen it at all. He would have sworn Johnny looked fearful. But of what? Certainly not the old man.
Scott gripped his brother’s shoulder.” Johnny? Is something wrong?”
“No, nothing.” Johnny flashed him a wide grin then slapped him in the belly.” Damn, Boston , sorry. I forgot you’re queasy.”
Wincing, Scott rested a hand lightly over his stomach.” Queasy doesn’t begin to describe it.”
Johnny pushed his hat off his head as he nodded.” Look, I’ll make the ride to the creek while you check the fences. The old man doesn’t have to know.”
Johnny shrugged.” Yeah, we don’t have to tell him.”
“I meant about switching jobs.”
Scott did sound better but Johnny knew his brother was made of sterner stuff than he had first imagined.” Yeah, I’m sure. Got some things to think over and the ride will do me good.”
“What things? Something is wrong.”
“Nope, just the alcohol talking.” Johnny strode to the stall where Barranca stood patiently waiting. Saddling swiftly, he led Barranca out the stall and toward the main door of the barn.” It’s nothing. I’ll see you tonight.”
Scott led his bay stallion out and stood puzzled as his brother disappeared in a cloud of dust. Mounting, he shook off the feeling Johnny had been keeping something from him then pressed his bay into an easy gait.
Johnny stretched leisurely, allowing Barranca’s ground eating lope to carry him quickly to Murphy Creek. Â Unbidden, the horse came to a stop near the bank. Johnny made no move to correct the palomino as he lowered his head and nuzzled the lush grass.
Last night’s damp fog was but a memory dimmed by the glorious beauty of the Fall day. The vivid blue expanse of sky above was broken only by an occasional fluffy white cloud. Eagles soared high overhead, masters of their domain. In the brilliant light of day, the apparition of the night before quickly faded away and Johnny found himself feeling lighter, easier.
Lithely, he sprang from the saddle, ground hitched Barranca and strode into the creek. He splashed a handful of water onto his face relishing the coolness then grasped the first branch and wrestled it out. The removal of each subsequent limb freed the water to continue its journey. The sun was high overhead when Johnny climbed up the bank to study his work. The creek bubbled and gurgled, sounding like nature’s laughter as it flowed easily.
His good mood was abruptly shattered by the sudden feeling he was being watched. Johnny whirled around quickly, his gun drawn and at the ready. But there was nothing. Not even a breeze to stir the leaves on the trees. Still, the hair on his neck stood at attention, his instincts urged him to stay alert.
A quick glance at Barranca reassured him somewhat. The stallion was grazing contentedly, unaware of any danger. Years of riding the trail had taught him to rely on only two things, his gun and the instincts of his horse. He laughed aloud at his foolishness and strode to where Barranca stood, picking up his reins. Barranca snorted and shied from his touch. Again the impression of a dark cloud crossed his mind. And again, as he studied the surrounding terrain, he felt the prick of foolishness.
Nothing disturbed the peaceful valley, nothing moved save the birds of prey circling high above. Still the sudden urge to be home, among family and friends overwhelmed him and he mounted up then touched spurs to the palomino’s sides pressing him into a gallop.
Johnny settled himself after half an hour of riding and realized he was being ridiculous. He decided to head for the south pasture, hoping Scott had gotten that far. If not, he’d get that job done for his brother. He couldn’t imagine Scott had made much of a dent in anything unless he’d found someone or something to hit.
Frowning, Johnny wondered if his arguments with the old man sounded as lame as the one he’d witnessed this morning. Maybe, Murdoch was as unreasonable with him as he’d been with Scott. If that were the case, he thought he should listen more closely to what Murdoch said instead of letting his anger rule his mouth and his ears. Johnny smiled a little at that and increased Barranca’s gait.
When he arrived at the pasture, it was evident Scott hadn’t been there. Johnny dismounted and began repairing a small section of fencing. It took no more than twenty minutes then he walked the fence line looking for other problems. Making repairs along the way, he focused his mind on what he was doing, resolute that the thoughts of earlier that morning would stay jammed in the back of his mind. Hopefully, they would leave him altogether.
He moved closer and closer to the tree line where the woods began. Sweat dripped from his chin as he tested wire and posts, finding most sound. At least that was one less thing to worry about — for now. He smiled as he realized he’d be repairing or replacing this fence for the rest of his life. The mere thought brought him comfort.
Barranca followed his master slowly, grazing here and there but as they neared the woods, the palomino stopped. The sudden change in routine didn’t go unnoticed and Johnny turned to the horse. Barranca backed up several feet and Johnny walked toward him.
“What? What is it, fella?”
The horse snorted and bobbed its head then backed away a little further.
Suddenly, Johnny tensed and turned toward the woods. He could just make out a shadow near one tree and he squinted even as he drew his gun.” Who’s there?!”
There was no answer but he knew someone was watching him. He wasn’t blind. The shadow moved, disappearing behind the tree and Johnny grabbed his reins, vaulting into the saddle.” I don’t know what’s spookin you about this but we’re going over there, Barranca.” He laid his spurs to the horse and took off toward the woods fifty yards away.
Johnny slid to the ground and Barranca began backing away again. This time, Johnny ignored him and walked into the woods. The brilliant light of midday was blocked by the trees over head and Johnny blinked to adjust to the dimmer light. He scanned the area but there was nothing, no one there.
“Who’s there?!”he shouted at the top of his lungs.
Frustrated, Johnny walked back into the clearing and shoved his pistol into the holster. Running a hand down his face, he shook his head.” I think I’m losing my mind, Barranca.”
He had just finished checking a section of worrisome fence and was tucking his tools into his saddlebag when he saw Scott riding toward him. Johnny smiled a little as he secured the flap then mounted up and walked Barranca to meet his brother. Scott wasn’t pale anymore but he still looked a little worse for wear.
“Looks like you’ll live now,” he called as the man approached.
“It was touch and go there for a while. How far have you gotten?”
“Done, brother. Everything is fine here.”
Scott looked closely at him, noting the tone that didn’t quite convince him all was well. He quirked his lips.” I’m grateful, Johnny. The creek is okay, too?”
Johnny gave him one of his most disarming grins.” Of course! What’ya think I am, a slacker?”
Chuckling softly, Scott shook his head.” No, never that. So,” he started, his face falling more serious,” what’s going on with you? You seem … I don’t know, jumpy.”
The grin slowly dissipated as Johnny considered confessing. Knowing Scott would take him seriously, he made his decision quickly.” Let’s start toward home and I’ll tell you.”
Scott reined his steed round and matched Barranca’s walk, waiting and watching his brother’s face warily.
“Think I’m seeing things. Or …” he sighed and tried again.” Last night, on my way home, I thought I saw a woman standing near Wyndham’s woods. It was foggy but I could’ve sworn she was there. Then, all the sudden she was gone. I figured I’d had one too many, ya know?” He glanced over and saw Scott nod, his face revealing nothing.” Earlier today at the creek, I felt like I was being watched but no one was there then, here again, I saw a shadow moving in the woods. I went to check it out but, nothing. I know I saw something … someone.”
Scott said nothing for a while, then,” What about Barranca?”
“He was skittish when I went over to those woods a while ago, no doubt. But, at the creek he was fine.”
“What about last night?”
“Well,” he breathed out,” he wasn’t real happy but I figured that was my fault. Pulled too hard on the bit.”
“Maybe, you were more hungover than you thought? I trust your instincts, brother, but you said no one was there.”
Johnny grimaced then nodded.” Yeah, maybe it was just the whiskey talkin. Speaking of which, are you gonna talk to Murdoch about this morning?”
It was Scott’s turn to grimace.” I’m going to apologize for what I said to him but that’s all.”
Scott leaned against the stall and watched Johnny groom Barranca for a full ten minutes before he said anything.” You’re stalling.”
“Figured I’d give you and the old man a chance to settle things privately.” He couldn’t quite keep the grin off his face.
“Forget it, brother. Like I said this morning, I’ve been in the middle of enough of your squabbles. You can endure this with me.”
Johnny patted the palomino’s neck then turned to face his brother.” Scared?”
Scott rolled his eyes.” Hardly.” When Johnny turned to set the brush down, he muttered,” not much.” He winced when he heard the soft laugh.” Is there anything you don’t hear?”
Johnny walked through the gate opening then latched it back. Leaning into his brother, he tapped his stomach lightly.” Not much.”
They walked out of the barn together, arms wrapped around each other’s shoulders, both smiling until they spied Murdoch standing on the veranda watching them. Johnny felt his brother tense and he shook his head slightly. Before they could reach the older man, he’d turned and walked inside.
Warily, the brother’s entered through the French doors. Before either could even hail a greeting, Murdoch started.
“Did you get that creek cleared and the pastures ready?”
“Everything is ready to go. We can start moving the cattle whenever you say. Oh, and hi.” Johnny plopped into a chair across the desk from his father.
Murdoch nodded, his eyes on Scott, studying him intently.” And which of you did what?”
“What difference does it make? It’s done and that’s what counts.”
Scott laid a hand on his brother’s shoulder then sat beside him.” Johnny cleared the creek and checked the south pasture. I rounded up the herd in the east pasture and made sure they were ready. That won’t be happening again, either. I’d also like to apologize for the disrespectful remark I made this morning about you enjoying yourself.”
Murdoch waited for more but nothing was forthcoming.” And the rest, Scott?”
“The rest, Sir, I won’t apologize for. I stayed out late and drank too much. I didn’t do the whole job today but I was working and since I don’t make a habit of it, I don’t think it’s a state crime.”
“Besides, he would have done it if I hadn’t traded jobs with him,” Johnny added.” See, the way I figure it, clearing out that creek was the same amount of work as the east pasture. I mean, if you were tallying scores or anything like that.” The sarcasm in his voice was hardly missed by either man.
Murdoch’s jaw clenched closed. He hated it when they ganged up on him like this. He knew he couldn’t win but, he also knew Scott’s behavior last night and this morning was uncharacteristic and he hadn’t had to make such a big deal of it. Still, he called the tune.” There is no need for that tone, young man. We’ll move the herd next week as scheduled. Several men will need to stay with them and I promised them this barbeque Saturday.”
Johnny’s lips twitched and he lowered his head. He could tell Scott was still ticked off, could fairly feel the heat coming off his brother.” Well, we should get cleaned up for supper.” He grabbed his brother’s arm as he stood, pulling the man up with him.” Come on, ya old drunk.”
Johnny stretched leisurely, aware that he had almost fallen asleep in the tub. The bath water was still warm though the evening breeze had cooled the room considerably. He slipped deeper into the tub, submerging his head beneath the warm water. Holding his breath he blew through his nose and counted the small bubbles as they rose toward the surface.
Reluctantly, Johnny pulled himself to a sitting position. He knew Scott would be awaiting his turn to use the bathhouse and he could no longer linger. He didn’t want to cause Scott to be late for dinner.” Can’t give the old man anything else to crow about,” he muttered as he shook his head. He left the tub and vigorously toweled his body dry.
As he donned his clean clothes, Johnny allowed his gaze to sweep around the small room and settle on the window high in the west-facing wall. The sun’s light was fading as she sank beneath the horizon. In the distance, cattle lowed, and somewhere an unseen dog bayed at the approaching night.
Johnny stepped outside the bathhouse, vaguely disturbed that Scott had not put in an appearance as he was wont to do. The younger Lancer shivered as a cool draft tickled his still wet head. Beyond the circle of light that spilled through the open door behind him, the shadows deepened, casting his own figure in stark relief against the darkness. Trees and buildings cast eerie ever-lengthening shadows across the earth as the light of day dimmed.
A faint mist was blowing in from the west and Johnny’s memory took him back to the trail last night. He ran his gaze quickly around the area between his position and the back door of the hacienda, apprehension building in his chest.
“Juanito,” she called softly.
“Who’s there?” Johnny demanded, his hand falling to his right hip. Clutching only fabric, longing for the comfort of his gun, he peered intently into the darkness.” Show yourself.”
A figure materialized in the gloom, tall and slender.” Who are you talking to?” Scott asked, his voice reflecting concern and a trace of humor.
“Nothing, no one.”
“Come on, Brother, I heard you.”
“You’re imagining things, Boston.” Johnny ran a hand through his thick black hair, sweeping it away from his brow.
“I could say the same thing to you, you know.”
“I know. I just, I don’t know. I thought it was the alcohol the other night.” Johnny sighed heavily.” Maybe I’m losing my mind.”
Scott clasped a hand on his brother’s shoulder.” Relax, Johnny, maybe you just need a good night’s sleep,” he soothed, trying to ease his brother’s tension.
Â “Maybe, Scott, maybe.” Johnny slapped his brother’s hand off his shoulder and moved toward the hacienda.” Don’t be late, Boston . Don’t want to set the old man ranting again.”
Dinner was a quiet affair, Murdoch moody and unwilling to forgive his older son’s disrespect. Scott and Johnny exchanged hidden glances, amused by their father’s peevish attitude.
Only Teresa seemed unaware of any tension between the three men. She chattered gaily about the upcoming barbeque, the decorations, the menu. Her animated monologue was broken by the clatter of Murdoch’s spoon as he laid the instrument on his saucer. Â
Loudly, the older man sipped his coffee, his eyes raking across the faces of his sons and young ward.” We’ve had enough of this, don’t you think, boys?”
“Scott and I have no problems here, Old Man. We’ve been enjoying Teresa’s good cooking and conversation.” Johnny winked at his brother, smothering a grin as Scott almost choked in amusement.
Johnny forked a piece of steak into his mouth and chewed thoughtfully. His gaze was drawn by the flickering candlelight in the center of the table and a feeling of warmth and well-being invaded his heart. This was what it meant to be loved and wanted and to love in return. Even when disagreements ruffled the calm atmosphere, the strong family bond still prevailed. His appreciation of his new-found familial bliss was interrupted by the sensation of being watched. He quickly glanced at the three members of his family seated at the table and found their attention to be on the meal before them. Yet the feeling persisted, became even more intense.
Hesitantly, he turned his head to face the French doors. She stood within the frame of the open doorway, shadows from the moving drapery lifting and swirling around her entire body, her hair flowing wildly about her face with the strong breeze.
Johnny froze for a second then quickly looked back at his family who were intent on the meal. He jumped to his feet, his chair crashing to the floor behind him. Wide eyed, he stared at the woman in the doorway and made to move toward her only to be stopped by Teresa’s hand on his arm. Johnny hesitated, and looked expectantly at her.
“Johnny, what is it?”
“Look,” Johnny pointed toward the French doors.” Don’t you see her?” His mouth fell open when he looked back and saw the apparition was gone.
Scott’s expression was one of bewilderment as he leaned forward to see around the corner of the dining room and then faced his younger brother once more.” See who?”
Johnny looked first at Scott, then Murdoch and finally Teresa, his tanned features unusually pale, and pleaded,” Come on, you must have seen her! She was standing in the doorway!”
Murdoch was on his feet, circling the table toward his younger son.” John, there’s no one there.”
“Yes, there was!”Johnny exploded, frustration evident in his tense body.” She was right there. One of you had to have seen her.”
“Maybe it was a shadow or something,” Teresa suggested gently.
Murdoch and Scott nodded their heads in agreement.
Johnny eyed the three people who stood anxiously watching him. Gone was his earlier feeling elicited by the safety and security of family to be replaced by heated anger. Anger and something more … fear. And, yes, he was afraid. He admitted it, embraced it and accepted it. Either he was being haunted, or he was losing his mind and Johnny did not know which was worse.
“She was there. I saw her,” he choked out before leaving the room and heading upstairs.
“Scott? You know anything about what’s going on?” Murdoch asked earnestly.
” No, Sir, I haven’t a clue.” Scott lied glibly, without guilt. He silently vowed to keep his brother’s confidence until he was sure of Johnny’s frame of mind.
The day of the barbeque dawned in all her glory, Fall’s colors painting the horticulture as if an artist had dipped his brush and carefully decorated each and every leaf. The mountains stood purpled and in sharp contrast to the reds, greens, and golds of the trees and shrubbery. The sky of deepest blue was uninterrupted by even the smallest wisp of cloud.
Beneath the brilliant light of day, ranch hands scurried to and fro, carrying out their assigned chores while the young woman excitedly called out her instructions.” Manuel, put that row of lights there on the wall. Oh, and we need more lanterns in that tree over there.”
“Teresa, you’re going wear them out. They won’t be able to enjoy the dance at this rate,” Scott laughed from behind her.
“Oh, I just want everything to be perfect. This is such a tradition, you know. Lancer has been hosting these barbeques for twenty years.”
“Yes, and every year they are a fabulous success. Otherwise, our neighbors wouldn’t attend them.”
Teresa raised her eyes to meet Scott’s, a smile lighting her face as she caught the twinkle in his gaze.” Oh, you’re right. I’m just so excited.”
Music, sweet and melodious drifted on the night breeze, interrupted only by the sound of the dancers’ laughter. Through the gaily lit lanterns and the throng of people milling around the various tables laden with food and drink, Johnny could just make out the tall silhouette of his father dancing with the Widow Porter. The man moved with a grace and agility that seemed to contradict his size. Murdoch lowered his head and whispered in the widow’s ear, eliciting a smile. The sight of his father obviously enjoying an intimate moment with the petite brunette inexplicably disturbed Johnny and he turned away.
He crossed the porch and came to the hitching post. Placing his hands on the rail he lowered his head and drew in deep breaths. Somehow the events of the last few days coupled with the sight of his father engaged in a possibly romantic liaison served to irritate his normally cool nerves. He hadn’t slept well these past nights, dreams invading his slumber and causing him to awaken several times every night had left him drained. He closed his eyes, visions of the past again dancing in his mind. Visions of his mother dancing in the cantina, flushed and beautiful, encouraged by the rowdy whoops of drunken men, then dancing in the quiet of their small home — dancing, she was always dancing.
A wave of melancholy flowed through Johnny, opening his heart to past wounds. He drew in another ragged breath struggling to banish the past into the far reaches of his memory. It was childish to begrudge his father a good time with a pretty woman. Didn’t he deserve to move on, to live again? Yet, he had seen his mother. Hadn’t he?
If Maria was here, somewhere out there, seeking to contact him shouldn’t he meet her halfway? Shouldn’t he find her? But this line of thinking was absurd. She was dead, he had seen her die.” So I am losing my mind then,” he whispered softly. Â
His shoulders went up as a cool breeze caused a shiver down his spine. He turned to his left, away from the party and saw the shadowy figure lit by the glow of the full moon. She swayed to and fro and swirled, her red skirts twirling in rhythm to the music. He swore he heard a soft, melodious laugh emanating from her. She wore a white, peasant blouse just like …
Johnny started toward her, his steps hesitant as he closed in. Suddenly, he heard his name called loudly and he turned, his hand going to his right side in reaction. He stared at his father striding toward him, a determined look on the older man’s face. Johnny turned back quickly but, she was gone.
“Son, come back to the party.”
Taking a slow, deep breath to still his thundering heart, Johnny swiped a hand down his face as he turned back to his father.” I’m fine right here.”
Murdoch stared at him for too long before he finally spoke.” What’s wrong, son? Something is troubling you, it’s easy to see.”
Johnny gave him a sidelong look and considered telling his father what he’d been experiencing. Before he could make that decision, Scott approached them wearing a wide smile.
“Alright, you two, I need some help here. I didn’t think there would be this many lovely ladies tonight. I need someone to distract a few of them until I can make my rounds.”
Murdoch chuckled at his son’s hubris and laid a hand on his shoulder.” I was just trying to convince your brother to join us.”
Scott’s smile wavered only slightly as he looked at his brother. Even in the shadows playing across Johnny’s face, he could see a fine sheen of sweat and a loss of color.
“I’ll be right there. Just need to stretch my legs a little more before I get dragged on the dance floor.”
Scott heard what Johnny didn’t say; could hear the ever so slight tremor in his voice and he wrapped an arm around his father’s waist.” You’re a man of your word, brother. We’ll see you soon, then.” Turning to his father, he gave a slight tug.” Come on, Murdoch. We’ll just make sure the pickings are slim when brother Johnny returns.”
Johnny sighed his relief when Scott walked their father back to the crowd. He owed Scott big for that one. His brother could always tell when he was feeling caged and, right now, he wanted to scream. He wandered back to the hitching post and leaned against it, crossing his arms over his chest. His eyes wandered back to where he’d just seen her. Why couldn’t anyone else see her? Maybe, because she ain’t there, Johnny.
Dios! It was eerie how much she looked like his mother. Admittedly, he hadn’t seen her face clearly yet. But, the build, the way she moved to the music, that laugh — that was all Maria Lancer. He lowered his head and shook it slowly back and forth. Was he really losing his mind? Why now, after all these years was he suddenly seeing his mother?
Bringing his head back up, Johnny determined he was not going to fall into this … whatever it was. He pushed off the hitching rail and sauntered back to the party promising himself he wouldn’t fail his family by locking himself away in the house again.
Teresa stood by the refreshment table, her smile lighting the whole yard to Johnny’s mind. He couldn’t help his own lips tugging upward when he saw her. Glowing, that was the word. She was glowing and she was happy and he wasn’t going to ruin this for her.
“There you are. I was beginning to think you’d run off.”
His smile widened at what she didn’t say. …˜Again’. He was sure she was thinking it, anyway. He wrapped an arm around her small waist and pulled her in for a quick hug.” Just getting some air, honey. Looks like your party is a big success.”
Teresa’s eyes roamed the crowd.” Yes, I’m so happy things are going well. I don’t suppose I could convince you to dance with me?”
Blinking once, Johnny looked down at her and gave her one of his most infamous smiles. Bending deep at the waist, he took her hand.” Miss Teresa, I would be honored.”
Momentarily stunned, it took her a second to respond. She set her punch glass down then walked to the dance area with him, her smile still radiant.
Johnny whirled her around the floor, his eyes rising to take in the other dancers. He nodded at a few of them in greeting then, he saw her again. There, on the outer edge of the dancers, he saw her, he knew it was her! He twirled Teresa around so he could see better but, she was gone again.
He took a deep breath and tried to focus on the girl in his arms but, after a few seconds, his eyes wandered once more. It seemed each time he looked up; he caught just a glimpse of this mystery woman. He was grateful when the song ended and he walked Teresa back to the tables.
“Just one? You’re too stingy, Johnny.”
“Sorry, honey,” he said, his eyes scanning the whole yard,” I need to see someone.” He started to walk away then stopped and glanced back.” Thanks,” he called before disappearing into the throng. Â
Johnny made his way through the crowds, shouldering past and ignoring the greetings given him. He only managed to wave a hand at some when his passage was slowed. Eyes searching every face, he finally made it to the other side of the yard.
He moved around the perimeter, looking into the crowds and around them then made his way to the corner of the house. He sighed in frustration then walked around to the gardens. There were a few people there, mostly young couples holding hands and standing too close, their parents would say, he was sure. But once he’d checked every female, he ignored them.
He made his way all around the gardens and even checked within the rose bushes and shrubbery. She couldn’t have gotten far. He pulled up and snapped his fingers. The barn! Of course. With purpose, he headed that way at a quick pace.
Johnny opened the side door and slipped inside the darkened barn. There were a few lanterns lit here and there but they only leant to the deep shadows in the depths of the building. He moved softly, almost silently into the interior then, he stopped on a dime.
He heard voices, soft and muted. He cocked his head to the side as he tried to discern which direction then, he moved once more. Clandestinely, he made his way to the voices, certain he would discover his tormentor. When he rounded a corner into an open stall, he stopped short.
Time seemed to stand still for a moment as Johnny stared at the man and woman before him. Suddenly, he felt a rush of heat flame his cheeks and he ducked his head, turning aside.
“Sorry, I was looking for someone,” he muttered then made to leave.
“Who were you looking for, John? There were others here a minute ago.”
Johnny turned quickly back to his father, trying desperately to just ignore Mrs. Porter.” Who was here?”
Murdoch frowned at the demanding tone then, glanced at his companion briefly.” Sam was here and the Thompsons.”
“Oh, no, I wasn’t lookin for them. Sorry to disturb you.”
“You weren’t disturbing us, Johnny. We were just talking about the Spring social next year,” Mrs. Porter said in a light tone.
He forced a tight smile, nodded his head and made tracks out of the barn. Standing outside, he leaned against the building and took a deep breath.
Unable to bear the spirit of the festivities, Johnny chose instead to retreat to the sanctuary of his room. He closed the door behind him and leaned heavily against the solid oak. He tightly closed his eyes and took a deep breath seeking to steady his nerves. Long moments passed before he began to feel even remotely at peace. With a jerk, he hade his way to the window.
After the coolness of the evening breeze his room felt warm and stuffy so he pulled back the heavy drapes and opened the window, then leaned his back against the wall. Instantly the refreshing breeze stole into the room, its touch cooling his heated flesh. Johnny breathed in deeply, filling his lungs to full capacity and trying to stave off the exhaustion which seemed to suddenly increase tenfold.
Sounds of the party; the music and laughter reached his ears. Above the noise of the celebrants below, another sound rose, set apart from the entertainment. Â A soft droning, the melody familiar and disturbing. As Johnny strained to catch the tune, the song grew louder. Unbidden, the tune escaped his clenched teeth and he began to hum along.
Johnny closed his eyes and allowed the melody to carry him back in time to a dismal hovel that passed as home, and a beautiful woman as she swayed in time with the rhythm. Her hips moved seductively, a wide smile lifted the corners of her mouth and she hummed in time with a song only she could hear. Â
“Dance with me, Juanito,” she whispered as she took him in her arms.
“There’s no music, mama,” he pointed out in bewilderment.
“Of course there is. Just close your eyes and listen.” She began to lead him in the dance, her hands light on his small shoulders.” Can you hear it now, my sweet boy?”
“Yes, mama, yes. I can hear it!”Johnny lifted his voice to match hers and as they hummed the poignant melody, they moved as one, lost in the dance.
Abruptly, the embrace was broken. Johnny opened his eyes, seeking his partner but, all he saw was his bedroom door closing. He swayed a little then hitched in a breath.
“Wait, mama, don’t go.” Johnny ran after her, desperation to catch her lending his feet wings. As he approached the top of the stairs he caught a glimpse of skirt then heard the front door of the hacienda open and close.” Mama, wait!”
Johnny threw open the door and ran headlong into Murdoch’s broad chest. Murdoch gripped his son’s shoulders firmly, restraining Johnny as he sought to break the grip and run into the darkness.
“Let go, Old Man! Let go of me!”Johnny struggled fiercely but Murdoch was equally determined.
“Johnny, what is wrong with you?”
…She’s getting away, damn it!”
Murdoch shook Johnny, attempting to break his son’s concentration.” Johnny, there is no one there. No one came out the door!”
“Yes, she did. She was right in front of me. Now let me go!”
“Look, Johnny. No one is there,” Murdoch said gently, the tender concern in his voice breaking through Johnny’s determination to escape.
Suddenly, Johnny wilted, all his energy deserting him. He allowed the strong arm of his father to encircle his waist and guide him into the great room and lower him to the sofa. In moments, a glass of tequila was thrust into his hand and he was urged to drink.
Johnny swallowed deeply, relishing the burning sensation as the alcohol seared his throat and landed hard in his stomach. Calmer now, he took another swallow, emptying the glass. Â He received a refill, pressed more gently into his hands. He raised his eyes and gazed into the worried face of his father.” It’s okay, Murdoch. I’m okay,” he whispered.
Murdoch studied his face intently, anxiety building in his tense shoulders.” What’s going on with you, Son? Talk to me.”
Shaking his head, Johnny frowned deeply.” I don’t know. I really don’t know. All I know is , I’m scared.” He rose, and took a step away from Murdoch, distancing himself from the disappointment to which he was sure his confession would subject him.
Following his son’s progress, Murdoch’s surprise couldn’t be hidden.” Scared? Of what?”
“I think I’m losing my mind, Murdoch.” Johnny turned to face the man. Like a dam that has burst, its waters flowing wildly over its walls, his words poured forth, without pause, without thought.
“I keep seeing my mother. I see her everywhere! She was just in my room, dancing with me. I know she’s dead. I know it! But, she’s here, right now. Somewhere out there at the party.”
Murdoch took in the wild, slightly glazed eyes, his own mind blank with the admission for a few seconds. Sucking in a breath, he tried to reason this out. He stood and stepped up to his son, his voice gentle as he spoke.” Johnny, you’re exhausted. Anyone can see it. Whatever is going on, we’ll figure it out, son.” Gently placing a hand on Johnny’s shoulder, Murdoch explained as if telling his son something new.” Your mother is dead, son.”
“You think I don’t know that! I watched her die!”His breathing increased, his eyes even wilder as he stepped back, away from his father’s touch. He shook his head slowly.” I’m losing my mind.”
Murdoch didn’t think the party would ever end. He’d managed to get Johnny into bed and, after considerable bargaining, he’d given his son a sleeping draught . For the life of him, Murdoch could not figure out why Johnny had suddenly started seeing his mother. For, he believed his boy did think he was seeing Maria and, as frightened as Johnny was, Murdoch’s own fear matched it. His temper was nearing its capacity as he waded through the crowd, searching for his friend and, hopefully, some reasonable explanation. With what he thought of as a stroke of luck, he found Sam talking to Scott near the food tables. He wasted no time in approaching them.” Gentlemen, please step in the house with me.”
“Something wrong, Sir?”
“Yes, Scott. Something is very wrong. Please, in the house.” Murdoch turned and walked to the front door, leaving the two men, baffled and worried, to follow him.
Once in the great room, Scott immediately noticed the missing family member and made a quick deduction.” Is it Johnny?”
Murdoch poured drinks all around, filling his own glass to the brim. Once he handed off the liquor, he sat heavily in a chair.” Yes, it’s Johnny and, Scott, I want you to be honest now. I know you’ve been covering for him to a degree.”
Scott was as perplexed as he’d ever been and he fought back a hint of irritation. He said nothing yet.
Murdoch told them both of his encounter with Johnny and what had been said. When he’d finished, he looked expectantly at Scott.
Heaving in a deep breath, Scott nodded.” He said he saw her when we were in town that night. Johnny left before I did and he told me he saw a woman who looked like Maria on his way home. Then, the next day, he saw her again when he was fixing the fence. And, you know about the night at supper.”
Sam looked between the two men, flummoxed.” And you are just now saying something? Either of you? Why?” he demanded.
Scott dipped his head then shrugged.” It didn’t seem to be a big deal at the time. Well, until supper that night.”
“And when was this?” Sam asked.
Clearing his throat, Scott muttered,” last week.”
Sam rolled his eyes and stood up.” Wonderful. I’ll go see him.”
“I gave him a sleeping draught, Sam. He was so … fragile. He was scared. Really scared. I’ve never seen him like that.” Murdoch’s voice quivered as he spoke, his worry deepening the lines in his face.
Sam stared at his old friend for a long beat.” Alright, I’ll come out tomorrow to see him, then. Keep him home tomorrow, Murdoch. I don’t want him far from someone who can keep an eye on him.”
Scott stood as the doctor did.” Do you think it’s that serious, Sam?”
“Well, Scott, the man is seeing his dead mother, touching her, so he thinks. Yes, I’d say that was serious.”
Scott stood before the fireplace, his arms crossed on the mantle, head bowed. His drink, forgotten, sat beside his left elbow, moisture dripping down the glass and puddling on the mantle. With a sigh, Scott lifted his head and briskly rubbed his eyes. The barbeque had finally wound down and dance-weary guests had climbed aboard their various rigs to begin the long trek home. Scott had maintained his manners, and his polite social etiquette had revealed none of the turmoil raging within.
As soon as the last guest had disappeared under the white arches, Scott had rushed to Johnny’s room. He had been relieved to find his brother peacefully sleeping but was nonetheless worried about his state of mind. How would he be when the sleeping draught had worn off and no longer subdued his subconscious? He had sat staring at his younger sibling, confused and anxious. What had happened to cause this apparent mental collapse? Perhaps the childhood traumas Johnny had endured had finally broken through his reserves of will and shattered his peace of mind. With more questions than answers Scott had left his brother’s room and now stood in the Great Room lost in his own fears.
“Scott?” Murdoch approached his son and laid a hand on his shoulder.” It’s late. Why are you still up?”
“I couldn’t sleep. I’m worried about Johnny, Sir.”
“I am, too, but Sam will be here again tomorrow. He’ll look him over and talk to him. Maybe he can find the reason for Johnny’s strange behavior.”
“And if he can’t? Find the answer, I mean? What then?” Scott turned to face his father searching for reassurance he could not find in Murdoch’s lined face.
“I don’t know, son. I just don’t know.”
Any hope Scott might have felt while he asked those questions, faded with his father’s answer.” I suppose we should turn in now that everyone’s gone home.”
Murdoch grimaced and slipped his hands into his pockets.” Not everyone. Aggie noticed something was wrong and asked about it. She’s an old friend. I couldn’t pretend with her. She and Buck are outside, still.”
Rolling his eyes and losing any patience, Scott huffed out a breath.” Well, send them on their way. It’s not as if they can help. Johnny doesn’t even like Buck Addison.”
Just then, they heard the front door open and Murdoch shot Scott a warning glance. Aggie swept into the room and to Murdoch’s side, wrapping her hands around one of his biceps.
“How is he, Murdoch?”
The rancher looked down into her gray eyes and smiled.” He’ll be fine, Aggie. I think it was just the party. He hasn’t had much sleep lately and he’s simply worn out. He’s resting and I’m sure by tomorrow, he’ll be one hundred percent again.”
Buck Addison, his eyes glued to his wife and her best friend, walked closer and put a protective hand on Aggie’s shoulder.” You see, my dear? You were worried over nothing. All it will take to cure Johnny is a good night’s sleep. We should be going.”
The worry on her face relaxed a measure but not completely.” Well, if you’re sure you don’t need us.”
“We’re fine, ma’am,” Scott spoke up, anxious for them to be on their way but hoping it wasn’t evident in his tone.” I just checked on him and he’s snoring.” He forced a kind smile for the woman.
Buck took hold of her arm and eased her toward the door.” Maybe Johnny should stop running around so much. I know he’s still young but, running a ranch is a lot more work than he’s used to.”
Murdoch ground his teeth together. If Aggie weren’t there, he’d tell Addison where to go with his advice. The man had no children, what did he know about it? What did he know about Johnny? Not one thing.” Johnny is very resilient, Buck. Everyone overdoes it from time to time. Nothing to concern yourself over.”
Addison stopped at the door and shot Murdoch a cagey grin. Aggie didn’t seem to notice any of it.” Tell Johnny I asked after him, won’t you? If it’s alright, I’ll stop by in a few days.”
“You’re always welcome here, Aggie,” Murdoch smiled.
The two Lancers stood facing one another until the sound of the front door opening and closing signaled the departure of the Addisons . As the retreating hoof beats of the horse pulling their rig grew dimmer, Scott rounded on his father.” And precisely what did you tell them, Sir?” he demanded.
“Nothing. Aggie saw Johnny and me on the front porch.” Murdoch raised his chin, and drew in a deep breath.
“So she saw you. Did she hear anything? What did you tell her?” Scott pressed the point, unwilling to allow Murdoch to escape the question.
“I simply told her he had a slight fever.” At Scott’s raised eyebrows, Murdoch added,” Its close to the truth, Scott. I would never betray your brother’s confidence.”
“I just don’t want to give Buck Addison any room for speculation.” Scott felt deflated, the adrenaline that had been fueling him suddenly dissipating.
“Nor do I . But right now Johnny needs us and we should concentrate on how we can help him.” Murdoch wearily rubbed his face then squared his shoulders and headed upstairs.
Johnny yawned and rolled over to face his window. Though it was yet early, the first sliver of dawn had fingered its way over the far mountains. Slim shafts of light crept across the land as the sun awoke from her night’s slumber. Feeling more at peace than he had in the last few days, Johnny threw back the covers and sat on the edge of his bed. The hardwood flooring was cool to his feet and he pressed his soles into the planks, delaying rising and dressing as long as possible. He was reluctant to start this day after the tension and uncertainty of the past week.
Slowly, he rose to his feet and walked to the wash basin to begin his morning ritual. A ritual he now had to stop and think about. He shook his head, a frown forming on his face. Everything seemed so difficult. From washing his face to shaving to getting dressed — it all seemed too much of an effort. He leaned his hands on the dresser and lowered his head.
Come on, Lancer. Pull yourself together! This is crazy. He snorted at that. Yeah, it was crazy alright. Maybe, he really *was* crazy. Seeing dead people was a sure sign, right? Not only seeing them but talking to them, dancing with them. Dancing with her again. Goosebumps erupted on his skin and he shivered violently.
He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, drawing on his reserves to shake this nonsense and get on with living his life. Just get on with the day; one that promised to be pretty strained if Murdoch’s face last night was any indication. He reckoned the old man was ready to lock him up somewhere. He wasn’t so sure that was a bad idea.
With some regret, Johnny stood up straight and pulled his shoulders back, resolute to get himself washed, shaved and dressed, and downstairs on time. Just like any other day.
In the kitchen, he found his father and brother at the table and his shoulders tensed slightly. He settled in his chair and poured a cup of coffee.
“Breakfast is almost ready. I was about to come check in and see how you are this morning.” Murdoch’s words were delivered cautiously as if he were speaking to a skittish young colt.
“You mean you wanted to see if the patient has lost his mind.” He waited with bated breath, expecting condemnation, disapproval.
Instead he saw only love and concern in the big man’s eyes.” No, son. That’s not what I meant at all. I think you’ve just been working too hard.” Murdoch leaned in closer, his hand raised in appeal.” Why don’t you take it easy for a few days? Stay close to the house. Sam says…”
“Sam? You called Sam?” Johnny knew his anger was unfounded, actually he remembered Sam’s presence at the party the night before, yet he felt powerless to stop the flow of words now as he berated his father.” I’m not a child and I am not crazy!”Even as he declared his competence, he knew his behavior was providing evidence to the contrary.
Murdoch’s eyes flittered to Scott for a second before going back to hold the intense gaze of his younger son.” Johnny, I’m not judging you. No one is. We’re just concerned.”
“I know, Murdoch. I know.” Johnny admitted wearily.” I am, too.”
“We’ll get it sorted out, brother,” Scott said, his tone gentle and supportive.” We just need to figure out how and why this started. I think …” he didn’t get a chance to finish his sentence as Cipriano burst through the kitchen door.
“Patron, the cattle have broken through the east corral fence. They are scattered again.”
Murdoch slammed his hand on the table.” How did it happen?”
“I am not sure, Senor. It looks as if the wire was cut down,” Cipriano answered.
“I’ll see about it, Sir,” Scott said even as he stood and dropped his napkin on his plate.” I’ll let you know if I need any help.”
“Alright, son. Thank you, Cip.”
The segundo nodded then headed out the door as Scott paused briefly.” We’ll talk later, brother.”
“Yeah, sure. Go ahead, I’m fine.” Johnny hoped he sounded easygoing as he took a sip of coffee.
“Son, take it easy today.”
“Murdoch, I don’t need to take it easy. Work will help me keep my mind off whatever is going on. I need to be doin something. Think I’ll head out to Myer’s Lake and come around that side, help herd the cattle back in.” He stood and walked quickly toward the front of the house.
Murdoch stood in the hallway watching Johnny strap on his gunbelt.” I want you to come get me if you … see anything else.”
With a smirk, Johnny looked up at him.” You mean if I see anymore ghosts?” He sighed and shook his head.” I’ll see ya,” he muttered as he grabbed his hat and walked outside.
Johnny had a small herd together by midday and pushed them back to the east pasture. He saw Scott watching him but he avoided the man. Whatever his brother had been about to say this morning, Johnny was pretty sure he didn’t want to hear it. A vaquero closed the gate behind him as he brought the last steer through. He sighed when he saw Scott riding up. Figures, he thought.
“That makes the count right. We got them all back,” Scott notified him.
“That’s good. Didn’t take too long either. Did you find the problem?” Johnny’s eyes were on the cattle; he couldn’t bring himself to meet Scott’s concerned gaze.
“Cip was right. The fence was definitely cut on purpose. I guess that means we have a bigger problem now.”
Johnny sighed and nodded his head.” Best leave a couple of the boys out here tonight, then.”
“I’ve already assigned Tim and Walt. So, are we just going to ignore it, brother?”
Looking over, Johnny’s eyes drilled Scott’s.” You really want to talk about that right now, Scott? In front of God and everyone?”
Scott dipped his eyes for a second before looking back.” No, of course not. But, we do need to talk, Johnny. It’s not going to go away just because you want it to.”
“How do you know? Might be exactly what happens. Anyway, I’m headin to that creek bed back a ways. It’s dammed up again.”
Cocking his head to one side, Scott frowned.” I just cleared that last week.”
Johnny shrugged.” I know but that doesn’t mean it’s not dammed. Maybe, that was on purpose, too.”
“I’ll go with you. If someone is doing this, they might not be satisfied with property damage.”
A smile lit Johnny’s face and he shook his head.” You need to finish your own job. I can watch out for myself.” Seeing the disbelief on Scott’s face and knowing exactly what his brother was thinking, Johnny scowled.” I’m fine, Scott. We can’t drop everything because I’m acting stupid. If you get back before I do, tell Murdoch about that creek.” He didn’t wait for an answer and took off back the way he’d come.
Johnny attacked the creek with a vengeance, wondering who was doing this and why. He knew Scott had just been out here last week which is why it had surprised and angered him to see the debris. It didn’t take a genius to see it was done intentionally. It was piled high, all in one spot, not scattered like normal. They hadn’t had any problems with anyone lately. No neighbors feuding with them so, it didn’t make much sense. Unless, of course, they were looking at another Pardee situation. Johnny hoped not. He wasn’t in the mood for a range war.
He chuckled a little at the thought. When had he ever been in the mood for a range war? Maybe, at one time in his life, he would have been looking for one but, he could honestly say he never had looked forward to them.
As the sun descended, casting his shadow long on the earth, he finished the chore and silently dared anyone to do it again. A smirk came across his face. He walked over to Barranca and pulled out his extra shirt, wiping down his exposed chest and trying to dry himself off a little. The cool breeze was giving him goose bumps then, he stopped suddenly, feeling a presence near him.
Johnny drew his gun and searched the area all around him. He could see no one but he felt eyes on him. Something unfamiliar settled in his chest. A feeling he’d had a few times this past week yet, somehow, it was … more, now. Fear. His heart raced and his breathing became erratic. Johnny swung into the saddle, the Colt still in his hand as he pressed his spurs to Barranca. He raced toward home, the feeling unwilling to leave him, wrapping around him like a shroud.
As he grew closer to the house now in his sight, the fear abated and a new feeling enveloped him. Disgust. He hated being afraid, always had and he tried to never show it. But, this was different. It was so much more intense than he’d ever known and he didn’t know what to do with it. He hated every second of it and hated himself for letting it fuel him. By the time he rode into the yard, he was livid with himself. Â
Dismounting, he led Barranca into the barn and removed his tack then started brushing the palomino down, letting the repetitive motion soothe his jangled nerves. Slowly, he began to settle and feel more like himself. He gave Barranca a pat on the neck and a soft goodnight after filling his feed and making sure he had water. He stepped out of the stall and the hairs on the back of his neck went up.
Angry, Johnny stood rigid as he waited to see if anyone would appear. Frustration quickly won out and he stepped into the middle of the barn, calling out loudly,” who’s there?”
There was no answer, no sound other than a soft snort from his own horse. Johnny frowned as he just realized Remmie was not in his stall. That meant Scott wasn’t home yet and he should be. Should have beaten him back by an hour. Could be nothing or, maybe he had come back then left again. Some errand for the old man. He turned to head for the house, intent on asking his father when he heard a rustling noise to his left, near the back of the building.
Once more he called out and again, there was no answer. At first. Johnny shook his head and took another step toward the door.
Whirling around, he stared into the dark, straining to hear more.” Who’s there? Show yourself? Are you a coward?” No, Johnny, boy, you are. Look at you, your hands are shaking, you’re sweating. How sickening is that? The thought flowed through his head even as he was backing toward the door, his eyes locked on that corner. He was almost to the doors when he felt a hand clamp down on his shoulder.
Turning quickly, Johnny found his gun in his own hand and aimed at his father’s chest.
“Johnny!” Murdoch gasped, stunned at the reaction he’d gotten. He lowered his voice substantially.” It’s me, son. It’s only me.”
Taking a few deep breaths, Johnny holstered the gun and slumped his shoulders, running a hand through his hair as he lowered his head.” Sorry,” he finally breathed out.” Thought I heard something.”
Murdoch stepped further into the barn.” Where?”
Johnny pointed to the corner and Murdoch marched over, leaning over the hay bales and even pushing a few aside to get a good look. There was nothing, no one there and the older man closed his eyes briefly before raising his head and staring at the back door. Maybe, the boy really was … no, he didn’t want to think that; refused to think it.
He didn’t have to ask, Johnny knew his father would find nothing because there was nothing to find. He leaned his head back against the door jamb.” Scott not back?”
Murdoch turned, seemingly having forgotten his son was waiting for him.” No, I, uh, I sent him on an errand. He should be back soon.”
Johnny stood straight and nodded.” Did he tell you about the creek?”
Johnny looked hard at his father and sighed.” You sent him for Sam.”
Murdoch walked back over to him and put a hand on his shoulder.” Yes, son, I did. We need to figure this out. It’s not getting any better.”
Hanging his head, Johnny couldn’t argue that. He wasn’t about to tell his father he’d run home like a scared little kid, though.” Can we get out of here now?”
“Of course, son.” Murdoch moved to wrap an arm around Johnny’s shoulders and walked him out of the barn. They had just stepped onto the front porch when Murdoch jerked and fell.
Johnny hit the tiles, the force of his father’s fall driving him down, too. He rolled to his side and saw Murdoch wasn’t moving. Quickly, he moved to grab his father and pull him behind the wall. More shots rang out, plowing into the adobe just as Johnny disappeared behind it.
He eased his father onto his side, seeing the blood on the man’s right shoulder. Johnny clamped a hand over the wound and leaned his head back, listening as the shots kept coming. Rifles, he thought idly. His hand went to his own side then stopped midway there. Images of pulling that gun out by the creek then again, in the barn; of aiming that gun at his own father, assailed him and Johnny found he couldn’t move. Once again, his heart raced, pounding in his ears and he felt like he couldn’t get a decent breath. He was dizzy and he closed his eyes.
Suddenly, the rifle shots sounded closer and Johnny hunkered over his father’s body, trying to protect him. Yet, he was still unable to draw his weapon, to fight back. He knew he was trembling all over but he couldn’t stop himself. He couldn’t stop anything. He couldn’t even move now. But he could hear and it seemed as if there were more guns now, more firing. The shots weren’t hitting the wall anymore. Thank God, he thought. But, he still couldn’t move. All he could do was lay across his father and pray it would just stop.
Then, it was quiet. Too quiet. He dared not even twitch, afraid they’d see it and think him still alive. Yes, they thought he was dead, that they were both dead. That’s why they stopped firing. Maybe, they’ll just go away. He convinced himself that was how things were so, when he felt a hand on his back, he jerked, straightening up and looking wild-eyed at the man.
Scott knelt beside his family, a knot as big as Texas in his stomach. When he touched Johnny, his brother jerked but when he saw those eyes, Scott felt real fear. Immediately, he looked down at Murdoch then reached out and pressed two fingers to his neck. Scott couldn’t think about what he’d seen in Johnny’s eyes just then. He stood and shouted.” It’s all clear, boys. Let Sam come through. Murdoch’s been shot!”
Scott stood before the large picture window behind Murdoch’s desk, a glass of brandy warming in his hand. There was no sound in the great room save the incessant ticking of the grandfather clock. Scott knew Johnny was on the sofa, equally as miserable as he was but he could not bring himself to look at his brother. Not yet. The look in the blue eyes earlier had seared through his mind, as if permanently affixed into his memory.
He had shoved Johnny aside and seen to the effort of carrying Murdoch to his room, taking charge until Teresa and Maria had come to aid Sam. Now the three of them were upstairs tending to the Lancer patriarch. It had been an hour and still no word had been forthcoming. With every minute that passed Scott battled two fears, that he was losing his father and that he had already lost his brother. For he feared the latter was now a reality.
The panic in Johnny’s eyes had shaken Scott to the core. He had expected worry and fear for their father but not the terror resulting from finding himself under attack. Johnny had instinctively covered Murdoch’s body with his own, saving him from further harm and yet had made no move to defend his father or himself. The man who had startled at Scott’s touch was a stranger, not the man Scott had grown to know and love.
What had happened to Johnny Madrid Lancer? The tough as nails, icy cold gunhawk of such reputation as to be known throughout the southwest? Where was the man who had taken on Pardee and his henchman Coley? To all intents and purposes that man was gone. But was he lurking somewhere now in Johnny’s twisted mind? Scott’s head began to throb, the pain a result of tension and worry. He rubbed his temples and resigned himself to dealing with one issue at a time. And now was as good a time as any to pose at least one of the questions besieging him.
Resolving to confront Johnny with patience and care, Scott strode to the sofa and looked down on his brother.” Want to tell me what happened?” His voice was soft but firm and he stood looking at his brother expectantly.
“You were there, Scott. We were under fire and I covered Murdoch.” Johnny sounded defensive. He ran a hand through his thick black hair but made no other move.
“You know what I mean, brother.”
“No, no, I don’t.” Johnny stood then and made to move away. He stopped as Scott grabbed his arm.
“You didn’t even draw your gun, Johnny. Why? Why would you just sit there and let those men overrun your position?” Scott’s grip tightened as he fought down anger.” You could have been killed and so could Murdoch. You didn’t even try to fight back. Why?”
“Back off, Scott. I had no time and I don’t have to answer to you!”Johnny jerked his arm out of Scott’s grasp and took a step backward.
“What is happening to you?” Some of the anger escaped Scott’s control and the words were out before he could stop himself.” If I had to hazard a guess, I would say you were scared.”
Johnny recoiled as if he had been slapped and Scott found himself holding his breath. He stood almost hoping Johnny would make some move of aggression but instead he was strangely disappointed as his brother slumped to the sofa. With a heavy sigh, Johnny buried his face in his hands and took a shuddering breath.
“Johnny…” But Scott’s words were caught in his throat as Sam entered the room.
Johnny looked up but made no effort to rise, fear etched plainly on his face. Oddly disgusted with his brother, Scott moved to face Sam.” How is he?”
“The wound is not life-threatening, but he lost a lot of blood. He’ll have to be watched for fever or complications but with bed rest, and peace and quiet he should make a full recovery.” Sam motioned toward the liquor cabinet.” Pour me a drink, Scott. I think I’m going to have a seat and talk to your brother here.”
Sam sat down next to Johnny.” So, young man, what’s going on with you? And don’t say you’re okay. I only needed one look at you to know better.”
“I don’t know, Sam. I just don’t know.” Johnny whispered miserably.” I keep asking myself that same question and I can’t find any answers.”
“How are you physically? Are you suffering from any headaches? Anything out of the normal?” Sam went through his standard line of questioning, growing more and more concerned with each negative reply.” Are you sleeping alright?”
“Yeah, sleeping fine.” Johnny muttered.” It’s not my sleep that’s the problem, it’s when I’m awake. I keep seeing things. Her.”
” Listen, is there any significance to the timing? Her birthday, anything like that?” Johnny shook his head. Tentatively, Sam asked the question he was sure would provoke the most violent reaction.” Is it by chance, the anniversary of your mother’s death?”
Scott jerked upright, the question shocking him out of his silence.” Sam!”
“Easy, Scott, it’s possible for an event like that to result in odd behavior, especially in one who has never fully faced the trauma of someone’s passing. It’s a fair question and it may help me to diagnose your brother’s illness.” Sam explained in a clinical tone, his attention momentarily off Johnny and firmly fixed on the older Lancer son.
“No,” Johnny answered, interrupting the discourse between the doctor and his brother.” It isn’t her birthday or death or anything. It’s just me. I’m finally paying for all the blood on my hands.” With that Johnny left the room, hurrying upstairs.
Scott moved to follow his brother but was stopped by Sam’s voice.” Let him go, Scott. He needs some time.”
Slowly, Scott turned back to his family physician.” Is he losing his mind, Sam? Is he going crazy?”
The room was dimly lit, only a candle on the table beside the bed. Teresa sat, her face cloaked in shadows. She turned her head as the door slowly opened. Even in the faint light she could sense Johnny’s unease, his tension. She went to the young man, her hand closed gently on his as she pulled him further into the room.
Keeping her voice low, she asked,” Would you sit with him for a while? I’ll make some coffee.”
Johnny nodded, his eyes never leaving the figure lying in the bed.” I’d like that, Teresa,” he agreed, his softly spoken words conveying his gratitude.” Take your time, okay?”
Teresa gave his hand a gentle squeeze then left the room, closing the door quietly behind her.
Johnny pulled the chair that Teresa had vacated closer to the bed and sat heavily. His elbows rested on his knees and his head hung despondently. He sat there for a long time not allowing thought to enter his mind, unable to bear thinking about what was happening. But, he had to and he needed to make his father understand if he could.
With a shudder he turned sorrow filled eyes to his father.” I’m sorry, Murdoch. It’s all my fault. I should have been watching out for you.” A single tear spilled down his cheek and he wiped it angrily away.
“It’s all my fault. If I hadn’t been a gunfighter, if I had turned out better, this wouldn’t be happening. I think I’m cursed and my past has come back to haunt me. I was always faster, always luckier. I could out talk them or out draw them. I thought I was so damned clever but this time I can’t beat the odds. This time I just know death is gonna win and I’m gonna have to face all the demons in my past. I just wish I had realized this sooner. I could have spared you the pain …” Johnny’s voice broke and he choked back a sob, swallowing convulsively.
“She’s haunting me because she knows I’m gonna be joining her soon. I can’t fight it, Murdoch. It’s my time and I have to accept it. I won’t even be able to defend myself. What’s the point? Even if I out gun whoever comes for me, I lose anyway. I just wanted you to know that it’s okay. I’ll be okay and I thank you for giving me a shot at the best thing that ever happened in my life. It’s just too late, Murdoch. Much too late. Take care of Scott and when she comes for me again, be strong enough to let me go. Promise you’ll let me go.”
Johnny jerked to his feet, turning toward Teresa. She stood with her head tilted to one side, gazing at him curiously.
“No where, Teresa. I’m just turning in, that’s all.” Johnny pushed past her and left the room, closing the door on a bewildered young woman. Uneasily, Teresa sat the tray on the bedside table, an ominous feeling of foreboding rising up in her chest.
Johnny stayed away from the house the next day, returning only when he was sure he wouldn’t run into his brother. He knew Scott thought he was a coward and, he supposed he was. But, he wasn’t so far gone yet that he couldn’t still function, still think about what was happening at the ranch, no matter he hadn’t slept a wink all night.
Someone had cut that fence line and dammed that stream. Someone had shot his father down but was that who they were aiming for? Someone was out for vengeance. Was it against him or all of them? He didn’t know and, he wasn’t sure he’d have time to find out.
She was still watching him. He had felt her out there today, spying on him from the trees again. Why didn’t she just show herself? Maybe because it wasn’t time to go, just yet. He’d thought about trying to go after her again but, how do you catch a ghost?
His hand faltered as he brushed Barranca down. Lowering his head, he closed his eyes and thought back to his childhood. Ghosts, spirits, evil beings. He’d grown up on the stories, the lore. The people in every village they lived in all seemed to believe basically the same thing. All of them had been so reverent when speaking in their whispers, not daring to voice aloud their fears and superstitions.
When he was very young, the stories scared him. As he got older and more cynical, he scoffed at them. He refused to believe in it but, maybe he should have. Maybe, now, those stories were becoming reality. Maybe, after all this time, his misdeeds were catching up to him.
It made perfect sense to him. He finally had something worth caring about. Before, when he was alone, there was nothing of value in his life. Now that there was, he wasn’t being allowed it. Penance for his sins, he supposed.
He sighed and stored away the grooming supplies then left the barn, circling around to the kitchen door. He still couldn’t face the accusations from his brother. Mostly, because they were true.
Johnny eased the bedroom door open and was a little surprised no one was sitting with Murdoch. He stepped lightly into the room and settled in the bedside chair, leaning over a little. Picking up his father’s hand in his own, he studied the appendage, tracing the knuckles before gently turning that hand and searching the lines, noting how they curved then came to an end.
A sigh escaped his lips as he looked upon the face of his father. Usually such a hard and stern face, it was now softened with sleep. There was no sign of pain and Johnny was grateful for that. His father had suffered enough because of him over the years, no matter whose fault. Without thought, he reached out and caressed the man’s forehead then clenched his eyes shut for a second.
Suddenly, his eyes flew open as he felt the cool wind. He looked to the window, rising slowly from the chair and staring in apprehension. Gut turned upside down, Johnny started toward the opening when a voice stopped him cold.
“There’s nothing there. It’s just the wind.”
He whirled around to find Scott sitting in a dark corner of the room watching him.” Wha ..” he stopped and lowered his voice substantially as he remembered where he was. In a whisper, he started again.” What the hell are you doing? Spying on me?”
Scott stood slowly and walked over to him.” I was watching Murdoch. I didn’t want to disturb your late night visit. Look at you, Johnny. You’re sweating, you’re shaking. What the hell is going on?”
Johnny took in the tight, lined face, the clenched teeth and the fire in his brother’s eyes and, he deflated. Shoulders slumping, he could only drop his eyes, shake his head and walk out of the room.
Scott stared after him for a beat before glancing at Murdoch then following his brother into the hallway. He found Johnny leaning against the wall, taking deep breaths.” Did you think your mother was there?”
He didn’t move or acknowledge the question at all. Johnny slid along the wall toward his own room until he was stopped by an iron grip.
“You are not a coward, Johnny. I’ve seen you take more risks with your life than I care to think about. Whatever this thing is, it’s destroying you from the inside. Get some help, brother. I need you now. Murdoch needs you now.”
Taking in a stuttering breath, Johnny raised his head but he never looked at Scott.” You’d better not count on me, brother. I’m sorry, but, I’m not gonna be any good to anyone anymore.” With that, he resumed his slow retreat to his room.
Scott spent a sleepless night worrying over his family. As the dawn finally broke, he decided to head downstairs and feed his protesting stomach. Murdoch had slept through the night and appeared to be pain free. He supposed he should be grateful for that much. His father would recover, Sam had said, but it would take some time. Time Scott didn’t think they had. Things were heating up now with this direct assault on the head of the household. Still, he couldn’t help wondering if it was aimed at Murdoch or Johnny.
Johnny. The words he’d spoken last night haunted Scott. He needed his brother’s help now more than ever and all of a sudden, Johnny says ‘don’t count on me’? He’d been stunned speechless and still was, quite frankly. He also didn’t believe it. Johnny was going through something … irrational. He shook his head and thought he’d work that one out a little later. Right now, he was starving.
He passed Teresa in the kitchen doorway and gave her an update on Murdoch. He couldn’t help noticing the tension in her face but, he assumed it was from the threat they were under.
“What’s happening, Scott? Johnny was not himself last night.” Teresa related the whispered confession she had overheard the night before, making certain to keep the strange words in the proper context. Well as proper as she could. She had never witnessed such a display of self-condemnation in the ex-gunfighter before and it terrified her.
Scott listened, his expression growing ever grimmer with each word. Finally he shook his head, he wished he could reassure the girl that Johnny would be alright but he knew there was nothing he could say that wouldn’t sound patronizing. As for the attacks on the ranch, well Teresa had been through this before and Scott had every confidence in her ability to deal with it. He kissed the top of her head before heading down the hall.
As he took a quick look around the kitchen, Scott wasn’t surprised to see his brother missing.” Maria, have you seen Johnny?”
“Si, he was here early and has gone. He said he needed to get to work.”
Scott nodded, seeing the sadness on the woman’s face and knowing it was for Johnny. Another person he couldn’t reassure, he thought glumly as he sat at the table and started his meal.
Deciding to check in with Cipriano, Scott left the house after eating and headed toward the corral where the Segundo stood talking to two hands. He surveyed the landscape, not knowing exactly what he was searching for but, hoping he was ready for anything. He spied the guards around the perimeter and at the arch. When he reached the corral, he turned to see two more men on the roof. Satisfied as he could be, Scott turned his attention to Cipriano.
It wasn’t the first thing he’d intended to ask, nevertheless, the words spilled out.” Where is Johnny working?”
“He said he was going to ride the land, Senor. He wanted to see if there had been any further attacks.” After a brief hesitation, Cip went on.” Do you know who is doing this?”
“Not a clue, I’m afraid.” Scott took in a deep breath then, the surrey caught his eye as it made its way down the road.” I’m going to need your help, Cipriano. I need you to take care of the day to day for a little while longer. With Murdoch down and Johnny …” he paused, glancing quickly at the man,” we need someone we can count on.”
“Of course, Senor. All of the men are loyal to Lancer. We will be ready when you need us to fight, as well.”
Smiling a little, Scott patted the man’s shoulder as the surrey came to a stop near the house.” Thank you, and thank the men for me, Cip. Excuse me.” He walked toward the visitors, more than a little curious. As he stepped up to the side of the surrey, he reached out to help her down, easily seeing the concern on her face.
“Scott, we heard about Murdoch. How is he?”
“He’s doing alright, Aggie. He’s resting now. Sam said it wasn’t life-threatening but he’ll be out of commission for a while.”
“Any idea who did it?” Buck asked as he rounded the surrey and wrapped an arm around his wife’s waist.
“We’re still working on that. Please, come on in and have some coffee.” He led the way into the house but as he bade them sit, Aggie hesitated.
“I was hoping to see Murdoch, if he’s up to visitors.”
Scott raised a brow at that and saw something more in Buck’s face. Disapproval and … something he couldn’t quite name.” Well, I’ll check with Teresa. Please, sit. I’ll be right back.”
Murdoch was awake and happy to see Aggie. Scott led them to the room, sure his father hadn’t meant to extend the invitation to her husband. They got on much better these days but, there would always be a rivalry between Murdoch and Buck. He left them to it, unwilling to witness the posturing between the two men and certain Teresa would not allow Addison to truly upset Murdoch. As he made it to the downstairs landing, a knock came on the door. Scott sighed and wondered if they’d opened a hotel and not bothered to tell him. But, when he opened the door, his relief was evident.
“Sam, I’m glad you’re here.”
Sam tensed and looked at the stairs.” Is it Murdoch?”
“No, he’s doing alright. Aggie and Buck Addison are with him, Teresa, too. It’s Johnny I want to talk to you about. Please, come into the living room.”
Sam saw the worry on the young man’s face, heard it in his voice as he followed Scott. He couldn’t blame him, he was worried about Johnny, too. He hadn’t had a chance to really talk with Johnny with everything else happening. He’d hoped to accomplish that today.” Is he here?”
“No,” Scott sighed out.” He’s out riding the range, looking for anymore problems. Sam, I’m really worried about him.” As they sat, Scott relayed what he’d witnessed when Murdoch was shot, his conversation with Teresa and what Johnny had said to him last night.
Sam kept a frown on his face during the telling. He said nothing when Scott finished.
“What could cause this, Sam? Is there some medical reason for Johnny to think he’s seeing his dead mother?”
“There could be, Scott. And it could be a lot of things, too. I really need to examine him to tell. I’d need to test his blood, see if he’s gotten into anything toxic or maybe there’s an imbalance in his system. It could well be …”
Scott stopped listening as the thought struck him hard. Why hadn’t he realized it sooner? Could it really be? Someone was after the Lancers. Someone who would profit by incapacitating Johnny. Had that been what the shooting was about? Testing him to see how he’d react? To see if their scheme would work? It was quite a complicated ploy, to be sure. Who could come up with such an idea? And why?
Or, was it as simple as some malady Sam could fix with his medicines? Johnny did not react this way to danger. Scott knew that as well as he knew his own name. His brother didn’t buy into ghosts, either. They’d talked about it before a couple of times and Johnny always scoffed at such things. Why was he not scoffing now? Why was he being so accepting of this?
He didn’t think Johnny was sick, though. With everything he knew of his brother, Scott was more and more convinced someone was trying to drive Johnny mad. Keep him so unsettled, so … so scared, that he couldn’t function. Scott’s head jerked up when he felt the hand on his arm. He blinked and focused on Sam who was standing over him now, staring oddly at him.
“I’m sorry, Sam. I was just thinking everything through. Maybe you should check on Murdoch now.” He stood, hoping to avoid admitting he hadn’t heard much of what the doctor had said when the Addisons walked into the room and saved him.
Footsteps in the hallway had heralded the approach of Aggie and Buck Addison and Aggie’s sharp tone announced her displeasure with her spouse. With a flourish she swept into the room, her eyes flashing as if challenging Sam or Scott to align themselves with her husband.
Buck followed stiffly, his jaw clenched tightly. He forced himself to relax, taking in a deep breath before moving to his wife’s side.” I am sure the Lancers do not need a parade of well wishers disturbing Murdoch’s rest.” Â
“I would hardly refer to it as a disturbance. Besides it’s what good neighbors do, Buck. Why do you have such difficulties with it?” Aggie placed her hands on her hips and thrust out her jaw belligerently.
…Difficulties with what, Aggie?” Scott’s interest was piqued despite his distraction of mere moments ago. His gaze swept from her to Buck Addison and back again as she replied to his question.
“I intend to bring over a home cooked meal tomorrow for Murdoch.” Aggie sent a scathing look in the direction of her husband. Instead of seeming contrite, a flash of something unknown flickered in his eyes.
Aggie stood, her back straight, her lips pursed in a familiar expression of determination.” And apparently Buck here is unaware of the concept of being neighborly.”
Buck reacted to the accusation with a wave of his hand, his movements precise and controlled.
To Scott’s observant gaze, he looked decidedly annoyed. No, not annoyed, he looked angry. Angry and resentful. But nonetheless, he stood possessively beside his wife, teetering on the edge between argument and concession.
“Now, Aggie, I simply pointed out that the Lancers have a good cook and Teresa helps out. They don’t need your charity.” Buck sounded stiff, not at all apologetic and again Scott noticed a slight inflection in his tone. As if the man was struggling to conceal the true motivation for his disapproval of his wife’s offer.
Scott stared blatantly now at Buck Addison, watching for any tell-tale reaction, any emotion regardless of how fleeting, that would define the man’s words and reveal the true nature of his objections to Aggie’s generosity.
Recovering quickly, Buck displayed none of his earlier anger, the gentleman coming to the fore. His face was strangely impassive, as removed now from the situation as a card player in a hand of poker. Still, Scott knew the man was disguising his true motive.
While it was no secret in the community that Aggie had carried a torch for Murdoch and he had cared deeply for her, their relationship had never gone further than the deepest friendship. Yet, Buck Addison had been overwhelmed with jealousy. His interaction with Murdoch Lancer had even come to blows on one occasion. Now there existed the most tolerant animosity.
Buck and Murdoch now engaged in a civil, if chilly peace. They moved cautiously around each other, reserving all conversations, indeed all contact, to the most basic discussions on ranching. Nothing personal was ever breached by either man and nothing at all was discussed as it pertained to Aggie.
“Look, honey, if it makes you happy, we’ll come back tomorrow and lend a helping hand,” Buck soothed, his voice silky.” If it’s alright with Scott, that is.” Buck, his features deliberately smoothed into an emotionless mask, directed this last at the young Lancer son. But what Buck’s face concealed, his eyes could not.
Scott could see it plainly, swimming just below the surface, the familiar green-eyed monster that had plagued mankind from the beginning of time. Buck Addison’s angry jealousy lived still, as passionate and full of hate as it had been since he relocated to this valley. Scott allowed the revelation to curl his lips slightly upward and was rewarded when Buck abruptly averted his eyes.
“Of course, Aggie. I’m certain Murdoch would enjoy your company.” He smothered a smile, sensing yet not seeing Addison ‘s resentment.
“Well then, it’s settled. Buck, let’s get going. I have a lot of preparations to make.” Aggie pulled on her gloves and smiled at Scott and Sam, her satisfaction with her victory showing in her sparkling eyes.
“Gentlemen,” Buck nodded stiffly. He put a hand on his wife’s elbow and steered her to the front door, Scott and Sam following behind.
As the door closed behind them Scott moved to the buggy and offered Aggie a hand up. Buck flashed a look of annoyance at Scott’s interference but made no comment.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, Scott,” Aggie reminded him.
“Sure, Aggie. We look forward to it.” Scott stepped back as Buck turned the horses and swept out of the yard. Long moments after the buggy carrying the Addisons passed from view, Scott remained standing in the courtyard.
Sam was first to break the silence that weighed between them.” You want to tell me what that was all about, young man?” he asked gruffly.
Scott sighed heavily.” There’s a lot more to the happenings here on the ranch than I had first thought.” Â He turned to face the doctor.” And a lot more going on with Johnny, too. We have to help him, Sam, before it’s too late.” Â
“I know, son, and we will,” Sam agreed.
“My father survived the shooting yesterday but I have a feeling Johnny is in far more danger than Murdoch was. We have to get to the bottom of this.”
Sam nodded his head thoughtfully.” Do you know where Johnny is working?”
“He’s probably on the north ridge.” Scott placed his hands on his hips.” Do you have any ideas?”
“Not yet, but we’ll figure it out. And we have to do so fast, before I have another patient that I might not be able to cure.”
“Can you stay here, Sam? I’m going to bring Johnny home.”
Sam nodded,” I’ll just help myself to a drink.” But he was talking to empty air; Scott had already entered the barn. A few minutes later, Scott led his bay out and mounted up. Turning his horse north, he disappeared in a cloud of dust.
As he mounted the rise above the north pasture, Scott pulled up and stood in the stirrups. He shielded his eyes from the sun’s glare and swept his gaze over the lush meadow. The day was glorious, the sun was shining brightly but a stiff breeze blew from the northern mountains, its cool undercurrents full of the promise of autumn. In the meadow below, Scott could see Johnny’s palomino ground tied and grazing peacefully. There was, however, no sign of his brother.
Scott shook off the growing anxiety that had plagued him since the departure of the Addison’s and slowly pressed his horse down the gently sloping knoll, his eyes darting back and forth as he searched for Johnny.
Barranca raised his head and nickered a greeting but Johnny still was not to be seen. Cautiously, Scott approached. His brother had not been himself the last couple of weeks and there was no way to anticipate his reaction, should Scott come upon him unannounced.
Scott pulled the bay to a halt beside the golden stallion and dismounted. He loosened the cinch and the bay lowered his head, pulling a mouthful of the rich grass.
“Johnny?” Scott called softly.” Johnny? Hey, brother, I brought lunch.”
“You make a lot of noise, you know, Boston ,” Johnny’s voice floated on the breeze from somewhere behind him. Scott turned as Johnny moved out of the thick trees and came to a stop a few feet from him. Relieved, Scott noted the gun in Johnny’s hand. Following his stare, Johnny laughed.” It won’t kill a ghost,” he teased.
“Well, most men would say it won’t catch fish either but I seem to remember you trying.” Scott’s teasing tone was met with a smile and he relaxed.” Let’s pull up a seat and have some lunch then we need to head in. Sam wants to talk with you.”
Instantly alerted, Johnny tensed.” Is it Murdoch? Has he gotten worse?”
“No, Murdoch is fine.” Â Scott knew Johnny would deny that even Sam could help him, so convinced was he that he was doomed to meet his fate with the help of his dead mother. Scott said smoothly,” its nothing like that but, he said I should come find you.” Â
“If Murdoch is okay, why does Sam want to see me?”
“He wants to discuss Murdoch’s care, you know avoiding stress and all.” The small lie fell gracefully off Scott’s tongue but he resisted the urge to feel guilty about his deception. He would do whatever it took to help his brother.
Johnny visibly relaxed and plopped down under one of the nearby trees.” Okay, then.”
He sounded spent and Scott hazarded a good look at him. Johnny’s young features were drawn and tired, small lines creasing his mouth and around the corners of his eyes. He looked like a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders, and that weight was slowly draining him of all energy, and his very will to live. Fear clutched Scott’s heart as he recognized the grip of death on Johnny’s face. A death that was not meant to be. His brother had accepted fate’s hand and was willingly succumbing to its embrace.
More determined than ever, Scott sat down beside his brother and passed out the food.
Once they’d eaten, Scott packed away the remnants as Johnny retrieved Barranca. Tightening Remmie’s cinch, Scott glanced over at his brother.” What were you doing out here, anyway?”
“Layin low, tryin to see if anyone was doing something they shouldn’t be.”
As they both mounted up, Scott’s face fell serious.” I have an idea of who is doing this.”
That got Johnny’s attention and he stilled his palomino’s prancing.” Spill it.”
Raising a brow at the harsh tone, Scott considered his words carefully even as he pressed Remmie into a walk. Johnny fell in beside him and Scott knew he was impatiently waiting.” The Addisons stopped by again today. Aggie is very worried and wants to help by bringing a meal over tomorrow.”
Johnny sighed heavily and looked at the sky.” Yeah, I can see how the strong desire to cook a meal would push her into shootin the old man.”
Scott’s lips quirked then he shook his head.” It wasn’t her reaction that was odd, it was Buck’s. He was trying very hard not to show it but, the man is so jealous, he could spit. Angry, too, that she’s so attentive to Murdoch.”
“Not much reason for all that’s happenin, Scott. I mean, Addison ain’t afraid to go a few rounds with Murdoch. We’ve seen that.”
“No, he isn’t but, he might be afraid of Aggie’s reaction. If he went at it with Murdoch again, Aggie wouldn’t stand for that.”
Johnny drew his brows together in thought.” She made her choice and Murdoch accepted that – fool that he was.”
“The question is , does Buck believe it enough to let bygones be bygones. I don’t think he has. Besides, he’s always wanted Lancer. We both know that. He got the Conway ranch by marrying into it but, he’s a greedy man.”
“Don’t reckon Murdoch would marry him.”
“Johnny, this is serious!”
Barranca came to a stop quickly and Scott reined in then turned around a bit in the saddle to look at his brother. He didn’t much like the fire in those eyes.
“Thanks, Scott. I didn’t realize this was serious. Here I thought it was just a prank! No need to worry about our father with a bullet in him, our fences cut and the cattle scattered from here to Texas !”
Scott’s shoulders slumped as he let out a breath.” Okay, Johnny. I know you know it’s serious. I’m just not in the mood to joke about it.”
“Sometimes, brother, jokin about a thing is all that keeps you sane.” Johnny’s face was flat as he spoke then, he spurred Barranca into a lope, leaving his brother to stare at his back for a second.
“Dammit,” Scott muttered before spurring the bay after the palomino. Scott caught up and matched Barranca’s stride. He waited to see if Johnny was going to speak to him. They had to hash this out and it was better to do it before they got home. He was relieved when Johnny spoke.
“So, Addison wants Lancer and he don’t want Aggie to know it, obviously. So, he goes after Murdoch and tries to start a range war? He’d have to know we’d figure out who was behind it.”
Scott shrugged.” He doesn’t think so. You know he’s an arrogant bastard. And really, all we have to go on is my suspicions. What I saw in his face today wasn’t an illusion, though. And, I think he knows I saw something, too.”
Johnny looked over at him briefly.” What do you want to do about it?”
As they reached the yard, Scott considered that question.” I’m not sure. Why don’t you take the horses to the barn and I’ll let Sam know we’re back.”
Johnny dismounted and took Remmie’s reins but he made no further move.” Scott?” He lowered his head, thinking he should just keep his mouth shut.
Scott heard the pain in that soft voice, the tone, one he recognized all too well. Johnny sounded lost.” We’ll get it fixed, brother. I have an idea about that, too.”
Slowly, his head came up and a small smile graced his lips.” You always have ideas, Boston .”
Johnny groomed Remmie then started to work on Barranca, his mind totally focused on the chore. As he pulled the brush down the palomino’s back one last time, he heard something out in the main barn area. Setting the curry brush down, he stepped out of the stall, latching it without thought. He stepped cautiously around the corner and scanned the barn.
Silence greeted him for several seconds then, he heard a rustling sound. Johnny’s hand went to his right side then froze, inches above the pistol grip. His heart thundered in his chest, pounded in his ears and he felt as if he couldn’t breathe. He started backing toward the door when he heard it.
He closed his eyes and shook his head slowly.” Leave me alone. Just leave me alone,” he whispered.
“Come to me, mio hijo.”
He peered into the dark corner, seeing the shadow move slightly but he was unable to go to her and he was unable to move away. The sound of gunfire outside barely registered in his mind.
“I suppose I was being a coward, Sam. I thought if I could just get him home, we could deal with it. But, I’m beginning to have other ideas of what’s happening to Johnny.”
Sam frowned at the young man.” You mean you don’t think this is some sort of illness?”
Scott shook his head.” No, I’m beginning to believe…” He stopped and whipped around at the sound of gunfire outside.” Stay here!” he shouted over his shoulder to Sam as he headed to the front door.
When he jerked the door open, splintering wood flew too close to his face. Scott slammed the door shut and cursed silently.” Sam, go upstairs with Murdoch and Teresa.” He took off toward the kitchen and eased the back door open, sliding through and closing it behind him soundlessly.
Scott quickly worked his way around to the back of the barn, hoping against hope his brother was still safe inside. The guns seemed to be concentrated on the front of the house but, suddenly, that turned and Scott saw men working toward the barn. He figured a few things might be happening. They wanted better cover, they knew Johnny was in there or, they planned on burning it. None of the thoughts appealed to him in the slightest. He took off running the last few open spaced feet to the back door and pressed himself against the outside wall for a moment.
“Go away. You’re not real. You’re dead!” Johnny’s voice grew stronger with each declaration only to waver at the soft voice’s response.
“Nino, I am very real. Por favor, come to me, hijo.”
Johnny took one step toward her when the door near her position burst open and Scott tumbled through in a roll, coming up on one knee.
Scott found his brother’s face quickly and saw the terror there.” Why are you just standing here? We’re fighting for our lives, Johnny!”
The young man only shook his head and looked at the corner behind Scott. His hand came up and he pointed.” I have to go with her.”
Turning quickly, Scott saw nothing at first then, he thought he saw a shadow, maybe a glimpse of movement. Angry beyond belief, he strode over to the corner and stepped behind the haystacks there. He pulled her out and dragged her toward his brother. Stopping a foot from Johnny and, even as bullets were piercing the walls of the barn, he shoved her toward his brother.” Is this your mother? Because, I have to say, she’s a whole lot younger than I would have thought!”
Johnny stared at her for a long beat, oblivious to the battle raging all around him then, his face fairly mutated into a rage.
But the young woman was not prepared to admit defeat, she had been paid and paid well for her services and she would not abandon her task, not yet.” Juanito, please. You cannot do this. You can not allow this gringo to come between us. He will ruin everything,” she cooed, her voice throaty, sultry.” No one loves you as I do, mio hijo. Mio Juanito.”
Uncertainty washed over Johnny. The woman’s face swirled before him, contorting and reforming, taking on the features of his mother. He hesitated, turning his back on the gunshots outside and, ignoring his brother. He took a reluctant step in the woman’s direction, confusion crossing his handsome features.
“That’s it, Juanito. Take my hand,” the woman urged.
“What are you doing, Johnny?” Scott demanded, his words piercing through the cloud in Johnny’s mind. Grasping his brother’s arm, he turned Johnny roughly toward him.
Johnny lifted his hand, prepared to fight Scott’s hold on his arm. But, Scott suddenly released him and instead pulled the woman toward Johnny.” Look, Johnny, look!”he demanded.” This is not Maria! She is trying to destroy you and Lancer. Are you going to let her get away with this?”
Scott, holding the woman’s wrist, watched his brother’s face for any sign his words had penetrated the fog in Johnny’s subconscious. After a long minute, he was rewarded when a familiar flicker lit the deep blue eyes so, he went for it.” This is not Maria! Snap out of it, Madrid ! Lancer needs your gun!”
The woman sensing she had lost the battle for control of the young man, began screaming in rage.” Let me go! Let me go! They will kill me. They will kill us all!” she screamed.
“Who are you?” Johnny demanded , eyes locked only on the woman. Even as he spoke the words, Scott jerked and fell to the ground.
She looked down at Scott then grabbed Johnny’s shirt in her fists.” Please, nino. Please, do not let them kill me.”
Johnny tried to look away, knew something was terribly wrong yet, he stared at her, dazed. He knew this wasn’t his mother now but, her words pierced his heart, dragging him back in time to a place where his own mother had begged for her life.
“Johnny, help me!” Scott shouted. He grabbed his upper right chest as pain ripped through his torso.” Brother, I need you!”
Johnny’s head snapped up then he looked down at Scott, and saw the blood. Someone had shot his brother, and this woman had almost succeeded in brainwashing him into turning his back on his family and home. Ashamed of his failure to prevent the attack on his father, and now his brother, Johnny reacted. Drawing his gun, he moved to the barn door and opened one side as he crouched low. He saw three men within five feet of their position and he let the Colt power into action. Three loud reports then, silence for a few seconds.
Scott scooted around, saw the woman just standing there and sighed.” If you want to live, I suggest you get behind those haystacks over there.” He saw her run then made his way toward Johnny. Every inch he moved felt like his chest was going to burst into flames. None of it kept him from seeing his brother in full action. Madrid was impressive and he would have smiled if he didn’t hurt so damned bad.
Johnny slammed the first door closed after taking out the three men then moved to open the other one. Again, the Colt exploded three times and he slammed the door shut. Leaning against it, Johnny quickly reloaded, never seeming to notice his brother.
“How many more?”
Glancing up only briefly, Johnny replied,” three or four. Don’t worry, Scott. I’ve got it.”
Cocking a brow and about to argue he could give a hand, Scott never got the chance. Johnny opened the barn door again and, this time, he rolled out as he laid down a barrage of firepower.
“Johnny! Dammit!” Scott cussed. He had never meant for Johnny to put himself in harm’s way. It almost seemed as if his brother was deliberately tempting fate, daring her to take him. He knew Johnny was acting on his self-inflicted guilt. Almost as if he were doing penance, and surrendering to death should she choose to take him.
Scott made it to his knees and, using all his willpower, he struggled to stand then leaned against the interior wall, breathing heavily even as he checked his gun. As ready as he could be, Scott opened the door and ran out. Heading to a horse trough, he dropped to his knees and hunkered down then peeked over the edge to check the enemy.
It was quiet as Scott surveyed the landscape. Johnny stood straight and tall ahead of him, scanning the area surrounding the hacienda for any remaining attackers, his gun held loosely at his side. A visible shudder passed through the young gunhawk’s body then he turned around and walked determinedly toward Scott. The slight swagger in his brother’s gait told Scott all. The danger was past for now and Johnny was livid though, he would never show it to anyone else.
Johnny crouched beside his brother and sighed.” I said I had it. Come on, let’s get you to the house. Good thing Sam’s still here.”
Scott took the offered arm up then staggered a bit before righting himself.” Not yet, brother. You’d better get hold of that young lady before she runs off.”
Johnny looked in his brother’s eyes, expecting chastisement but, all he saw was support. He blew out a breath and shook his head.” No, she can wait or not. It doesn’t matter now, Scott. You’re hurt worse than you might think. Come on now, no arguments.” He wrapped an arm around his brother’s waist and started guiding him to the house.
Undeterred, Scott pulled back.” We need to know for sure who was behind this, Johnny. I’m alright and it won’t take a minute if you keep that look on your face.”
Johnny’s eyes widened, unaware of any particular …˜look’. He sighed, knowing Scott was right. Easing his brother back against the trough, he headed inside the barn.
She was still cowering behind the haystacks when he found her. Johnny grabbed her arm and pulled her to her feet. As she looked up at him, he saw the abject fear in her eyes.
“I don’t have time for any more of your games. My father and brother have both been shot, could’ve easily been killed while you played ghost. So, no excuses, no begging for help, just tell me who hired you.”
She swallowed convulsively then hiccoughed once. Swiping her free hand across her face, she spoke the name,” Buck Addison,” then spat on the floor.
Johnny stared out the window of his father’s bedroom, lost inside his own guilt. He didn’t hear the man stir and he didn’t hear Murdoch call out to him. It wasn’t until he felt a hand on his shoulder that he reacted, jerking around to find Sam staring at him.” What?”
“Murdoch is calling you.”
Johnny frowned then blinked, his eyes moving to the bed just before his legs responded. He knelt down, putting a hand over his father’s and searching the man’s face, waiting for whatever punishment he deemed fit.
Murdoch tried a small smile but saw it didn’t help ease his son’s mind.” Are you alright?”
“Me? I’m fine, old man. How are you doin?”
Waving a hand in dismissal, he snorted lightly.” I’ll be fine as soon as Sam cuts me loose. It wasn’t that bad to begin with.”
“Says the man who razes the roof when his boys don’t follow my instructions,” Sam imparted with a hint of sarcasm.
Johnny let out a soft breath, not up to the lightheartedness both men were trying to imbue. He dropped his head and settled back on his haunches.
“You did nothing wrong, Johnny.”
“I did everything wrong, Murdoch. The worst thing was I froze. I’ve never done that before. Not ever. I’ve been in some real bad situations and I’ve always done what needed doin. But, when it was most important, I …” he stopped there, unable to say the word.
“You don’t have it in you to be a coward, son. I know you were afraid but, being afraid isn’t a sin.”
Sam walked over and stood behind Johnny, laying a hand on his shoulder.” How long since you’ve slept well? Or at all? Going without proper rest contributes a great deal to slower reflexes and even hallucinations.”
Johnny’s head came up and he looked back at Sam.” You think I was seeing things? She was real, Sam.”
“Yes, she was real but, if you hadn’t been so exhausted, you most likely would have realized she wasn’t Maria much sooner. We don’t really know if she was actually there those times when you say you felt someone watching you.”
Murdoch squeezed his hand and brought Johnny’s attention to him.” There’s only one man to blame here, Johnny. I hate what this is going to do to Aggie but, Buck Addison has to pay for what he’s done.”
“I hate it, too. I never much liked him but, Aggie doesn’t deserve this.”
“No, she doesn’t,” Scott said from the doorway.
All three men turned to the door. It was Sam who reacted first.” What are you doing out of bed?”
“I’m fine, Sam. You said so yourself.”
“I also said you needed rest.” Turning to Murdoch, Sam pointed his finger at the elder son.” And you wonder why they’re like they are? Both of them, they’re just like you!”
Scott and Murdoch laughed a little but the room grew heavy as they all noticed Johnny wasn’t sharing in the humor.
“Don’t, Scott. Okay?” he said as he rose to his feet.” Don’t say it wasn’t my fault. Yeah, Addison planned it all out but, he used my past to do it. I still don’t know what he thought he’d accomplish by making me think I’m loco, but I played right into his hands.”
“If it wasn’t you, it would have been something else. All he cared about was getting Lancer. That’s all he’s ever cared about was owning as much land as possible and reigning supreme over this entire valley since he came here. If it had been me, you would be saying the same things we’re all saying to you now.”
“Maybe so, brother, and maybe you wouldn’t be so easy letting go of it, either.” Johnny looked at him, square in the eyes.” You can’t tell me you weren’t mad as hell at me in that barn. You’d had enough of me.”
Scott rolled his eyes.” Yes, I was angry. Of course, I was. But I wasn’t tired of you. We were being attacked! I needed you back, Johnny. I needed …”
” Madrid . You needed Madrid ,” Johnny finished for him.” And ain’t that what it was all about to begin with? Getting me out of the way first? Addison figured without my gun, he’d have an easier time. That was a stupid mistake on his part but, it almost worked.”
“The point is, it didn’t work because Buck didn’t figure the most important factor into his ploy,” Murdoch said. Once all three men were looking at him, his mouth quirked a little.” *Lancer* takes care of it’s own.”
The woman lowered her head, fear making her small shoulders shake uncontrollably. In the last week since the shootout at the Lancer barn, she had hidden like a wild animal, never traveling during the day and always looking over her shoulder. But his men had pursued her relentlessly, finally catching up with her outside a small dirty town. Roughly they had dragged her back to their boss where he waited in a thicket of trees and dumped her unceremoniously on the ground before him.
Buck Addison had jerked her brutally to her feet and slapped her, almost knocking her back to her knees but for the strong chest of the man behind her. The burly hand had painfully gripped her arms, forcing her to remain on her feet while Addison glowered at her.” You failed me, Consuelo. You were well paid and you failed. And failure carries with it a high price.”
“Please, Mr. Addison, please. It wasn’t my fault.”
“Not your fault?” Buck raged, his face turning varying shades of purple.” You got careless. You let the Lancers catch you. That damn Lancer kid took out six of my best men. Six!”
The young woman began crying in earnest, tears spilling down her cheeks.” I told you it was a mistake to play games with Madrid . Please have mercy, please,” she begged.
“You also told me he’d buy all this haunting if he believed it was his mother. YOU said she was his Achilles heel! Or, don’t you remember how confident you were?” His lips pressed tightly for a moment, he shook his head.” You’re pathetic. All that talk about how well you knew him and Maria. How easy it would be to take him in. Well, now you’ll find out what happens when you lie to me.” Looking over at his henchman, he said,” Bart, take her out of here. You know what to do.” Buck turned his back on the pair and moved toward his horse, standing quietly under the trees.
“Mr. Addison?” Bart questioned.” Mind if me and Luke have some fun before we finish the job?”
Buck Addison mounted his horse before answering.” Suit yourself but make it quick. We have an appointment at Lancer.”
Buck Addison was in a rage, but his movements were controlled, precise. He swiftly unsaddled his chestnut and moved toward the black gelding he used for night travel. He was in the process of saddling the black when Luke and Bart entered the barn.
“Everything taken care of?” Addison asked.
Luke hitched his gun belt and shrugged his shoulders. With a quick glance at Bart, he answered,” Yeah we had some fun and then finished the job.” Â
“Well, saddle up then. We have an appointment with Murdoch Lancer.”
“Buck?” Aggie called, curious but not alarmed.
Buck schooled his features into his best poker face and turned toward her.” Aggie, what are you doing out here?”
“Why are you going to see Murdoch?”
Buck could tell she was not going to be put off but he fought down his anger at the interruption.” Lancer was attacked a week ago, you know that. Murdoch and I are going to come up with a strategy for protecting our ranches from any further threats.”
Skeptically, Aggie studied her husband.” At this hour, Buck? Why do I get the feeling you’re hiding something from me?”
“Look, Aggie, get back inside and wait for me. I won’t be long and then I’ll explain everything to you.”
“I’ll ride with you.”
“No, Aggie, you won’t. Now do as I say and get back in the house.” Buck’s voice cracked as his impatience broke through his control.
“What’s going on, Buck?” Aggie knew her husband well and had often engaged in lighthearted games of chance with him, in particular poker. She recognized the gambler in her husband now, the man with an agenda, with something to hide and she was not going to be deterred.” Murdoch is just now up and about. He wouldn’t discuss such matters at this hour. Now tell me the truth.”
“Aggie, I won’t ask you again. Now I’m telling you. Get in the house and I will explain everything when I get home.” Buck took her arm and turned her toward the barn door, forcing her ahead of him.
A shadow near the door separated itself from the wall of the barn and slowly began to materialize. Buck stopped, his left hand still on Aggie’s arm, his right hand hovering over his hip. As the shadow took on shape and form, Buck cursed under his breath.
“Everything, Buck?” Madrid asked, his voice soft but heavily laced with an obvious threat.
“What the hell are you doing here, Johnny?”
The blue eyes drilled into the man before him, unconcerned with anyone else in the building. He ignored the question, a slight smirk crossing his face.” You gonna tell her everything? Because, I’d like to hear that myself.” Johnny’s eyes darted to Buck’s right hand, hovering over his holster, and a smile came to his lips.
Aggie looked up at her husband then back at Johnny, dread causing her stomach to roll.” What’s happening, Johnny? Is Murdoch alright?”
“I’m just fine, Aggie, but perhaps you should go back inside now.” Murdoch stepped through the barn doors, Scott at his side. Both men had their guns drawn.
Scott moved behind them all to Bart and Luke, huddled in the back of the barn, seemingly unaware of what was unfolding before them. Smoothly, Scott reached out and took each man’s gun from their holsters, tossing the weapons to the far side of the barn.” Just come with me, gentlemen, and you won’t get hurt.”
As Scott led the two men outside, Johnny took two steps closer to Buck, noting the man tightening his grip on his wife. Eyes narrowing, Johnny’s face turned rigid.” Don’t even think about hiding behind that woman, Addison. Let her go.”
“Who the hell do you think you are coming in here and ordering me around? Aggie is my wife!”
“Yeah, and you couldn’t let that be enough. You got her ranch, all her land but it wasn’t enough. You won the girl but you couldn’t let go of the hate you have for Murdoch. Just couldn’t stand that she still wanted him in her life. I’ve met a lot of fools in my time, but you beat them all.”
Buck laughed throatily.” I’m a fool, Johnny? What about you? It wasn’t so hard to convince you that your dead mother had returned from the grave.”
Murdoch took a step forward but Johnny raised his arm to stay the man. A smile curved his lips and he laughed softly.” Yeah, I was a fool. Good thing my old man and brother ain’t. Getting rid of me wouldn’t have helped you any, ya know.”
“Seeing as how you took out six of my best, I’d say it would have been worth it,” Addison retorted.
Aggie listened to it all, not understanding the conversation but, she clearly understood the intent of what they were saying and she felt very dizzy. She swayed a little and Buck pulled her closer to steady her. Fire suddenly erupted in her eyes as she jerked free of his hold and stepped away from them all.
“You did this? You were behind the attack on Lancer? Why, Buck? Why would you do that?”
“I’d like to hear the answer to that, myself,” Murdoch said, his fists clenched at his sides.
Addison looked between the three of them then licked his lips. A nervous smile appeared on his face as he looked at his wife. His voice was smooth when he spoke.” Now, Aggie, this is man talk. Business. That’s all. No need to concern yourself with any of it. Go back to the house and we’ll sort it all out.”
Aggie pulled her small shoulders back and glared at him.” I’m not going anywhere, Buck Addison.”
“She’s got a right to know the snake she married,” Johnny seethed.
Murdoch saw the tremor of her lower lip and how hard she was fighting to keep the tears away.” Johnny, no.”
Aggravated beyond his endurance, Johnny had had enough.” No more pussyfootin around, Murdoch. She’s gonna find out anyway.” He looked at her but kept an eye on Addison as well.” Yes, Aggie. Buck was trying to take Lancer. He got some woman to haunt me, make me think she was my mother so I’d go crazy, I guess. At least, enough to keep me out of the way. It almost worked.” He lowered his eyes in shame for a second before allowing his anger to rule him again. Taking a deep breath, he went on.
“It was his men who shot Murdoch and his men who attacked the house last week. They shot Scott that time. He had them dam our water, stampede our cattle, cut our fences. It was a real range war only we didn’t know who was behind it. Scott got an idea when you came to visit Murdoch. Makes sense, too. He was jealous of Murdoch and he’s always been a greedy bastard. He wanted it all. You, the valley, all of it.”
“Shut up!”Addison growled.” Leave her alone!”
“Sure, it’s my fault that you couldn’t be satisfied with the Conway ranch and all your other businesses. From the minute you came to this valley, you’ve been plottin a way to get Lancer. What I want to know is why you didn’t just kill me and get it over with!”
Buck’s eye twitched as he stared at Johnny.” If I’d killed you outright, Aggie would have practically moved into Lancer to be with Murdoch.” He turned to his wife then.” I’m your husband, Aggie, not him. I’m the one you’re supposed to worry and fret and make over, not him!”
She stared at him in unadulterated shock, slowly shaking her head back and forth.” Oh, Buck, you fool. You poor, poor fool. I loved you. Why couldn’t you accept that? I married you! I thought you knew me better than to think I would settle.” She pressed her fist to her lips then ran out.
Addison stared after her as silence fell in the barn.
“You had every man’s dream, Addison , and you threw it away for nothing. Absolutely nothing,” Murdoch said.
“You can’t prove any of this, Lancer. She won’t say anything against me.”
“No need for her to.” Scott walked back inside the barn with Val Crawford and Sam Jenkins.” We have two irrefutable witnesses right here who heard your confession.”
Val walked over and slapped handcuffs on Addison . He didn’t trust himself to say much. All he could manage through his gritted teeth was,” let’s go,” as he shoved the man out the door.
Murdoch stood outside the front door of the Addison ranch house. Addison , he snorted. This ranch had never been Addison ‘s, never was and never would be. The thought of Buck seducing Aggie, luring her into marriage to advance his own ambition enraged Murdoch. He knew love had never entered into Addison ‘s motives for proposing marriage to Aggie. If it had been love, it was a twisted selfish kind to be sure.
Aggie and Murdoch had been friends for so long he couldn’t recall a day when she had not been in his life but romance had been far removed from their affection for one another. They had laughed, competed with and supported each other. But they had not even considered falling in love. Or had they fallen without even realizing it? They had danced around each other like young lovers but resisted any physical urges. Yet, Buck had been unable to see that. He had mistakenly believed Murdoch Lancer to be a threat to his position as Aggie’s husband. He had sold her devotion and loyalty out for acres of earth and some stupid four legged creatures.
Anger rose once more in Murdoch’s heart. Yet, as angry as he was with Buck Addison, his heart was immediately full of pain as his thoughts turned to Aggie. She deserved so much more, she deserved to be happy.
Drawing in a deep breath to steady his nerves, he braced himself for the disposition Aggie might be in. He raised a hand, surprised to see it trembling. Without further hesitation he rapped sharply on the door. Long moments passed and he was beginning to believe she would not answer his summons when the door slowly moved inward.
Aggie stood before him, dressed in a somber shade of gray. Her mouth was a straight line as she fought to control her emotions. Faint lines creased her eyes and a frown marred her forehead but her eyes were clear, with no trace of tears.
“Murdoch,” she welcomed him formally, stepping aside to swing the door wide open in invitation. She refused to meet his gaze as he passed her, entering the ranch house but being careful to avoid any contact. Â Â
“I, uh, I thought I would come by. See how you’re holding up.” His words sounded flat even to his own ears yet, Murdoch found himself unable to say more. He turned to face Aggie as she closed the door.
“I’m fine. You know me.” Her eyes finally met his, and he could see the true extent of her pain.” Would you like some coffee?”
“Aggie, I’m so sorry. We had to…” his words were choked off as her small hand struck his cheek, the sharp sound reverberating throughout the still house.
Aggie lifted a hand to cover her mouth, horror at her actions staining her cheeks a bright crimson.” Oh, Murdoch, I didn’t mean that.” Â
“I know you didn’t,” he agreed. In an instant she was in his arms, tears wetting his chest as the dam burst and all her pent up anger and anguish was released in a torrent.
He held her quietly, one hand stroking her back as she allowed her emotions to run their course. Slowly the tears ceased and she stepped back to gaze up into his face.” Thank you.”
“You don’t have to thank me. It’s what friends are for,” he soothed.
“Damn it, Murdoch. Why couldn’t I see Buck for the man he really was? Why was I so blind?”
“He was your husband and you are the kind of woman who stands by her man. I wouldn’t have expected anything less if you had been my wife.” Murdoch ran a hand through his hair.
“I was stupid. I couldn’t see the real person.”
“No, Aggie, no. You are not stupid. You are a passionate, desirable woman. He wasn’t good enough for you.” He twisted his hat in his large hands, now uncomfortable by the direction the conversation seemed to be taking.” Are you going to be alright?”
“Oh, you know me. I’m always alright. I just keep overlooking what is right in front of my face.” Aggie’s eyes darkened as she watched Murdoch for his reaction.
“We’ve known each other so long,” Murdoch confessed.” I had my doubts about Addison but when you became interested in him, I just couldn’t say anything. Besides, I couldn’t trust my own motivation.”
“Why, Murdoch? Why weren’t you ever interested enough to court me?”
“I didn’t want to ruin a perfect friendship.” Murdoch was candid, the revelation answering the question he had raised to himself earlier.
“You’re right, of course. And it probably would have ruined things.” Aggie tilted her head considering the man before her.” I’ll be alright, you know. I just wondered…”
“What?” The question fell off his lips even as the realization of how attractive she really was washed over him.” I still don’t want to ruin a perfect friendship,” he said huskily.
“Coffee then?” She lowered her chin and stared up at him through long lashes.
“Definitely.” He swept her into his arms again, this time his lips claiming hers.
“So, what happened with Aggie?” Johnny prodded for the third time since they had retired to the great room. He studied the glass of tequila in his hands before raising his eyes to stare boldly at his father.
“John,” Murdoch warned.
“Come on, Murdoch. I only want to know if Aggie is okay.”
“I was wondering the same thing.” Scott moved to stand beside his brother, presenting a united front.
“All I can say is Aggie and I are friends, very good friends. And I do not kiss and tell.” Murdoch strode to his desk and sat heavily in the chair.
“I’m turning in.” Johnny put his glass back on the bar and left the room.
“Good night, Sir,” Scott threw out hastily as he left to follow Johnny.
He caught up with the younger Lancer outside the door to his room and grasped his arm. “Ten to one, she refused him.”
“I bet she didn’t. But we’ll never know.” Johnny pushed his bedroom door open, a smile curving his mouth.
“Johnny?” Scott hesitated.
“Get it said, brother.” The words had been spoken before, months ago by the other but, that time there had been an ominous tone to Scott’s voice. This time, Johnny’s mimicry was colored with laughter.
Scott quirked his mouth at the reminder. “Alright, I will. I’m worried about you.”
Hanging his head and letting out a harsh breath, Johnny stood still for a moment before looking back up. His eyes were devoid of emotion.” No need, brother. Whatever I have to deal with, well, it’s not something you can help me with now. You did enough helping by making me see the truth and snapping me out of … whatever the hell I was doing.”
“I just want you to see that whatever did happen to you before, it’s gone now. The man in that barn tonight was in full control of himself, confident and sure.”
“Yeah, but it still happened, Scott. For me, that’s not an easy thing to accept. Like I said, I’ll deal with it. No need to talk it to death, right?”
Scott let out a soft laugh of acquiescence. “No, no need unless you want to at some point. The offer stands — always.”
Johnny smiled brightly and patted his arm.” All I want right now is some decent sleep. I’m sure I’ll be able to get that now. Thanks, Scott. For everything.” Without waiting a response, Johnny slipped into his room and shut the door.
Scott stared at that door for a long moment then nodded, confident he had his brother back now. And, if Johnny faltered, Scott knew he’d come and talk it out. The shadows had been shown the light of day and had skittered away, back into the past.
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