Word Count 43,639
It was one of those restless days, when the wind turned desert into a grinding slog, and sluiced the leaves from the trees into their eyes. The brothers had been hard at work all day, riding the fence line, stopping every once in a while to re-string the wire or replace a fence post. They had not spoken in the last hour; they were too hot and tired.
As the day drifted to an end, Johnny pushed his hair out of his eyes and looked at his brother, who was packing the last of the tools into the wagon.
“Think we worked hard enough to deserve a rest?” Johnny asked, reaching under the seat for the canteen.
“We have to get back for the meeting tonight.”
“Yeah. The meetin’.”
Scott took off his hat and attempted to dry his forehead. “Yes. And if we don’t get further this time than we did last time, we might as well pack up and I can go back to Boston and you can go back to those border towns, because it’ll be like the last year didn’t happen.”
“I know it. I just don’t much like meetin’s. A lot gets said that didn’t need sayin’ and we just go round the plain facts without ever finding a way forward. We need to fix this problem right now.”
“I didn’t hear you trying to convince them your solution’s the right way forward.” Scott climbed onto the seat and took up the traces. He waited for Johnny to climb up beside him then shook the reins and encouraged the horses into their best, a shambling trot.
“Murdoch wouldn’t let me get a word in edgewise.”
Scott was too tired to do more than grin. “I guess he knew what you were going to say.”
Johnny settled back as comfortably as could on the seat, pulled his hat over his eyes and pretended to go to sleep. Scott indulged him for a couple of miles then drove the wagon over a bump in the road, causing Johnny to grab surreptitiously at the seat. He opened one eye.
“You all right there, brother? You need eyeglasses after all that studying you did yesterday?”
“One of us has to research the situation.”
“We’re pressed so hard we’re going out of business and you need to read a book? Do they have books to tell you what to do?” Johnny pulled his hat off altogether and yawned ostentatiously.
“Brother, they have books for most things. Yes, even that.”
Johnny snorted, clearly sceptical of the power of the written word. “Where we goin’? I thought we had to be back at Lancer for the meeting?”
“It’s that way, Scott.”
“I need to get something first.” Scott jiggled the reins but the horses ignored him. “Get along there!”
Johnny settled down again, apparently unprepared to question the matter further. He didn’t have to wait long. Scott pulled up at the line shack, handed him the reins and leapt down, with a curt, “Won’t be a minute.” If Johnny felt any temptation to start counting, he resisted it, and slipped down a little further on the seat. After a good few minutes he sighed, tied the reins off and climbed slowly down, as if merely to stretch his legs. He wandered over to the shack. Drawing the line at actually going in to see what his brother was doing, he leaned against the door jamb, lifting one foot to prop himself and fiddling with a broken fingernail. He said nothing, preferring to watch as his brother studied a large map laid out on a table in front of him in the gloomy interior. After a few moments he got the invitation he was expecting.
“Don’t just stand there. Come and look at this.” Scott glanced across but did not need to check if Johnny were coming over. The two brothers stood and admired a new map, result of all their hard work surveying.
“Well, you gonna tell me what I’m looking for? Or that book on mining and such that’s holding down the edge got the clue I need?”
“You know it, Johnny. Could just be the clue Lancer needs, too.”
“Let’s get her on back to Murdoch, then! Can’t keep news like this to ourselves.”
Scott had already removed the book and was rolling up the map. The brothers moved more quickly to take up their homeward journey again. Their conversation was animated, the heat forgotten and even the horses seemed to pick up on their excitement and responded to Scott’s urgings to move faster. They were just pulling over the last rise when Johnny smelt smoke. He looked up and then grabbed Scott’s forearm. A long, fat column of smoke rose into the still air; it rose from flames that danced upwards, right from the heart of the house.
Johnny stood for a moment, watching the smoke rise, then sat down sharply as Scott yelled at the horses and slapped the reins on their backs, so that at last they were moving at speed. The downhill, barely-controlled slide scared both of them but there was no choice; they had to be back at the house to help. As they rounded the last corner, Johnny grabbed the reins and pulled, hard; he had seen the buggy which was moving more slowly towards the house. Shouting to warn the buggy driver, Scott pulled the horses hard to the right, bouncing the wagon over deep ruts and to the edge of a steep drop down to the pasture. There was nothing he could do except try to regain the road; he tried hard to keep the wagon upright but it was a lost cause. Both brothers jumped at the same moment, one each side of the toppling wagon; both rolled and came up more or less unscathed. Johnny stood and ran over to Scott.
“I gotta go, Scott,” he said breathlessly, massaging his shoulder.
“Go!” Scott stood, a little unsteadily, then moved to grab the horses’ harness in an attempt to calm them. “I’ll sort this out, follow you.”
“Yeah.” Johnny looked again at the ranch, a good quarter mile away, and set out across the meadow at a flat run. He ran as if to stop death; he ran with a purpose born of an intense love of the place and the people. The flames drew him; as he came closer he began to be aware of their sound, eating through his home, and he skidded across a stream, falling to his knees for a moment and pushing off again, barely noticing what was happening to him. He threw open the corral gate, cursing his inability to move any faster, then on, pushing the horses aside and sending them racing out into the field. He stepped on the bottom rail of the fence, vaulted over, his senses overloading with the sounds and smells ahead of him. He ran into the middle of a line of men handing buckets along frantically and was drawn into the frenzied effort before he knew it. But it was futile and he disentangled himself and continued, searching desperately for any sign of his father. He was right up to the house, and dragging hot smoke into his lungs before he heard his father shouting.
“Johnny! John! Get the pump going! Put the hose over here! We can beat this!”
“Yeah – the pump – where’s Teresa?”
“I’m here! Johnny – Scott?”
“He’ll be here!” Johnny paused for a moment to get his breath back but was engulfed again in the thick black smoke which leapt from a broken window. Inside, familiar things were being turned to ash. But they could save the Great Room, if he could help get the pump going.
He ran round to the back of the house. Two hands were unrolling a hose which was attached to the new ram pump Murdoch had had installed with the specific purpose of fighting fires. Now it would be tested to the full. They manhandled the hose as close as they dared to the house and then started the pump. Water snaked towards the house; it took all three men to keep it directed the right way. Flames and water fought for a while but the water won, inch by inch, water droplets beating at the red and yellow tongues of flame until they magically disappeared. By the time Scott arrived the flames had almost receded from the kitchen. Scott grabbed the hose and started to move forward with it.
“Hey – it’s too hot there still! Scott, hold back.”
“We need to get through before it takes a hold in the Great Room.”
“Yeah – well, it’s just things, Scott – watch what you’re doing! Getting’ burnt ain’t no fun.”
Despite Johnny’s protests, Scott was walking forwards, playing the stream of water through the open doorway, dousing the last small flames from the table and the doorframe. Johnny let go the hose for a moment, at a loss to explain to his single-minded elder brother the dangers of fire in large buildings. Surely Scott knew as much about that as he did. But there was a determination in Scott he had seen many times before and he knew he would not be heard. With a sigh, and the beginning of a bad feeling about what they were trying to do, Johnny stepped forward, took his share of the weight of the hose and approached the heated cauldron that was the interior of their house.
A huge, nagging doubt made Johnny hold back from entering the kitchen immediately. He pulled his bandanna over his mouth and nose, feeling like a bandit, then reached forward, tugged on Scott’s coat sleeve and made sure he, too, tied something round his face. Then they began work. Wherever they turned the hose it cut out the fire; but he was aware of the house above his head and the intensity of the heat and the choking smoke and he felt their efforts were laughable. He knew these hoses had been used in ’49 to get out the gold. Now they were trying to use it to stop destruction, not cause it. But it still felt too small a weapon. He didn’t mind odds against him when he was relying on his gun but he had no experience of fighting a fire of this scale.
Scott seemed confident enough, leading the way and Johnny found himself inside a blackened kitchen and approaching the door through to the Great Room; he followed in his big brother’s footsteps like a child, unable to stop the rush of events. Finally, eyes watering and arms aching he shouted at his brother. “You sure we’re doin’ the right thing here? Scott – it’s in the ceiling above us – let’s get out of here.”
“No – this wing’s gone – we have to save the main house now. We can stand in the Great Room and keep it from spreading. Come on, Johnny! Stop dragging me back! We can stop this!”
Johnny heard a desperate optimism in his brother’s voice and it was an appeal he could not refuse, however inadequate he felt to the task. He took a firmer hold of the hose and kept putting one foot in front of the other, thinking he could go back any time he wanted to. Killing each little bit of fire in turn became the sole focus of his attention until his brother pulled hard on the hose and threw him off-balance onto his knees. He jumped up quickly, putting out a hand to steady himself and shouting a protest at his brother. Scott stopped and looked back and shouted in turn, “Johnny – no!” Johnny pulled back quickly but the heat had reddened the palm of his hand and the pain of it made him clench his teeth. “Didn’t your mother teach you not to touch hot things, boy?” Scott grinned, stopping for a moment to push wet, filthy hair out of his eyes.
“She taught me never to go into a burning building. Go on – I’m keepin’ up best I can. I want to save this place as much as you do, brother.”
Scott turned and moved forward quickly, leaning against the weight of the hose. Johnny shook his hand ruefully, wishing he could get some cold water on it; but that was all needed for the house.
Scott turned again and signalled Johnny to put the hose down. His brother, with hands still gloved from driving the wagon, reached out and grabbed the door handle. “Should I open it?” he asked, while Johnny stepped forward to bathe his hand in the cold water which flooded the floor. He looked up and shrugged.
“There’s nothing alight in here now. Can’t spread it any more. We got to go on, I guess.”
Scott opened the door slowly; his expression reflected what he saw and with an anguished shout he grabbed the hose and started to drag it forward. The roar from inside the room told Johnny what they were facing next. Then the heat flooded his senses, making his skin prickle. He involuntarily closed his eyes and let his brother’s pull on the hose move him forward. When he opened his eyes again he stood stock still, open-mouthed.
The dining-room table was alight along its whole length. The books behind were kindling, half alight, half untouched as yet, but the flames were crawling over their spines like a lover’s hand on his mistress’ skin. Sparks and cinders drifted through the air, but nothing else as yet was alight, as if the fire wanted to enjoy each piece of the room in turn before moving on. Scott turned the hose on the table but quickly learned he was scattering the flames rather than dousing them; he took more careful aim and let the water fall on the fire like a summer storm on a lightning fire. Slowly the flames shrank back, giving off steam rather than smoke, and the ruined table began to appear again, a blackened skeleton of a table, with the pretty silverware writhing on its surface.
Johnny eyes were watering so much he had to wipe them with his shirt sleeve. When his sight cleared he looked at his brother and immediately leapt forward.
“Scott! Your jacket! You’re on fire!” He pushed Scott forward hard into the stream of water; the flames went out immediately but his brother grabbed at the jacket and pulled it off hastily.
“I’m all right, I’m all right! Johnny – get the books! We’re almost done!” Johnny tried to lift the hose one-handed but it was not possible on his own. Then his brother was leading him again and the flames were all dying back, leaving some books untouched and others black wrecks, no more use than the cinders in the fireplace. The last flame went out. There was a kind of sigh in the room, as the brothers looked at the combined damage of water and fire. Then Murdoch stood behind them, smiling at them, stepping forward quickly to embrace his sons who stood, safe and triumphant, with the carnage all around them. But there was no time for rest. As they listened for a moment to the dripping of water, a shout of anger and fear came from the kitchen, then a scream, the clatter of something falling and then the too-familiar roar of flames.
“Teresa!” Murdoch shouted and ran, both boys behind him, dragging the hose. “Teresa!”
Into three minds sprang images of fires survived, fires endured – the fires of war, of carelessness, of malice. Each man knew the result of fire and the way it killed; and each, in their own ways, loved the girl who was the heart of the household, however young she was to take on such a duty. Scott and Johnny heaved the heavy hose, still gushing water, back round. Each was at the limit of their strength but there was nothing else for it. No-one else had dared to enter the inferno.
“Teresa! Darling – where are you?” Murdoch was still calling for Teresa but had not moved.
The kitchen was a seething mass of orange sparks and hot smoke which was venting through the door and broken window. The three men saw Teresa, hunkered down against the wall with her hands protectively over her head. She was silent and unmoving. Johnny immediately put down the hose and began to strip off his jacket.
“Murdoch – here – hold this! Scott! Your jacket!” Murdoch stepped back automatically, taking Johnny’s place as if unable to make a decision himself, his face a blank until he grabbed the hose and began to direct the water at the ceiling, while Scott grabbed his own, already burnt jacket and threw it over. Johnny glanced up; a ragged hole was ringed with flame; through this crown he could see the blackened walls of the small room above. A room where he had sat from time to time quietly reading; the peace there was shattered by the popping and sputtering flames. Then his gaze was forced down by the heat and the need to help Teresa. The floor was criss-crossed with smouldering wood; he kicked it aside and made his way to her. There was no time for niceties. He pulled her hands down, wrapped his jacket around her and put Scott’s over her head. Then he dragged her to her feet and lifted her into his arms, heedless of the flames which reached out at him from the burning remains of furniture. He moved as quickly as he could, hampered by her clasp on him and her shuddering body. He tried to dodge burning wood which still fell from above him like fiery rain onto his back and head. A sudden, heavy rush of water put out the embers on his back; his family were helping him as best they could, but he was nearly knocked to his knees. He struggled on until the air cooled and lightened; he was outside, with a wriggling weight in his arms, and he set down a protesting, near-hysterical Teresa.
“What do you think you are doing?” she yelled at him. “I wanted to help!”
He took a deep breath and then, quietly at first, began to speak to her. “You wanted to help. You know what fire does? It makes you cry, Teresa, with the pain of the burns.” He seemed lost for a moment in memories. He spoke more loudly, grabbing her arm to keep her attention, which had strayed back to the kitchen. “It makes you scream. You come rushing in to help and we have to stop – look at me, girl!” His voice rose again in frustration and he stared at her intently, finally making her look him in the face, to see all the anger and pain there. “And I have to leave my brother and my father to haul you out here because you’re too stupid to stay outside! Teresa!”
Her mouth was hanging open in shock, but still Johnny continued.
“Damn fool thing to do! You stay here or so help me I’ll let you find out what it means to have your clothes and hair on fire, and no-one to help you!”
She began to cry and protest at his words. Still he went on, his voice betraying his panic and fury.
“You want me to drag you back in there, where I gotta go right now?”
She looked down at the ground, beaten by his threats, and shook her head. Then she grabbed his jacket and thrust it back at him. He tried to slip it on over his shirt, which was holed and blackened in places, and ripped as he moved. Cursing, he forced his jacket on, snatched Scott’s jacket from Teresa’s hand, making her wince, and ran back through the boiling smoke. As he crossed the threshold, the room seemed to sigh, the flames to subside for a moment, then the space that was a room disappeared, showering him with burning timber and sending him reeling back through the door. He fell to his knees, unaware that he was moaning from the physical pain, with a last vivid image burned in his mind. His father and his brother, falling beneath the timbers from the ceiling, falling until he could no longer see them, into the black and red abyss of the fire.
Johnny kneeled for a moment longer, listening to the noise which surrounded him. There was no more cracking of flames, no more falling timbers; just the steady rush of water from a hose still running. He half-turned, twisting onto his backside and running one hand through smoky hair as if this would help him see. Filthy water ran from the kitchen bringing with it the detritus of the fire, the broken, blackened bones of his home. He groaned and struggled to get up, his saturated clothes clinging to him. Despite the heat he was shivering, his body responding to his shock and distress at last. He tried to stand, fell back and tried again until he was standing and facing in the right direction. He took one step, then something flew at him, grabbing his arm and pulling him painfully away from the image which still filled his mind.
“Johnny! No! You can’t help them! I don’t want to lose you too!” Teresa’s hysterical tone did not touch him. He wished she was gone and that he could just walk into the kitchen, find his father and his brother and bring them out, into the bright Californian sunshine. He could bury them himself. He began to wonder where would be the best place. He took another step forward, but the anchor on his arm took a firmer hold, hurting him and still shouting at him. “I hate you! I hate you! You’ll go right back in there, won’t you. You pulled me out of there and now you want to go back! You stay here, Johnny Lancer, let the other men do the work now. You stay here, you hear me!”
Johnny looked down into the face of the remaining member of his family and tried to make sense of what she was saying. Somehow, the world wasn’t quite right any more, Teresa hated him, that was all he could understand. He shook off her hold. If she hated him, well, then he had better go back where he should have been. He stepped again, steadier now, holding his arm because it hurt him but intent on the doorway. He could try to pull the hose back, use it to clear the way, reach Scott and Murdoch, carry them out. His brain knew what to do and slowly, stubbornly, his body began to obey him until he was right on the threshold, trying to see through the stifling smoke. He began to cough, trying to catch his breath and peering into the room.
To his dying day, he would remember what he saw. At first, the figures were shadowy, moving with frantic, jerky movements, wielding strange implements. Had he died and gone to Hell? He didn’t believe in such notions – Hell was on earth for all to see – but the scene recalled pictures of Hell he had been given as a child. He staggered forward, through the stream of water and gradually, as the smoke cleared, he knew other people were looking for Murdoch and Scott, other people were pulling timbers aside and throwing water on the last of the flames. He did not know the people; they were all masked as he was, but they were moving far more quickly than he could and before he knew it, he was being shifted out of the way and his brother was being carried past him. He watched, unable to help. Then his father was carried outside, too, and this time he reached out and took a part in this solemn ceremony of carrying the bodies from the burnt-out kitchen. He shuffled along, no-one speaking to him, out once again into the bright sunshine. Then he straightened his back, and began to give orders, ones his instincts told him were right to make sure the bodies were taken into the bunkhouse, and that they were not left alone but were tended respectfully. Teresa was there somewhere and her face was grim, tear-streaked and filthy. He noticed her skirt, sopping wet and torn and for a moment wished she was her normal self, clean and chipper. But he was filled now with the tasks of organising the last of the fire-fighting, and of thanking people for their efforts and, as the danger to the house retreated under the combined efforts of their neighbours and their vaqueros, of letting people go home to recover, until only a few remained. The sky was darkening, the fading sun pinking the scene with a falsely optimistic light.
Finally, he sat down on the ground outside his house and looked at the smoking ruins of the place he had called home. He had slowly reasoned out what had happened, with the help of many who had patiently explained it to him. When they had quenched the fire in the Great Room, the men in the bucket chain had finally been able to approach the main door, force it open and, using whatever equipment they had to hand, move to the seat of the fire in the kitchen. They had been there when the roof had fallen. They were held back for a moment then there was a pitched battle to save Scott and Murdoch; timbers had been levered away, they had found Scott lying face down, had dragged him out and then Murdoch, deeper in the fall of rubble from above and he had been pulled clear too. Johnny played through the scene in his mind again and again, wondering if he could have done more, wondering if running to save Teresa had been the right decision, worrying that he had not said all he should have said to his father.
He was allowed to sit there for a little while, then someone came to persuade him to stand and to help him back to the bunkhouse; and he was glad of the support, too, though sure he had more duties he ought to be performing. Somehow, his feet were dragging and his eyes closing even before he reached the bunkhouse, so that the people helping him had practically to carry him. When he was inside, a drink of water was offered and accepted, then he mustered the last dregs of his strength, stood on his own two feet and met the stare of the men and women who sat or stood, exhausted and filthy, all looking to him for direction.
“You did good,” he said, then tried to clear his throat. “You all did just fine. Get some rest. Are there still people in the house?”
“Si senor. Four men, they are still watching to make sure the fire does not come back. I think maybe it will rain tonight, God willing, and that will be that.”
“Sure – God willing. Now, get some rest. Does anyone have any coffee?”
A mug of strong black coffee appeared on the table in front of him. He tried to lift it but the effort seemed too great. He looked up, startled suddenly by the crowd around him and tried to insist they started to think of themselves, get cleaned up, get some rest. The words caught in his throat as he looked across at two cots, where two still forms lay, each with women and men gathered close and a doctor – a doctor? Yes, they would need a doctor to confirm death. He was aiming to stand when the world spun away from him and he slipped into a dark and hazy place, where the sounds of people made no sense any more. He felt himself being carried to a cot and wondered for a moment whether he was next to his brother or to his father. His boots were removed, then his jacket, while he did nothing. He was being washed, gently, then dried and wrapped in something soft and cooling. They let him shift until he had found some way to be comfortable then he fell at once deeply, dreamlessly asleep.
The heat in his back and hand woke Johnny every few hours through the night. Each time, he was helped to sit up, the dressings were removed and a soothing concoction was gently poured onto the heated skin.
“Señor Johnny, keep still, por favor. Please, sir.” The quiet voice of one of the Spanish women of the ranch kept him from squirming away from the cold lotion when it was first applied but he soon learned it brought relief and sleep. He hardly opened his eyes as he was tended to but he heard sounds of others in pain, crying out, worse than him. At least Scott and Murdoch were beyond all pain now. He did not ask after them; tomorrow would be soon enough to start grieving for them. Some of their neighbours must have stayed; he was sure he could hear English in among the Spanish cries, although so faint and so agonised he could not recognise who it might be. Who or what had caused such depths of human misery? In the morning he would find out. Meanwhile, there was his angel helper again, making him comfortable, chiding him gently for his restlessness, telling him his back would be all right.
“Pero, Señor Johnny, why did you not let us bathe you in cold water straight away? You are worse now because of that – the others, they are quieter now because we could use water for their burns.”
“All of them? You managed to treat all of them?”
“Yes, Señor. Now lie still, sleep – you must not open the blisters here.” She patted his back dry, very gentle round his shoulders, where cinders from the ceiling collapse had caught him. He drifted away to sleep again, soothed by her gentle voice, aware that she was singing quietly to him to keep out the sound of others in pain. As he slipped away, Teresa’s words rang in his mind, as clearly as if she had just said them. “I hate you”. So simple, so final. Born of some very great distress. Were they really directed at him? He wanted to speak to her to find out why she had chosen them but she was always elsewhere when he asked after her. That was something else which would have to wait.
Very early next morning, Johnny sat up slowly, noted that the woman who had helped him was gone and that nearly everyone else slept, and reached for his clothes. He was grateful that clean clothes – not his own, but clothes nevertheless, had been placed ready for him at the foot of his bed. There was even a pair of sandals; pulling on boots would have been beyond him. He had trouble putting on the pants but he managed. He glanced back into the bunkhouse as he went out; a mass of sleeping humanity, who were now his responsibility. The far end of the room had been screened off with a couple of blankets slung across a rope. He would face that when he came back. He had to find out, if he could, what had happened.
Outside, the dim light was still smoky and rank with the destruction of the previous day. He paced slowly towards the back of the house, where the damage had been worst. It had clearly begun in the kitchen; he could see where the tendrils of the fire had reached out from that central place, and where it had been stopped in its tracks. The house still stood; it had a gaping, blackened hole at its centre but it still stood. He gritted his teeth against the emotion which filled him and stood for a moment to try to see what needed to be done to repair the place. Already he was making a mental note of the people he would speak to, the orders he would place, the money he would need. If only – well, if only would have to be put aside. He would face what was there.
As he looked at the remains of the kitchen he saw movement inside and immediately walked forward to investigate. He called out, thinking it was one of the men who had been watching over the building all night. “Hola! In the house? How does it look?”
The figure stopped moving then came to stand in the doorway. It was Teresa, dressed in pants and workshirt, a scarf over her hair and a broom in her hand. “I’m trying to clear up.” She did not greet him and he saw that she could not make eye contact but stood, head bowed, as if waiting for a reprimand. Then she looked up, dry-eyed, trying to be practical and strong even in these circumstances. He had to clear the air between them somehow but had no idea where to start. Teresa began to speak before he could think what to say.
“It’s a mess. There’s nothing to save in there; everything’s ruined.”
“How did it happen? Were you there when it started?” His voice startled him; a hoarse rasp, it was barely recognisable as his own. It was a hard question to ask but he had to know. It was no use trying to be kind to her in those circumstances.
“No – no, I wasn’t, and I should have been – I only left the kitchen for a minute or two and I thought Maria was there, but she had gone out too and we must have left something on the fire or over there, where it’s blackest, but that was a sink, not a fire …”
Johnny reached out to her and touched her arm. “Whoa, Teresa. It’s not your fault.”
“Yes, it is,” she said quietly. “My fault, or my responsibility. I just wish I know what happened. I want to know, so that I can begin to make up for it.”
“Why did you say yesterday, you hated me?”
She looked up, startled. “Did I say that? Did I really say that? I can’t have – you must have misunderstood.”
“You don’t remember?” He looked at her carefully. She was lying to him. He did not understand why, but there was still animosity there. He thought of the way he had yelled at her – the first time he had ever done such a thing – when he had dragged her outside. Maybe that was the cause of the problem. He did not have the strength to sort it out after all; whatever the difficulty, she would have to resolve it herself. One kind word – one kind word would reduce her to tears and he needed her help. They would talk again later – yes, he would talk to her later when they were alone, for despite the early hour people were beginning to move, gathering round the kitchen and staring and talking, making him conscious of his duties. He set to immediately, organising the men to test the safety of all parts of the house, then making sure everyone knew what they could do to set things right. Someone – possibly the woman who had helped him, Luis Acebo’s wife, sat him down at a table they had brought outside, with a singed chair someone else had rescued, and given him food. They found him some paper, too, so that when he started to cough and found his throat was sore, he could write what he wanted. He kept at the task for two more hours before the doctor came to see to him.
“Good morning, Mr. Lancer. Quite a mess, eh? But you must be relieved.”
“Yes.” The doctor was all business, taking off Johnny’s shirt right there in front of everyone, inspecting his back and then his hand and pronouncing the treatment successful so far. “They’ve done all the right things so far, Mr. Lancer. Aloe vera, some witch hazel – yes, these old treatments are probably the best. Watch that cough, though – I’ve known men die four or five days after a fire. Seemed well enough then they just couldn’t breathe. Must affect the lungs somehow. Right, now, let’s see how that brother of yours is getting along.”
“My brother? What do you mean, my brother? Scott?”
“Unless you have another brother we don’t know about, yes, Scott.” The doctor’s genial manner wilted in the face of Johnny’s towering wrath, which he managed to convey even with the little voice he had left.
“My brother is alive and you didn’t think to tell me? You let me go on thinking my brother was dead?” Johnny was already on his feet, running, with the doctor like a pet dog at his heels, apologising profusely until Johnny turned on him and told him to shut up.
“I didn’t know you didn’t know, sir! I’m sorry, I just didn’t know!”
“All right, I got it.” Johnny turned on the man and paused for a moment. “You didn’t know. No-one told you. Fine. Now how is he? Will I be able to talk to him without disturbing him?”
The doctor took a deep breath and tried to regain some of his authority. “Broken arm. Set it myself – he’ll be right as rain in a couple of months. Dislocated shoulder – took a bit of strength to get that back in place, I can tell you. Burns on his back and the backs of his legs, not too bad, treated as soon as they brought him here. All in all, not too bad, considering. He might be awake. Murdoch won’t be awake yet, though.”
The doctor realised his mistake the moment Johnny looked at him.
“Er – broken leg, two places. Concussion. Burns. Troublesome cough, like yourself. But he’s tough, your father. I am sure he will be well again soon.”
“In your well-informed care?”
“I’m sorry …”
“I know you are. Now, you tend them and I’ll try to understand why I was left to think they were dead.”
“It’s not his fault, Johnny. It was my fault.” Teresa’s quiet, distressed voice pulled Johnny’s attention away from the doctor. She was panting, having run after them.
“Your fault? Is there anything here that you’re not going to say is your fault?”
“I thought you knew. You came with Scott, when they brought him out. I just thought you knew.”
Johnny sighed. He was getting no nearer seeing his brother and father, and here were two people requiring his forgiveness. “It’s all right,” he said quickly. “Just let me go and see them.” He left them standing and went through into the darkened bunkhouse. He walked quietly, greeting one or two people who smiled at him and wished him well. He pulled back one of the blankets and there, sleeping as still as death, was his father, leg propped on cushions, a bandage round his head. In the cot next to him, his brother, awake and already reading. One of the women acting as nurse to them stood and moved a chair between the two of them.
“Sit here, Señor Johnny. You have all been very lucky, no?”
Johnny slumped into the chair. Scott looked up.
“You look like hell.”
“Thanks, brother. I thought you were blond.”
“I haven’t had my morning ablutions. Did you get Teresa out all right?”
“Yeah. And she’s madder than hell about it. Scott. I thought you and Murdoch were dead.”
Scott’s bantering tone disappeared immediately and he reached out with his left hand to grasp his brother’s forearm. “You saw the ceiling go, didn’t you. Did no-one tell you we were all right?”
“I didn’t ask. I just thought you were gone.”
“And you’ve been keeping everything going since then? Have you slept?”
“Yeah, I slept. After I’d yelled at Teresa. And I just yelled at the doc. And maybe I told Teresa off again.”
“Did we save the house?”
“It’s still standing, most of it.”
“I want to go and look.” Scott was out of bed before his brother could protest. Together they went to the door of the bunkhouse. Neither Teresa nor the doctor were anywhere in sight. “Whoever did this will need to do some paying.” The certainty in Scott’s voice was music to Johnny’s ears.
“They will. I promise you, they will.”
When the doctor reappeared, Scott ducked back into the bunkhouse, muttering, “I don’t need any more of his doctoring just for the moment.” A sympathetic snort from Johnny made Scott glance back.
“You’ve met him?”
“I met him. I’ll send him packing – get a good doctor and maybe a nurse, if we can find one.”
“No, brother – this is one job I want to do myself.”
Johnny smiled, for the first time in many hours, at last able to share some of the tasks which faced them. He began to feel a little relief creeping in but there were still far too many cares for him to savour for long the return to him of his brother and father. Their health was a worry, in any case, and he wished his father would wake. Meanwhile, he had a great many things to organise and one of them was to try to find out how the fire started. His brother and father’s health came first, however, and he was concerned to see Scott’s steps falter as he made his way back to his cot.
“You gotta stop all this reading, brother – it’s wearin’ you out.”
Scott lowered himself slowly into his chair and tried to reach round to pick up a lost cushion. When he couldn’t, Johnny tried to help and found he couldn’t bend to reach it either. “And I gotta stop giving orders all morning. It’s makin’ me tired. You got something to drink there?”
Scott indicated a glass of water on the table. Johnny settled himself quietly on Scott’s bunk and drank, trying to still the coughing which was becoming more troublesome by the hour.
“Maybe you should catch a few minutes’ rest? If you do, I can finish this. I need to find this one bit of information.”
“Yeah – maybe a few minutes. Wake me.”
“Yes.” Already Scott was trying to read, balancing the book precariously on his knee and tracing the small letters carefully with his finger. Johnny watched for a moment, concerned by his brother’s need for extra concentration but too tired to enquire further. He let himself settle back onto his brother’s cot, curling up on his side and drifting for a while between waking and sleeping before slipping away into the dark.
He woke in a sweat, trembling and fighting something. He had been dreaming but mercifully the pictures were retreating again as he struggled to wakefulness.
“Sit up now, Senor. We must take off your shirt. I will put some more of this on your back now.”
Johnny opened his eyes and found Señora Acebo standing by him, waiting for him to respond. She helped him to sit and he looked around. The chair next to him was empty, except for a closed book.
“It is all right, Señor. He is sleeping. Everything is under control – most of the men are sleeping – it is very hot outside.”
Johnny sat up and let her help him with his shirt. His back was not as flexible as it should be and it was still heated and sore. She put the healing lotion across his shoulders, where it was most painful, and the heat began to subside, the pain to lose a little of its grip. She was sure with her movements and, as she massaged the lotion into the less painful areas of his back he felt his body begin to relax.
“Thanks,” he murmured, battling the urge to go back to sleep. “I’d be in real trouble without your help.”
“De nada, Senor. Now, you will lie down again and sleep?”
“How’s my father?”
“He sleeps. He has been awake for a short time and Señorita Teresa, she talked with him. I think she is very sad about something.” She helped him to put his shirt back on and put her hand on his shoulder, as if to help him to lie back down. His instincts told him to be up and moving despite the need for rest – he had matters to settle with Teresa and it would be better to do that while there was less likelihood of disturbance. But he had to know the truth about his father first.
“Juanita. How is he? Is he going to – to recover?” He looked down as his hand, which Juanita was bathing carefully, and he stamped firmly on his fears.
“The doctor says yes. His leg is bad, but I have seen worse mended with no trouble. The doctor says he has a concussion but when he woke, he could see well and talk. I think he will be well. And Señor Scott.”
Johnny smiled. “And what about me?”
She hesitated, as if wondering what to say for the best. Johnny felt a momentary doubt creep in; he did not feel well but he had no broken bones and his back would mend, in time. “You must be careful with your lungs. The smoke – it burns inside too. You have a fever from the burns – you must sleep.”
“I’ll see Teresa – then I’ll bunk down for a while longer.” He heard a sigh and glanced up. “You sayin’ I should sleep some now?”
“I cannot say that. It is only what I think. You should keep yourself as well as you can, to face all you must do. Scott, he is going to need to rest to mend his arm well. Your father, he will sleep more than wake for a few days. So it is for you to do what needs to be done. But it is too hot to work now and everyone is sleeping.”
“Thanks, Juanita. But I’ll do this my way. Do you know where Teresa is right now?”
Again the sigh. Juanita would not part with the information easily but under Johnny’s insistent stare, she ventured the opinion that she might be in the old prison building, where a number of the woman were trying to make a new temporary home for themselves. With all the stubborn tenacity his experience and heritage had given him, Johnny stood, steadied himself, did up his shirt and headed out into the heat.
As he trailed down to the corral he avoided looking at the main house and concentrated all his thoughts on what might be troubling Teresa. She had spoken to Murdoch. Well, they had known each other far longer than he had known either of them, so it was natural for her to turn to Murdoch. But if there was something troubling her, and he had been the cause of that, then he needed to set things straight. He needed her; she was the only one not fighting injuries; she might need to take over for a short time, and he had plenty of respect for her ability to cope in a crisis.
He stepped up to the door and knocked politely. No sense in stirring up a gang of females; he’d never be able to speak to Teresa quietly that way. A girl came to the door. He asked for Teresa and, in a moment, she was there. She looked clean and neat, unlike anyone he had seen for a while. He wished he could just speak to her peacefully but there were other matters to clear up first.
“Johnny! You should be resting!”
“My nurse let me off for good behaviour. She said you’d been speaking to Murdoch – how is he?”
“He said I had to talk to you.”
“Yeah – you do. Not here – come on over to the corral.” He guided her out into the sun, where the air sang with the heat, and across to the barn and a small patch of shade. She leaned against the barn wall. Johnny stood and waited for her to speak. He watched Barranca grazing in the meadow and remembered the day before, running across the corral, letting out the horses, uncaring. Now that was another chore to deal with. He watched the beautiful scene and waited for Teresa to shatter it.
Keeping her eyes firmly fixed on the dust she was raising by swirling the toe of her boot, Teresa took an audible breath and began. “I know I shouldn’t have done it.” She stopped immediately, looking up. She was waiting for his help but he did not feel inclined to give it. “But when I saw him, looking so hungry and dusty and tired … “
“Him?” Johnny had to clear his throat – the word was a barely audible whisper. “Him?”
“I was in the kitchen. It was about – oh, about two o’clock.”
He was wishing she would cut to the chase but didn’t interrupt as she skirted carefully round the truth.
“I was putting away the big pans on the shelf and I heard a knock at the door. Well, I went to see who it was.”
“There was no-one else around?” He inserted the question as carefully as if he had been using a just-sharpened knife.
“No!” Immediately she was on the defensive. “No-one else needed to be there! I can do jobs like that!”
“Well – well it was a young man, about your age, black hair, brown eyes, about your height. And he said he needed a job.”
“Why did he come to the kitchen, then?”
“I know it! I knew I was doing the wrong thing, but I let him in.”
Johnny bit his lip rather than express his feelings about such an action.
“I gave him some water, and something to eat because he seemed out on his feet and I had something spare. Those biscuits…”
“Teresa…” The heat was beginning to get to him. He wanted to sit down to hear the rest of the story but it seemed too much trouble to move again.
“All right! I know! I told you I did the wrong thing, didn’t I?”
At this rate one or other temper would be lost and he’d be no nearer what she was trying to say to him.
“Are you looking to me to forgive you? Honey, I don’t know what you done yet.”
She was rubbing her hands together, holding them near her mouth and beginning to glance at him.
“I – well, I thought he’d gone to sleep so I left him there while I went to find Murdoch. And it took me a while to find him. And – when I went back to the kitchen, the whole place was alight! No spark from the fire could have done that, Johnny! I saw what he’d done – he put firewood all round and he took that nearly full thing of lamp oil and he spread it all around and he lit it. He lit it!”
“So you left him asleep in the kitchen, after everything you heard about the way fires have been lit, and cattle have strayed through cut fences and everything else that’s happened round here.”
“I said I’m sorry!”
“Not to me you haven’t. Anyway, saying sorry doesn’t make what you did go away this time, honey. You made a bad decision and it’s brought a whole lot of trouble. Now you got to begin to live with that.”
She took a pace towards him, hand clenched. “And you never made a bad decision? And were forgiven for it by all us? Or is it that you’re thinking of the times you made bad decisions and had no-one to turn to – Johnny, I thought you’d understand! I thought, well, after you pulled me out of the kitchen and bawled me out, and then you made me tell you I hated you, when I don’t, and, oh, I hoped you’d…” She was shouting and crying at him. He had to be the rock against which she learned her lesson – and on which she could build back some of her good opinion of herself. He could be too nice to her, to let her push away her foolish behaviour. And he couldn’t forgive her, anyway – she had to learn to forgive herself. It was asking a hell of a lot of her, under the circumstances.
“You all finished now?” he inquired, reflecting her anger back at her. “You have to learn to forgive yourself for it.”
“I know that! What do you mean, anyway? I’m not a child any more! If I want to let a young man into my kitchen I’ll go right ahead and do it. It’s not my fault if he came to burn my kitchen down! Johnny, you have to see that!”
“I said, you finished? Teresa, honey, it’s done. You will learn to live with it. Right now, I need you to come out of this and help me.”
“Why should I help you? You aren’t helping me.”
She was too hot, too excited, too angry to listen. He could say the right words, make it all better for her; but it wouldn’t make her more careful next time, and next time she might be dead. It was a hard place, the world, and she had to have this lesson.
“Barranca – he looks happy enough, don’t he? He helps me all the time, without knowing he does. And I help him. If he steps on my foot, he don’t apologise and I don’t forgive him. It ain’t necessary. Now, are you going to go on fighting me or are you gonna help me?”
She pushed herself away from the barn wall and began to walk, head held high, back to the old jail. Over her shoulder she said, with quiet venom, “I’ll do what needs doing for Murdoch and Scott and the ranch. I’ll help – but only because they forgave me.”
“Well, they have their way of doing things and I have mine. I’ll see you in the bunkhouse in an hour.”
“Yes.” She stalked off, all indignation.
Johnny tried to breathe slowly. Somehow, in the heat, it was becoming more difficult. He wondered why he had to go at things the way he did; but he had so much more experience than any of them of men and women failing to live up to what was expected of them, all because no-one had given them the chance to see that taking the easy-looking path was not necessarily the right way to go. He remembered snatches of ideas from his childhood about narrow gates and straight paths, stony ground and hard roads; well, that was the way of it. It didn’t matter if she did the work that needed doing because Murdoch had been forgiving; she would do it and in time, when she had begun to think again, she would know what he had been trying to tell her. And just maybe, she would be grateful. In the long run.
In the short run it was time to get back to the bunkhouse, though it seemed a good deal further away then he remembered. He got half way across the corral before he passed out. His horse looked up, startled by the sudden movement as he fell, then went back to eating the long, fresh grass.
“Señor! Wake now, Señor Lancer! You fainted. You must wake and move out of the sun!”
Johnny half-opened his eyes, trying to orientate himself. He was still in the corral. A woman was trying to shade him and shake him at the same time. It was Juanita. He felt a little foolish lying in the dirt with a woman trying to wake him.
“Yeah – yeah – give me a hand here. I can make it.” He struggled up to his knees, then tried to get one foot under him.
Juanita was shouting for assistance; soon he would be the object of attention and that did not appeal to him much, so despite a throbbing pain in his head and a feeling of not being quite in touch with the world, he stood and tried to catch his breath.
“Guess it was hotter than I thought. Never passed out from the heat before though.” His ears were singing and he felt light-headed. Afraid of having his legs buckle under him he took a step, then another, resting his hand lightly on Juanita’s forearm in a way which was more proprietorial than he intended. After a few steps he wanted to stop but he forced himself forward until he had nearly reached the door of the women’s sanctuary. A place where Teresa and all the unmarried girls would be. He needed care, and he had a pretty good idea what kind of care. It was unthinkable that he would stay here.
“No – the bunkhouse.”
“You cannot get so far, Señor Johnny. You must stay here until we have cooled you and given you water and salt. Do not worry – we will look after you.”
The humour of the situation suddenly struck him; he had been lost too long in a nightmare – it was time to let wilful Fate have her own way. If the women wanted to see to him, who was he to complain? He would have little enough chance to be pampered in the next few days. It would be fine, so long as Scott did not find out. As he crossed the threshold he heard a cry from Juanita, wondered what had gone wrong and then found the floor coming up to meet him.
“Looks like you landed on your feet, boy. Or was it your backside? Someone said you’d tripped over your own feet and knocked yourself cold – but they said nothing about you having a harem to make sure you got your health back.”
Johnny tried grinning. Inside he was cursing. As soon as he had been roused again with some water on his face, he had been helped to undress, with scant regard for his modesty, and moved to the bed. Once Juanita had tested his forehead and pronounced him feverish she had set about curing him in the way she knew best. She had drawn water, found a small tin bath, filled it and, despite his protests, had made him get into it. She had allowed him a sheet over the tub, which gave him some protection from prying eyes, while his newly adopted nurse poured water over his head. He shook his hair out of his eyes and looked solemnly at Scott.
“You think it’s fun sitting in a freezin’ cold bath, just to get myself fit so you can go on lazin’ around, readin’ them books of yours? I tell you, brother, this is the hardest day’s work I ever done, keepin’ my modesty and tryin’ to stop the world revolving.”
“That bad, huh?” Scott’s bantering tone continued, but he was frowning and his expression betrayed his concern. “Didn’t you know talking to pretty girls on a hot day can raise the temperature of the body dangerously?”
“I was talkin’ to Teresa. Someone had to talk some sense into her.”
Scott took a few paces then sat down heavily close to his brother. The room was dark, lit only by dusty shafts of light filtering through filthy windows. There were one or two women making up beds with blankets, and Juanita continued to try to cool her charge down, forcing him to drink the sickly water and salt concoction whenever she could. Apart from that, the whole place drowsed.
Scott kept the conversation going, despite Johnny’s persistent cough. “She’s with Murdoch. What did you say to her, brother?”
“Told her she needed to forgive herself. I couldn’t do it for her. Juanita, stop fussing. I’m cool enough.”
“Well, you just stay there, Señor.”
“I’ll stay here till I’m wrinkly as a prune if you’ll keep those girls away.”
Juanita suddenly laughed, an explosion of sound she had clearly been saving up for a little while. Johnny slowly turned to look at her and she put her hand over her mouth. “Sí, Señor. But I think you should know they have already seen more of you than they would admit to their mothers.”
Johnny groaned and sank down further into the water. “Well, that’s my boastin’ days over, I guess.”
Scott’s laughter began slowly from somewhere deep in him. He began to speak but the laughter got in the way. “What have you been – boasting about – your kissing – or your…”
“Scott!” Teresa stood in the doorway, hand on hips. “There are ladies present!” Her mock indignation lasted only a moment – then she saw Johnny and hastily turned her back.
Johnny meanwhile had grabbed his sheet and drawn it up round himself, trying to appear shocked. He listened to the music of the laughter around him. Teresa was giggling, her shoulders shaking. Scott was laughing, clutching his bad arm, grimacing but still rocking on his chair. Even Juanita smiled, though Johnny could feel her hovering, waiting to help him out of the bath. He wondered momentarily how much of him she had seen; but it didn’t matter, the heartache and terror of the last few hours retreated for a few short moments, and he was grateful for that, even if he was the centre of the hilarity.
“I think you had better help me outta here, Señora, before my little sister gets herself all in a pucker and starts shoutin’ stuff at me again. I ain’t in no fit state to fight her no more.”
The words didn’t come out quite as he had hoped; his voice still had no power and he was in trouble with his breathing again, trying to laugh but coughing and feeling a tightness in his chest. He wanted to get out of his vulnerable position, quickly, and have himself a couple more hours’ sleep; then he’d be fit to get the job done. And Scott needed his rest, too, and laughing with Teresa wasn’t really curing the trouble between them. With a hand instantly in support from Juanita he struggled to stand. Scott immediately got up to help too, and the laughter died. Johnny struggled to his feet, trembling, barely able to stand, the heat in him gone, to be replaced by a sluggish, sleepy feeling which was dragging him down.
When he passed out for the third time, there was no dignity in it, no laughter; only an angry moan. His self-possession, his self-control counted for nothing in the face of the darkness which robbed him of sight, then sense. The very last thing he heard was Juanita’s, “Señor!” matching Scott and Teresa’s simultaneous shout, “Johnny!” before he fell into their arms and oblivion took him.
Johnny woke, sure it was morning. He felt alert and rested, ready to take on the world. He mentally thanked Juanita for her good idea – a dunking in cold water had clearly put him straight. Now, get up, see to the fences and – now, there was something else. What was it? Well, as soon as he could find his pants he would be getting up to see what it was.
An hour or so later, he woke again. This time, he was surprised to find Scott sitting near him, with a map and a book open on a table in front of him. Hadn’t he done that sometime in the past? He was looking tired yet he was reading so intently Johnny could observe him for a few moments. His hair looked somehow darker than it had done. His arm was in a sling and his body language said there was considerable pain there; well, that was right, after the fire. Why hadn’t he been able to remember that before – and why was he still in bed? Who was that man coughing? If he could get up, he could fetch someone to help the guy. This laziness wasn’t getting the job done. Why on earth was Scott sitting there? It seemed only polite to ask.
“You moved into the women’s quarters too? What you readin’?”
“Are you feeling better? Do you need anything to drink?”
Johnny noted the concern in Scott’s eyes and dismissed it. He was perfectly fine – the cold bath and a sleep, that was all he had needed. But his brother was helping him to sit up. He struggled against the unnecessary supporting arm and heard his brother’s sharp intake of breath.
“Johnny! You’ve got to help me here. I can’t hold you and the water.”
“I don’t need holding. Just get me my duds; there’s a lot that needs seeing to. How’s Murdoch?”
He didn’t get any reply, just a woman holding a glass to his mouth. He found himself surprisingly thirsty but it was rationed and taken away too soon. Why wouldn’t they let him get up – that bath, that had – no, he had thought that before. When had he thought that? He’d ask Scott, yes, his brother would have the answer.
“Is it mornin’ yet?” Well, that was not quite the question he had planned but it would do. He was puzzled when a woman answered him.
“It’s mid-afternoon, Johnny. Do you want something to drink?” He heard a quiet voice. Teresa. He had been meaning to say something to her. What? Answer her – yes, he could do that.
“I just had some. Where’s Scott? How’s Murdoch?”
“Scott is resting. Murdoch is awake – maybe we can bring him to see you tomorrow. Oh, Johnny…”
He waited patiently for a reply, opening his eyes carefully. Who was that coughing? It was starting to get on his nerves. Couldn’t a man have any peace? Where was – ? Teresa had gone – now what had driven her away so quickly? And why was there a candle on the table?
“Señor – can you sit up bit more? You could breathe more easily. Do you want one of the men to help you?”
“Yeah. One of the men. Thanks, Juanita. Then I’d better get up. That bath you gave me – well, I reckon it fixed me up.” But she had already gone, then he was being moved around in ways that puzzled him; but at least he felt more comfortable and less – well, he wouldn’t admit to feeling ill because he knew all was fine. But if people felt the need to help him out, well that was fine too.
He woke and wondered if it were morning yet. It seemed a long time coming. He opened his eyes and found there was light streaming onto the foot of the bed. Why was he still in bed? Where were his – no, no clothes around. Just a man, a man he had seen before.
“Mr.Lancer. How are you feeling?”
“I feel fine. Aren’t you the doc? How’s my brother? And Murdoch?”
“Right now we need to worry about you, John. It’s all right – here, Teresa, give him this.”
More water. They were going to drown him, these woman. Then his face was being washed which felt good but strange, so that he tried to push away the hand with the cloth. Someone else telling him to lie still. If he lay there any longer he’d – what was that word? Turn to stone. Except he felt lighter, lighter than stone anyway.
A few moments later, and his brother was there again. There were people moving all around, people with strained faces, carrying things, bowls, a knife. He heard someone coughing, only it was quieter than it had been. He tried to ask what they were doing, who was sick, but he couldn’t say anything. The people were speaking very quietly, but he could hear the odd word.
“It’s the only way. Do you agree?”
“Yes.” That was his brother. What was the only way? Did they mean something about the house? He struggled to tell them to wait until he could look over the house himself. Then his limbs were heavy and he couldn’t pull them off the bed at all. His head was locked, too, and he could hear them breathing but there was silence apart from that. He could make no sense of it. Just hand him his clothes and he could…
The pain at his throat was so sharp and unexpected that all he could think of was to fight. It only made the pain worse but it didn’t last long. He lay back, feeling the weight on his limbs lessen. More words; he could just hear them.
“Well? Doc? What?” His brother. His brother, Scott. With the books. And the map. And the broken arm.
As Johnny slid away, he knew his family was close by. In the morning, he would get up. At least that man had stopped coughing.
He heard but he could not speak. Unaccountably, he could not open his eyes and he could not get up. His breathing made a strange sound – but at least he could breathe without a struggle and without coughing. He listened, puzzled, as others around him spoke.
“Can we possibly move him? Murdoch wants to be near him – in case…”
Who needed moving? He was in the women’s quarters so there were no other men there. He clearly did not need moving – he could do that himself, as soon as he woke up. So it must be Scott. He tried asking them but nothing happened. They continued talking as if he weren’t right there, next to them.
“It’ll be dangerous. But there’s little more I can do for him. Keep him as still as you can until he comes back to his senses – if he ever he does.”
It was no use. He had no means of making sense of their actions. He knew he was being shifted in his bed, that he was being lifted, dizzily, and then that the shuffle of feet meant people were – what? – carrying him? But he was still puzzling over the idea that he might not come back to them – had that been what the man had said? He could always come back, couldn’t he, wherever he was going? Unless they meant they didn’t want him back because he was no more use to them. At that thought his breathing increased, and he tried to speak until they stopped and he was reassured by a quiet voice he had come to trust. He tried to see who it was and found that, at last, he could open his eyes a crack. Someone noticed.
“It’s all right, Señor – we are taking you to the bunkhouse. Your father wants to see you and we cannot move him yet. You will be well again soon. But you are very sick now; you must lie still.”
That was Juanita. He wanted to tell her he understood, made a great effort to move and reached to grasp her arm. He tried to convey his need to know more but she was already moving away, giving orders, telling someone to lift gently. He must be on a stretcher. He wished they had let him walk; he could have done it, if only he had been allowed, even if he was sore everywhere. He longed for understanding of what was going on but the simple effort he had made to communicate had finished his strength.
It was hot in the sun then abruptly cooler in the shade as he was carried. He figured he was in the bunkhouse and waited to hear his father’s voice. He co-operated as well as he could while they lifted him for a moment before he was placed onto his side in a bed so soft he knew immediately what it was. A down mattress. It carried in it the smell of the fire he now knew for certain had been the cause of this frustrating tiredness of his. But the down held him painlessly, and he was grateful.
“John – don’t go to sleep just yet, son.”
He smiled. His father. He had to open his eyes. To his amazement, his efforts paid off. There, right next to him, lay his father, sitting up, pillows behind his back, with a smile answering his own. He heard words in his head, but the greeting he wanted to give his father did not reach his lips. His father didn’t seem to mind.
“I’m glad to see you back. I thought perhaps – perhaps you – maybe you wanted to have the women all to yourself.”
There was something puzzling about the statement. He knew that, if only he could think clearly, he would know what his father was truly saying to him.
He felt a touch on his arm. Turning his head a little he could see his brother standing by his side.
“You made it back all right then, brother?” He could hear the joke in his brother’s voice. A quick stretcher-ride – when he was well again, that’s how he’d answer.
Johnny nodded, the action causing a tugging sensation in his throat.
“Don’t move. Juanita made us promise to be very careful with you. She’s invested a lot of time and care in your well-being and she’ll be angry if you need any more doctoring. I don’t think she likes the doc. That’s right, you get some sleep. We’ll need you in the morning.”
With his father and brother close by, he followed his instinct and drifted back to sleep.
He woke once during the night, with a profound sense that something was different. As he opened his eyes, he could clearly see Juanita sitting on a stool by his bed. She was crying but she tried to smile immediately.
“Señor Johnny – you are safe now. The doctor says you will live – and I know it is true. Your father, he drank wine with us all – you would have laughed, chico, to see us all drinking to your health while you slept like a child.” She paused. Johnny had heard and understood what she had said. It had, for a moment, made sense to him – at last, things had begun to make sense.
It took Johnny two days or so to waken enough to realize that he had been seriously ill. Even then, he didn’t take kindly to the fussing ways everyone seemed to have – everyone, that is, except his brother, who treated him much as always and made light of his own injuries until the pain in his eyes gave him away; then he went away for a while and someone else sat with Johnny. He was never alone. It was that as much as anything which convinced him all was still not well.
His father was not well, either. He was restless and irritable with everyone except his sons; but he was kind with them, and quiet, and a little sad. Johnny understood how his father felt. He watched his father carefully for signs of improvement and when there were few, he began to wear away a little more of his energy in worry. Juanita scolded him for that, very quietly, very late one night. She soothed him and asked him what he thought his worry would do for his father if it made him more unwell. With that wise counsel to cling to he put aside his fears and watched only for good signs. When his father slept well, he relaxed and slept too.
Of Teresa, there was no sign. He had no means of asking about her and resigned himself to having, for the moment, lost her goodwill. He would have to put that right, the minute he could speak.
Another four days on, and he knew he had been lucky. Scott had explained some things to him and he had followed the brief description of his operation carefully. A hole in his throat. He put his hand to check what held it open but Juanita was firm with him and he let his hand drop. He tried pouting and she smiled.
“You have been lucky. You have no infection there and that is the way it will stay, señor. Your back was bad – just one place, it was very sore. It is nearly better now but still you have a fever. I do not understand it.”
If he could have spoken, he would have agreed with her. Lucky – just plain, dumb lucky. He was feverish but it was a good fever. It was burning the poison out of him and each day, the poison and the fever receded a little. He was beginning to be allowed to move around, to sit up for a short while and the relief he felt counterbalanced any pain.
Scott sat with him less often and when he did, he seemed tired. At last, he began to tell Johnny what he was doing. The work on rebuilding had begun. Building materials were being brought in, specialist workers sought out; and the scaffolding was already in place. Work was going ahead without him. He would have to get well pronto.
Afterwards, he couldn’t say which had come first – the anger or the boredom. One seemed to feed the other. The more he shifted in the bed, the more uncomfortable he became. He lay on one side and watched his father sleep through the heat. His old man looked older and sicker than he had ever seen him; and it made him angry that he could do nothing. So he shifted to lie on his other side. Then the long room, with its rows of bunks and dark, smoke-stained walls seemed to stretch away to infinity, effectively sealing him away from the outside world. Nothing was happening. A few other invalids remained; but like Murdoch, they slept. And inside Johnny, something was jumping up and down, urging him to get up, go riding, wrestle his brother – anything, even sit quietly on the porch in a rocking chair, so long as he had chosen to do it and it didn’t involve lying in bed.
Worst thing was the fussing women. Juanita had told him she would be busy with others now that he was recovering all right and he had nodded and grasped her hand in thanks. He thought he would be fine without her – but he missed her steadily. None of the other women really had the measure of him. They looked after him as the boss’s son, with a quiet subservience which drove him half crazy. None of them could guess what was going on his mind as she could.
Then there was Teresa. He started to see much more of her and realised she had been avoiding him. That had been a simple task when he had been out of it most of the time. Now he was awake through the day and on the alert for anything to pass the long, sorry hours. A game of checkers, maybe. If his brother – who still seemed more interested in books, maps and now plans – didn’t have time, surely Teresa would. He wrote her a note as she sat between his bed and Murdoch’s and passed it over to her, nudging her elbow first to get her attention. She read it; then she looked him gravely in the eye as she shook her head.
“I got to sit with Murdoch, Johnny. One of the women will be along soon, to dress your burns. You get some sleep now – we don’t want you getting sick again.”
He wrote, “Who’s we?” and jogged her arm, harder this time, since she had shuffled her feet round and pointedly taken Murdoch’s hand in both hers. She sighed, took the note, read it and handed it back.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Johnny. Now you get some sleep.”
He treated her to an especially hard stare, knowing she usually did whatever he wanted when he used his eyes just that way. It didn’t work on the back of her head, though. Disgruntled, he threw the pencil and paper on the floor.
She looked over her shoulder. Quite what prompted her to say the words she did he’d never understand. But it was the last straw.
“Has baby thrown his pacifier out of the cot?” She smiled, her glorious, radiant smile. He could have grinned back and all would have been forgiven. He wished he had grinned back – how much easier it would have been. Instead, he narrowed his eyes at her and set his mouth in a straight line. The smile faltered, faded – and there it was, the back of her head again, and she was nervously pushing back her hair and settling her skirts.
That was a puzzle. He shifted himself up further in the bed, leaned over and reached out for the pad of paper. That was easy enough to reach. The pencil had rolled further. He stretched for it, leaning out further until he had one hand on the floor, the other scrabbling for the pencil. And if Teresa had just tried to help him, he wouldn’t have ended up on the floor, and she wouldn’t have been cross with him for waking up Murdoch and making her go and find someone to help him get back into bed.
As he sat on the floor, watching her receding boots and wincing at the angry swishing of her skirt, he realised he had achieved his aim. He was out of bed. The floor was hard – well, he didn’t have to stay there and he certainly didn’t have to wait for no women to help him get up. He turned carefully onto his knees, put one hand on the wooden bedframe and pushed.
Just as he had got himself upright, his father spoke.
“You sure you know what you’re doing there, son?”
There was no way of answering except with a nod.
“Well, so long as you’re sure.”
Was there just a trace of good humour in his father’s tone? He didn’t dare turn to see – the room was at a strange angle and his knees didn’t quite seem to want to lock. But he was nothing if not determined. He wanted to have the strength to get to the door and, as he tottered in the right direction, he judged he had the strength, enough and to spare. He’d been lying around for too long – that’s what the dizziness had been and the weakness in his legs. A little exercise – maybe just to the doorway and back, that’d set him up. If his father would just let him concentrate.
“Johnny – shouldn’t you wait until Teresa gets back? She won’t be a moment.”
Inside his head he was saying no, no, I’ll be just fine, at least whatever it was making me so restless is happy now. Physically he was focused on the task, just a few feet from the door and already able to stand more upright and feel less giddy. He took a few more shuffling steps then he was outside, the heat intense but clean, the world a myriad of bright colours compared to the brown haze of the bunkhouse.
And there was the house. The central portion was a skeleton of scaffolding. The internal working of the house were all exposed, like a working model of a ship he had once seen in San Francisco. No-one was about; it was siesta hour. He wanted to go and stand near the shell of his house – it was purely an instinctive reaction and it drove him further and faster than he could have believed possible. He knew his father was telling him more firmly now not to go – then he could hear him calling for Teresa. It was not enough to stop him. His bare feet recoiled from the heat in the ground and he knew he was panting but he could not stop until he stood, back to a wrecked wall of his house, gasping and trembling with the exertion. He grabbed at the dressing round his throat, the barely-suppressed anger of the day surging up in him. He didn’t need this contraption in his throat, he could breathe just fine in the normal way. He began to reach round to undo the bandage which felt like a noose round his neck; then a shadow fell across him and a very angry Señora Acerbo stood, one hand on hip, the other holding an all-too-familiar bottle.
“And when you need to get to the outhouse, Señor, you want I should fetch men from their jobs to help you? Or should I leave this here for you?”
He was convulsed with rage. Everything that had gone wrong in the last days flooded his consciousness until he could barely see, let alone think. He reacted by grabbing for her hand, wrenching the bottle from it and throwing it to smash most satisfyingly against the wall. If he could have shouted at her, he would have – all he could do was hit out from where he was standing, but she moved back easily, out of his way.
“Señor, now that you are here, do you wish to climb the ladder? Shall I bring you some whitewash?” She then began to call him all the names he had heard since he was a child, all the ways in which he could be called stupid and irresponsible in Spanish – of which there seemed quite a catalogue. His strength was beginning to ebb but he reached out for her once more, gripping her forearm with his large, strong hand.
She fell silent. He dropped his head in submission. He waited for her forgiveness; it came in an unexpected way. She reached out and pushed his hair back from his eyes.
“Chico – what am I going to do with you? You are twice as much trouble as any child. Are you ready to go back to bed now? The doctor is coming tonight. He will take out this thing in your throat, sew you up and you will be as good as new. But why could you not wait?”
He glanced upwards. She was looking towards the bunkhouse; he followed her gaze and then got himself ready to face the music, for there was his brother, striding towards them, clearly unhappy, and a gaggle of women, men and even children ready to discuss what the youngest Lancer had done this time. He wished he had had time to pull on his pants. A man was so – so undignified in his nightshirt. And when it came right down to it, a trip to the outhouse was something that had rung a bell as soon as Juanita had mentioned it. And oh, for a way to explain himself without writing the words in the dust or trying to make himself understood in sign language. How the hell did you say sorry in sign language, anyway?
Then came a moment he would remember all his life. As his brother and the crowd approached, Señora Acerbo drew herself up to her full height, stepped in front of Johnny and spoke to the crowd, in a penetrating voice which brooked no dissent. “Señor Lancer is not a sideshow. He is inspecting the work on the house and he does not wish to be disturbed. I do not know what has been said but I think he has a right to do this without an audience, especially since he is not allowed to dress himself yet.”
Johnny heard Scott’s snort of amusement, which was quickly smothered by a cough.
“Siesta is over – I think we had better all go to work now.”
There were some mutterings in the crowd about women who got above themselves, but they dispersed quickly enough in the face of her imperiousness.
Johnny sank gratefully to his knees. He scrawled the word “thanks” in the dirt.
“De nada, chico,” he heard her say, before Scott came right up to them both.
“Thank you, Señora Acerba. I think you had better return to seeing to my brother full time, before he makes a complete spectacle of himself.”
Johnny looked up, trying to appear unembarrassed by the whole situation. He knew that, before long, he would be tucked up neatly in his bed, all comfortable and clean and, with a bit of luck, forgiven; but before that there would be a world of telling off to endure.
“Sí, Señor. Perhaps a little rope might good. The doctor, he will need all his wits tonight for the operation.”
“Tonight, is it? Yes, I should think it’ll be quite painful.” Scott looked at his brother, his handsome face an expressionless mask. “Won’t be too comfortable, having your throat sewn up, little brother. Were you running away there?”
There was nothing to do but grin and bear it.
“Señor – shall I get four of the men ready to hold him down?”
“Yes – and that rope. We wouldn’t want our wild horse to escape again.”
The outhouse was becoming more attractive by the moment. But with Juanita there – now, what did that matter? She had been looking after him, she was a married woman. Shit, he was going to disgrace himself if he didn’t find a way to ask soon.
“Chico – are you all right? Do you want to be carried back to the bunkhouse now?”
No, he did not want to be carried back to the bunkhouse – the other kind of house, yeah – but not the bunkhouse. He tried to catch his brother’s eye, then gave up and tugged at his big brother’s pants. He pointed to himself, he pointed in the right direction – and Scott looked blank.
“Can’t you wait, Johnny? I have some very important details to work out with Señora Acerba.”
So he wrote, disgusted with himself. “Outhouse. Now. Or else.”
Whatever possessed him to write “or else”? Five more minutes he had to wait, while his brother explained the stupidity of what he had done and what was likely to happen to him if he ever did something along those lines before. He endured the story of the young soldier Scott had ordered to do something-or-other in that War Between the States, or whatever it was called – and how the young soldier had ignored him and lost his horse and all sorts of terrible things had happened to him. He waited, gnawing his lip, while Scott made meticulous final arrangements for the doctor’s visit. Then, at last, when his resolution to keep private matters private had almost given way, Scott found a couple of men, organised his brother’s removal to the bathroom – a term his brother taught him as a decent substitute for outhouse, for use in polite company – and left him alone for a few minutes. It was good to be on his own; it would have been better still if he hadn’t heard a man’s energetic laughter, followed by the softer laugh of his rescuer, or tormenter, or whichever she was, his Juanita.
So, he had endured the outcome of his adventure. Well, maybe he had been a little ambitious, but it sure wasn’t stupid, like they were making out. He felt fine, even if being carried was a relief, not to mention not having to use that damn bottle any more. Tomorrow, he would get up – by himself – and make himself useful. Once the stitches were in his throat all would be well again. He’d had stitches before. Nothing to it.
He emerged into the bright daylight and headed back to the bunkhouse under his own steam, though the two men who had carried him walked on either side, and he was glad of a steadying arm to lean on. Then he sat on his bed, endured Juanita washing his feet, changing his nightshirt and even brushing his hair – which, after all, reminded him of another woman who had done that for him, and no harm in that. When he was settled back in bed, he heard Murdoch’s sigh and braced himself for the last of the telling off.
“Next time you need to go, Johnny,” said his father quietly. “Just make sure I know. So I don’t have to worry.”
Three hours. Johnny looked at the sharp line between sun and shadow that had been crawling across the floor. He had watched the line advance, climbing over furniture at odd angles. The tide of darkness washed steadily towards the bottom of his bunk. It would be a relief; the patch of sunlight he had been lying in was too hot, forcing him to throw off the blanket Juanita had tucked round him earlier.
He remembered a time he had watched sunlight slide across the landscape…
He had been – well, fifteen was a reasonable guess, but he could have been older. He had spent the night hidden out, freezing cold and with a hunger on him such as he hadn’t known before. A hunger to kill a man – a hunger bought and paid for by someone else. High up, he had been, in amongst the rocks, waiting for the sun to rise behind him and waiting for one small figure to appear on the trail – as soon as he could see the trail. He had shifted about with impatience then too, moving amongst the rocks, trying to find the best position for the ambush. The rifle was new; it felt heavy and large in his hands where his revolver felt – well, it felt right. As the sun had risen, the light had crept up on him, and he remembered shivering, inside and outside, in anticipation of what he was about to do. He had seen the man, a tiny speck in the distance and had settled himself, sighting along the barrel as he had been taught. But as daylight had come his desire to kill the man had ebbed away. He hadn’t been able to explain it. Something in him, some sense that what he had planned to do was going to damage him as well had asserted itself. He had packed away the rifle, picked up his bedroll and walked away, leaving the man to his wretched life. It had cost him good money, too. He didn’t often have that luxury – after that, he had taken other jobs, killed and been nearly killed himself a couple of times. It had been one moment in which he had remembered to keep hold of his humanity, just one moment amongst many others, dark moments, when he had …
He needed moments like that, to count in his favor.
Two hours and forty-five minutes. He looked again at his old watch. His precious watch. Juanita had put it by his bed, so that he would know when the doctor was due. The shadow had crept much closer, sitting there now at the end of his bed like – he looked away.
He listened to Murdoch breathing. His father had talked to him for a few minutes but had drifted away to sleep with no replies to keep him interested. Then he listened to his own strange breath-sounds. He had accommodated himself to the new way of getting air into his lungs without too much trouble; now, with his throat opening up again he felt more trapped, more breathless. He couldn’t explain it, the panic that had begun to set in but it was there, in the back of his mind.
Juanita came back. She brought him water, helped him drink without choking and eased his nightshirt off his shoulders.
“I think maybe the doctor should look just here, chico – it is redder than it should be.”
She was still fretting about his fever. Her usual quiet confidence had deserted her just a little. What job would she have, while others held him down and tended to him? Tended. A small change made that other word – tender. He knew something of what would be done, and it would not be tender.
She left him, promising more preparations later. He looked at her and raised his eyebrows. More preparations? Oh good. She smiled wanly and washed her hands.
Ten more minutes gone. Where the hell had his brother gone again? Surely he could manage to come and apologize for those five minutes of torture? Scott wouldn’t be doing any holding down, that was for sure. He instinctively checked at his throat. It all seemed fine – the metal was in place. He tried to move it just a little, to see if it was going to come out easily. It seemed to be fixed mysteriously firmly in place. Letting his hand fall and trying not to think about how dry his throat was feeling, he looked round anxiously for something to do – anything.
The shadow was well across his bed, the light slipping away from him. He looked at the ceiling and admired the spiders’ webs again. Three large ones, six smaller ones. He flicked from one to the other, thinking the same thoughts about them over and over. A nice safe place to be or a trap.
He dozed. The sunlight left the bed.
When he decided he couldn’t keep his eyes shut any longer he let them open suddenly. Sitting by his bed was Teresa, silent, brooding, all the fight gone out of her. She blanched when he opened his eyes and stared at her.
Yes, Teresa? The need to speak had never been stronger.
“Why did we fight, Johnny?”
Because – because human beings are awkward, cussed creatures who won’t take telling and won’t back down? Why was she doing this now?
“When you get better,” and the brown eyes filled, “can we – can we…”
Kiss and make up? I guess.
“You are going to let them do this, aren’t you? Tonight? I don’t think I – I think you should have it done tonight. The doc’s bringing this new apparatus he’s got, for the ether. Scott was telling me about it.”
How would Scott know? The war. The butchery they called doctoring. He looked away, suddenly scared. She was saying goodbye – Scott had filled her head with visions of wartime doctoring and she was convinced he was going to die. His heart raced.
“He said it was amazing – just amazing. What the doctors could do when they used the ether on the men. But I’m afraid, Johnny – what if it doesn’t go right?”
It was enough to drive him mad. He had to stop her. He sat up, searched out his pad and paper and scribbled, “How can I forgive you if I’m dead? You deserved to think hard about what happened. Now get me through this and I can forgive you.”
It didn’t make quite as much sense as he had hoped but Teresa brightened immediately. She’d probably only read the word “forgive”, anyway.
She sat with him as he tried to doze again, silently holding his hand until Murdoch woke. After enquiries about the time, Murdoch turned to his son and gave him an encouraging smile. With only half an hour to go, there was not much room for last-minute words of any kind, especially with Juanita on a mission to get him scrubbed from head to foot – at which he protested as vigorously as he could in the circumstances. She wouldn’t let him out of her sight; more embarrassment but he gritted his teeth. Better this than something else to worry about during the operation. Four men were bringing in a long table, and Juanita supervised the scrubbing of this, too.
Suddenly, all the long minutes had been swallowed up, the doctor was there, walking in quickly and immediately trying to assert his authority.
“Ah – good evening? Is this the patient, then?”
“The patient is called John, doctor.” Murdoch, easily taking command of the pale little man. Johnny glanced at him.
“Oh yes – Johnny. Your Mexican son?” A look at the man told Johnny all he needed to know. From the slicked-down hair, the fancy jacket he was removing, to the neat shoes, this man was all show. He knew it, and it worried him.
“No doctor, – my son, John. Now, where is Doctor Allan?” The barely suppressed annoyance in Murdoch’s voice seemed to make little impression on the doctor, who was busily taking surgical instruments out of his bag.
“I’m his new assistant. I’ll be taking over in a month or so – just getting to know the patient list, you know. Now, I’ve brought ether – I’m sure you’ve seen it used but not with this little marvel to deliver it to the patient.”
He was unpacking a large piece of equipment from a wooden case. He brought out something that looked like part of an oil lamp and a small bottle. The unmistakable smell of ether reminded Johnny of other occasions – and it appeared to mean something to Scott, too.
“Yes, doctor, I’ve seen ether used. Now, John – do you need help to get to the table?”
Johnny looked at his brother, knowing he had deliberately chosen this version of his name to put the doctor in his place, then shook his head. He swung his legs over the edge of the bed and pushed himself upright. He could feel the tension in the air; he was unsteady but made it to the table unassisted. He climbed up and pulled himself back, but before he could lie down, Juanita stepped forward.
“Doctor – you must check his back first. I think there is something there, that is giving him fever.”
“My dear good woman, I think my colleague would have noticed…”
“Here, Doctor.” She had already pulled his nightshirt back and showed him the place. The doctor immediately became interested and picked up scalpel and tweezers.
“Ah yes! A very good thing you alerted me – a clear case of – yes!” He had cut, investigated and then pulled, making Johnny wince. “A splinter, yes – quite a sizeable one!” He dropped a piece of wood an inch long into a bowl, as if for later inspection. “Enough to cause something of a fever, I should think. These burns are healing nicely – very nicely. What did my colleague prescribe?”
“I tend him, Doctor.”
“Ah – herbal remedies no doubt. Yes, yes, I expect they work well enough in their own way. I’ll prescribe something a little more modern for you. Now, lie back down, young man, and let’s see about this throat of yours.”
Johnny glanced at his father, who shrugged – it was just a way of speaking and it was hardly worth worrying about. The doctor’s manner grated on his nerves; however, there were soon other matters to draw his anxious attention.
He had believed the four men there were going to hold him while the ether took effect. But he glanced at the doctor, concerned, when the man produced four silken ropes. He was not going to be held – he was going to be tied. It was too much for him, that realisation, and the times he had been tied, none of them good memories, undermined his resolve to submit without protest. His insides felt like water.
“You men – yes, you. Now let’s get you strapped down, shall we? It really is for your own benefit.”
Johnny searched out Juanita, who was arranging cloths and bowls of water. He was climbing towards panic – whatever he did to try to control it, it built in him. As they moved to tie his arms down he could not resist pulling away from them. They could do all this tomorrow – that’d be a much better idea, after a good night’s sleep. Then his father’s voice pierced his growing fear.
“Don’t tie him – hold him!”
“But, Mr.Lancer, it’s quite standard procedure.”
“Hold him, damn it! He’s a human being, not a horse to be broken. I know my own son!”
Reluctantly the doctor motioned for the men to untie him; the panic crept a little further away. Now he could run if he needed to. But he wouldn’t run – he would bear this; it was nothing worse than he had put up with before. It was the ether contraption that was a concern. He had a dread of slipping away and not coming back, and never knowing that was happening.
Four men – Juanita’s husband among them – took hold of his wrists and knees, leaning their weight into the job of holding him still. He glanced around at the faces, holding on to his brother for a moment, then Teresa, face full of barely-controlled alarm, then back to Juanita, who was quietly going about her business. Finally, to his father, grim-faced with expectation.
It would happen. Any moment now. The doctor was behind his head, and he could hear the man but not see what he was doing. There seemed to be some delay and that was worse than anything, the waiting.
His brother moved to stand near the doctor.
“Everything all right there, doc? Do you need any help?”
“No, no, it’s quite all right. A new model – the latest. I just need to check something.”
Johnny looked back as far as he could; the man was reading from a small book – the manual? How could he possibly not know how to use this thing? Johnny shifted to look as far as he was able and caught his brother’s attention.
“Doctor?” Scott asked.
“Ah now – there, I have it! Now, hold him down, you men. It won’t take a moment. Now straight up, young man – look straight up. Yes, that’s it, good.”
The doctor was too close suddenly, holding a mask. As Johnny lay there, the mask was coming into his face and it was all he could do not to turn away. The smell was cloying and he wished hard to slip away quickly; but the moments passed and nothing happened and he was desperate to reach up and push away the horror of that mask. He could hear his brother again, and the doctor, and they seemed to be arguing about something. The mask was taken away and consciousness of everything around him came to him again suddenly, as if he had been underwater and had surfaced for air.
“Well, I’m sure it’s not my doing. The equipment must be faulty. Let me just check – ah, now look, this valve, it seems to be – there, I’m sure that will be all right now.”
Again the mask; every muscle tensed, Johnny fought the temptation to struggle free and run from this man, in whom he no longer had one ounce of confidence. It was no better the second time; no ether reached him and he remained agonizingly awake and aware. At last the mask was taken away, but not before he was gasping for breath and pulling as hard as he could to get away from the men holding him down.
“Doctor – I think you had better just perform this operation now, before you kill my brother with your equipment.” His brother’s icy tone cut through the fog building in his brain.
“Well, I cannot be held responsible for faulty equipment. But if you think so – I would have to advise removing the tube quickly now.”
“Do it. He’ll be able to bear it.”
That was Murdoch.
It would be all right. He could stand it – he always had before. He grasped at that certainty and hung on, despite a growing feeling that he could not breathe.
“I must warn you…”
“Doctor. You will pull yourself together and you will remove that tube from my son’s throat now, before he chokes to death.”
He watched the doctor come close again. There was sweat on the man’s brow and his hand shook. He unceremoniously grabbed the tube and began to pull.
The pain was so great he could not bear it. It was too much. It filled every part of his body with hot agony. He heaved his body away from it but he was held, and held, and then the crushing, strangling pain at his throat reached an intensity that momentarily quieted him.
“Pull his head back! It’s almost out! I don’t want to break any more of the vessels.”
His head was wrenched back, his view of the world dizzied, and he could no longer see anyone he could hang on to. The tearing pain stopped suddenly and pressure on his arms and legs lightened. What had happened? One of the men holding him had broken away to vomit – another had slackened his hold. With desperate energy Johnny scrambled up and away from them, all the monsters causing him this pain. He stood, trembling, hand to throat, feeling the blood trickling between his fingers. He tried to breathe easily but was choking again, his stomach protesting at the blood he was swallowing. But he was determined. The tube was out and he would not go back under that man’s hand, not for anyone.
“Chico – you must come back now.” Juanita came up to him, arms out, her voice firm. He could barely stand for the waves of panic but her voice caught his attention. “I will put the stitches in. Do you want me to do this, or the doctor?”
He looked at her. The decision was his.
” Jefe – do you trust me to put in the stitches? I have done it many times.”
Murdoch gave his permission. Now it was his turn. It would be all right to trust her. It had been so far. He must decide, and he must do it now. He nodded. The doctor kept out of his way, silent now, and already beginning to pack up his equipment.
Climbing back onto the table was one of the single most difficult things he had ever done. It was something he chose, himself, to do, as he took hold of the situation for himself at last. He sat back on the edge of the table, swallowed hard, and leaned back to lie flat and vulnerable on the hard table once more.
Shuddering with the pain, he fixed his eyes on Juanita. She was flushed, and breathing hard. She glanced at him and he saw her eyes and the trembling in her hands. She was scared too, a little – so it was all right to be scared. But the pain was a familiar one. He had suffered and survived it before. She finished quickly and began to wipe away the blood but he needed to vomit and she helped him to sit and held the bowl while he coped as best he could. When his stomach settled, he felt a cool cloth on his brow and looked up, to see his brother and Teresa standing by him, Teresa holding the cloth, Scott watching the doctor pack up.
Finally he could breathe, painfully at first, and as he did, he found his voice, though it was more of a strangled gasp than the words he had planned in his head. He would have screamed, if he’d been able, right there, in front of his family. He fell back, defeated for a moment by the depth of his fears although he knew he had faced it at least as well as most people. Some wouldn’t have had the courage to step up to the table. No – it was all right, his stomach had stopped heaving, he could concentrate on slowing the shivering which gripped him.
“Johnny – you did well, son – it’s all done now.” His father’s deep, reassuring, calm voice.
Truth to tell, Johnny wanted to cry like a baby. He set himself to bearing the waves of pain steadfastly.
“Get the hell out of here. And leave your shingle in the outhouse where it belongs – you’ll never practise around here again. And take this with you.” That was his brother – his polite, well-bred brother. Johnny gulped back the tears and watched as his brother took the man firmly by the shoulder and marched him out, ignoring the equipment the man dropped and tried to bend to pick up, half-falling as he did. Then they were both gone.
“Now, chico, you need help to get back to your bed?” He tried out his voice. It was not much more than a whisper but he could speak. “No, ma’am.” He paused, tried to clear his throat, then managed four more words. “I can do it.” He stood on his own two feet, looked round at the faces of his audience and set off back to bed. He was awake; he was breathing. He had survived.
Lucas Jefferson sat on a carefully chosen rock on a hill overlooking the Lancer hacienda. He watched the comings and goings at the house through a telescope. Details were filled in by daily reports from his spy. He knew that the tiny figure sitting outside in the shade of a tree was John Lancer, younger son of Murdoch. Recovering from an operation. He had tried to run half way through, the spy had said. It had been the talk of the ranch, how Johnny had gone back to that operating table. They were calling him – what was that Mexican phrase? – “el hombre valiente” or some such – for going back, but Lucas had drawn his own, quite different, conclusions. He had seen his enemies run and knew them for what they were. And with this boy’s background – well, coward was an ugly word but he believed in choosing the right words carefully. He smiled. Know thine enemy – well, he understood John Lancer all right.
Pacing across the yard, Scott Lancer, the elder of the two sons and an educated, army man. Someone to respect and watch carefully. It was a pity the house fire hadn’t killed him. There, they were going back in the bunkhouse. Close, they were. It was puzzling. Why would two such different men, one clearly superior to the other in social station and breeding, want to work together? His spy had been clear – these two behaved like brothers.
Lucas had two brothers, neither of whom he had seen for years. He didn’t miss them. Neither was worth a damn. He had been gifted with all the intelligence in the family and he had made good use of it. University, army, then into his grandfather’s business. Each time, though, just as he had been approaching the zenith of his career, something, some bad luck, had overtaken him. Each time he had had to leave not quite as the shining star he should have been. Last time, a trifling financial irregularity had cost him his grandfather’s good will and his own inheritance. It was of little consequence. He would be the great man he knew he was destined to be, once Lancer was his, and all trace of Murdoch Lancer and his brood had been expunged from the valley.
Lucas put down the telescope and took in the whole scene for a moment. He had made it his life’s work to know everything there was to know about the land. Every book on the subject he had grasped and read; so that even while he worked at pages of figures in his grandfather’s office, his head had been filled with the intricacies of maps and diagrams, rock formations and land masses. To understand how the world worked, that was his dream. Then to find the most perfect example of it which he could hope to acquire and keep it all to himself. Here, spread out before him in all its shining glory, lay that perfect place, sullied only by that house, those sprawling outbuilding and the wretched cows which infested it. He had nearly succeeded in clearing the land of her owner and his monstrous house. His failure was nothing, just a step along the road.
He brushed down his good clothes carefully, reviewing his progress. The men he had paid had disrupted the daily business of all the local ranchers, until they had been forced to meet together. If only his fire-setter had waited a few more minutes – but there had never been any real hope of killing all of them. Luck continued to be against him and the Lancers had survived. It only made the problem more interesting, more challenging.
With the gold he knew was in the hills, once he had cleared the land of all traces of the family he would restore it to its natural state. He would grab the place with the help of his lawyer. That part of his plan was unclear as yet but he knew he was right this time, he was owed this place by a fate which had taken nearly everything else from him. As he marched back to his neat, orderly camp, safe in the knowledge that no-one had the time to come and look for him, he knew that his dream was about to be realized.
In the dim and dusty interior of the bunkhouse, the Lancers were discussing what to do about the arsonist. Scott was making his points count with his customary force, quietly confident that his plan for their next step was the best, based on his experience and training. Murdoch, his leg propped up but sitting at last in a chair rather than in bed, listened and approved his elder son’s ideas as the rational approach, despite the risk involved. And Johnny, sitting hunched over the table, was trying every way he knew to dissuade them. He knew Scott was becoming tired of him dragging his heels but the whole deal sounded wrong and he had said so, in words when he could manage it and in writing and gestures when he could not. Scott resorted to re-stating his case.
“I’ll do this on my own if I have to. But we must scout out the enemy. It’s the only way.”
Johnny shook his head, thumped his fist on the table and wished for something more in his voice than a husky rasp. “You on a buckboard? Scout? How?”
“It won’t matter if I’m seen. I want to draw them out. Or maybe even scare them off.”
The snort of disbelief seemed to be what Scott expected, and it merely encouraged him. He leaned forward, pointing a finger at Johnny.
“Yes, brother, and it’s that attitude which will play into our hands. I’d prefer horseback but we can find out a good deal if we go up in the buckboard and look around on foot. You are coming with me this time, aren’t you?”
Johnny knew what Scott was talking about and although he had long ago been forgiven for not following Scott into the hills to draw in Pardee, it never failed to rankle when his refusal to support his brother was mentioned. He hadn’t been needed anyway, and if he had gone, he wouldn’t have been able to carry through his own plan. But Scott was using it against him and he resented that. He didn’t need persuading to go with his brother, all he needed was convincing that the plan wouldn’t get their heads blown off.
He tried to speak but his voice failed him again. In frustration, he grabbed the pad and pencil he kept handy, and wrote, forcefully, “I’ll come with you. Won’t scare them off, though.” He thrust the paper under Scott’s nose, trying to contain his annoyance with only a small degree of success. Scott passed the paper on to Murdoch when he had glanced at it. Murdoch shifted in his chair, clearly becoming tired of the argument.
“No, son, but Scott’s right. We have to do something.”
Right, right. His brother was always right. Johnny swung round on his chair and tried to get up, but his brother grabbed him by the arm.
“I want you only if you’re prepared to say this is a good idea. I can do this on my own.”
Johnny wrote, “You can’t. I’ll said I’ll come and I will.”
When Scott had read, he stood, pushing back his chair with a noisy scrape. “Tomorrow, then. First light. You sure you’re well enough?”
Johnny nodded, feeling the sweat trickling down his back as the anger in him built. It was too hot in the bunkhouse, and too much like a prison. He had been on his feet most of the day before and all of that day, and he felt strong enough to cope with anything. But Juanita hovered, waiting to give him his medicine and lotion, and he felt like a child again.
“Later.” His uncertain voice had returned.
She looked at him and for the first time he registered hurt in her eyes. He hadn’t meant to hurt her feelings but he had done it. That had to be put right straight away.
“Give me a minute.” He grinned at her in apology, forcing his irritation to subside. “Scott.”
That hurt, that word. What was Scott doing, needling him?
“Take the rifle.”
Scott looked at him, then grinned himself. “Not my sidearm?”
Johnny shook his head and looked at him, sidling round the end of the table. Then he lunged, grabbing Scott’s good arm and moving smoothly round behind him to pull it up behind him.
“You afraid I ain’t strong enough?” he said into Scott’s ear.
“I’m afraid you might talk the enemy to death.” Scott twisted, but could not escape without jarring his arm.
“Boys! You’ve proved your point, Johnny, now let him go. Tomorrow, first light. Don’t go far – just look around. Johnny – Señora Acerba’s waiting.”
The brothers stepped apart, not quite friends again, but both in control of themselves. Working together wasn’t always as easy as it might appear to outsiders, Johnny knew. It took work, hard work sometimes, to allow the two of them to understand one another.
When he was dosed up for the pains he still suffered, with something Juanita had concocted, and the burns on his back were bathed, he went to sit out on the porch to think things through. The shadows from the house reached right across the yard and a cool breeze was at last stirring the air. A smell of smoke had hung round the place despite the removal of the last of the burnt beams the day before, leaving the house looking half-built rather than half-destroyed. Now even that lingering smell was being swept away. It was time for them to start to pick up the pieces, put away their hurts and settle the matter of whoever had done this. If Scott thought driving up into the hills in a buckboard was the way to do it, well, that was the way it was going to get done, but it didn’t stop the nagging voice in the back of his head which said that they were going to be pretty vulnerable sitting high on the seat. More like sitting ducks than scouts.
He watched one of the hands mount up and ride out, waving when the man waved to him. The life of the ranch went on around him while he lazed there and it was still all in jeopardy until they had tracked down the guy who had tried to burn down the hacienda. Sitting there waiting for an answer was not enough. So he resigned himself to Scott’s plan.
The book Lucas Jefferson had been reading lay open on the folding table where he had carefully laid it a moment before. He stood by the table and waited patiently, drawing himself up to his full six foot two, and straightening his back, knew he made an imposing figure. A handsome one, too, with his light brown hair and brown eyes, and his charm. He used it now on the man who had just arrived with information from Lancer. The man was proving useful.
“They’re driving up into the hills, both the brothers, Scott and the other one. Scouting, Scott Lancer said.”
“Yes?” Lucas allowed himself the luxury of a brief smile. “Maybe we can arrange to meet them. And the girl? What about the girl?”
“Didn’t see her this afternoon, boss – Mr.Jefferson. Someone said she went into town to get them all some new clothes. I reckon they lost most of their stuff in that fire.”
“Have you found Roberts yet?”
The man immediately seemed awkward. “I ain’t seen him, no sir. I reckon he knows better than to come back here, seeing he lit that fire too soon.”
“He was a friend of yours, wasn’t he?”
“No, sir. Met him in Green River – reckoned he was the man for the job. Maybe he was interrupted.”
“Perhaps. It is of no consequence. This camp is a disgrace. Give the orders – I want it ready for inspection in fifteen minutes.”
“Yes, Mr. Jefferson, right away.”
Jefferson watched the man scuttle away to roust out the other men, who were lounging carelessly round the small, smokeless fire. Another half hour and that would be extinguished. Time for a light meal and coffee, then to his tent to sleep. He was already anticipating the morning with pleasure.
“Are you going to be ready any time soon?” The annoyance in Scott’s voice was controlled to a fine edge but it was definitely there. Johnny had, in truth, been ready an hour before but he had been dragging his heels, hoping for some miracle to keep them at the ranch. Juanita had done her best to provide that miracle, since she clearly disapproved of them going. She made them pack extra water, blankets, food, ammunition and even a spade, which made Johnny smile. He had wanted to joke with her about whether it was for the bad guys or them, should they need burying, but that was still too much for him to say all at once. Nevertheless, he had held the spade in his hand and looked questioningly at her. She had shrugged, told him she thought it might be useful and then had come close to tie a bandanna stranglehold tight round his throat, to keep the dust out of his three-day-old wound, with its neat stitches.
“I’m ready.” Johnny took hold of the buggy seat and tried to throw the spade in the back at the same time as climbing up. Somehow, his legs and the spade handle disagreed about direction and he nearly felled himself. The string of expletives startled the horse and set Scott laughing as he pulled back on the reins. Johnny, his irritation with a journey that could not even start well increasing, waved a hand at Scott to get him to move over.
“Oh no – I’m driving,” Scott insisted.
“No.” Johnny now stood, awkwardly perched in the one bit of space Scott allowed him and waited, hand on hip, for his brother to slide over. “Your arm -supposed to be healing.”
“Oh well, if you insist. But no mysterious breakdowns, brother, and that horse is perfectly sound. I checked him myself.”
Johnny took the reins from his elder brother, sat down heavily, making the seat bounce, and snapped the long lines on the horse’s rump, setting him moving. He waved back to Juanita, who had seemed concerned that they were going without extra help, but apparently that was all part of Scott’s master plan. Johnny had no intention of starting him off on that again; his ear had been bent quite enough on the subject.
They fell into an awkward silence as they sat, driving comfortably on the relatively good valley road. It was a fine morning, misty still and not yet too hot for comfort; the chill was between Murdoch’s two sons, and neither was inclined to warm the relationship. In the end, it was Scott who weakened.
“I trust you are not going to be sulking for the entire trip. We’re likely to be out for several hours yet.”
Johnny’s reaction was to scowl more obviously. Sulking? Did he seem to be sulking? He was justifiably irritated but that was something else entirely. He settled his hat more firmly on his head; his thick hair made it difficult to keep a hat on, even with a hat string to help. He looked straight ahead, hoping his brother would take the hint and leave him be but Scott was in no mood to stand Johnny’s unspoken criticism.
“You would have just stayed at home and waited, until the enemy came to you? That’s hardly the Johnny Madrid I know.”
“You don’t know Madrid.” Johnny felt his shoulders tighten with the tension and he had to work hard to appear in any way in control.
“No, maybe not. But you don’t know the army man I was. You’ve never fought in the War.”
They were reaching the start of the gradient and Johnny had to encourage the horse to pull harder rather than slacken off. “True,” was all he could manage. He hadn’t fought in Scott’s War – hadn’t known much about it at all. But he had fought in a few wars himself and he carried the scars, physical and mental, to prove it. They shared experience of how to deal with an enemy. So what was Scott driving at?
“Well?” He reached below the seat, rummaged in the basket Juanita had given them and fetched out an apple. He held it out to his brother, who shook his head. With a shrug, he bit into it himself. It made an excuse for not replying to Scott’s commentary on the situation, which he had heard at least three times. Having grasped it pretty well the first time he felt justified in ignoring him and concentrating on the track, which climbed steeply now through the trees. All a man had to do was stand behind one of those trees. They’d have no chance…
“Are you listening?”
The abrupt silence that had preceded the question was enough to drag him back to his brother’s long-winded explanation of army tactics.
“If you listened you might have some grasp of what I intend to do.”
Johnny finished the apple and threw the core off into the trees. He hit the trunk of one and grinned. “Meet the man. Call it then.”
“Have you ever considered that it might be too late to call it correctly once you’ve met him?”
“Won’t matter then, will it?”
“Scott.” Johnny had glanced up ahead and seen a horse and rider.
Scott followed his gaze and gave his opinion immediately. “Well, he’s much too close to the hacienda to be the man we need to find. So you can leave your gun where it is.”
Johnny had his right hand close to the handle of his revolver and kept it there, despite Scott’s annoyed glance. Meanwhile, the man had ridden up and was greeting them.
“Good morning, there. Nice morning for a drive.”
Johnny heard the words but was more interested in the expression that went with them. The open, sunny smile didn’t fool him for a moment, because the man was studying them as carefully as he was being studied. He let Scott introduce them then waited for the man’s response.
“Lucas – Lucas Jefferson at your service, sir. I wonder – would you have come from that fine ranch down yonder?”
Down yonder? What sort of talk was that? Johnny heard a conversation begin but kept his mouth shut and studied on the stranger some more. Big horse, beautifully kept, and controlled by deft touches of feet and hands. No rifle holster, no saddlebags – instead, three or four books strapped together and slung from the pommel. Neither horse nor man had travelled far. The man was tall, at least as tall as his brother, smartly dressed, clean and he had more long words in his vocabulary than were in that big dictionary Murdoch kept by his desk. But it was not hard to follow what he was saying, and it boiled down to a claim that he was a writer, gathering material for a book, camping up on the hilltop and wanting to meet the owner of the ranch for some civilized conversation and some more material for his writing.
And, though Johnny had trouble believing it, his brother seemed to be swallowing the whole story.
“So you’ll be able to come to dinner, then?”
Dinner? Was that the fancy way of saying supper? Johnny looked angrily across at his brother. This could be the man who had ordered their house burned to the ground and he was inviting him for a family supper?
“It will certainly make a change from the campfire, though that has a nostalgic romanticism about it, don’t you agree?”
“Keeps the coffee hot,” Johnny put in, unsmiling.
Jefferson’s attention switched to him. He smiled, as if a child had interrupted an adult’s conversation. “Yes, there is that. Of course, all this fresh air makes one quite tired, so I tend to take to my bed early, once I’ve written up my notes. There is not much requirement for keeping the coffee hot.”
In that moment, Johnny decided to play dumb. The man had clearly dismissed him as of no consequence already and that might just prove useful. He looked at his brother and interrupted their conversation. “You want me to drive you on now, Scott? We got a fair piece to go yet.”
“Yes, yes, Johnny, wait just a minute.” So he did. He reached round for the canteen and had a drink. He took off his hat, wiped his brow and put it back on. He sighed. He even yawned. And still the two men exchanged ideas about people he had heard Scott mention – had even read himself, or heard Scott read aloud, though Jefferson would never have believed that in million years. He listened, but above all he watched as his brother became more and more openly impressed by the man’s knowledge and friendliness.
Finally, he knew all he needed to know, cleared his throat and touched Scott’s arm.
“We’re goin’ now, Mr. Jefferson.”
Scott apologised for him. “I’m sorry – my brother can’t speak very much. He was injured in the fire.”
“Can’t speak worth a lick,” Johnny agreed, “Don’t hardly matter. Can’t keep up with you – what’s that word there, Scott? Intell …”
“Intellectuals, Johnny. You can’t?” His brother was genuinely surprised – was he going to blow the whole game? Johnny jiggled the reins and got the horse moving, unsettling Scott, who had been leaning forward to dispute a point about Thoreau.
“Hey! Johnny! Well, it was good to talk to you, Lucas – see you tonight? It’ll only be a simple meal, I’m afraid.”
They were ahead of Jefferson’s horse. Johnny tipped his hat to the man and roused the horse to a faster pace. Jefferson’s, “Delighted!” was somewhat lost in the rattle of the buckboard as it pulled away. Johnny did not even glance back.
Scott was silent for quite a while but Johnny knew he was spoiling for an argument. He could pick out the words without any help from Scott – rude might figure, and surly, and what was that one he had used the other day – unconscionable. Yeah, and now his brother was turning to him and using just those words. Johnny pulled on the reins and then the brake.
“You mad at me?” he asked, stopping Scott in his tracks.
“Yes, I’m annoyed with you. You may well have been bored but there was no need to treat Lucas in that manner. He is practically a guest in our house.”
“Scott, you’re a fool.”
He wondered which way his brother would jump; for once, the control slipped and it seemed for a moment as if Scott would punch him. Instead, Scott stood and jumped from the buckboard, straightened, then issued the challenge.
“Come down here and say that again, boy.”
Johnny tied off the reins, and stood to give Scott a lesson in how to read men as well as books, beginning, “You have any idea…” but at that moment his voice, already tired, gave up mid-sentence. He jumped down and shoved his brother’s shoulder, making him give way a little but the intense frustration of being unable to explain what he wanted, coupled with Scott’s blank stare, was enough to topple his usual good sense. He took off his hat and hit Scott with it, trying to make the words come, then coughing and croaking to a halt. His brother did not retaliate, merely turned his bad arm away from the onslaught, although Johnny made no attempt to hit him there. In the end, all Johnny could manage was the word, “Trust.”
“I have no idea what you’re so angry about. I trust him implicitly – and you, I trust you too. Is that what you mean?”
Johnny threw his hat to the ground, spun away from the object of his frustration and kicked the wheel of the buckboard hard.
“Well, I know you must be tired of waiting but there was no need for that display of bad temper. I could have managed without you hitting me for no reason other than your inability to express yourself. I think we’d better get on – or do you want to go back now?”
All Johnny could do was bend down, retrieve his hat and climb back aboard the buckboard. Once there, he poured some water into his hand, and washed down his face with it. He waited until he felt his brother sit next to him, then he took up the lines once more and followed Scott’s directions quietly the rest of the morning. He had had one chance to tell Scott he was wrong, and that chance had passed. Now he was going to have to watch Scott’s back until they had returned to the ranch and he could write what he needed to say – although he had little faith in words to change a mind clearly made up. Lucas Jefferson was Scott’s newest friend and that was all there was to it, for the time being.
As the midday heat soared, Scott ordered them back to Lancer. They had climbed far enough to find the remains of a camp, which Scott had pronounced clearly not Lucas’ camp since there was evidence of a number of men having been there. There was no reasoning with him so Johnny stopped trying, nodding and shaking his head as Scott framed simple questions for him. He longed to speak his mind but there was no hope of that. He stood and looked over the valley and agreed that, yes, this was a good place to observe the hacienda and yes, it was likely that the arsonist, or his boss, had stayed there for a while but no, it wasn’t any use trying to go further that day and they might as well make their way back to the ranch to organise a meal for Lucas, yes, let’s do just that, brother.
He walked the horse back down the hill with care, listening to Scott talk endlessly as if his mind had been set racing with new ideas. He seemed to have forgiven or even forgotten Johnny’s outburst completely. Johnny had not forgotten. The time was not yet right to forget. He must remember everything he had seen and he must watch Lucas like a hawk. A gunhawk.
Lucas carefully adjusted his tie. He had thought about a cravat but decided it was too fussy. He put unobtrusive gold cufflinks into his shirt cuffs, settled the Derringer in its holster strapped to the inside of his forearm and pulled on over it a neat, plain vest and a dark, good quality suit jacket, which he had brushed thoroughly. No matter how hard he tried to keep out the dust it penetrated and dulled the fine appearance of the broadcloth. He pulled at the sleeve until he was satisfied that none but an experienced eye would pick out the slight bulge of the gun.
Finally, he combed his fingers through his long, dark hair and settled his hat firmly. He had considered wearing a sidearm but he wanted to convince them there was nothing to him but a simple man in search of a story.
One of the men brought his horse. Once mounted, Lucas looked at him and savoured the moment of power over others’ lives.
“Are all the men ready?”
“Yes, Mr. Jefferson. We knows what to do. Hit hard, get away clean. We won’t make a mistake.”
“You’d better not. I want to remain standing, preferably in one piece, at the end of this. Try for Scott, the blond one. He’s the key. Get him out of the way and who is Lancer going to leave the ranch to – that Mexican son of his? Lancer’ll give in and go where life is easier as soon as I offer him enough money. How is that survey of the mine going?”
“I dunno, boss. The guy’s due in tomorrow morning, so I guess he’ll report then.”
“Yes. I’m sure I’m right. The place is a gold mine. Ha! Literally a gold mine. How foolish of the old man to put his faith in cattle when he could be blasting the hills for a fortune in gold.”
“I thought you wanted to get rid of all that mining. Despoiling the earth.”
Lucas smiled as his employee echoed back to him one of own phrases.”My dear man, blasting a gold mine is one thing – a small amount of damage for a rich reward. It’s the valley we want to clear.” He pressed his knees into the horse’s flank and settled in for the ride to the ranch house.
The young man, bought and paid for, would do as he was told, although Lucas had no great faith in his abilities. There was a certain amount of risk involved in the plan but he had to cement firmly in the family’s minds that he was on their side. And if one or two of them, Lancer family or his men, were killed along the way it didn’t matter. The main thing was to convince them he was only there to write their story. Which, in a way, he was.
Despite awareness that the afternoon was slipping rapidly away, Johnny wrote and then re-wrote a note to Teresa before he was satisfied with it. He had retired to a table under a shade tree, where Juanita had been plying him with lemonade and sympathy. She had listened carefully as Scott had told Murdoch all about their encounter with Jefferson, and had watched Johnny as he reacted to Scott’s enthusiasm with thinly disguised annoyance. Murdoch had been cautiously pleased. Johnny was satisfied that Murdoch’s long experience of all kinds of men would mean he had not made up his mind about Lucas, at least before he met and judged him for himself.
He knew what needed to be done. He could not warn Scott about his plans. His brother would simply not believe him. Juanita was on his side, and Murdoch not against him. Ensuring Teresa understood his intentions would be a sensible next move. Hence his attempts to write to her and explain what he had in mind. He still did not trust his voice to stand the strain of persuading her to listen and agree with him.
So Juanita had brought him pen and paper, promised to deliver the note to Teresa and waited for him to consider what to say.
He wrote, then scratched out the “dear” as too formal.
Tonight you will meet the man Scott calls his friend.
No, that was far too formal, too, and sounded like a line from a bad novel he had read once when recovering from some ailment. He had been told reading it would pass the time. It had made him laugh, at least.
Don’t trust Lucas Jefferson. I am going to try to get some evidence for you, but for now, take my word. I think I got him fooled, and he does not see who I am. Maybe that way I can find out who he is. Can you play along? If we’re friends again, I guess you will. I can’t talk to Scott, he only sees a friend, and I think Murdoch’s happy Scott’s found someone to talk book-learning to. You got to help me, Teresa, because I think this is the man who planned the fire.
That was going to have to be it. He handed it to Juanita who smiled.
“Don’t you worry, Señor. She wants very much to be your friend again. Shall I bring the reply to you?”
“Bring her if you can, Juanita. When she’s read the note. Then I can see what she thinks of me now.”
It took ten minutes but Teresa came running. She came to stand right in front of Johnny and reached out a hand, which Johnny took instinctively.
“What can I do?” she enquired. It was music to his ears, to find his sister immediately trusting his opinion. He let go of her hand and brushed his fingers across her cheek, and she smiled immediately, copying his action on her other cheek so that no trace of tears remained.
“When he comes here, I’m gonna check him out – man like that’d make sure he was armed, even if you couldn’t see it. Watch what I do – see if you can cover it. You’ll know, when you see.”
“All right, Johnny. I can do that. What else?”
“Supper – I ain’t gonna have my best manners on show. I don’t want him knowin’ much about me. Maybe just enough to puzzle him a mite.” Johnny cleared his throat. That was going to have to be enough.
Teresa laughed. “Your best manners, Johnny? Now what would they be?”
He smiled at her. They were at peace again with each other. She had always defended him, from the very beginning, and the war between them, however it had happened, had unsettled him. So much in his world had become unfamiliar. He relied more and more on those he knew he could trust to trust him – Teresa, and his stalwart friend, Juanita. She looked at Teresa and smiled.
“It is good to see you talking to each other again, Señorita. You need to be careful with this Jefferson, I think.”
“Yes, Juanita, I think you’re right. I’ll do my best, Johnny – I won’t let you down.”
“You have never, ever let any of us down, Teresa.”
“I did. I let that man into the kitchen and left him there on his own far too long. But I won’t make a stupid mistake like that again, I promise.”
That was all the time they had. The man riding towards them was Lucas, and there was only time for Teresa to squeeze Johnny’s hand before Scott walked by, calling both of them to follow him and meet his eagerly-awaited supper guest. Johnny sighed, stood and walked quickly after his brother. As Lucas walked his horse into the corral, Johnny was settling himself on the gate, watching every move the man made with an intensity he disguised behind a grin.
Lucas trotted his horse down onto the valley road, into the land he craved for himself. His brain was busy with plans. He was aware that too much was being left to inferiors but with no partner, he had no choice. It was a shame Scott, the only man he had met recently to have anything approaching his education and intellectual capacity, had ambitions so different from his own. He had no need of friends; but someone to understand and admire his ambitions, now that was a different proposition.
In the last half-mile, as he passed through the fine pastures and between shade trees which rustled in a strong breeze, he became Lucas Jefferson, aspiring novelist in search of a pleasant supper with the most successful rancher in the area, Murdoch Lancer. Where would they sit? Would they be inside or outside the burnt-out shell of the house Lucas had ordered destroyed? What Mexican gibberish did they use for these places? Rancho? Something of that sort.
If he had a weakness, it was in the learning of languages. He saw no need to learn any language except his own. English, American English, was the only language required to converse with decent, civilized people. He knew he was ignoring recent history. But the Spanish-speaking people had lost, the Americans had won and, he believed all Spanish-sounding names should be replaced with good American ones. Like the boy – Madrid? Well, drifters were two a penny, and since the boy had chosen a Spanish name for himself that settled Lucas’ opinion of him. He had heard rumors that Madrid was good with a gun. He had seen only a lazy, bored young man with little intelligence and no manners and was inclined to believe the stories exaggerated.
He approached the corral, the wrecked house still an impressive backdrop to the scatter of barns and other buildings. He saw Scott, standing ready to take his horse. A young woman with long brown hair stood by Scott, barely reaching his shoulder in height – Teresa, undoubtedly. She was a pretty little thing, even with the wind blowing her hair round her face. Then, sitting on the top rail of the gate, that boy, Johnny, and standing by him a tall Mexican woman. He noted her cool expression. The boy seemed as bored as he had the last time they had met. He was pulling on his hat-strings, possibly trying to keep his hat from blowing away.
“Good afternoon, Lucas. Let me take your horse.” The careful enunciation was like music to Lucas, who for so many days had heard only what he considered the strangled tones of the local version of American.
“Thank you, Scott. I brought you a small gift – a copy of Mr. Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations,’ which I located in San Francisco.” Lucas handed on the gift, noted the expression of delight on Scott’s face then noted also the clumsy attempt Scott’s half-brother was making to climb down from his perch. The boy landed awkwardly, falling forward and grabbing the nearest thing to hand for balance, which happened to be Lucas’ sleeve. He pulled hard, stopping Lucas in his tracks. Johnny grinned and stood up.
“Missed my footin’. Sorry.” He smiled at Lucas but there was something in his eyes which didn’t smile at all. Lucas wondered, just for a moment, how accidental the missed step had been. The boy had to have felt the hidden firearm. Yet he was wandering off, scuffing the dust with his toe, with no further comment. The Mexican woman followed him, remonstrating with him, apparently. They were speaking in Spanish, effectively locking him out of the conversation, as if they knew he could not speak their lingo.
Lucas observed the way Scott looked at his sibling. He seemed more than a little annoyed but said nothing. Teresa had laughed outright, so perhaps the boy was clowning to amuse her.
“Your brother is not yet fully recovered from his injuries, I think,” Lucas ventured. Scott said nothing, watching his brother saunter away from them.
“Perhaps.” Scott turned back to his guest. “We eat early, Lucas. I hope you’ll forgive the fact that we have to dine out of doors, despite this wind. The bunkhouse is full of articles rescued from the fire and the extra beds placed there for us. I had hoped the great room would be ready for use by now, but the roof is still being repaired. I’ve had enough of beams falling on me for now.”
“My dear Scott, I’ve been eating in the open now for three weeks. It will be a luxury to sit at a table and converse in such good company.”
Lucas thought he heard a quiet laugh from the boy but he was deep in conversation with the Mexican woman and may have been enjoying some joke with her.
They walked towards the low building Lucas knew was the bunkhouse. Outside, in the shade of the house, a long, flame-blackened table stood. Round it, five chairs, one of which was already occupied by Murdoch Lancer. He had his leg propped on another chair and looked tired but still alert. He was not smiling.
“Mr. Lancer? Delighted to meet you, sir. Though sorry of course that it should be under these sad circumstances.”
“Sad? Not quite the word I would have chosen. Do sit down, Mr. Jefferson. I must apologize for the lack of a roof over our heads but someone seemed to think they could drive us away by burning the house down.”
“Deliberately? My dear sir, I am sorry to hear such a thing. Scott told me of the fire but he did not mention arson.”
“Mentioned damn near everythin’ else,” Johnny put in, taking his jacket off and rolling up his sleeves before settling himself in a chair close to his father. Teresa settled herself across from Johnny, leaving Lucas and Scott space further down the table.
“Johnny – I thought we might dress formally for this meal with our new guest.” There was an edge in Scott’s voice that Lucas had not heard so clearly before.
“Don’t let me stop you, brother. But Mr. Jefferson, ain’t you hot in that long coat? Why don’t you just relax and drink some good wine and tell us all about yerself.” Johnny smiled again, leaving the hint that Lucas should take off his coat hanging in the air. Lucas chose to ignore him. He waited till Scott indicated his place and then sat carefully, brushing away a fly. He took off his hat and looked for somewhere to place it. Scott immediately took it from him.
“Do you want me to take your hat too, Johnny?” Scott said, looking pointedly at the hat Johnny wore pushed back somewhat on his head.
“No thanks. I think I’ll keep it on. Keeps the sun outta my eyes. I like to see who I’m eatin’ with.”
Lucas watched Scott contain his annoyance. Such good self-control. He would be a loss. Perhaps the young ex-cavalry officer could be persuaded to be sensible and join in running the ranch after all. Perhaps it was Johnny who should be removed from the scene. Well, the plan was set. Whichever way it was done, the plan would work.
While they waited for the women to serve the food, Scott opened the wine and poured a glass for each of the men at the table.
“Why, Scott, a fine wine indeed,” Lucas said, settling himself into a chair which had seen better days. “Do you make it here on the ranch?”
This comment opened a harmless topic up for talk in which even Murdoch joined with interest.
The meal was hearty and tasted immeasurably better than the camp food Lucas had been eating for too long. This despite the dusty conditions. Their attempts to make a good show had a certain pathos. The cutlery, crockery and glasses were an assortment but he had been given the best they had to offer, and the others made do.
They ate good American beef stew but Johnny demanded some Mexican foodstuffs whose name meant nothing to Lucas.
“Johnny still likes his Mexican food, don’t you, Johnny?” Teresa explained, looking anxiously at Scott. She signaled to one of the servants and spoke to her for a moment. “But I didn’t know you wanted anything special. You’ll have to have what the vaqueros are eating.”
“That’s fine by me, chica. Man’s gotta have somethin’ spicy every once in a while, eh, Lucas? Be true to his own nature. What d’you think?”
Lucas didn’t understand what the boy was driving at but he knew he was the one discomforted by the question. He took his glass and drank from it to gain a few moments thinking time. “I suppose a man chooses his food to suit his own nature, sir.”
“Oh, I was meanin’ more than that. His tastes in women, mebbe. His ambitions. His desires.” The voice was husky and quiet but Lucas clearly heard every word.
The boy looked at him. Was he just making conversation or was there something else in that look? With his hat now pulled down against the eddying wind, the boy’s expression was thrown into shadow. But those blue eyes were watching him and Lucas involuntarily eased his collar.
“Johnny! That’s hardly a suitable topic for the supper table. Not with Teresa present.” Teresa laughed nervously but pushed the Mexican food towards Johnny with no further comment. The boy tucked in with scant regard for the proper use of knives and forks and said no more.
After that exchange, Lucas spent most of the meal watching and listening to Murdoch. The old man was clever, no doubt of that, and on his guard, but after an hour of talk he was relaxing, even allowing himself the weakness of showing a little pain as he shifted in his chair. Both sons looked up at his muffled groan but Murdoch resettled himself and proposed a toast.
“To new friends!”
Lucas drank the toast with the last of his wine and pulled out his pocket watch.
“Scott, would you care to join me in a stroll? I’d be most interested to see some more of this fine estate. I always find walking gives me time to appreciate the details I need for my writing.”
“Of course, Lucas. Are you intending to include us in your novel?”
“Yeah – we gonna be in there, then, gringo?”
The boy was drunk. Scott turned on him.
“Mind your manners, Johnny. Lucas is a guest.”
“Yeah, I know that. We goin’ for this walk then? I could do with some cooler air, down by the river, mebbe? I need to get this grit outta my eyes.”
“No,” Lucas said, rather more quickly than he had intended. “I thought perhaps towards the hills, that way – a good view of the house from there, I should imagine.”
“Oh – real walkin’. Well, I’m up for that. You comin’, Teresa?”
“No!” Lucas was forced to protest. He had no intention of exposing Teresa to the ordeal ahead.
“Oh? Mr.Jefferson, I’d be delighted.”
Only Murdoch’s, “Stay and talk to me while they’re gone,” stopped her. Johnny seemed a little put out but grabbed his jacket and pulled it on in a somewhat stiff movement, betraying his own hurts and weaknesses much as Murdoch had done a few minutes earlier. All the odds were most definitely in Lucas’ favour.
So they set out, not quite as Lucas had planned but in the right general direction and in good time. Johnny paced out in front, moving a little more quickly than Lucas had intended and glancing back impatiently if they fell too far behind. He was also studying the countryside much too carefully for Lucas’ liking. The wind was with them, hurrying them forward and more than once, Lucas had to grab his hat and settle it more firmly on his head. The hot wind was unsettling. He knew what was to come but could not entirely keep anxiety at bay. Or excitement – perhaps that would be a more accurate description of his physical state.
Lucas had designed the attack to take place while they were walking uphill, with horses emerging from the trees and cutting them down in the open. It had the merits of simplicity and, despite the inaccuracy of the weapons surely they could at least get Scott out of the way. He watched for signs of his men but it was Johnny who suddenly shouted a warning and stood, urging them to follow him into the trees.
“Run, Scott!” Lucas shouted, taking a chance and pushing Scott up the slope, closer to the two riders who reined in at the top of the slope. Both riders were searching for the three men. Up the slope meant closer to the guns and that fool of a brother was already close enough to be hit, yet he was standing there as if he hadn’t a care in the world as the two riders were joined by a third. Evidently at last realizing the danger he was in, Johnny was running again, traveling across the slope and into the trees. From there he immediately began to give Lucas and Scott covering fire, with an accuracy Lucas found matched the descriptions he had received and dismissed about the boy’s reputation. No shots had connected but the riders had wheeled, uncertain now of their target.
There was not much time to think. Lucas ran after Scott but the horsemen had spotted them and were heading their way. Scott had drawn his revolver and was shouting to his brother.
“Protect Lucas! He’s unarmed! Johnny! Go on, Lucas – I’ll keep you covered!”
So with both brothers firing to save him, Lucas ran, leaving Scott exposed to the three men on horses. He didn’t even trouble himself to look back to watch Scott being cut down. He would see that moment in Johnny’s face, if the boy cared anything for his brother. That would be most satisfying.
Then Johnny whooped. He had drawn careful aim on a rider and had fired, dropping him clean from the saddle. As Lucas ran up the boy grinned in triumph.
“Damn – I ain’t lost my touch! You come on here, Mr.Jefferson – you be safe with me! Now how about you use that derringer to protect me and Scott from these bad guys.” Johnny had stopped firing, had even holstered his revolver, and the grin had disappeared. Caught completely by surprise by the man he saw in front of him in place of the grinning boy he had seen moments before, Lucas almost gave himself away immediately. He would have done, had not a stray shot from his own man caught him, grazing his scalp and knocking him onto his back. He heard a Spanish curse, and saw Johnny turn, draw faster then anyone Lucas had ever seen and fired, only to drop the gun a moment later and hug his arm. He had done his work. The rider sagged in his saddle and rode off. What had happened to Scott? Lucas, dizzied, hardly cared. It wouldn’t surprise him now to find Scott had killed the third rider and was even now making his way up to them. Johnny would reveal everything that he had guessed and then, Lucas had little doubt, his days – no, his minutes – were numbered. There was no fear in him, only an exhilarating feeling that he was fully alive, if only for a few moments more.
Lucas looked and Scott was indeed headed their way, though Lucas could not see what had happened to the other rider. He could feel the blood pouring down his face, however, and reached up a hand to try to stem the flow. His nerves sang, his senses overwhelmed by the excitement of the last few minutes and he sat and waited for his fate to be decided.
He was destined to be surprised yet again by the two young men he thought he had assessed accurately. As soon as Scott closed on them he was shouting at his brother, the pent-up anger of the evening clearly being released.
“Why did you stop firing? You knew Lucas was unarmed. Why?” Scott stood looking at Lucas then knelt, trying to untie his own bandanna with one hand until Lucas pulled a handkerchief from his top pocket.
Johnny made no attempt to answer his brother, just stood, holding his left forearm tightly. Scott took the handkerchief and held it to the cut on Lucas’ head. Lucas then allowed himself to be helped to his feet by a solicitous Scott, who continued to question his brother as if everything had been his fault. Lucas had escaped. Johnny knew about him but could say nothing. He would have smiled had he not been blindingly angry that the two young men now helping him home were still alive. The hot wind teased him, making his skin prickle. He felt dirty, disheveled and, for the first time, began to doubt his ability to read men to his advantage.
Half way there, Johnny, who had been lagging behind, quietly told his brother to stop.
“Johnny?” The concern was there but still cut through with anger.
“I gotta just – just bind this up. It ain’t nothin’ much but it’s bleedin’ some.”
Scott stopped and went back to his brother, whose shirt sleeve was discoloured with blood. Between them they managed to get the cuff undone, revealing a long cut from which the blood seeped steadily.
“We’re nearly back. There’s nothing to bind it with – can you make it all right?”
“Yeah – guess so. Get on – your friend looks like he might pass out. I’ll be right behind. Don’t want that fella that got away to cut us down out her in the open. Eh, Jefferson? No way now either of us can defend ourselves. You reloaded, Scott?” That was the last awkward question the boy was going to manage. He coughed, putting one hand to his throat.
“No – how could I reload? What are you talking about? You’d better keep quiet. Come on, let’s get back to the house.”
They didn’t have to walk far before riders from the ranch hurried up, brought by the noise of gunfire, their long shadows cutting across the landscape. Then Lucas was helped up behind a ranch hand and rushed off to the house. All the way back, he cursed his luck. His life was free of suspicion, and he was still Scott’s friend. But they both still lived and the ranch was no nearer being his.
Desperate times. And they called for desperate measures. Time to move up the next phase of his plan. Next morning, at the latest. And as the horse trotted back to the main house, he held onto consciousness and to the thought that, by tomorrow evening at the latest, Lancer would be under his control.
And no lazy, rude and suspiciously perceptive young Mexican was going to stand in his way.
Johnny watched Lucas ride away until he could no longer make out the figure in the dark. He heard a hot but quiet argument going on behind him and tried resolutely not to join in. He was angry enough with his brother. No need to make things worse. He listened to his father, patiently making his point of view and Scott, interrupting and impatient, clearly frustrated that his judgement was not being trusted.
“You should have let me go with him!” That was Scott, his voice louder with every word.
“We sent two of our best men with him, Scott. He said he felt well enough to travel and preferred to be in his own camp tonight.”
“I thought it impolite not to escort him myself.”
“Son, you can hardly ride safely. You would not be physically able to defend him should the need arise, which I don’t believe it will.”
“It was – impolite. Surely you can see that.” Scott seemed to be having trouble getting past the etiquette of the situation.
Johnny listened as the argument went back and forth, neither his brother nor his father giving ground. It was a pointless exercise. Lucas, trustworthy or not, would be back in his own camp before either one gave way. Johnny knew where he stood. He had made his own judgement, one that he could neither test further nor prove to the other two. Lucas was bad, through and through bad, in a way he had instinctively recognised. Being with Lucas gave him a sick feeling in his stomach. Although he had enjoyed playing games with the man, he did not underestimate the danger they were in from Lucas. The man needed to be stopped.
If Johnny had hoped to keep out of the argument, he was to be disappointed. He wanted to get his arm fixed up, he needed a drink and he needed to sleep, but his brother was talking to him now, and the tone was accusatory.
“Why did you stop firing, anyway? You could have got him killed.”
Johnny did not reply. His voice was too tired and uncertain, his throat sore. He had no intention of explaining his real motives to a man who could not see what he was driving at. His silence did nothing to placate Scott, who stepped up to him and pulled him round, forgetting the injury to his brother’s arm.
Johnny pulled away from his brother’s grip, feeling his anger begin to rise and grimacing from the hot, sudden pain. Scott knew what he had done and, instead of offering sympathy, started to berate him for not having the wound attended to. Then Scott was calling for Juanita, pushing Johnny toward a chair and trying, one-handed, to take off Johnny’s shirt.
“No!” Johnny managed. Then, finding he had some voice, he put a question of his own. “Forget me. Think about what you saw. See him as I saw him. Why…” he whispered, “do you think I am trying to tell you not to trust him?”
The question had its intended effect, stopping Scott in his tracks. But his brother was not about to change his opinion of Lucas, even in the face of logic. “I don’t know why you would do that. I just know you’re wrong. You’re always suspicious of everyone. It’s – what you’ve learned. I don’t blame you, but maybe you just have trouble trusting people.”
Johnny allowed himself to be sat down and tended by Juanita, who was rolling up his sleeve as far as it would go, and making small noises of disapproval as she surveyed the wound by the light of a lantern she had brought with her.
“What does that mean?” Johnny croaked, his own anger dangerously close to the surface.
“You’ve never given the man a chance. Just because we talk about things that don’t interest you, or that you don’t understand.”
Johnny looked up his brother. Surely he couldn’t think he was too stupid to follow what they had been talking about. He fisted his hand but Juanita was having none of that.
“Agua!” she shouted, and a woman set off at a run to fetch some. “Now, Señor Johnny, how are you supposed to get well when you keep losing blood? If you have a fever again, it will be very bad.”
“I don’t have no fever, Juanita! This ain’t nothin’.”
“It is not nothing, Señor Johnny. You know that. Now, we will wash this and wrap it, and you will be well again soon.” She smiled at him and he looked at her, grateful for her mothering, although no one would have heard him say so.
“I still don’t understand what you were hoping to prove.” Scott was not going to let the matter drop. Johnny shrugged, wishing Juanita had finished. The water had arrived and she was washing the blood away from the seven-inch furrow in his forearm. He could not move, not while she was gripping his arm.
“Scott, leave your brother in peace. Help me back into the bunkhouse. We need to get an early start – I want to make sure we all do what we can to help get the roof fixed. I need to be back in the main house as soon as possible. I cannot run a ranch from a bunkhouse. Now, get me back there – at least I can get a reasonable night’s sleep. Scott?”
Johnny looked at his father, grateful for Murdoch’s support, but still angry with his brother. He knew he had to get away for a while, to think things out. As soon as it was light, next morning, he would ride out and find somewhere he could be by himself, if only for a short while. He would be back before his father woke, and he would put everything he had into helping with the roof.
Juanita finished up, wrapping his arm carefully in cloth.
“Your back, Señor. When we are inside, I will put the salve on again. You must take more care of yourself.”
“Yeah. Well, it’s a mite difficult, with all the shootin’ goin’ on.”
“Meaning?” Scott continued to help Murdoch to stand, and gave his father the crutches one by one, but he glared at his brother.
Johnny knew immediately he shouldn’t have said anything. He should have let Scott help Murdoch back to the bunkhouse and gone there himself for the nursing he still needed. He was in no position to continue the discussion, so he stood, steadied himself and began to walk back to the bunkhouse. He heard his brother grumble to Murdoch, something derogatory; then he felt a hand grip his shoulder and Juanita’s quiet, “No, Johnny, say nothing. The family must stay together.” She was right, completely right. He walked away from an argument, with nothing resolved but he was not going to be the one to allow Lucas to open up the fracture lines in their family.
Next morning, before the sun had done much more than faintly colour the sky, he saddled Barranca, swearing quietly at the pain in his forearm, and rode out to the hills. He had left a note for his family. A man did not ride out on his own without letting others know where he was going, not in this dangerous country. A few hours on his own, that was all it would take, then he would be back helping open up the house again. Let Lucas make the next move. He would be ready.
Lucas stood by the fire, listening intently to the report from the two survivors of the abortive attack. One only had been killed and with the odds only slightly against them they had run off. One was injured, not seriously. The other was unscathed. One Lucas wanted to know the reasons for their retreat.
The boy he faced had come highly recommended, from out of state, and had been hired for a considerable sum of money. He hadn’t appeared incompetent. So what excuse would the boy try on him?
“Johnny Madrid. Mr.Jefferson – you didn’t say nothin’ about goin’ up against Johnny Madrid.”
Lucas kept his tone even, his face straight, but the protest fuelled the anger inside him. A reputation, a fairytale had beaten these two fools back.
“I believe you were told it was Madrid. Your dead partner told me all about the boy’s reputation. He didn’t seem much opposition to me. You survived the encounter.”
The young gunfighter looked at the fire, apparently unable to answer. “I ain’t no hero, Mr. Jefferson. I reckon to live a bit longer.”
“You were afraid of a shadow! He’s just like you, except fools have passed the word around he is better with his gun than anyone else. Which is patently ridiculous, otherwise you would be dead by now.”
“That ain’t so, Mr.Jefferson. I heard what he did before he come here. And he shot Griff out of the saddle.”
Lucas was tired of the discussion. His head ached and his stomach burned with anger. “I’ll need you in the morning. Make sure you’re ready. And you, get that arm seen to. You’re coming too. Just you two. First light. No more bad luck, no more mistakes. I want this land. I am going to have this land. Now go.”
Left alone, Lucas paced to the edge of the firelight and looked out into the darkness. One single light in the valley, far away, tiny. The only mark of humans beside his own fire. In the morning, he would ride in, very early, and he would take Scott. His two men would take him away, then he would tell Lancer what he had done, and Lancer would do whatever he wanted. It was very simple and had the great merit that it would work. What would they do about the Madrid boy? They would kill him. Reputation and man. They would kill him and get him out of the way. A warning to his father. Yes, that would work, and better than any of the other plans he had mulled over in the last few days. He had a couple of other preparations to make but when he blew out the candle and lay back in his camp bed, Lucas was keenly aware that this time, he could not get away with failure.
At first light, he struck camp, ordered the three men he did not need immediately to go to the new location and set out, neatly dressed and fully armed, for the Lancer ranch. The two men with him kept quiet, hanging back slightly. It was hardly an army but he didn’t need men with guns any more. All he needed was Scott’s trust in him and a little luck.
The ride did not seem as long this time. Landmarks were becoming familiar and he began to look round with the eye of an owner, rather than an admirer. By the time he rode into the corral, he was smiling. There was profound silence, as if the place were holding its breath. He had a few short minutes before the people were up and moving, and he needed only a little luck.
As if making up for all the bad luck he had had, one thing after another fell into place. He walked round the side of the main house and Scott was there, striding towards the corral with a letter in his hand. So intent was he on reading the note he hardly noticed Lucas. The moment he did, he waved the letter is if very annoyed about something.
“Good morning, Lucas. We didn’t expect to see you so early.”
“Good morning, Scott. No, I thought I might surprise you.”
“Did you see my brother as you rode in? He’s gone off somewhere, and we need him this morning.”
Lucas smiled casually but an idea immediately came to his mind. He pulled his revolver and crossed his hands over the pommel, dangling the sidearm loosely but in plain sight. One of his hired men pulled a rifle. The other, injured, still managed to pull his own revolver. Both aimed their firearms at Scott. The young officer looked irritated, tired and unkempt, and Lucas enjoyed a moment’s anticipation before he began to unravel all Scott’s judgements of his character.
“Yes, Scott, I believe I did see him. In fact, if I remember correctly, it took three of my men to subdue him. However, I think it might be much easier to deal with you. Here, why don’t you take my horse? I shall soon be choosing another from your excellent string.”
Lucas dismounted, holding the gun on Scott and smiling at him. He knew that realisation had come to Scott quickly, but too late. The look of shocked disbelief on Scott’s face was balm for Lucas’ lingering anger.
“I’m sure that you wouldn’t want any harm to come to your half-brother. You don’t seem to like him much but I know you are much too honourable to allow us to hurt him. Now, do let me give you a leg up. I gather it’s been a while since you rode? I hope you’ll be able to hang on – you have a fair way to go. You – tie his hands to the pommel.”
Scott protested, but co-operated. He had no option, and Lucas watched as the young man suppressed obvious pain in his arm as he was tied to the saddle.
“Now,” said Lucas, suddenly serious. “I rather need something of yours, something that will convince Murdoch I have you in my care. It’s a shame you haven’t dressed fully yet – a jacket, a hat perhaps? No locket belonging to your mother? No jewellery at all? Oh well, since you’re a literate man, I suppose you’ll have to sign this letter after all.”
Lucas handed Scott a letter he had prepared by candlelight the previous night. He also handed him a pencil. With no other option available, Scott did the sensible thing and signed, although his hand shook with emotion. He said nothing, rather to Lucas’ disappointment, but the look on his face was a small compensation. Lucas couldn’t resist a little levity.
“Such a gentleman, even in defeat!” That elicited a response.
“Get on with it, Jefferson. What do you want from us? Money? What?”
“Everything, Scott. I want everything. Now if you want to see your father and your half-brother again, I suggest you do what these kind gentlemen want you to do. I’ll just go and give Murdoch the good news – privately, of course. I don’t especially want his men searching for you and the Mexican kid just yet.” Lucas signalled to his two men and they grabbed the reins of Lucas’ horse, keeping Scott between them as they rode off.
He watched the three riders disappear into the distance before strolling across the yard to the bunkhouse. Why on earth had he made things so difficult for himself before? He was master there. He would control Murdoch Lancer’s every move. Just for a while, he would allow the old man to go on living there, doing what he was told in return for his sons’ lives. It was a heady feeling, and he glanced up at the white house, so nearly repaired. Waiting for him. Well, perhaps after all he would live in it. Once the land was all his. Madrid was a name he would have to keep in mind. He was off the ranch but he would have to return and Lucas would have to be ready for him. But for that moment, he would put away all thoughts of the young man whose reputation qualified him for some respect, and he strode to the bunkhouse to have a few words with Murdoch Lancer.
Behind the barn, in the early morning light, an urgent argument was proceeding in whispers.
“But, mí esposo, I must go to Señor Johnny. Now! Why do you refuse to understand this?”
“Juanita. You are being unreasonable. I will ride to him and tell him what has happened. I can ride a great deal better than you can.”
“And you will tell him what?”
“I will tell him that you overheard Lucas threaten Señor Lancer with the death of both of his sons if he did not co-operate. And yet Señor Lancer continues about his business, giving orders to everyone, and telling us his sons will be in Sacramento for two days, buying tables and chairs for the Great Room, and we are to continue with repairing the roof and running the ranch.”
“Well? Do you not see why you cannot tell Señor Johnny this?”
“Because you are a man, and he is a man, and between you, you will decide that he will ride to the ranch, announce that all is well with him, challenge Señor Jefferson to a gunfight and kill that – that rattlesnake.”
“Si! Of course!”
Juanita sighed in exasperation at the foolishness of men. She knew time was pressing but she needed to be absolutely certain she was right. She had heard snatches of a private conversation. She had drawn certain conclusions from that conversation, but was sure only that Jefferson had said he was holding Johnny. She had to find out if that were true. She knew exactly where Johnny was and how long he planned to be away. It might be wise to keep him away for a while longer, to give her a chance to find out what truly was going on. To send her husband on such a mission would fire Johnny to action. What if Scott were in some way in trouble, too? She wished fervently that she had heard more.
“You catch me a horse, you saddle that horse and then you go back and keep your eyes and ears open. Johnny is a man capable of dealing with much but he is still not himself, and he needs time to gather his strength and plan what to do. Come, we have debated this too long – I must go.”
“No! No more. I will get the saddlecloth.” She turned smartly on her heel and went into the dark, cool barn. She was shaking, irritated by her husband, worried for Johnny and desperately aware of each passing moment. She found the saddlecloth and brought it to the door, just as Luis brought the horse.
“Must I ride that one? He is so – tall.”
“Yes – he is the best and will get you to Señor Johnny quickly. But if you think you cannot handle him…”
“Get a saddle.” She had been close to calling him a bad name but she loved him enough to allow him his failings.
In a few minutes the horse was saddled, she had her bundle of food, clothing and other necessaries for Johnny, in case she found him, and she was urging the animal out across the pasture, away from Lancer. Her husband had kissed her and wished her luck. The worry was etched in his features but she could do nothing about that.
The ride was not comfortable. While still close to the ranch house she felt her every move was being watched. Once out into open country she was looking for a way she knew well but had not traveled for a long while. The horse was not co-operative, responding to her anxiety by shying from the least thing, so that she had to use all her concentration to keep him in line. At last they came to a compromise and he settled into a steady, ground-covering canter.
Half an hour it took. Johnny had never intended to go far, just be away from the family for a while in a place he had visited before. Juanita had to urge her horse up a steep path which ascended the banks of an arroyo, to a solitary tree where, to her great relief, Barranca was tethered, comfortably grazing. Johnny was there, leaning against the tree with an amused half-smile.
“You come to give me breakfast, Juanita? I was coming back anyway. I need to get started supervising the work on the roof.”
Juanita reined in the difficult horse but it wouldn’t stand still. Johnny, his smile broadening, came to hold the horse’s head while she dismounted. Nervous for the first time in a very long time, she could not stop the news tumbling out.
“Señor, Señor, I am so happy to find you. Señor Jefferson, I think he has a hold over your father but I do not understand what. And I am afraid for your brother.”
“Whoa, hold up there. Here, careful!” He caught her as she dismounted. She began to unload the bags and blankets strapped to the saddle. “What’s happened to Scott?” Johnny continued, taking the bags from her and leading her into the shade of the tree. She knew she looked hot and flustered, and wished she had chosen better words to greet him. She tried to distract him.
“How is your arm, Señor?”
“What do you mean, how is my arm? You tell me how my brother is and what Jefferson has done. Juanita!” He grabbed her arm, the smile gone.
“No, Juanita – you tell me right now.”
“I heard your father, Señor. He was talking to Señor Jefferson but I did not hear everything. I think he said he would kill you and Scott if Señor Murdoch did not do as he was told. He needs to be stopped, that snake!”
Johnny took off his hat and threw it forcefully onto the ground, swinging round to face the way back to the ranch. “Damn it! I knew that man was no good. Stay here, Juanita – I gotta get down there!”
“No! Señor! Please, listen to me.” Juanita grasped Johnny’s arm but took her hand away again as if it had been scalded when she saw the look on Johnny’s face. “I am sorry, Señor.”
“What’s goin’ on? Do you want me to go down there or not? Half a minute ago I would have sworn you wanted me to go and kill Jefferson.” He looked closely at her while she grasped his hand, keeping it steady while she undid the cuff and pushed up his sleeve. “Juanita!”
“No, that is not what I want you to do at all! You must stay here and my husband will find out more, then you can plan what to do. I think maybe Jefferson has your brother, como se dice? Hostage? If you go now, maybe your brother will die.” She spoke quietly and concentrated on removing the bloodied cloth round Johnny’s forearm. Johnny was completely silent. Then he groaned.
“I am sorry – did I hurt you?” she asked immediately, looking up at him.
“No. You could never do that. You’re right. If I go barrelling in there now, Scott could die, Murdoch could die – hell, why didn’t I do something about that man when I had the chance? I could have killed him yesterday, easy.”
“And lost the friendship of your brother and your father’s respect? No, you did all you could. Now Señor, I think you had better sit down because I need to put this on your arm and it will hurt.”
Juanita brought a small bottle from the saddlebag and waited for Johnny to sit. She held his hand, pulling his arm out, away from his body. She poured the liquid over the angry-looking wound and held him tight as he shied away from the treatment with a muffled curse.
“What’s that? Firewater?” He gritted his teeth and let her hold his hand while she waited for the pain to leave his face.
“It will make sure you do not get infection there.” When he pushed his hat back off his face and looked straight at her, she let go of his hand and spoke very seriously to him. “You must be strong and wait, and I think that will be hard for you. I have brought you food, clothes, blankets. Do you know of anywhere you might shelter for a while?”
Johnny sighed, relaxing. The pain was evidently subsiding. “Yeah. The old gold workings, up on the hillside. They go back a ways – I could maybe even light a fire there without anyone knowing. Juanita …”
“You got some of that salve? I wanna be a fit as can to deal with Jefferson.” He cleared his throat. Juanita had not heard him say so much all together for too long, and while his voice was still not quite his own, she was glad he could begin to communicate, however huskily.
“Yes, Señor. Please, pull back your shirt. Señor?”
“Yes?” Johnny undid some of the toggles on his shirt and pulled it off his shoulders.
“You will stay there, Señor, until I can bring you more information?”
Johnny looked at her, a grin breaking through the serious expression. “Don’t you trust me?”
“I do not trust that I have told you the danger well enough. Maybe, when it is very dark tonight you will get to thinking, I can kill this Lucas while he sleeps.”
Johnny looked at her sharply. She had guessed his thoughts right. She was wise to say nothing else, busying herself in rubbing the salve into his healing skin. She knew he was considering what she had said. At last, when she had re-bound his arm and helped him with his shirt, he spoke.
“Guess I’ll just hafta resist temptation, huh?” Again that cock-eyed grin, until she could not help but smile back.
“Yes, Señor. Your brother’s life may depend on it.”
“I know it.” He choked and coughed until Juanita had to thump him on the back. When he gathered himself and was drinking water from the canteen she knelt in front of him.
“Now Señor, is there anything else I can bring you?”
“Word from Teresa,” he managed, suppressing another cough. “Word from Murdoch.”
“I will try. I will try very hard. Señor Murdoch will be so happy to know you are free. Now, I must return. I think only Mr. Jefferson is at the ranch but he may bring in more of his men and it will be difficult for me to slip away then. But I will return, tomorrow, as soon as I can.”
“Juanita.” It was his turn to take her hand. “You are very good to me.”
She smiled. “We are good to each other, Señor. We are friends, no?”
“Then remember. In the night, when it is cold and you are alone, you will remember that friendship and you will stay where you are.”
She relaxed and sat back. “I will bring you my best chicken tomorrow. You are too skinny. You are doing up your belt a whole notch tighter.”
He smiled, a mischievous smile, as if to say, why, Juanita, I do not think it is proper you should be checking such matters as my belt. But he said nothing.
She stood, pressing the jar of salve into his hand and wondering just how he would reach that awkward, sore place that needed his careful attention. Then she stood, went up to the horse and prepared to face the rigours of the journey home. She stood by the saddle until she felt two hands at her waist. She put her foot in the stirrup and he helped her up, with a “there you go!” Flustered, she straightened her skirts around her and kicked somewhat more firmly at her horse than she needed to do. Surprised, the horse moved forward quickly, leaving her to hang on to the saddle horn.
She heard a concerned, “Be careful, Señora!” behind her, and looked back. Johnny was waving to her, serious again now, and she noticed he had pushed his hand into his shirt, supporting his injured arm. It would heal, but that would take time. He was a forlorn figure, watching her go, and she wished she could stay with him and at least keep him company. But she had more important things to do and she turned away, leaving him behind as she went in search of answers to the questions which pounded in her mind.
As they had ridden up the hillside, Scott had hoped to find Johnny waiting, ready to tease him into smile even at this situation. He dismounted carefully, his arm painful and distracting but he kept that from his captors. They led him up further, on foot, to an entrance. The mine. He followed one man inside, into the cool shade only fifteen feet or so. There was his cell. It was empty. He tried to take heart. Perhaps that meant Lucas was lying and Johnny was free, just out for a ride as his letter had said. Lucas had lied about everything else.
So he had settled down on the bed to think, as calmly and rationally as he could, though inside he barely controlled his rage at the indignity and injustice of his situation. Still he thought what he could do. Then he considered what his brother would do. He knew he just needed one edge, one break, and he would be free. In the meantime, his father would either do as Lucas told him or Scott would die. That was what the letter Lucas had given him to sign had said and he could only hope his father would take it seriously.
He had no jacket, and it was beginning to get cold. He prowled round his cell again restlessly. It was going to be a long day.
At the end of the same day, on the other side of the hill, Johnny lit his fire, settled by it and stared into the flames. The mine entrance was the only shelter he would have that night. More long hours, with the added burden of darkness, before Juanita would be back. He looked out at the stars and the dark land. They seemed a long way away.
Murdoch missed his old desk. They had been together a long time and he had spent many hours with papers spread across its surface, keeping the accounts with a loving attention to neatness and correctness. The desk was being repaired; all it had needed in the end was a new top. But he would miss the stains and scratches that had made a familiar network over the desk. There had even been a scratch from Johnny’s spurs on the edge, matched on the opposing side by small indentations, the result of a small son trying out his new teeth. He had been punished but Murdoch had had cause to bless his son for leaving this small trace of himself. The fire had destroyed that one remaining memento of Johnny’s childhood.
So he was working at the small awkward table formerly to hold some ornament but which was in no way fit for the owner of the largest ranch in the valley. He was used to that status, used to his word carrying weight. He despised Jefferson for his insolent assumption that he would give the ranch away without a fight.
The Great Room was unfinished around him and just barely safe but he had to sit there, to keep himself under control and forget that he had, temporarily at least, relinquished his hold over the ranch to Jefferson. His anger at that fact was almost more than he could bear but he had learned patience in the long years of establishing his ranch. And it was very important that he kept the fury at bay. All he had to do now was persuade Johnny to be equally patient.
He was supposed to be writing to his business contacts, explaining that he would be selling out. He had written three to some old friends who would be very puzzled by his brief notes, possibly puzzled enough to and see if something was amiss. They had been read and passed fit by the odious man, who had stood over him while Murdoch had exercised every ounce of his self-control. This was the man one kind-hearted son had so unwisely befriended, while the other son had tried to warn them.
Jefferson had gone to get some coffee leaving Murdoch to puff furiously at his pipe and try to decide, as quickly as he could, what to write to Johnny.
The news that his younger son was free had filled him with renewed hope. Juanita had found him alone for a few moments and had whispered a few words to him in Spanish. They were enough to make him grab her arm and insist she tell him more. So he knew his younger son was safe, free and, for the time being, willing to stay where he was.
Murdoch, knowing that he must write quickly, glanced at the note Teresa had already written to Johnny. Full of simple hope and affection, it spoke of an open and uncomplicated relationship, sister to brother, friendship re-established and secure.
“John,” he wrote. “It is my fervent hope that you are well.” Where had that phrase come from? It sounded stiff and formal but it did match the strength of his feelings. Press on, no time for amendments and false starts. “Jefferson has Scott. If I do anything to stop him, Scott will be killed. Kill Jefferson and Scott dies.” There, that was the most important point made. Surely he didn’t need to give Johnny advice about dealing with the situation.
He stopped writing, his mind suddenly full of images of his son, dealing year after year with the worst that men could do and somehow surviving. What could he tell his over-wise son, who already knew what needed to be done? He wrote the last few words.
“We will defeat this man together, Johnny.” He signed himself “Your father,” groaned at the inadequacy of the words then looked up to see Lucas, coffee cup in hand, enter the room.
Murdoch re-read the note. He made no effort to hide it, since that would only have attracted Lucas’ attention. The note seemed woefully inadequate in expressing the fear he had for Scott’s life. He took up the pen again, with a panicky feeling that he was saying nothing like enough.
“Be patient,” he wrote. He could write nothing more. Lucas was too close. But he wanted to go on writing, right under the man’s nose, to his son, John. The son Lucas was supposed to have hostage. He took great satisfaction in knowing the man was lying about his youngest.
He folded the note, with Teresa’s inside his own and put them under two other notes, ones he could show to Lucas if necessary. Lucas seemed uninterested in reading any more notes, however, and settled himself in a new armchair and began studying the map which had once hung on the wall but now lay on the floor. It was smoke and water stained but Murdoch had drawn it himself.
Lucas was in a talkative mood, letting Murdoch in on his plans for the ranch, once the title deeds were his. Murdoch placed the notes in an envelope and sealed it, shutting out Lucas’ words as far as he could. He wondered how he was going to give the note to Juanita. She solved the problem for him.
“Señor, I have brought you some coffee. Is there anything else I can do?”
“Yes, Señora. Perhaps you would be so kind as to make sure these are dealt with? Please ensure someone hand-delivers that one,” Murdoch said, passing the precious envelope to her, “to mi hijo ausente, in los collados.” Lucas looked up.
“Good neighbours of mine. South of here.”
Lucas smiled. “I trust you, Murdoch. You understand such matters. I do admire your head for business. Mine is usually so full of what I will write next I hardly notice the day-to-day business of the world at all. Will Scott be back soon? I was hoping to discuss the next chapter with him.”
Murdoch almost gave himself away by smiling at the way Jefferson was continuing his own fiction in front of Juanita, who had been the first to know the man was lying. Fortunately, he felt Juanita’s steadying hand on his arm and brought himself back under control.
“I will deliver it personally, Señor. I will be visiting them today, as usual.” She touched his arm with her hand. “Buena suerte, Señor.”
Murdoch nodded. He had many more hours of Lucas’ company to endure, if the previous day was anything to go by. But he still had two sons, and Señora Acebo, and he still had all his wits.
Johnny crouched by his campfire, blanket round his shoulders to keep out the chill morning air. He poured himself another cup of coffee, putting the pot back on a hearth stone and shaking his fingers ruefully, wishing he had a cloth to hold the heated handle.
He sat back on an earth bank, stretching first one leg then the other. Questions that had tormented him all night still sang through his mind. But he had stayed put, though he had walked over to Barranca twice during the night, and stood close by his horse angrily weighing up a decision. Juanita’s words haunted him yet they also kept him just where he was. He might as well, he reflected, be in jail.
It was getting late by his reckoning before he saw Juanita urging her horse forward. He waved then ran down the hill to meet her. It was odd to watch her ride as if she had no understanding of horses; she sure understood people. Especially him.
“Juanita – buenos días. What’s happening down there?” He quickly controlled the flood of questions in his mind when he saw she needed help to dismount.
“Señor – your father has sent you a letter. Here – and Señorita Teresa, a note for you.” Juanita handed him the envelope and went to stand a little way away while he read them.
The notes caught him off guard. He had been expecting a series of don’ts from Murdoch; instead, a letter in which he read a depth of emotion that made him hunker down and pull his hat down further over his face. Teresa’s note came like a second blow – he imagined her standing with her hands outstretched, waiting to welcome him back to Lancer, when in reality she was still there subjected to that guy’s … he couldn’t think of it any further. He wanted to go to the ranch and kill the man. His home. The man had taken his home.
He cleared his throat and looked up at Juanita. She would guess his emotions; it was plain foolish to try and hide them from her.
“Señor, I will tell you everything I know and everything Luis has found out. Then you will see what to do, and you will do it.”
Johnny took her faith in him absolutely seriously, when he might have smiled at someone else. She stood while he still squatted and as he looked up he had to squint against the bright sunlight. He could not think of anything to say to her that would measure up to such faith.
“Señor – do you feel well?”
He sighed. “Yeah. You want some coffee?” He stood and took the reins of her horse in his hand. “You got a different horse today.” His voice seemed to be holding up a bit better. Maybe a night in the clean, high air had done some good.
“Luis said he was gentler. I do not – I do not like them, Señor. They are useful creatures but I do not like them.”
Johnny smiled at her. “Feel the same ‘bout snakes, Juanita, human ones, anyway. I don’t like ’em. Come on, horse.” He picked up the reins and the horse followed him like a child.
Juanita laughed. “I wish I could do that. You have no fear of them, I think that is what it is.”
“Yeah – you’re just a good fella, ain’t you, just a good fella.” He rubbed the horse’s nose. “Come on, let’s go talk strategy. My brother would love that, strategy talk. He’s learned about it at a big college they got back East, with diagrams and maps and history books. I didn’t learn it that way.”
“Life, she has given you many lessons, Señor. You must not talk so much. How are your stitches? I must take them out soon.”
“Yeah. La vida breve.” He caught her eye. “Here today, gone tomorrow.” Time enough in the rest of the day to save his voice. He ignored her talk of taking out stitches.
“Not while I’m here, Señor. You will have many children and your name will live on into the future.”
“Sure hope so. Here, have a seat in my casa, Juanita. Watch your head – ceiling’s a mite low.”
They sat together for a long while, Juanita telling Johnny everything she had observed about Jefferson, and she was a very observant woman. Johnny asked a few questions, but set himself mainly to picturing his opponent, trying to find the weaknesses such a man must have. The sun climbed in the sky until it stood at its zenith. Then Juanita found the chicken she had cooked that morning, which they shared, and while Johnny gnawed the leg bone, she checked the wound on his arm, re-bound it with no more than a slight grimace of annoyance from Johnny and asked after his general health with an earnestness Johnny found alternately amusing and touching. He at last diverted her by expressing a fear which had troubled him off and on all night.
“You’re sure Jefferson don’t know you understand what he is doin’. You gotta stay safe, Juanita – don’t you go riskin’ your life over this.”
“He does not even see me, I think, Señor. He has only one way of seeing the world, that one.”
“Has he said anything about me?”
“No, he has not said anything of you in front of me. I cannot ask the girls what they have seen – they must not know what we know. They will only chatter and he will soon know then what we do. But I believe he thinks of you. I saw him this morning looking at your picture, the one Señor Lancer kept in his room. The other, on his desk, that has gone but Señor Lancer moved this one downstairs and he has it by his side on the floor, along with the picture of Señor Scott. I think it is his way of telling Lucas he still has his family with him and Lucas cannot make him put them away because he is only a guest there. That is what he plays – the humble guest, waiting for Scott’s return.”
Johnny threw the chicken bone into the fire. It was time to make a decision.
“I figure the best thing to do is let Murdoch handle Jefferson for a day or so. I’ll find Scott, if I have to follow every man riding anywhere on this ranch. They have to be holding him somewhere and they have to have some message system goin’ between Lucas and that place. With Scott free too, then we can see what to do. That’s as long as I can keep Scott from planning an all-out assault on the ranch house.” He grinned broadly at Juanita. “I guess you don’t know about that.”
“Disagreement Scott and I had ‘bout the best way to deal with Day Pardee?”
“Oh yes, Señor! When I came her with my husband the girls all told me about the handsome, dark-haired pistolero who deafeated Señor Pardee despite his brother’s help.”
Johnny looked up. Juanita’s expression was unreadable. “You joshin’ me?” he asked, not particularly hopeful of a reply.
“I think you’d better be on your way, Señora Acebo. Wouldn’t want you to miss out on a vital piece of information.”
“You – joshin’ – me, Señor?
“Nunca, Señora. You might start stitchin’ me up again. Let me help you with that horse.”
“No, I will do it. I must not be afraid. He is only a horse.”
“Yeah. Only a horse. A female horse.”
Juanita looked at him but he held a straight face, even in the face of her quick glance at the horse and the subsequent blush. The horse was docile and well-trained to being ground tied, and had waited patiently. Juanita brought the reins over the horse’s head, then came round to stand beside the stirrup. She lifted one foot, placed it carefully in the stirrup then, with both hands gripping the saddle horn, hopped twice before hauling herself into the saddle. There was nothing elegant in it but it was effective and she gave Johnny a brilliant smile as she settled her skirts neatly.
The smile faded quickly. She tried to get the horse to turn; all it would do was step awkwardly backwards, shifting uneasily. She held the rein wide, kicked timidly with her heels and smiled again. Johnny stood, laughing at her efforts.
“Didn’t Luis teach you how to turn a horse, Juanita?”
“He taught me but it does not seem he taught the horse.”
“I think mebbe your husband is joshin’ you, Juanita. Here, give me the reins.”
“Your arm, Señor – be careful. No, I will get down. I will walk back.”
“Juanita – give me the reins.” Johnny was laughing, knowing full well what was wrong, as he had known from the minute the horse had backed up. “Juanita! You gonna sit there all day? It is not gonna hurt my arm to get these reins round the right way. How’d you think I got up here? You ask Barranca – he knows!”
“Señor! You do not talk to your horse, do you? It is a dumb creature.” The horse began to move again, clearly unsure what it was being asked to do, and Juanita clung to the saddle horn. “All right, Señor.”
Johnny had stepped up to stand by her leg, concerned that she would be getting herself into serious trouble. He took the reins, walked round to the horse’s head and sorted them out.
“See, Juanita – derecha, izquierda. You must keep them on the correct sides or the horse doesn’t know what you mean. You talk to him in the wrong language.”
He started to laugh again. “Juanita – what did I do without you?”
“Señor, I do not understand it myself. How your mother must have worked to look after you – oh, perdoneme, Señor.”
He stood right by the saddle and handed her the reins. Then he taught her to neck rein her mount and she followed his directions and learnt quickly. Nothing more was said of his mother.
But as he watched her ride away, her seat and control of the horse improved, he thought again about his mother, and the way she had cared for him. Then he shrugged thoughts of her away, put out the fire and mounted Barranca. Time to start to search for his brother. His mother was gone but his brother and father and Teresa were right there and he would do everything in his power to keep it that way.
Lucas sat on the patio reviewing progress. Taking over the ranch had been simplicity itself. Holding onto it was going to be more difficult but he was confident that, if he could only remove Murdoch and Scott all else would fall into his hands. However, the other son must not be discounted. It disturbed him that the boy had still to be found, despite searches by two of his men for the better part of the day. Tomorrow, he would put four men on the job.
He had begun to review Murdoch’s employees, looking for those who would not object to a change of owner. Some might fight him. The depth of loyalty to the old rancher had neither surprised not troubled him. In time, they would all be replaced by his men and then he could come into his true inheritance, the land.
If only the work on the house could be stopped. It was a waste of time and resources. He would have the whole building razed in a few weeks. He detested the style of the building and had been sketching pictures of the modern American mansion that would replace it. He would begin looking for a good site next week – possibly further up the valley, away from the traces of the current owners. Those scars would disappear in time, healed by nature.
He shifted position to regard the place he had chosen for his camp.. He had most effusively thanked Murdoch, in the presence of an unexpected visitor, for the non-existent offer of a bed in the bunkhouse. He did not want to impose, was simply waiting for Scott’s return, taking advantage of his host’s generous hospitality but preferring to sleep in the tent, somehow associated for him with the romance of the West. The lies had come easily to him. He was thoroughly enjoying his role as humble guest. He had smiled at the visitor and glanced at Murdoch, noting with satisfaction the way the old rancher was gripping the arms of his chair. Coffee had been drunk, the future had been discussed; altogether, a most satisfactory hour.
The visitor had been a neighboring rancher who had dropped by after receiving one those notes Lancer had written in the morning. The man could not have wasted a minute getting to the ranch house. What was he after? That choice bit of land he had had his eye on for years without thinking it would ever become available?
How had that conversation run?
Lucas ran through what he remembered of it, searching for some hidden signal between the man and Lancer. They had talked about old times. Murdoch had explained, with considerable flare for variations on the truth, that Scott had gone back to his grandfather to recuperate, and had explained he might not return. That was plausible. Then he had expressed some regret that his other son, John, or to give him his real name, Juan, had decided to return to the border. Some regret and a little relief. What had Murdoch said?
“That boy is a liability. He probably did do half the things he’s reputed to have done. It was fortunate he turned up when he did but he’s now back with his own people and that’s for the best.”
The visitor had seemed a little puzzled by the comments but had said nothing much beyond passing on his regrets that, after such a resounding victory over the land pirates these troubles should have returned to haunt the ranch. Murdoch had shrugged, said that San Francisco certainly had its appeal, especially as he was receiving a good price for the ranch, and that, in due time, he would probably go to Boston and join his elder son in some less rigorous enterprise.
The whole story had a ring of truth about it that Lucas could only admire. It was a story the visitor could spread round the whole area with no difficulty. It might even be true, in part. Lucas toyed with the idea that the younger Lancer had indeed “high-tailed” it back to the border towns, where he belonged. It would be most convenient if he had.
Standing, Lucas drank the last of the excellent brandy and inhaled the last of the pungent cigar smoke before strolling to the area where his tent had been erected. He had had the area marked out with stones, for neatness, he had said, but it was more like marking his territory. He knew himself sufficiently well to know that was what he was doing as he claimed the Lancer map for his own, sat in Murdoch Lancer’s chairs, drank his brandy and ate his food. And forced him to lie to his old friends.
Jefferson stopped and turned to face the insolent man who had interrupted his train of thought. “Yes? What is it?”
“It’s a note, Mr. Jefferson. That guy over there, on the horse, gave it to me to hand on to you. Ain’t he one of us?”
Lucas peered into the gathering gloom.
“There – just ridin’ off now, sir. He know you?”
The rider, on a pale horse, rose in the saddle and waved his hat before spurring his horse into a gallop. Lucas stood riveted, knowing exactly who the figure was and that his chances of catching him were nil, even if he rounded up all his men and set them on the fastest horses; by the time they were saddled the rider would be long gone. He would have extra guards out tomorrow but a man like that would know his plans. Madrid – a gunhawk and, it appeared, a man whose reputation he had been right to consider taking seriously.
He dismissed the man angrily and took the note into his tent to read. In a bafflingly neat hand, and faultless English, the writer expressed himself in a few short sentences.
I trust you are enjoying my father’s hospitality. Have you discovered the local beauty spots yet? I am told the graveyard has a good view – never had cause to go there myself.
Scott and Murdoch and I agree it will soon be time for you to leave our ranch. Do not unpack. Do not make yourself comfortable. We will be watching you. I understand you, Jefferson.
John Lancer, known to some as Johnny Madrid.
Jefferson took the note and held it in the lamp flame until it flared and crumbled to flakes of paper on his table. If only the house fire had been as efficient. He could not erase the words from his brain, however, and he could find no comfortable position in which to sleep that night.
Next morning Jefferson was up at first light, writing neat columns of facts and figures on a large sheet of paper. Overnight he had realized the slight error he had made with the younger Lancer and he was determined to put it right. Now he had the bottom line of his calculations but he didn’t like what he saw. Somehow, his usual analytical methods seemed to have a flaw but he could not pinpoint the fault.
He had decided to move Scott. He had been planning to do that in any case. Anyone who knew the ranch well would suspect he was being held in the old mine workings. He had plans to keep Scott a long way away. The notes he had made told him to move the man before he was found but there was something wrong with that idea. Would the boy be expecting it? It seemed unlikely. He was probably up in the hills somewhere, asleep, dreaming of that absurd letter. A prank.
No, he was deceiving himself. He knew a prank from a serious threat. He was up against a man – he must check his inclination to think of him as “boy”. Well then, stop wasting time and get Scott away from the ranch. Then he could sleep easily.
He pushed aside the tent flap and looked around for someone to carry the note. The sun was just rising, the ranch hands beginning to stir. Smells of breakfast were in the air. A new day. A new challenge. He smiled, putting aside all doubts. Move Scott. Well away. Yes, that was the answer.
Johnny had camped much closer to the house that night. He had lain awake for a short time, wondering when Lucas would send a message to the men guarding Scott. He would be there, first light, watching for one man heading straight from the hacienda and away across country. It would be child’s play tracking him. Juanita had taken back the instruction to her husband – rasp the shoe of one special horse, and be there to hand the animal to one of Lucas’ men, the one carrying the message. Juanita had assured him that with her listening and Luis waiting for her signal they could do it
He was as sure as he had ever been of anything that the rules governing Jefferson’s way of seeing the world would lead him to move Scott. It was a logical move, given the information Jefferson had. Of course, it ignored the facts of Johnny’s knowledge of men of Jefferson’s sort. That meant he would miscalculate.
Johnny lay back on his bedroll, listening to his horse breathing and to the night sounds of the ranch. At night, lying there in the open with a field of stars above, that was the moment to appreciate the place. Jefferson would make his next mistake, panicked into it by the note. He would not admit to himself it was panic. No, he was taking a risk, moving up his plan, taking advantage of a lull to move Scott – anything but the true reason. But it was panic and it would drive him to do just what he should not do. Inexperience. That was Jefferson’s difficulty. That and his misjudgmentsof other people, whom he measured against his personal set of warped principles.
At first light Johnny was as close as he dared get to the ranch. He saw his father on his way to the main house. He was on crutches at last but looked as tall and unbowed as ever. He was fine and that reassured Johnny. Of course he could be completely wrong about Jefferson. Maybe the parasite would work out the bluff and call him. Maybe. He waited a while, then the sun came up and he watched for the rider.
There. Single rider, on an important mission, judging by the unusual speed at which his horse traveled. Johnny threw himself onto Barranca’s back and set off in careful pursuit.
When the messenger approached the hill where he had made camp, Johnny smiled grimly. Was it coincidence or instinct that had driven him there? No matter. Soon Scott would be free and they could set about driving Jefferson from their land.
He had already decided how the job was to be done. If at all possible, he wanted no more lives lost – even Jefferson’s, if it could be helped. The law would deal with Jefferson and he would be there to make sure of that. The men he employed were paid to do their work. They didn’t deserve to die for that. If they chose to attack him, that was a different proposition. But he knew the man taking the message, the man he was trailing, and he knew exactly what to say.
As soon as he was certain he knew where they were holding his brother he moved Barranca down onto the rough trail the messenger was taking, then spurred on, just close enough to make his presence felt. The messenger turned in the saddle, revolver in hand but Johnny raised his hat and shouted, “Rafe! I wouldn’t recommend you thinkin’ of shootin’ me.”
Rafe reined in his mount and turned to face Johnny, who trotted Barranca across the stony ground to within a few yards of him. Rafe did not lower his revolver but did not shoot him, either. He was the same tough, world-weary Rafe he had always been, with a face that held other people at bay, until he got to know you. Then the eyes could give away a powerful sense of humour, especially at the little tricks life had a way of throwing at you. They were dancing right then and Johnny breathed a little easier. The first few seconds could have been difficult but at least he knew Rafe would give him a fair hearing.
“Howdy, Johnny. I think I’m supposed to be bringin’ you to Mr.Jefferson, dead or alive.” Rafe’s tone was casual but he was still all alertness.
“How much he gonna pay you when you do, Rafe?” Johnny tried to match his tone and almost succeeded.
“I think it’s meant to be part of the job. He don’t pay too much – two dollars a day to the likes of me. I don’t reckon that’s enough to keep me from askin’ if you got a better offer.”
Johnny laughed, and Rafe lowered his gun. Johnny confided, “Sometimes, my past sneaks up, taps me on the shoulder and says, I gotta surprise for you, Buster. Bad surprises mostly. This time, I’m glad I used to know you.”
“Yeah – remember Sonora? That little girl entertained us? And you laid up, she just had to decide you were the one, not an old coot like me.”
“You was never old, Rafe – you were just never as pretty as me. And a man got an advantage, laid up in bed with his arm in a sling. Just nothing catches a pretty girl easier than a man she got at her mercy.”
It was Rafe’s turn to laugh. He settled more comfortably in his saddle. “Like now, Johnny – you sound like you had troubles. I can’t hardly hear you, Boy.”
“Had my throat cut open. You oughta try it. All that smoke, somehow burned me inside – felt like I was drowning. This doc stuck a tube in.” Johnny put his hand to his throat, caught by the memories of what had been done to him. “And the one who took it out, he didn’t seem to know what he was doin’. Damn near killed me.”
There was a moment of silence as one remembered and the other imagined. Then Johnny played his hand, trusting in the direct approach to get the job done. He cleared his throat and came right out with his offer.
“So, you throwin’ in with the Lancers? I guess I can make it worth your while.” Johnny looked straight at Rafe, needing a quick answer but keeping his impatience in check.
“Sure – why not? Better throw in with you than wait for you to kill me, huh? Because you would, wouldn’t you, if I turned you down.”
“You’d better believe it.”
“I do, Johnny, I do.” Rafe paused and resettled his hat on his head, needing time to think how to save himself. After a few moments he sat up straighter and began to think his plan through aloud. “I guess you want that brother of yours back? What if I were to take this note and give it to them. Tells them to move your brother off the ranch. There’s two – Simons and Roper. Don’t think you’ll know them – both hardly out of diapers. Think they’re good, though. They might not be easy to persuade as me. But I don’t know as I want to see ’em killed.”
“Get them out into the open, Rafe. I don’t require you to do nothing but get Scott out of there. They got horses?”
“Yeah – tucked away over there. You want me to set them loose?”
“No – I want one for my brother. When this chore is seen to, I want you to do one more thing. Then you can choose, stay here or go your own way. Let’s get to it, Rafe. It’s gettin’ a mite hot in this sun.” Johnny made a show of taking off his hat and wiping his brow, appearing completely relaxed with the situation.
“Scott’ll see to that, when he’s free. Trust me.”
Rafe grinned. “Sure. Comes to a choice between Jefferson and you, well, that just ain’t no choice at all. I’ll ride on ahead. Tell them to get saddled up. Then you can have a little parley with them, see which way they jump. Watch Simons – he’s the clever one, or fancies he is.” Rafe and Johnny walked their horses on together for a little way, talking details and possible outcomes, until Rafe pulled up again.
“Don’t go no further, Johnny. This’ll work out just fine.”
“Yeah, Rafe. And if it don’t…”
“Yeah, I know, I won’t have no place to hide.” Rafe grinned and spurred his horse on.
Johnny waited for Rafe to trot his horse up the slope leading to the mine entrance. Not more than a quarter mile from where he had camped. Wouldn’t you know it. Well, now he was going to free his brother – and he knew exactly what he was going to do next. He moved Barranca on slowly up the track then waited for Rafe, wondering for a moment whether he had misjudged the man and let himself in for a trap. He smiled. Didn’t seem hardly possible.
It all fell out pretty well, considering. Simons and Roper came out of the mine entrance talking to each other. Simons saw Johnny first and went for his gun without considering the consequences at all, which was a mistake. Johnny didn’t kill him. He didn’t want to. But he hurt him enough to make Roper back down. Then he supervised the saddling of two horses, watched as Roper helped Simons on to his horse and breathed a sigh of satisfaction when both headed out. Sure, they might go to the ranch. Wouldn’t matter. Jefferson would know Scott was free and that would be just fine. But the two must know the reception they would get from Jefferson if they went to report what had happened. As soon as Rafe didn’t return Jefferson would have all the fun of trying to figure out what to do next. That thought made Johnny smile again. But it wouldn’t do, getting cocky, and he walked up to the mine entrance quietly.
“Scott?” he called, unwilling to go into the dark without some inkling of what was going on.
“You took your sweet time, brother.” Scott was leaning on the wall just inside the entrance. As soon as his eyes adjusted to the dark, Johnny stepped closer and took in Scott’s expression. He was trying to look stern, but no attempt to act the Older Brother was going to fool Johnny.
“Yeah? Well, had to keep you outta the way, didn’t I? What with you bein’ in no fit state to do anythin’ much, I thought the rest’d do you good. They feed you well?”
“Good as the best Boston hotel. What have you been eating?”
“Juanita’s best fried chicken.”
“That woman spoils you altogether too much.”
Johnny smiled at his brother, acknowledging the truth in what Scott had just said. “I reckon I earned a little spoilin’.”
“Well now, Mr. Pistolero, what is the next part of your master plan? This one doesn’t seem to have taxed your ingenuity much.”
Rafe came to stand by Scott. “He’s a smart one, mister,” he said, patting Johnny familiarly on the back.
“Pure luck, that’s all it is. Are we going to storm the house? You think you can shoot straight enough for that?” Scott was teasing his brother and grinning broadly, very happy to be back in the picture.
“Not yet. Mebbe later. Pinkertons. We need Pinkertons.” Johnny set off outside, followed by his brother and Rafe.
“We do?” Scott came into the sunlight, blinking, and put on his hat. He began to head towards the horses, Rafe walking quietly at his side.
“Yeah. Scott, you go into town with Rafe, see the sheriff and send a wire to the Pinkertons. If they can find me and you, they can find who Jefferson was before he became a novelist.” Johnny coughed, his voice tailing off. It was no use trying to explain any more – either Scott had the sense to work out what he meant, or he didn’t.
“You don’t need to say another word. The law – that’s who we need. Our word against his isn’t good enough. But will he let Murdoch live once he knows I’m free? What will he do? No – don’t say it. Stop thinking. What are you going to do while I’m gone?”
“Is that so? Well, first time for everything, I suppose. I’ll be back here by tonight.”
“I’ll have the coffee on.”
Johnny watched Rafe and Scott ride off and felt very satisfied with the morning’s work, which had repaid all his planning and thinking a thousand-fold. It had helped, having that piece of luck with Rafe, but a man made his own luck. He mounted Barranca and headed back to his camp, looking forward to a visit from Juanita and wondering just what she would be bringing for their meal. Scott was right. He was being spoiled. But for once, just for once, it didn’t matter. Did it?
Sometime in the late afternoon, Johnny greeted Scott, who looked flushed and tired from his ride to town. Johnny pulled his hat back off his face, sat up and stirred the fire into life. Scott jumped down and came to stand by his brother. There was a pause before negotiations to mend fences began but it was the right time at last, both knew that. Scott made the opening bid.
“Well now. Have you been lazing around all afternoon?”
“Yep. Without proper food, too. A man could fade away. My arm needs seeing to, too.” Johnny didn’t smile but the words gave away a willingness to bridge the gap which had opened under pressure from Jefferson. Scott continued in the same vein, the beginnings of a smile betraying his true feelings.
“You don’t seem to be able to do anything for yourself these days.” He paused for a moment before continuing. “I sent the message.”
“Yeah?” Johnny squinted into the sun and looked up at his brother. “The mighty Pinkertons coming to our rescue, then?”
“They will. I think, with what I could tell them, they shouldn’t have much trouble tracking him down.” Scott tethered his horse and came to squat next to Johnny, nodding his thanks for the cup of coffee his younger brother handed him. “As soon as they do, we can go right down there with the law on our side and get rid of Lucas Jefferson once and for all.”
“Yeah.” If Johnny meant more than just agreement to the plan, he didn’t say so.
His brother took off his hat, pushed his blond hair from his forehead and settled himself next to Johnny, stretching his long legs in front of him. The coffee was hot and bitter but Scott drank it. It was part of the negotiations.
“I suppose – I suppose I misjudged Jefferson slightly.” Scott looked thoughtfully into the campfire and waited.
Johnny was silent.
“Well?” Scott prompted, needing an answer.
“Well? You want me to forgive you? I made a lot of friends in my life. Being friends with Rafe made rescuing you a sight easier. But I was friends with Pardee, too, once.”
The two brothers fell silent. Things were straight between them again, though neither had to say it aloud. After a while, they began looking to the future, each with plans of what to do on the ranch when order was restored. They were opposite sides of the same coin and arguing had been an uncomfortable experience.
The sun was dropping to the top of a far mountain when Johnny decided he had had enough of waiting. “I gotta see if she’s on the trail, Scott. She couldn’t ride too good – maybe she had trouble and is walking up.”
“Yes. I’m coming too.” Scott looked meaningfully at Johnny, who acknowledged the unspoken worry about a trap by modifying his plan.
“Just back down the trail, to the top of the bluff. You can see a long way there.”
Scott nodded. They mounted up and in unison turned their horses downhill, walking them across the loose slope and over to the head of the arroyo where Juanita had met Johnny the first time. Johnny entertained Scott with tales of Juanita’s trials with the horse, his words shot through with affection and admiration for her.
“Johnny – was your mother like Juanita?” It was a bold question to ask, and Scott kept his eyes averted.
“No. No.” Johnny would say nothing more. He knew he had been unable to hide a kind of yearning in his words, an unstated if-only.
He reined in and shaded his eyes, standing up in his stirrups to see further. Far away, a small figure on a horse was moving slowly across the landscape. “There! C’mon, Scott, let’s go and give the lady a hand.”
Johnny urged Barranca down the steep path onto the plain, where he spurred his horse forward, Scott following him closely.
They were still a hundred yards from her when Johnny saw a man following her, riding hard enough to be rapidly closing the gap between himself and Juanita. The man, Jefferson, had a rifle and he was aiming it at her and when Johnny saw that, he began to shout and to wave at her – anything, anything to make her turn and see the danger she was in. She was too far away. Johnny spurred Barranca forward, his vision narrowing to Juanita on her horse as she urged it forward and waved to him. He could not get her to turn, to look, but what good what that have done? She was calling to him then, just as Johnny reached her side, the astonishment of pain washed over her face. He reached for her but she began to fall away from him. The sound of the rifle reached him a moment later, the commonplace sound of a rifle. He had heard it so often in defence of life and now it was taking life, her life. Juanita. One tiny piece of lead had knocked her from the saddle. Johnny found himself on the ground, reaching for his revolver reflexively. Except that Scott was there a moment later, already half-dismounted, pulling his rifle from its scabbard and running a pace behind Johnny, shouting “No! Johnny – no!” and grabbing his right arm.
Johnny shook his brother off because the animal, Jefferson, stood too close to Juanita. Johnny shoved him away violently, daring him to defend himself. But Lucas seemed happy enough to be pushed, agreeing mildly with Scott. “Good advice, Scott. But then you are the disciplined one, aren’t you? Now, you, just take a step back there.” Jefferson raised his rifle again, and Johnny gripped the handle of his sixgun, preparing to shoot it out with the man right there.
Then Juanita groaned and Johnny’s anger faded, swamped by the urge to help her, to keep her with him, to do anything to keep her alive. He fell to his knees and desperately, gently, searched Juanita to see where she had been shot. He was shaking with the effort to keep quiet, something in him screaming at him to kill the man who stood, resting his rifle on the ground now as if he had killed a deer not a human being. He heard his brother take on Lucas but his vision was all directed to Juanita. He put his hand on her back and felt a slight stir in the muscles.
“You lying, cowardly excuse for a human being!” Scott shouted. “What sort of man are you, shooting a woman in the back! Johnny, is she …”
Breathlessly, Johnny tried to answer his brother. “She’s breathing, Scott. I think she’s breathing.” He brought his hand away from her back. The palm was red and Johnny sighed, a trembling sigh that came from deep within him. He looked up. Scott’s expression was all anger and pity. But Lucas Jefferson smiled.
“If you’re thinking of revenge,” Jefferson stated quietly, “I left instructions. Your father or Teresa – it hardly matters which now. If I’m late by one minute, one of them dies. Your father signed all the papers. The place is mine. I just had to settle this little matter. Clever of you to use her in that way, carrying your messages. Couldn’t let that go on.”
“Scott!” Johnny needed his brother to deal with the thing, the irrelevance, which was preventing them from getting Juanita to the doctor. He pressed his hand against Juanita’s back, dreaming of a few moments before when she had smiled to see him. She had not moved but she still breathed, a few long-drawn breaths. He turned her and tried to hold her tighter in his arms, shifting her weight awkwardly. She seemed to move against him of her own will but it was illusory.
Scott knew what was needed. As Johnny prayed for Juanita just to open her eyes, he heard his brother offer everything he had. “Let us get her back to the ranch at least. I’ll go back to your prison. Just let Johnny…”
“I don’t understand why you want to stay here. I have to say, Boston would call me back, although this land has own attractions, which I am about to inherit. As for you – get out of America, that’s my advice. Your sort are not welcome here any more. Now, I’ll send your father and the girl out to you in about an hour or so. Wait here.”
Johnny heard Jefferson’s cool, measured words. But all his attention was on the woman in his arms. Her eyes did not open. Her body settled, she sighed once more and then became still. Johnny, grief settling on him like a buzzard, began to rock her body, pulling her to him and hiding her dead face in his chest. He was lost. Lucas could have killed him and he wouldn’t have cared, if it could have brought her back. But she was wandering far from him now, and he was there, in that vast land, without her.
Scott watched Lucas ride away and longed to place one bullet in the man’s brain, just – there. He held the rifle high, hampered still by his sling, and aimed. To kill him was to kill his father, or Teresa. He had to attend to the living. Johnny still lived. He grieved. But he still lived. The last rays of sunlight fell on the three figures; then, as darkness stole over them, they began to fade into the landscape, tiny figures lost to a great, indifferent world.
Scott hunkered down, prepared to wait for his brother to come to himself. But his brother, his cheeks liquid with tears, looked at him with fierce bright eyes.
“Bring the horses.”
Scott nodded. He knew immediately what Johnny planned. He brought Juanita’s horse, which had trotted back to its mistress as if puzzled by her sudden disappearance from its back. Together, with all the respect and dignity they could muster, the brothers placed Juanita’s body over the saddle. Johnny fussed over her, as if determined she should be comfortable until Scott felt compelled to speak.
“Johnny! You’ve done all you can for her. Let me tie her on safely. We have to save Teresa and Murdoch now. We have to kill him, John – you have to bring him to justice.”
Johnny didn’t answer. He stood apart while Scott tied her securely, the large red stain on her blouse now an obscene mark of Jefferson’s disrespect. Johnny still couldn’t leave her alone but pulled at her skirts to straighten them, speaking quietly to her in Spanish, before he was satisfied. He was on the edge of what he could bear and Scott had to steer him away from her, and give him Barranca’s reins to remind him of the next step. Johnny mounted, silent. He looked ahead, wiping the tears as if angry with them. Scott mounted his own horse, glanced at Johnny and then nodded. There would be no more waiting. This would be settled.
Although he was aware that he was riding, Johnny felt detached from the world around him. His thoughts shouted out revenge but he heard two voices even above that din. One belonged to his father. Johnny remembered distinctly his father’s voice cutting across his desire to kill a man. He had been standing, his revolver at the man’s temple, ready to kill but his father had stopped him just by calling his name. The voice began to still the agony in his head, enough so he could hear another voice. It made him long for her, to hear her as he remembered, and glance at her body. Shame filled him, that they could do no better for her after all she had done. The horizon blurred again but he rubbed his eyes and tried to put aside his sorrow. He tried to remember what Juanita had said, just yesterday, as they talked of the future. How well she had anticipated what was likely to happen.
“You must not kill again, Señor – not if you can avoid it. It is bad for your soul. You were angry and thought nothing of killing a man when you first came to the ranchero.”
He had asked her if that was the reason she had kept away and she – his dear Juanita, who had given her life for him – had said yes, she had kept away from him until she realised he was changing.
“There is a good man in you, Señor, a very good man. You must work to make sure you do not let the other man back into your life.”
That was it, then. He had to work hard, to stop himself from being a murderer, and work at it all day, every day. If he did not, he would slip into old ways, old habits, and he would take another step into the shadows, maybe too far even for his father to find him again. And, while a large part of his mind still cried out for bloody revenge, for Jefferson’s death to be agonising, he had a growing conviction that Juanita, watching somehow from afar, would approve his decision. He would not just murder Jefferson, in the worst way. He would be better than Jefferson. He would give him time and a fair fight. Then he would kill him.
As they approached the ranch house, Johnny spoke to his brother in fierce half-sentences, going through what he planned to do. Scott put in his own ideas and Johnny grunted his assent to most of them.
As they trotted their horses up to the ranch they swung round to the back of the barn. Scott jumped down and stepped over quickly to help Johnny release Juanita’s body from the ropes. As her body fell limply into his arms, Johnny gasped,
“Maybe Luis is around? Scott, help me. We gotta find somewhere to lay her safe.”
“Yes. Of course.” It was more important than anything to Johnny to know where she was and that she was given at least a half-way decent place to be. However pressed they were for time, it would be done properly. Between them they carried her into the barn and settled her on the straw. Johnny searched frantically and found a blanket. He laid it over her but her feet were uncovered. He looked at Scott, the pure agony of the way he was treating her body in his every movement, as he searched for something else to use, then started re-arranging the material, until Scott pulled him away.
“Ammunition,” Scott whispered. “Over there.” Scott saw Johnny nod and stumble away from the body. There was no time for sympathy, had Johnny even wanted such a thing. The brothers went to the storehouse and opened boxes of ammunition, storing away shells in their pockets and checking gunbelts and revolvers. The groundwork had to be laid right or they had no chance.
Then they stood together at the barn door, looking across the corral to the house.
“Luis!” Johnny’s harsh whisper made the man coming across the corral hurry towards them. Johnny stood back, hanging his head while Scott tried as best he could to tell Luis what had happened. The man’s agonised gasp made Johnny turn away. He knew his brother was worried about him and restrained himself from doing any more than kicking the barn door.
He waited, swinging his hat, his brain a jumble of possible futures, until Scott returned.
“He’s looking after her. We have to get Lucas now, Johnny.”
“Yeah.” Johnny took a match from the top pocket of his jacket, grabbed a broom and lit it. “I’ll light things up, you get that fire bell ringing.”
“Don’t go setting fire to the house again. We only just you half well from last time.”
Johnny looked at his brother and almost allowed himself to smile. Then he was off, running full pelt into the darkness, across the corral, trailing the firebrand, and knowing that his brother ran with him.
He ran to the store they had been using for wood for the house. He threw open the dark and swung his makeshift torch, showering sparks across the floor. Flames quickly took hold in the wood shavings on the floor and Johnny backed out, the memories of a burning kitchen fresh in his mind. He pulled the torch behind him and went in search of more tinder. Scott was shouting, “Fire! Ring the fire bell!” behind him, and in a few moments the cracks of burning wood were joined by the nervous clang of the bell. Figures began to ran round in the darkness and Johnny ran, low to the ground, knowing he was now a target for his own people, who knew nothing of his plan. Create light where there was darkness, it was as simple as that.
He ran to where a tent was pitched and knew immediately from the insistent neatness of the camp that this was Jefferson’s lair. He threw the broom right into the tent and watched as it bloomed into glorious flames. There were shouts and people all around him, figures and shadows and flames. The sounds and smells of fire, the bell – so where was Jefferson? And where was his father and Teresa? He heard a yell and swung round, drawing his gun as he turned and dropped to his knees. There. His father was there, by the house, and Teresa at his side. A buckboard close by. Jefferson – where was Jefferson. He scanned along the front of the building, expecting at any moment to feel the punch of a bullet. He stood and steadied himself. No call to lose your nerve now, Johnny-boy. Focus. Look.
The first shot nearly caught him, threw the dust into a cloud at his feet. He glimpsed Jefferson, who was shielding himself behind a wall. The coward would not face him. It was almost a disappointment. Johnny ran wide, knowing all he had to do was swing round a little further and he would catch Jefferson in the side. There was plenty of light. He narrowed his attention, slithered to a halt and then stood, taking deep breaths and putting everything that had happened as far in the back of his mind as he could. Then he called Jefferson out.
“You coming to face me, Jefferson? You got enough guts for that? Or shall I kill you where you are?”
Jefferson tried to fire at him immediately but a shot from somewhere close to the building make Jefferson drop his rifle as if it had stung him. Johnny watched as the man looked around him. Then he saw Scott waving. He had evened things out but it was Johnny to kill the man, the one who had so hurt the Lancer family. Johnny shifted his weight, and checked his handgun efficiently, reloading while he kept a careful watch on his target. He gradually became aware that he had the beginnings of an audience. Murdoch was there, and Teresa. Hands, too, drawn by the fire bell but now waiting for the drama to be played out. Johnny knew the news about Juanita would be travelling from one mouth to the next. He had no way of knowing who were Jefferson’s men but it was no use worrying about them, no use at all. Then, away to his right he saw a man being taken down by three others, beaten and punched into submission on the ground. As luck and right swung back onto his side, Johnny eased his revolver back into the holster and waited.
Jefferson was clearly hesitating. Then he seemed to come to a decision. He stepped away from the pillar and started to walk towards the man he had so despised and underestimated. He came with his revolver in his hand and Johnny waited patiently until the man had come close. Jefferson held the revolver loosely, as if he were contemplating throwing it down. If he played by the rules he would holster the gun, then the game could begin. Johnny resisted the temptation to say anything. He knew his chances with the man. He had seen his proficiency with a gun. But he did not underestimate the man’s cunning.
It was over in a split second. Lucas made no attempt to put his gun in the holster, he just aimed and fired. Johnny heard the voices around him, the gasps, and he drew and fired in one fluid movement, then tried to see the outcome. Jefferson still stood but the gun had dropped from his hand. Nothing happened for a few agonising seconds. Then Jefferson fell away, back into the dust, and a cheer went up from the crowd, their shadows dancing across the building as the tent collapsed in on itself, sending a column of sparks upwards like fireworks.
Then Scott was at his side, for Johnny had fallen too, not knowing why, and as his brother called his name, he slid away, the world tilting and drunken. He had killed the snake that had taken Juanita from him, and it was enough.
Three days later, a buckboard pulled away from the little, shady cemetery. Murdoch, Scott and Teresa had said their goodbyes to Juanita and were returning to open up the house, now sufficiently restored for them to begin again to live in it.
One member of the family stayed in the quiet resting place, though the day was already hot and his hunched posture betrayed exhaustion and hurt. He stood by Juanita’s husband and they both studied the mound raised for Juanita. Johnny and Luis. They were alone with her, each in their own ways.
“We’ll get her a good headstone, Luis. You should pick out some words for her, so everyone will know who she is and what she’s done.” Johnny’s voice was mending but he spoke quietly, just above the gentle susurrus of leaves in a slight breeze.
Luis looked up and spoke, his voice pitched to match Johnny’s. “Sí, Señor Johnny. I will think. You must not blame yourself, that this happened.”
“I take the responsibility, Luis. Your wife would still be here if I had not used her like that. Taking messages.” He could not keep the bitterness out of his tone. Three days had not begun to soften his guilt. Then Luis put his hand on Johnny’s shoulder and, with a faint smile, asked him a simple question.
“You think you could have stopped her, Señor?”
Johnny was silent at that. The world around him was dim and unknown, a different place now she had gone. He had been with her such a short time. Now she lay under the earth, her spirit gone elsewhere, and no matter what anyone said to him he laid the blame squarely at his own door. He glanced up into the sky, a million points of shifting blue through the leaves of the huge shade tree.
“I could have tried. I could have tried.” He walked away a little, scuffing his feet on the hard-baked earth and kicking up the dust. Then he cleared his throat and spoke again.
“Will you do me a favor?” he asked, knowing what Luis would say.
“Sí, of course.”
“I need some time, Luis. I need you to tell my family not to worry, that I will be gone three days and then I will come back and take my place with them again. I think they know already what I intend to do but I want to make sure they – they leave me be. Just for a while.”
“But, Johnny – are you strong enough to do this?” Luis’ concern touched Johnny to the core but he controlled himself. He pulled his hat forward and settled it firmly on his head. He was preparing himself to ride away, just for a short while.
“Yeah. Jefferson’s bullets didn’t do no permanent damage, not to me. Only to her. I’ll be healed up by the time I get back. You get those words for her thought out and tell my father.” Johnny eased himself further away from the grave. The bullet meant to kill him had not proved fatal. The deeper hurts by far were those caused by Juanita’s murder. He would need longer to heal those, and he felt the need for time on his own.
“Take care, Señor. You must take care. Juanita would never forgive me if you did not come home safe.” Luis smiled bravely, filling Johnny with the painful beginnings of hope. “After you have returned, I think that when I come to put flowers here I would like you to come with me, sometimes. While we remember her, Señor, and when the house is complete once more, we will know Jefferson has not won.”
“Yeah. Jefferson didn’t win. We did – Lancer did.”
But as he walked slowly to Barranca, Johnny knew in his heart that Jefferson had not won the war, but he did have one victory to his name. Juanita. In time, her name would bring a smile to his lips, bring sweet memories, not the anger and the gnawing loss which threatened to overwhelm him every time he thought too hard. He pulled himself painfully into the saddle and settled himself for the ride.
“Hasta luego, Luís.” He wheeled Barranca, acknowledging Luís’ wave, and trotted Barranca up the incline shelteringthe grave site. When he crested a ridge which led to the high land, he looked back, pausing for a moment, and surveyed a landscape he loved with his whole being. Then he urged his palomino on, ever upward, until the cemetery was small and distant below him. He caught a far glimpse of the buggy, a small cloud of dust following it, and knew he would be glad to see them all again in two or three days.
He was glad too that Jefferson’s body lay in its coffin in Green River, waiting for the Pinkertons to find some relative to take it away. He had died alone and now he lay, unmourned. If no-one came, they would find his body a corner in the town cemetery. It would not sully Lancer land. Their land, Lancer land. The land that would swallow him up for a short while, before he returned to his home and began again. He would always begin again. He had the strength to do it and a family to help him if he stumbled. That was all that counted, in the end.
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