Vengeance Is Mine (by Linda B)

Summary:
Category:  Lancer
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  15,100

Note: Italics indicate Spanish language spoken and a direct quote.

“Why do you have to go to Morro Coyo? Today of all days. You know I need you here and to help Scott,” Murdoch Lancer growled as he rubbed his forehead and prepared himself for another battle of wills with his younger son. After barely an hour behind his desk, Murdoch was enduring a throbbing headache that was pounding its way across his forehead, and he didn’t appreciate the interruption.

He pushed himself angrily away from the large desk on which papers were set out in neat piles and got to his feet. Unseasonable rains had flooded the fields in the lower section of the ranch and had laid waste to the crops. They had been counting on a bountiful harvest to see them through the winter, but this latest setback would mean delving into the funds he had set aside to use for replenishing their breeding stock. The winter feed estimates would have to wait, for the time being, until he sorted out this latest problem with his younger son.

“Something more important came up,” Johnny answered as he caught a glimpse of Murdoch’s eyes. Once again he found disappointment and touches of anger in them. Troubled by what he saw, and aware that he caused his father more problems than Scott did, he looked away.

“What did you say?” Murdoch demanded irritably. “What could be more important than…”

Johnny interrupted, “I’d rather not tell you. It’s just something I gotta do. Alone,” he concluded, emphasizing the last word.

“You’re part of this ranch now. You signed on when we had to deal with Pardee. You signed the agreement that gave you one third of this ranch, and that means you do your one-third share of the work,” boomed Murdoch’s voice. “What’s more important? Answer me!”

There was a long silence while Johnny shuffled his feet and played with the string on his hat. “I gotta kill someone,” he mumbled finally, deliberately staring at his dusty boots and therefore avoiding his father’s face. His stomach churned. He didn’t want to explain his reasons to Murdoch, because that would complicate things. All he wanted was permission to leave the ranch today, nothing else. It all seemed so simple, until Murdoch started to question Johnny’s reasons. Why hadn’t he gone to the corral, saddled Barranca and told Scott or Teresa where he was going and be done with it? He could have faced Murdoch’s wrath when he returned. But no, he couldn’t do that. Now that he was at Lancer, Johnny recognized his father’s authority and tried his best to be responsible.

“Kill someone?” Disgusted with Johnny’s response, Murdoch flung both hands into the air and shook his head. “You want to go and kill someone. I can’t believe I’m hearing you tell me this is the pathetic reason for leaving. You left that life behind, Johnny.”

The young man shrugged his shoulders. “Well, it is the reason, and I did leave that life behind, or so I thought,” he agreed. Now was not the time to get into an argument with Murdoch – he had to keep his mind on the task ahead. He had to concentrate. He had to get out of the house – and fast.

Murdoch leaned forward, his hands balled into fists, the knuckles resting on the edge of the desk. He wanted straight answers from his son and he wasn’t getting them. “Who is it?”

“You don’t know him,” Johnny replied tightly, carefully masking the emotions that he felt, “but I sure do.”

“What’s his name?”

“It ain’t important.”

Murdoch snapped, “Don’t dance around in front of me, boy. I want you to tell me his name. I want to know who you need to kill and I want to know why.” He slammed his hands onto the desk. The noise vibrated loudly in the room and papers fluttered across the desktop.

“You wanna know? All right then, I’ll tell you. He’s Señor Fernando Vasquez.” Johnny’s pent-up anger exploded as the name spilled from him and his right hand slid involuntarily to the butt of his revolver.

“Well, at least I know his name,” Murdoch sneered. “Now who is he and why do you need to kill him? I presume you’re going to have a gunfight?” He hadn’t missed Johnny’s movement.

Johnny sighed. “Yes, we’ll fight.” He struggled to contain his temper. Murdoch didn’t deserve to face it, his enemy did. He had to keep that thought firmly in his mind.

Murdoch pursed his lips and retorted, “You didn’t answer all my questions.”

“Didn’t I?”

“Don’t hedge around me boy. Answer me! Who is he?”

Johnny stammered, “He… he…”

Impatiently, Murdoch pressed for Johnny’s answer. “Yes?”

In a flurry of words, Johnny revealed, “He killed my mama.”

“What did you say?” The older man’s mouth dropped open in surprise and he felt his heart lunge wildly. This wasn’t the answer he expected to hear.

“You heard me. He killed my mama – your wife, Maria.”

“When? How?” Murdoch was grateful he was leaning on his desk as the room began to close in around him.

“Too long a story to tell now – I don’t have time. I’ve got to go, now!” Johnny swung his head from side to side, as if looking for something – perhaps an escape.

“I’ll come with you and you can tell me what happened as we ride into town.”

No!” shouted Johnny. He could feel beads of sweat breaking out on his forehead. “This is my fight! I’ll do it alone! I don’t need your help. Or want it!”

“She was my wife,” thundered Murdoch.

Johnny’s blue eyes flashed back at him. “She was my mother longer than she was your wife!”

Murdoch met the unwavering hate and anger in those eyes and felt it pierce his flesh. He nodded and turned away to face the window as a sense of awkwardness engulfed him. There was so much he didn’t know about his son’s past, but getting him to speak of that time was nearly impossible. How long had Johnny kept alight this burning desire for revenge? How long had Johnny’s hatred for his own father been festering and eating away at his insides? Did Johnny still blame him for Maria leaving Lancer, even though he had been told the real reason? What lies or distortions of the truth had Maria told Johnny? Murdoch needed time to gather his thoughts. “I don’t want you to do this. There must be a better way!”

Johnny spat his reply. “Well, there ain’t!”

“Have you tried?” asked Murdoch as he spun on his heels and walked around the desk toward Johnny. He reached out a hand to place on his son’s shoulder and to his astonishment Johnny backed away from him. “There…”

Johnny cut him off. “Of course I’ve tried to bring him to justice for what he done, but when it happened, there was no justice for her. She was a Mexican woman, working in a cantina with a mestizo kid – gringo-sired boy. Who was going to listen to him? No one did then and no one will now,” snarled Johnny.

Murdoch winced as the frustration and bitterness flowed from his younger son. He had never seen him behave like this before. “I don’t like that word and I never want to hear you say it again.”

“Neither do I, but I didn’t have no choice about it. Everywhere we went, that was my name – mestizo. That was what I was and nothin’ was going to change it. Maybe I wouldn’t have been called it if I had been here with you, but I wasn’t.”

Murdoch ran his hand across his eyes and down his face, “Johnny, your mother…” he started.

“My mother’s dead and the man who did it is in Morro Coyo.”

 “If you won’t let me ride with you, then how about Scott?”

Johnny’s face whitened and he raised his hands in front of his body, as if to fend his father off. “No! Keep him outta of this. If he finds out, I know he’ll hightail after me an’ he’ll get in the way ‘n one of us could die. I don’t want his blood on my hands too. You have to remain here and keep him with you. It’s my fight and I don’t want neither of you getting’ in my way.”

“All right, Johnny,” agreed Murdoch reluctantly. In the past, Johnny had welcomed his family’s support, but this time he was rejecting it. Murdoch wasn’t sure whether his son wanted to protect his father and brother from danger or whether he wanted to savor the satisfaction of killing by himself. “I don’t want to stay out of this fight, but I will and I’ll keep your brother out of it too. I have as much reason to see this man dealt with as you do, but my way is different to yours.” He hesitated briefly as an unpleasant thought crossed his mind. “It’s always been your word against his, hasn’t it?”

Johnny nodded and flicked his eyes briefly to meet Murdoch’s. “Yes.”

“And the authorities are more likely to believe him than you, aren’t they?”

“Yes.”

“Johnny…son…don’t do this.”

Johnny shrugged. “I’ll be riding out as soon as I change my shirt,” he said as he fingered the hole on his right shoulder. “I tore it this morning, while I was movin’ the hay bales around in the barn. Scott should find them easier to count. He’ll have to get the vaqueros to help him put them back up. Getting’ ‘em down was the easy part. And you were right — them bottom ones were soakin’ wet and beginnin’ to rot. They would’ve sent the whole lot moldy if they’d been left any longer where they were.” Without waiting for a reply, he turned and left the room.

Apprehensively, Murdoch lowered himself into his chair to await his son’s return. He knew he couldn’t leave their conversation where it was, but as far as Johnny was concerned, it was finished. He hoped he would have one more chance at changing Johnny’s mind and to somehow do it without letting Scott know the full story. He snorted, and for a split second, a smile touched his lips, and then vanished. Johnny’s last comments also caught him unawares. His younger son was constantly surprising him. Johnny would have had to rise very early to begin working in the barn. This was one of the first chores for the boys that morning and Johnny had already completed half of it. Counting and re-stacking the undamaged bales would be the next.

What Murdoch didn’t know was that Johnny had been unable to sleep as his mind crowded him with conflicting thoughts of what he should do and what he knew Murdoch would want him to do. He had tossed and turned and stared at the ceiling until a few hours before dawn. Noiselessly, he made his way to the barn and had lost himself in labor, but his mind never strayed far from the problem. It wouldn’t be possible, he’d decided, to go to Morro Coyo, take care of Fernando Vasquez and then return in time to do his chores, so his sleeplessness had come to an advantage.

Murdoch sighed; there was one more thing he had to do. “Teresa,” he called.

“Yes Murdoch?” His ward, Teresa O’Brien, swept into the room, her long, brunette hair hung in a thick strand over one shoulder, a patch of flour on her left cheek and her hands covered white. She began to wipe them on her apron, but stopped when she saw her guardian’s face. Something was causing him a great deal of concern. She knew he’d been worried about the feed loss, but didn’t think the situation warranted the look she saw. They had suffered worse predicaments than the recent rains and had overcome them.

“Would you fetch Scott inside and come back in here yourself?” Teresa cocked her head inquisitively. “I have some bad news — Johnny’s leaving.”

Teresa paled, as his words shocked her into silence. She ran from the room as tears prickled her eyes.

*****

Silver spurs chinked softly with each step on the terra cotta flooring and announced Johnny’s presence in the room. Murdoch set his features deliberately expressionless and pressed his lips in a firm line as he lifted his head and faced the door. The son he’d only recently begun to know was ready to leave, on his way possible death on the streets of Morro Coyo and there was not a damn thing he could do about it.

His troubled eyes studied his young son intently. Slung low on the hip, below the silver concho-studded belt, hung the worn gun-belt. Black tie-down strings, which would be tightly knotted later, now dangled freely down his right thigh. They swung lazily beside the leg as Johnny crossed the floor and stopped four paces away from Murdoch. One black glove was tucked into the waist of his calzoneras, while the other covered Johnny’s left hand. Through one side of the unevenly buttoned light blue shirt, a vee of tanned skin and curly black hairs were visible, along with a brief flash of the colorful Indian beads his son wore constantly.

“You’re leaving then?” Murdoch asked gruffly and turned away from his son before he could answer. The knuckles on his hand whitened against the dark covered book he was holding. Neither Scott nor Teresa could see Murdoch’s face as he closed his eyes and swallowed hard. He blinked rapidly a few times and tensed his jaw, forcing back the urge to run to his son and hold him. How many times in the past had Johnny faced a gun alone, knowing that this could be the day he died alone? Alone — always that word, but this time it could be different. Johnny could have his father and brother with him, both of them with him, to stand beside him, but he wouldn’t allow it.

The young man nodded, unable to open his mouth to shape the words. In his room, while he’d strapped on his gun and checked the rounds in his pistol chamber for what must have been the hundredth time, he’d gone over in his mind everything he wanted to say. Now, all of a sudden, his mouth was dry and he was afraid his voice would betray the apprehension he felt. He wasn’t afraid to die, for he had faced death enough times before, but he had a sick feeling in his gut that something would go wrong. And that was all the more reason to keep Murdoch and Scott at Lancer.

Johnny pushed the bleak thoughts aside. He swallowed quickly and bit his bottom lip as he felt the tension in the room wash back and forth over him. Despite his best efforts, his stomach ached and churned enough for him to feel sick. This wasn’t the way he thought his life on Lancer would turn out, but in the back of his mind, he understood that his past would always keep returning. Certainly his previous life in the Mexican border towns as a gunfighter had been hazardous, but not here with his family, where for the first time in his life he felt safe and wanted for whom he was, not what he was or had been. On a ranch this size, there would always be rustlers and such to deal with but nothing like this. In a few hours time, he was going to call a man out into the street and face him with a loaded gun in his hand and revenge in his heart. Murdoch’s deep voice jolted him out of his thoughts.

“Even though I’ve asked you not to go?” Murdoch pushed himself out of his chair and stood ramrod straight. He disguised his clenched fists by resting them on his hips in his tall, imposing stance, his feet spread slightly apart.

“Yes,” admitted Johnny softly.

Murdoch could just hear his son’s reply and his own frustration spilled easily to the surface. He wanted to be with Johnny, but knew in his heart that his younger son needed to attend to unfinished business. A sense of dread struck him and he flinched as a shiver ran down his spine. One thing he didn’t want was for what might be their last words to be spoken in anger.

Murdoch raised his voice. “I forbid you to go! You will not leave this ranch today.”

Tension crackled between father and son, while Scott and Teresa stared in disbelief.

“You won’t stop me,” countered Johnny belligerently.

“Then go, and don’t return, unless you want to,” he snapped. The façade stood firmly in place for both sons, but more for Scott’s benefit. Why did Johnny have to play his cards so close to his chest?

“Good chance I won’t be back anyway,” muttered the soft voice, a touch louder than his previous reply.

“What does that mean?” asked Scott, as he glanced between the two antagonists. He was very much aware of what was not being said and it made him suspicious. “What’s going on here, and where are you going, Johnny?”

“Nothin’…nothin’ at all,” answered Johnny, but his eyes remained on Murdoch. “Just stay outta of this, big brother. It ain’t got nothin’ to do with you!”

“The hell it has! I’m not going to stand by and let you…”

Murdoch cut him off, “Yes, you will!”

Scott’s vision was jerked across to Murdoch, but his father was staring at Johnny.

Johnny finally tore his eyes from the older man and dropped them to the hat brim he was crushing in his hands. After seeing the expression on Murdoch’s face, he knew he couldn’t look at Scott or Teresa. Here, in this room, were the three people he cared deeply about and he couldn’t put how he felt into words. Silently, he spun on a heel and hurried from the room. The door slammed behind him, so loudly that all three occupants of the room jumped.

“Is that all you’re going to do Murdoch? Tell him not to come back?” Scott shook his head at his father in amazement. His brother was leaving and his father was doing nothing to stop him. In fact, it was more like Murdoch wasn’t even bothered about him going. It all sounded like a bad dream – a nightmare — and Scott wanted it to end now.

Murdoch gaze flicked to his older son, then to Teresa. He could see the same disbelief on both faces, as he suspected he would, but on Teresa’s there were also tears. If only Johnny could see what he was doing to them and him. As Murdoch returned to his chair, he heard himself say coldly, “He’s old enough to make his own decisions.” He would continue the act of unconcerned father, even though it was wrong and against all he felt he should do.

Scott’s skepticism colored his voice. “Is he? Looks to me like you forced his hand.” He wasn’t going to let his brother leave without fighting for him. Scott crossed over to Murdoch and stared down at him. “What kind of father are you?”

“Don’t you judge me! I’m a father who lost his sons a long time ago. I’m also a man who had no possible chance of being a father for two boys. Those boys – my boys – grew into men without me and are strangers to me, but that hasn’t prevented me from understanding how my younger son’s hand was dealt. What I did or didn’t do back then had a lot to do with what cards landed in front of Johnny. You can think what you like, but I’m not going after him. As much as I want him stay away from Morro Coyo, I can’t prevent him from going. I didn’t beg when he chose to leave with his friend Wes and I won’t beg this time. He already knows how I feel about what he’s going to do.”

“Can’t keep him from going? Or won’t? I take that to mean you do know where Johnny’s going then?” Scott continued to probe his father. Getting an answer out of his father was similar to swimming against a raging river – impossible.

“Yes.”

“And you know why?”

“Yes, that too,” Murdoch replied, tight lipped.

Scott shouted, “And still that makes no difference?”

“Of course it makes a difference, Scott – a big difference, but that was always his choice. If he wanted my help, or yours, he would’ve asked for it. He didn’t!”

“I’m going after him.”

“No, you won’t, Scott. Even if I have to hog-tie you, you’ll stay here and wait.”

Murdoch pushed himself out of his chair and limped across to the sideboard, poured himself a large brandy and threw it down his throat in one gulp. Then he turned to the full-length window behind his desk, and with hooded eyes, tracked the palomino and its rider as they rode away from the ranch. In the distance, small bursts of dust rose from the horse’s hooves and quickly settled back onto the road. It always felt like his leg ached more when he was aggravated and the aggravation involved his sons. Teresa and Scott joined him at the window and the three of them watched Johnny until he could no longer be seen.

Teresa turned to Murdoch, her eyes blazing. “You’re both the same!” she cried. “Each as stubborn as the other. He’d never ask for help from you, Murdoch.”

Murdoch nodded. “He’ll come back when he’s finished what he has to do.”

“Even though you just told him not to? Aren’t you contradicting yourself?” Scott’s body shook in frustration. He stalked across the room in front of his father – coiled springs ready to be sprung. He felt as though he were running in circles, going nowhere or beating his head against a stone wall.

“Yes,” Murdoch went on. “Of course I want him here with us, but remember, it was always going to be on my terms. I didn’t go to all that trouble with the Pinkertons to find my sons without needing you both to remain here.”

“But why does he have to do this alone?” Teresa stepped towards Murdoch, her hand reaching out to his. “What’s so important?”

“He’ll tell you when he’s ready, Teresa,” replied Murdoch and turned away under her intense glare. Like Scott, the young woman was also intelligent enough to conclude that something wasn’t quite right.

“Murdoch,” Scott pleaded with his father. He wasn’t satisfied with his father’s explanation. “No…“

“What he’s gone to do doesn’t involve either of you and he asked me to stay out of it. I’m not happy with his decision, but it was his to call. Now all we can do is wait.” Murdoch eased himself into the sofa opposite the fireplace. He leaned back and stared into the flames as they danced and licked greedily at the wood. He twisted the empty glass absently in his hands, then suddenly threw it into the fireplace. The glass shattered, sending glittering shards into the fireplace. It was the only outward display of emotion he was going to allow himself.

“The barn is waiting for you, Scott. Don’t you think you should get yourself out there? We haven’t got all day.” Murdoch dismissed him, with a succinct wave of his hand.

Scott’s brow furrowed into a frown and his mouth dropped open in astonishment. Murdoch had ended the discussion. Johnny was off to Morro Coyo for a reason only his brother and Murdoch knew and he himself was being sent to the barn as if he were an errant child. Scott ran his hand over his face and shook his head in defeat.

“And don’t make any attempt to follow your brother.”

“Yes, Sir!” snapped Scott as he spun on the ball of his foot with military precision and marched outside. Teresa bent her head sadly and followed him in silence. She lingered at the doorway, just long enough to look back at Murdoch before she too shook her head.

Murdoch sat alone in his chair, as his unfocused eyes stared into the logs burning in the sooty fireplace. Despite the warmth, he was shivering.

*****

From under the lowered brim of his hat, Johnny’s narrowed eyes never ceased moving. The unsettled feeling he experienced earlier remained and intensified as he entered the main street of Morro Coyo. At first he thought it was caused by the anguish he had inflicted on his family, but now he was certain it was the impending gunfight. In preparation for what was to come, he raised his right hand slightly and lifted the leather thong from the hammer of his gun. His hand slipped effortlessly over the familiar pistol butt as he loosened it in the holster.

He had timed his ride to arrive in the town exactly on midday. The brightness of the noonday sun reflected fiercely from the road and off whitewashed buildings. Only under the store overhangs were there shadows where he could easily detect any unusual movement or shape.

There was no law present in Morro Coyo. Although other prominent townsfolk and Murdoch were trying hard to have a jail built and a sheriff appointed, their efforts had so far fallen on deaf ears. The current situation didn’t help Johnny either. To avoid being accused of murder, he would have to find Fernando Vasquez, explain why he was being called out and then meet him in the street, all in front of as many witnesses as possible. There could be no doubts as to the validity of his actions being in self-defense.

As Johnny moved along the street he particularly took notice of the horses tied to the hitching rails. Vasquez’s preference for pure black stallions was matched by his desire for richly decorated Spanish saddles and bridles. Johnny understood the man he sought and there was only one place in town where he would be found, but the seasoned skill of a gunfighter allowed no chances as his eyes maintained their guard. He would continue down the street, past the hotel and on to the last saloon where Vasquez had been yesterday. A creature of habit, Fernando Vasquez would seek out the cantina or saloon which served the tastiest Mexican food and return there for every meal during his stay in that town.

Johnny located the stallion by the exquisite tack on its back, where he expected him to be. He made a final inspection of his surroundings and dismounted. As he half-hitched Barranca’s reins, he saw more men going into the saloon. At this time of day, there should be more than enough witnesses in the saloon, but he had to make sure there were plenty in the street too.

His spurs spun lightly as he stepped onto the boardwalk and pushed the saloon doors open.

A quick step to the left moved him out of the backlit doorway while his eyes adjusted to the darker interior. The air was filled with the acrid smell of smoke, of stale beer and unwashed bodies. He was used to them and to the clamor of voices – some shouts – some others, loud normal speech as the speakers fought to be heard over the clinking of bottles on glasses and of coins on tables.

A piercing scrape of chair legs on the filthy wooden floor drew his attention towards the rear of the building. One man scurried from a table, but three remained, including a tall mustachioed man seated between two shorter men. There was an air of dangerous arrogance surrounding him as he leaned back in the chair. A heavily bejeweled left hand lifted a glass to the cruel lips, but the malicious eyes never left the young man walking towards him. There was no doubting the direction the new arrival was heading and, more importantly, what his intentions were. Never one to take an unnecessary chance, Vasquez right hand crept towards his gun as he warily watched the newcomer.

Johnny’s measured pace was deliberate as he wove between the scattered tables and chairs. Scruffy clothed cowboys as well as cardsharps in faded, but once expensive suits looked up at him as he passed. They recognized his type. The cat-like walk, gloved hand, piercing eyes, gun set low on the leg were all indications of a gunfighter. Silence followed Johnny across the room and enveloped him when he halted within two arm’s lengths of Vasquez’s table. A creature of habit himself when it came to his previous trade, Johnny stored the faces of the two men away in his brain, but for the moment he disregarded them.

Fernando Vasquez placed his empty glass on the table and stretched both hands out beside it. “Buenos días, amigo

Johnny kept silent.

?” asked Vasquez, irritated by the lack of response. He was used to immediate answers by those he considered underlings. “What do you want?” Can you not see I am busy?” He waved his hand to indicate his companions.

“You are VasquezSeñor Fernando Vasquez?” questioned Johnny. He had no doubt of the man’s identity; it was carved into his brain, but he wanted the listeners around him to know to whom he was talking to.

“ Sí. Who wants to know?”

“I do.”

“And you are?”

“The last time you saw me was years ago, so you probably don’t remember me, but the name is Madrid, Johnny Madrid.”

“I recognize the name, amigo, and the reputación that goes with it, but what do you want with me?”

Johnny smiled, but his eyes were cold. “I’m here to kill you.”

“Me? Why? Who wants me dead?”

“I do,” Johnny repeated. “Fifteen years ago in Ciudad Acuña, you murdered my mother and got away with it.”

“Ciudad Acuña, you say?”

“Yes. You murdered Maria, your pregnant wife. I was a boy then, but I’ve never forgotten what you did and what you looked like. I swore on her grave that one day I would find you and kill you. That day is today.”

Vasquez laughed. “You never would give up fighting would you, mestizo? But you are estúpido, mestizo, as your mami was estúpido.”

“You weren’t worthy of her and she didn’t deserve what you did to her. You admit to killing her?”

Vasquez shrugged. “Sí, I struck her too hard – she died. It was an accident. These things happen.”

“It was no accident and we both know that.”

Vasquez grinned and smoothed his long mustache with his thumb. “She was nothing, a common whore with a mestizo hiding behind her skirts. It is done, over with – finished.”

“She was no whore and it’s not finished,” yelled Johnny. You were the only man she allowed to enter our house.” Johnny knew Vasquez was goading him – and it worked.

Vasquez sneered. “There were other places for her to use, Madrid.”

“You’re lying!” Johnny grappled within himself to subdue his fury before he spoke again. The frostiness in his voice chilled the air in the saloon and sent shivers running down the spines of all but one man. “You have five minutes to meet me outside; otherwise, I’m coming after you and you won’t get away from me this time.” His eyes blazing angrily, Johnny backed away from Vasquez. Only when he was outside did he turn and face the street.

The saloon was silent, except for an uncomfortable cough here and there. Vasquez leaned forward and whispered to the two men beside him. “A toda prisa! You have got two minutes to get into position behind him.”

His men nodded and hurried out the back door. Vasquez pulled the cork from the tequila bottle with his teeth, spat it onto the floor and poured himself another drink. He tipped his chair back and rocked leisurely on two legs, while he rolled the glass between the palms of his hands. His black eyes traveled from one man to the next. They locked onto each set bold enough to meet his and forced each to submission and hastily look elsewhere. He smiled to himself. ‘And so they should fear me’.

In the empty street, Johnny moved his fingers, stretching and curling them to ease his edginess. Word of a gunfight spread quickly and spectators gathered in doorways and behind posts at a safe distance from the saloon and Johnny. A flash of annoyance crossed Johnny’s mind as he gave the crowd a quick glance. He wanted the on-lookers, but they would also help Vasquez, if he chose to hide his men among them. More than once in the past, an innocent bystander had been wounded or even killed by a stray bullet. The likelihood of that occurring always increased if one of the gunfighters decided to improve his odds of survival and set up an ambush. He had no way of knowing if Vasquez was alone or not. If he could, Johnny would search for the faces of the two men who had been seated at the table with Vasquez, but he doubted there would be much time for that. He had no proof that they were with him, and for all he knew, they were being sociable and enjoying a drink with a stranger, but his instincts cast a shadow on that thought.

Johnny’s head snapped up as the saloon doors were flung open. An arrogant smirk spread across Vasquez’s face as stepped through the doors and placed his sombrero on his head. He laughed mirthlessly at Johnny. “You are ready to die today, mestizo?”

“Good a day as any for me,” sneered Johnny as he replied. “How about you, Vasquez?” Johnny’s voice dripped with insolence.

Vasquez’s hands rested on his hips as he bent back and gazed at the clear blue sky. “No, today does not suit me to die.”

Johnny refused to fall into the Vasquez’s trap of taking his eyes off him and looking at the sky. “Too bad, because you are gonna die.”

“We shall see,” countered Vasquez, as he strode haughtily into the street.

“You first,” offered Johnny, as his flexed his shoulders and moved his hand a few inches away from his holster to give himself more room to draw.

“Very generous of you mestizoAdios, amigo,” said Vasquez, but as he spoke his hand went for his gun.

Johnny reacted instantly when he saw Vasquez’s eyes dart behind him. As Vasquez’s shot whistled harmlessly past his shoulder, Johnny felt the bullet from a hidden gunman behind him slam into his right side. He grunted as the force knocked him off-balance and half a second later, his own gun cleared the holster and bucked at Vasquez. There was no time to see if the shot made its target as he completed his spin and fired. His second bullet struck true. In the haze of gunsmoke, the gunman doubled up and staggered back, the gun falling from his limp hand.

Mestizo dog!” spat Vasquez, as he pulled his trigger. Blood splattered his white shirt from a wound in his upper arm. His enemy’s back loomed as an easy target in front of him. He saw the bullet tear into Johnny Madrid, watched as he stumbled forward.

Gunsmoke stung Johnny’s eyes and spasms of pain combined to disorientate him. The malevolent sound of Vasquez’s voice behind him drew him in the correct direction, but his injury slowed his movement. Vasquez’s bullet tore into his right side, burning inside the flesh as though it was a white-hot poker – and aided his turn. Johnny fired across his body, allowing pure instinct to guide his aim. The moment the gun fired, his legs faltered and he fell to his knees as though in prayer.

Numb shock crossed Vasquez’s face as he looked down at an ominous patch of blood growing on his chest. He opened his mouth to speak, but instead of words, blood bubbled and frothed over his lips. Soundlessly, he crashed to the ground, his sightless eyes staring into the sky – breath laboring in his ears.

Johnny sagged as he sat back on his heels. It was over, but he took no pleasure from the fact. He holstered his gun and pressed a hand to his injured side. On knees and one hand, he shuffled to where Vasquez lay breathing in his last gasps of air.

His shadow shielded Vasquez’s eyes from the sun as Johnny leaned over the dying man. For one last time their eyes met. Both were in agony, but there was now fear in Vasquez’s eyes where had never been fear before. A loud groan escaped Johnny as he crouched towards Vasquez and whispered into his ear.

Vasquez’s breath rattled in his chest and ceased. Johnny straightened up. The shock of killing his enemy struck Johnny so brutally that he reeled. He had to clamp his eyes shut and lower his head to hand. It took him a few moments before he could see again and look at Vasquez for the last time. He reached down and ran his trembling hand gently across the slack face, closing the eyes forever. Even though Johnny had hated Vasquez for years, he could not prevent himself from doing so. It was not done out of kindness and not out of respect, but a part of Johnny felt it needed to be done and he couldn’t explain to himself why.

His work finished, Johnny lurched painfully to his feet and staggered to his horse. He needed to lean against Barranca’s neck while he loosened the reins and throw them over his mount. An awkward swing landed him into the saddle and he nudged the horse up the street, oblivious to the crowd. A dark chapter in his life was closed. Behind him two men separated from the crowd to stand over the bodies. A short, rugged faced man clothed in black; a tape measure slung around his neck, pushed his way through the onlookers and joined them.

*****

The sun was settling low on the far hills when the golden horse returned to the Lancer ranch. Murdoch, Scott and Teresa spent the long, arduous day with barely a word uttered between them. Jelly and the vaqueros kept out of their way and were stung with curt words when they didn’t. Now the three were waiting anxiously in the main room, the table conversation almost non-existent as their thoughts remained with their missing family member. Johnny’s empty seat at supper only served to highlight his absence. The plates of food sitting before them were hardly touched and had turned cold.

The sound of a horse drew them to their feet in a clatter of chairs and plates. Napkins were hastily thrown onto the table to join the scattered plates and utensils in their effort to rush outside. Despite his limp, Murdoch led them through the open doorway and into the courtyard. A warm glow of relief filled his body – this time it was Johnny and he had come home.

The palomino stopped in front of Murdoch. Wild-eyed, Barranca threw his head back and snorted. He remained in place, but the hindquarters shifted restlessly. From limp hands around the saddle-horn, the long reins fell free to caress the ground.

Scott eased forward and carefully reached out to hold Barranca’s bridle. He ran his palm lightly up the long nose in an effort to calm it down, but regardless of his soothing actions, the horse remained unsettled and Scott couldn’t understand why. Scott saw no obvious wounds on the horse’s near-side, so as he kept a tight hold on the bridle, he shifted to where he could see Barranca’s offside, but found nothing there either. It was only as he moved closer to the horse that he noticed flecks of blood splattered on the horse’s coat.

Out of the corner of his eye, Scott saw Johnny sway in the saddle. Anxiously, he looked along Barranca’s withers and up at his brother. He could see Johnny’s left hand was tucked in close to his right side. Scott’s eyes returned to the saddle and it was then that he saw the reason for the horse’s nervousness – blood covered the fingers of Johnny’s left hand and the saddle-horn.

“Murdoch!” Scott started. He could barely hear his voice through the roaring in his head and the nausea in the pit of his stomach. There was no possibility that Murdoch could see the bloody hand, because it was shielded by Johnny’s coat sleeve.

“It’s done then?” Murdoch asked gruffly, as his large hands rested tenderly on Johnny’s left leg. He noticed absently that Johnny’s pants and coat were covered in dust. Their eyes locked and Murdoch saw the misery in Johnny’s. His black hair was mussed and speckled with dirt and bits of dried grass and his face was strangely pale beneath the dirt clinging to his sweat-soaked features. The blue eyes, which ordinarily missed nothing, were dull. Something was terribly wrong with his son.

There was a long pause before Johnny murmured, “Yes.” The young man leaned forward, as if to dismount and crumpled out of the saddle toward his father.

The movement took Murdoch by surprise and he reacted slowly. There was barely enough time for him to stretch his arms out to catch the falling shape. Johnny’s weight landed awkwardly against Murdoch’s chest and forced him to shuffle backwards as his right leg began to buckle. His jaw clenched against the urge to drop his son and he shifted Johnny somewhat so his good leg would support most of the weight. Unsteadily, he turned towards the house. As he moved, Johnny’s coat fell open.

Teresa gasped aloud and her hands flew her mouth. “Oh no, Murdoch! He’s hurt! There’s blood everywhere!”

Scott felt a jolt hit his stomach like a fist as he released his hold on Barranca and dashed around the horse to Murdoch and Johnny. Both horse and Murdoch had shielded his view, and although the bloody hand had warned him, he now confirmed Barranca’s skittishness as the nauseating smell of fresh blood entered his nostrils. He gagged as an image of limbs and torsos torn apart in battle flashed across his mind.

“Johnny?” called Murdoch thickly.

“Had to let him draw first,” Johnny replied bluntly as a wry grin touched his dry lips. ”Didn’t know he was gonna have someone ready to back-shoot me.”

“Why didn’t you stay in Morro Coyo?” Murdoch shook his head as he looked at his son’s side, then back into the distressed face. He could feel Johnny’s chest heaving against his own. “Why did you ride back here? Didn’t you know how much you were bleeding?”

“Wanted—to be–home,” Johnny swallowed down the urge to vomit, “here–where–I knew–I’d be–safe.” The young man’s eyes fluttered as his body went limp. His head rolled slowly against Murdoch’s chest.

“I should have been there!” snapped Scott heatedly, not sure where his anger was directed, as he lifted Johnny’s coat shirt. “It’s a wonder he made it home at all, judging by all this blood soaked into his shirt!”

Murdoch glared at Scott. “Well, you weren’t and be thankful that you aren’t shot up like he his!”

“You don’t think I could have handled myself in a gunfight?” Scott’s angry voice rose higher. “You think I would have been more hindrance than help?”

“Right now what I think isn’t the point.”

“Then what is the point?”

“Stop it, both of you! It doesn’t matter whether you could have handled yourself or not, Scott.” Teresa turned on Murdoch. “It’s a matter of Johnny should’ve had someone with him. You knew Johnny was involved in a gunfight and you didn’t go with him!” She stabbed a finger at him. “You stopped Scott from going too, and because he was alone, Johnny’s been hurt!”

“Now is not the time to discuss who is to blame either, Teresa.” Murdoch replied gruffly. “What’s done is done. We have to pick up the pieces and carry on, not about what Johnny did, but taking care of him when he needs us the most. He’s home; let’s deal with the rest later.”

“Yes, you’re right,” agreed Scott. He was horrified to find himself arguing with his father instead of concentrating on looking after Johnny, but that didn’t keep him from wanting answers. They could wait; his brother couldn’t.

Sarcastically Murdoch replied, “So glad you’ve come to your senses.”

“Let me take his feet, Murdoch. You look like you need some help with him.” Scott started to move towards Johnny’s legs, ignoring his father’s comment.

Murdoch glared at Scott. “No I don’t! Now move aside and let me through.”

“Murdoch, answer me. We at least have the right to know why,” Teresa demanded. She reached out and grabbed his arm, halting his progress.

“It was something he wanted to do alone, Teresa.” Murdoch’s gaze slid to her hand. She immediately pulled it away and held it against her chest, as though it were hurt.

“What was so important that he should risk his life for?” asked Scott as he followed Murdoch’s labored progress toward the house. “Did you know who he was going to meet?”

Murdoch answered over his shoulder. “He went to kill the man who murdered his mother.”

“He what?”

“Scott, we will discuss this later,” snapped Murdoch at Scott. “Teresa, get some bandages and hot water. We need to see how badly hurt Johnny is.” He stopped and looked back at his older son. “Are you helping or not?”

Teresa placed her hand on Scott’s arm and squeezed hard as she saw Scott wanted to continue his questioning, even if it meant doing it on the way to Johnny’s room.

“Shush, Scott, it’s his way. He’ll tell us when he’s ready, or Johnny will. He was like this when my father was killed and he was lying in bed wondering whether he was going to live or die and what was to become of this ranch and me. I’ve known him for longer than you have. He’s as worried as you are, but for Johnny’s sake, he won’t show it. Now you know where your brother gets that trait from.”

“Teresa!” called Murdoch as he staggered up the stairs towards Johnny’s room.

“Coming, Murdoch,” Teresa called. Scott moved to follow, but her hand held him back. He turned to face her and looked into her eyes. There was no attempt to disguise his feelings.

She could see Scott was worried and was starting to feel guilty about not being with Johnny at a time when it looked like his little brother could have used some help. There was also a flash of anger at Murdoch’s back and blame for him not explaining what Johnny was going to do.

“Be with them both, Scott. They each need you in their own way. Murdoch has been shielding his feelings since he lost you both and your mothers. And your brother? Well, for Johnny, who knows? I guess he’s never had anyone close enough to talk to.” She smiled sadly, stretched up and kissed his cheek, then ran towards the kitchen.

*****

In his room, Johnny stirred as Murdoch lowered him onto the bed and set about lighting a lamp. His hands were clenching and unclenching while his jaw and body shook. All the color had disappeared from his face and with the surrounding dark hair, his face was a sickly white. “C-c-c-cold…so c-c-c-cold.”

“I’ll soon have you warm, son.” Murdoch pulled the bedcovers over his son’s legs and up as far as his hips. He decided not to cover him completely because of all the blood. Scott stood behind his father, agitated. During the war, he’d seen similar wounds, but was not sure as to what he should do, or more importantly, what Murdoch wanted him to do.

“Teresa!” Murdoch bellowed without taking his eyes off his injured son.

“I’m here,” the young woman answered as she set a basin of steaming water and a thick cloth onto a chair. Scott quickly slid closer to Murdoch. Over the back of the same chair, she layered strips of clean, white cloth she’d made into bandages.

“Scott, help me get your brother out of this shirt.”

 “His pants are bloody, too. We’ll need to work fast. He can’t afford to suffer any more blood loss.” Scott touched Johnny’s skin. “And he’s already feeling cold.”

Murdoch nodded.

Scott released the knotted string from around Johnny’s thigh and moved up to unbuckle the gun-belt. Scott’s eyes lifted to Johnny’s face. “I’m sorry if I hurt you, little brother.”

The black eyelashes flickered open briefly to reveal blue eyes hazy with suffering. Johnny nodded once. “It’s…okay…” he slurred, “understand…been shot…before.”

A flash of relief crossed Scott face. “Thanks, hoped you would.”

“And Scott?”

“Yes?”

“Remind me to forgive you later.”

Scott laughed, but there was no humor in his voice. Nervously he rubbed his hand across his chin. “I will – that’s if I hurt you.”

“By the time you’re finished, you’ll have hurt me plenty more,” Johnny’s eyes slid shut. “Just don’t be too long about it, will ya?”

With his brother’s blessing, Scott began his unpleasant task. It took him two attempts of firm tugging before the stiff buckle opened and he could slide the weapon away from the lean hips. Each uneasy glance from under his eyebrows saw Johnny wince and press his head back into the pillow, but no sound escaped his thin lips. The silver studded belt was next and then the fly buttons. The right hand upper portion of the pants was slick with blood. Scott stood up and hesitated. He ran the back of his hand across his damp forehead. He took a deep breath, leaned back to Johnny. He gripped a side section of Johnny’s pants.

Murdoch sensed Scott’s plans. “Teresa, get hold of the bottom of Johnny’s pants and be ready to pull when Scott does. That way we should need only one try to get them off.”

She nodded, “Yes, Murdoch.” Teresa hurried to the end of Johnny’s bed. “Wait!” she urged suddenly.

Over his shoulder, Scott watched as Teresa gently pulled at a filthy boot. Johnny moaned. She began to sob as the boots remained tight.

“Teresa,” Murdoch said quietly. Teresa brushed her tears aside and looked at him. “We’ll work together. I’ll hold his leg still while you pull as hard as you can.”

She glanced at the three men and bit her bottom lip.

“I’ll do it,” offered Scott.

Teresa shook her head. “No, I’m ready, Murdoch.”

Johnny remained still, his eyes focused on the ceiling as Murdoch and Teresa set about removing his boots.

Scott called his brother. “Johnny?”

“Yeah.”

With Scott and Teresa set, Murdoch placed his hands on Johnny’s shoulders, ready to hold him steady if needed. He was silently grateful that his young son didn’t open his eyes.

“Right, on two,” said Scott. “One…two!”

Slick with his brother’s blood, Scott’s fingers began to slip, but he refused let go as he slid the pants from Johnny’s hips and down his legs as smoothly as he could. Behind him Teresa kept the tension exactly how he needed it.

“Uhhhhh,” Johnny moaned, as a breath hissed between his clenched teeth.

Scott shuddered, but kept his head down. Finally Johnny’s socks came into view. Absently he noticed that both needed mending. With one final twist, the pants were off. He wiped his hands dry on his shirt and, appalled with himself for hurting Johnny, threw the offending clothing across the room.

Between them, they lifted Johnny into an upright position. Murdoch supported his son as Scott began unfastening the shirt. His fingers quickly turned red again as blood oozed onto them. The buttons slipped in his fingers and slowed his process. A groan escaped Johnny’s lips and his head lolled back against Murdoch’s chest, the slack mouth hung partially open. Murdoch touched the top of Johnny’s head with his lips before nodding for Scott to continue. “It’ll be easier on all of us now that he’s unconscious.”

Scott stripped the shirt from Johnny and threw it onto the floor near the pants. It landed with an obscene soggy splat as Teresa handed Scott a warm wet cloth she taken from the basin. Johnny flinched as his brother cleared the blood from around the wound, but he didn’t waken. More cloths were exchanged until his side was clean.

“He’s been hit twice!” cried Scott as he knelt on the floor to examine Johnny closely. “One’s got him in the ribs and the other’s about two inches lower. The second bullet has made a nasty tear in his flesh and that’s the one that’s bleeding the most. I don’t know if both bullets…”

“They went through, Scott,’ answered Murdoch as he felt Johnny’s back. His probing fingers touched torn flesh as he located two exit holes.

“That’s a relief!” A quick smile lit Scott’s face and departed as he wiped the back of his hand across his forehead. The stroke left a smear of bright blood above his left eye.

“Does he need a doctor?” asked Teresa. “Jelly’s saddled a horse and is waiting if needing be.”

Murdoch disagreed. “I don’t think so. I think he’s going to be worse off because of all the blood he’s lost rather than from his injuries. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens. For the time being, Teresa, while Scott and I hold Johnny’s arms out of the way, I want you to smear that ointment over the wounds and then bandage him up as tightly as possible. If the bullet damaged his ribs, Johnny will have to tell us. They don’t feel broken. In the meantime, that should be enough to stem the bleeding.

Murdoch and Scott watched in silence as the young woman tended to Johnny. She avoided looking at Johnny’s face, instead concentrated on her patient.

“Now that we’ve taken care of him as best we can, I’ll stay with him tonight,” said Murdoch as he finished tucking the bedcovers around Johnny’s shoulders.

“I’d like to relieve you in a few hours, Murdoch,” Scott offered.

“I’m sure you would, Scott, but I’d prefer I was here when he wakes up. I’ve got some things I want to discuss with him.”

“But…”

“Thank you, Scott, but I can do it,” Murdoch interrupted firmly.

“As you wish, Sir,” Scott replied solemnly.

“You can go to bed too, Teresa. If I need any help, I’ll call you.” Murdoch dismissed them both with a wave of his hand and turned back to his injured son.

“Goodnight Murdoch.” Teresa kissed Murdoch on the cheek, then stepped over to Johnny. His face was very pale in the flickering light. She leaned down and softly kissed Johnny’s lips. “Goodnight, Johnny, and please get better.”

“Murdoch.” Scott dropped his head slightly.

“Scott, Teresa…thank you for helping me with Johnny.”

“He is my brother,” replied Scott curtly. For him, there was no other reason for helping; his brother was hurt and needed his help.

“Yes, I’m well aware of that, son. And son…” Murdoch’s voice trailed off.

“Yes, Father?”

“Goodnight.”

“Goodnight.”

Teresa grasped Scott’s hand and guided him out of Johnny’s room. She could see he wanted to say more, but now was not the best time. “I’ll return with some coffee to help keep you awake,” she said, glancing over her shoulder.

“Thank you, that’d be a good idea.”

 “Scott would you like a cup too?” Murdoch heard Teresa ask as their voices faded down the hallway. He reached over and began removing the grime from Johnny’s face and hair.

*****

It was early morning when Murdoch was startled awake from a fitful doze. He shook his head to clear the sleep from his brain. Something had awakened him, but he wasn’t sure exactly what. Maybe it was a noise of some sort, but he could hear nothing now. Murdoch leaned forward to check Johnny, resting his large calloused hand against Johnny’s left cheek to check for fever.

“Mama…” Johnny called hoarsely. He thrashed his arms about, knocking Murdoch’s hand aside and shoving the sheet and blanket that had covered him.

Murdoch checked the bandages to see if they had been disturbed or needed changing, then settled the covers back over his son’s sweat-soaked body. He reached into the nearby basin, picked up the cloth Teresa had put there for him to use, and wrung out the excess water before gently wiping Johnny’s sallow face.

“Mama…” Johnny cried again, and pushed Murdoch’s hand away from his face with another unexpected thrust of his hand.

“Easy, son, you’re home.”

But Johnny didn’t hear him. He was deep within a far away place both in distance and time. “No, don’t! Don’t hit her again,” he yelled as he sat up in the bed, his face twisted in hatred. “You hurt her again and I’ll kill you!”

Wakened from a restless sleep by Johnny’s shouts, Scott and Teresa hurried into the room, Teresa tying off the belt on her dressing gown and Scott hitching his shirt over his shoulders and buttoning it as they entered. To their horror, they saw Johnny throw his arm up as it to ward off a blow and cry out in pain. Teresa cringed and Scott wrapped his arms around her and held her tight. He could feel her body shivering, but couldn’t tear his vision from his brother’s tormented face.

“Mama…Mama…wakeup! Mama, wakeup!” sobbed Johnny. His eyes were open, but he couldn’t see the room, only the place his mind had taken him. One hand was stretched out in front of him, grasping for something he couldn’t reach. His trembling fingers, curling and tensing into talons, clawed for something to seize.

“Mama…don’t leave me, Mama…Mamaaaaa!” Exhausted, Johnny crumpled back onto the bed. His head rolled from side to side as the cracked and dried lips parted. Murdoch bent closer to Johnny and watched his son’s mouth. He heard nothing to resemble a word, but could make out “Mama” as Johnny exhaled sharply.

Tenderly he held Johnny’s head still while he daubed the cool washcloth over Johnny’s hot flesh. When he finished, he carefully folded the cloth and placed it in the basin. Completely overcome and distressed by the situation, Murdoch covered his face with his hands and slumped back in the chair. His voice was muffled when he spoke. “I tried to find you, Johnny. I tried to find both of you, but I couldn’t. It was if you’d both disappeared of the face of the earth.”

“Mama…” Johnny’s weak voice trailed off as he lapsed into unconsciousness.

Scott guided Teresa towards the door. She opened her mouth to speak, but Scott pressed his fingers to her lips and drew the door quietly behind him. “I could be wrong, but the worst may still be to come. We’d better get Murdoch and ourselves some food to keep up our strength. We may not have time later.”

“What do you think happened to Johnny?” Teresa asked as soon as the door closed.

“He’s delirious…fever no doubt.”

“That’s not what I mean Scott, and you know it,” she snapped, pushing herself away from him and glaring at him, her hands braced on her hips.

Scott nodded and half smiled as a stray thought roamed through his head. “When she’s angry, she reminds me of Johnny. Has she been taking lessons?” The thought of his injured brother sobered his thoughts. “I’d say, at a guess, that he saw his mother killed before his own eyes. He couldn’t have been very old when it happened.”

“It must have been awful for him to be alone.”

“Yes,” agreed Scott, although he had never experienced the loneliness his brother had, and for that small mercy, he was very grateful to his grandfather Harlan Garrett.

Methodically, Murdoch rinsed the cloth and squeezed out the excess water, folded it precisely and gently placed it on Johnny’s forehead. How many times had he repeated the procedure? He didn’t know, nor did he know if it was of any benefit to Johnny, but he had to do something while he waited and watched his son struggle to live.

For Johnny in the long hours, which flowed into days that were to come, there would be moments of awareness, followed by dark periods of pain and confusion. He remembered the gentle voice of a woman, the dark long flowing hair – his mother? Or was it Teresa? He couldn’t tell. Then other deeper male voices close by, calling his name, urging him not letting him go.

Johnny’s eyes flickered open. It took him a few moments to figure out where he was and to adjust his eyesight. He moved his head and found his father’s worried face breaking into a brief smile. The cloth slid onto the pillow.

“Don’t say anything; just lie still and let me take care of you,” offered Murdoch as he repositioned the cloth. He picked up a glass of water, lifted his son’s head and held the glass to Johnny’s dry lips. Over the rim their eyes met, one set of blue eyes filled with love and concern, the other clouded in pain.

Without being asked, Murdoch knew exactly what his son needed and allowed him enough water to quench his immediate thirst, but not enough to make him sick. A trickle of water escaped Johnny’s mouth and ran down his chin. Murdoch’s large thumb swept away the moisture in one gentle motion.

Johnny closed his eyes and savored the temporary cooling release of water in his mouth and on his head. He was aware he was in the grip of a fever, because there wasn’t a part of him that didn’t feel hot or ached, but he didn’t care.

When his eyes fluttered open again, it was daylight. He glanced around the room and found Murdoch, Scott and Teresa by the window. Johnny winced and squinted against the harsh sunlight behind them. They were talking low and he couldn’t hear what they were saying. It took him a few moments to realize that he must have dozed off again after Murdoch had given him the drink. His body felt lethargic and even the slightest movement hurt.

“Murdoch.” His voice was hoarse and he coughed to clear his throat. He groaned and gingerly pressed his hand against his side to ease the pain. He’d been shot before, but it felt worse this time than anything he’d suffered in the past.

“Hush, Johnny, lie still,” answered Teresa as she hurried across to him. She fussed with the rumpled bedding, tucking the blanket neatly back under the down-filled mattress.

“Drink…” groaned Johnny, as he looked up into her smiling face.

Teresa rushed to the sideboard and poured a glass of water from the porcelain pitcher Scott had refilled and brought from the kitchen a few minutes ago.

“Here, Johnny,” she said, offering the refreshment as she slid her other hand behind his head and held it steady. Johnny took the glass from her. His hand around the glass shook, threatening to spill the contents. “Now not too much at once and not so fast or you’ll be sick,” Teresa warned as her cool hand covered his and steadied the grip. The glass was cold and heavy in his hand.

Johnny grudgingly slowed his thirst, as she suggested. He smiled gratefully as Teresa. “Thanks…I needed that.”

“You’re welcome,” she answered, completely aware he was thanking her for more than the drink.

“How are you feeling now, son?” Murdoch lowered himself into the chair beside his son’s bed and reached forward to feel his forehead. “You still seem flushed, as though the fever hasn’t completely gone, but it’s nowhere near as severe as yesterday.”

“Feel tired…and sore…and hungry.” He grinned weakly as he tentatively lifted his left arm and ran his hand over his face. Using a thumb and forefinger, he rubbed his eyes in an attempt to clear away the grit, but was unsuccessful and gave up.

“Well, some more sleep will fix the first and I can give you something for the second complaint,” chuckled Murdoch. “It’ll take a visit to the kitchen by Teresa for the last one, but I’m sure we can make you feel better. You haven’t eaten for four days.” Teresa hurried out of the room, while Scott handed his father a brown bottle and a spoon.

Johnny’s high fever and delirium had worried Murdoch enough to send Scott and their ranch hand Jelly into Morro Coyo for the doctor. Upon his arrival at Lancer, the doctor tended to Johnny’s wounds and bandaged them with fresh dressings.

Although the injuries had bled profusely, he confirmed what Murdoch thought – that the wounds themselves weren’t life threatening. Unless a serious infection set in, his fever would soon recede and Johnny would experience soreness of varying levels, depending on how much he moved and how long the lacerations took to heal over. For that, he left a phial of laudanum and instructions for how much to administer. He concluded that Johnny would also be weak, possibly light-headed, and under no circumstances was he to sit upright for two days because of the blood he had lost. If he did attempt to sit up, there was a chance he could pass-out and be further injured by falling out of bed.

His final instructions were to keep Johnny in bed for at least a week and to change the dressings daily. He would also need plenty of nourishing food to build up his strength and he probably wouldn’t feel able to do much other than walk downstairs to the dining room for another week after that.

Scott and Murdoch had grinned as they listened to the bed-rest instructions. Knowing Johnny the way they did, and his need to keep moving all the time, it was going to be a tough two weeks for all of them.

*****

“Seeing as how you’ve got yourself shot and nearly killed, would you care to tell me the whole story?” asked Murdoch, as he held out a measure of the laudanum. “That’s if you want to.” When he sent Scott and Jelly into Morro Coyo for the doctor, he gave explicit instructions for them to find out exactly what happened between Johnny and Vasquez.

Scott had returned with an account of the event, and over the next few days, while Johnny hovered in and out of consciousness, other versions of the incident filtered through to them as well. One thing consistent in all the reports was that Johnny had fired in self-defense against two men, one of whom was behind him.

Johnny’s face screwed up in distaste, but he swallowed the bitter medicine. The expression on Murdoch’s face implied any attempt to refuse would be wasted. He knew immediately from the taste what it was.

“You sure you wanna hear the whole story?”

“Yes, I’m sure.”

“Can I have another drink of water before I start? I need to wash that taste out of my mouth.”

Before Murdoch could move, Scott filled a glass halfway and pulled a chair over to the bed. “Here you are, brother. Think you can hold it by yourself this time?”

“Yeah and thanks, Scott.” Johnny was tempted to gulp the water down to slake his thirst, but was very much aware that his father was watching him closely, ready to remind him that he shouldn’t.

He sipped noisily instead and his forehead creased into a frown. Scott hadn’t moved and he smirked when realization hit Johnny. Scott’s hand was nonchalantly poised to grab the glass out of his brother’s hand. Johnny glared at his grinning brother. “Seeing as how you didn’t bother to fill it all the way to the top, it wasn’t heavy.”

Feeling reasonably comfortable, Johnny settled back onto the pillows and let Scott take the empty glass. Each movement of his side sent a spasm of pain across his middle, but he knew from past experience the laudanum would numb the pain shortly.

“For a boy as young as I was, all I can remember is bits and pieces. Mama smiling and laughing…and a man…tall, with dark hair.”

“What man was that, Johnny?” Murdoch asked quietly. He knew Maria had left Lancer with another man, but he never found out who he was. He was certain Johnny had begun his story from when Maria had taken Johnny and left Lancer, but could his son remember that long ago and would his memory be true? This wasn’t what Murdoch meant when he asked Johnny to start from the beginning, but apparently Johnny must have remembered part of what happened when he was delirious.

“The one who took Mama and me to Mexico. I kept asking where my Papa was, but she would never say. After a while, whenever I asked her, she said the man was my new Papa. I would call him Papa, but I kinda knew he wasn’t my real father.” Johnny glanced at his father, trying to decide how much he should say. Murdoch face was impassive, as though he was playing a game of poker. Johnny continued, “For months, we was always moving around, never staying long in one place. It was kinda like we was running away from something…or someone.”

Murdoch nodded. “I followed you and your mother for days, months. Sometimes I was only days behind you; others times, weeks.”

“Mama was pretty, and wherever we went, men would want to help her. They would give her money and she would work in the cantinas, even though my new Papa didn’t want her to. He said he would support us, but I remember a lot of times there wasn’t much food on the table. Mama was happy, though. Then one day, maybe a year or two later, I came home from playing in the street and found Mama crying. She said the man had gone away. I can remember asking ‘Just like my other Papa?’ and through her tears, she smiled at me. She hugged me close to her and I can remember her smell. Mama always smelled sweet, like wildflowers. She started to cry harder and said yes, just like my other Papa.”

“What happened then, son?”

“From then on, we traveled around even more. Somehow Mama got us a horse and she put all our possessions in her bag and we rode to another town. She would try to find work in the cantinas. Sometimes I’d go with her if she worked at night, but usually Mama would put me to bed and tell me not to get out until morning or when she came home. Sometimes I did as I was told and sometimes I didn’t.” Johnny grinned at the memory. “When she found me out of bed, Mama wouldn’t punish me. She’d scold me for not listening to her, but she’d smile and hug me. If it wasn’t much longer before she finished working, she’d sit me at a table near the rear of the cantina and I would watch her singing and dancing. Other times she’d quickly take me home and go back to the work.”

“How old were you?”

“I don’t know. Five, maybe six, I’m not sure.” Johnny paused for a moment and looked away from Murdoch. “It was maybe a year later that Mama was killed.”

Johnny turned to look at Murdoch and saw his father slowly close his eyes. When he reopened them, Johnny saw something he hadn’t expected – tears. Murdoch nodded for Johnny to continue with his story.

“She was working in another cantina in another town, like she always did, and she seemed happy, or at least we were. Mama wasn’t looking over her shoulder as much, and it was the first time we’d stayed in the one place long enough for me to make some friends and go to school. I was growing up and looked more Mexican than white, and because of that I wasn’t teased so much.”

“You were in Mexico?”

Johnny shrugged, then winced. “Not sure…guess so. There were lots kids around my age and they spoke Spanish. I had more than my fair share of fights because I was half-gringo, but Mama made me go to the school every day. We stayed in that town for near on a year after the man went away. Maybe it was less or more, I’m not sure. It was the only schooling I had. One day she came home very frightened and said to say nothing to nobody if anyone came around asking questions. No one did, or not to me, but I did see two men in gringo eastern clothes talking to some of the children in the schoolyard.”

Murdoch rubbed a hand across his tired eyes. “Pinkertons. So close.”

“Then Senor Fernando Vasquez,” Johnny spat the name contemptuously, “began calling on Mama. I’m not sure if she was pleased about that. She said he was nice to her, maybe at first, but not all the time. I didn’t like him and told Mama that. They got married, but I still didn’t trust him. And even though Mama knew how I felt, she made sure I was polite and called him Senor Vasquez.”

Johnny clenched his hands, fighting back his anger. “It may have been out of respect back then that I called him by his proper name, but after Mama died, it was a name I hated and every time I said it, it reminded me of what he did. He knew how I felt about him and he’d hit me if I didn’t say Senor Vasquez.”

Vasquez would come home smelling of smoke and tequila and he’d throw me out of the house. Sometimes it would be morning before she could let me come back inside and so I’d sleep curled up by the front door in what little I was wearing. I couldn’t escape hearing what he did to her. She tried to get him to leave her alone when he was drunk, but because they were married, no one would do anything. He would beat her, and afterwards if I said anything to her, she would tell me to be quiet and let her be. She said it would get better, I’d see, but it never did. If anything it got worse, for both of us.”

“At first, when Vasquez began to hit me, he said it was to teach me some manners and respect. Mama would tell him to stop it and he did. He never hit me – in front of her. But on the night he killed her, he started hitting me for no reason, and when Mama asked him to stop, he took a fistful of my hair and dragged me out of the room and threw me into the street. I landed on the hard ground and hurt my shoulder. My arm wouldn’t move. I was crying, but I heard the door slamming shut behind me. He wouldn’t let her come and get me.”

“It was supposed to be a happy time. She told me that afternoon I was gonna have a baby brother or sister to play with and Mama needed my help to take care of the baby. After Vasquez threw me out, I heard her telling him and he began hitting her and she was screaming, but like every other time, no one came to help her. Maybe they heard her, maybe not, but I couldn’t stand it any more. I tried to open the door, but it wouldn’t, so I smashed a window and climbed inside and started punching him, yelling at him to stop. He hit Mama hard and she fell to the floor. I can remember her lying so still, and then he turned on me. He grabbed my arms and I couldn’t get away from him to go to Mama. He kept hitting me on the face, back and forth. The last thing I remember was lying on the floor and seeing him walking towards Mama.”

“When I woke up, it was dark. Mama was lying on the floor by the table. What little furniture we had was broken or turned over. I tried to get to my feet, but I was dizzy and couldn’t walk, so I crawled over to her and touched her arm. It was so cold.” Johnny turned his head away from his father and brother. Angrily he brushed his eyes with his hand before he continued.

“I touched her face and that was cold too. I put my ear across her mouth to hear if she was breathing, or feel her breath but there was nothing. I kissed her and held her in my arms and talked to her. I kept calling her name and pleading with her not to leave me alone. It was then that the policia came. I told them what happened – that Mama was dead. I never saw Mama’s face again. They took her away to be buried and me to the prision.”

Johnny took a deep breath and winced. He grabbed his side in agony, but pushed away the hand that Murdoch offered to him. When the pain eased, Johnny turned back to face his father, desperate to see the reaction on his face. There was no denying the anguish he saw in his father’s eyes. Now he knew the truth – Murdoch Lancer had always wanted him for a son and it was his mother who took him away.

“I told El Jefe what had happened and who hurt Mama. Vasquez was called into the prision and he stood in front of me, smiling all the time and denied killing Mama. He said ‘Do you believe the word of a mestizo over me?’ El Jefe took his time answering, but in the end he said no. There were no other witnesses – no one came forward and told what they heard that night.”

Johnny turned away again, but this time when his blue eyes focused on Murdoch, and despite the effects of the medicine, they were filled with an intense hatred Murdoch had never seen before.

“I swore on my mother’s fresh grave that one day I would kill him for what he done. Senor Vasquez laughed at me. He turned his back on me and left the prision a free man, without being punished. I ain’t seen his face until two days ago in Morro Coyo, but I knew his time had come.”

“What happened to you after Maria was killed, Johnny?” Murdoch urged, hoping that Johnny would finish the story before the laudanum affected him too much. He wanted his son to tell his story once and not have to continue at a later time.

El Jefe took me into his family for a while, but with five kids of his own and another on the way, he couldn’t look after another hungry mouth and I was soon by myself. He let me stay in the little adobe that was behind the prision. He used it for a tack room most of the time. I worked in the corn fields, stole, begged in the streets, anything to earn food or money to buy food.”

Murdoch rubbed his hand across his eyes. “Why did you call yourself Johnny Madrid? It wasn’t your mother’s maiden name.”

El Jefe told the priest who buried Mama about me and he offered to look after me. I stayed with him and he taught me how to read and write some – enough to get by – and told me stories of where he was born in Spain. Madrid seemed like a good name as any. Mama had told me my real name and who my father was, but I didn’t want it. You had thrown my mother and me off your land. I wanted nothing of yours, not even your name. I hated you, almost as much as Senor Vasquez, but not enough to come after you and kill you. You made Mama unhappy, but you didn’t kill her. I wanted him first, then you.”

“That’s nice to know,” said Murdoch dryly, “but you now know that all you were told wasn’t true. Did she tell you why she left me and took you away?”

“Or why you made us leave? No.” There was a small movement as Johnny shook his head. ”Did she leave you a note, a message?”

Murdoch shook his head, “Nothing. One moment we were a family, then nothing.” He took a moment to compose himself before continuing. “What did you do, son? Who looked after you?”

“I stayed on in that town for a few more years, more or less surviving any way I could, then I joined the cattle herds. It was with them that I learnt how to ride a horse and tend cattle. They taught me how to fire a handgun and rifle. I would hunt for fresh meat because it gave me a chance to practice my shooting. I saved what little money I earned to buy my own pistol. Riding with the drovers, I didn’t have to worry about where my next meal was coming from and having enough to eat was no longer as important as owning a gun and learning how to fast draw. While I was learning how to shoot, I was learning how to hate and keep it growing.”

“And you were on your own until the day the Pinkertons located you?”

“Yeah. I killed a cowpoke on one of the drives. Even though it was a fair fight, the trail boss told me to get and so I did. All I had to take with me was my horse, my gun and a few dollars in wages. After that, I took to drifting from town to town and a few kind people would look after me and give me somewhere to sleep and something to eat, but not many. There aren’t many places where a half-breed is welcome, not even one as young as I was and Mexican.”

“How old were you?”

“I was fourteen, maybe fifteen when I killed the cowboy. After that, I got so fast with my gun that I could hire out for any price I asked. It wasn’t long before I had a reputation. Men who knew it were afraid of me, but that wasn’t what I wanted. Knowing that gave me no pleasure because I wanted only one man to fear me and that was Vasquez. When I was in a gunfight, I’d let them draw first. It was around this time that I met Dave Pardee. I didn’t lose often, but there were a few times I nearly did and once was to him. Those painful experiences taught me the hard way that I had to be even faster if I wanted to kill Vasquez. Once I’d killed him, I was comin’ after you.”

“I’m glad I found you first,” Murdoch said soberly, “and had a chance to talk to you.”

“So am I, Murdoch,” Johnny agreed, nodding slowly. “So am I.” He paused to yawn before continuing. “On the move, going from town to town, it didn’t take long for my reputation to spread. Most of the time, I didn’t even need to draw my gun, but I was always watching my back and the shadows. I didn’t enjoy the killing and every time I gunned a man down, I’d feel sick, way down deep inside, but being a gunfighter was the only thing I was good at. It put food in my belly and gave me somewhere warm to sleep and money in my pocket, but it didn’t help me sleep at night knowing what I’d done to earn it. After a time, I picked who I wanted to work for and the reasons why became more important than the money. I decided to help some peasants with their fight, because they didn’t deserve what was happening to them and their families. That’s when the Pinkertons found me.”

“If you were so fast with a gun, then how come you came home with two bullet holes in your hide little brother?” asked Scott. He had remained quite, leaning against the wall, allowing his father and brother to talk.

“I made a dumb mistake,” replied Johnny sheepishly.

“You did? What kind of mistake?”

“I underestimated my opponent.”

“How?” asked Teresa as she entered the room, carrying a tray, loaded with food. The smell of coffee and hot meat followed her.

“It seems Vasquez or one of his men must have overheard me asking questions about him in Morro Coyo and they were ready for me when I got into town yesterday. I was thinking only of Vasquez and it didn’t enter my mind that he would use another gun on me. There was more than one waiting in the crowd, but fortunately for me once they saw I’d killed their boss, they gave up the fight.”

Teresa giggled as she set the tray on the sideboard. “Yesterday? It wasn’t yesterday Johnny, but four days ago.”

“It was? I’ve been asleep that long?”

“I wouldn’t call it sleeping. More like delirious, thrashing about and trying to hurt yourself even more,” joined Scott, also smiling. “And whoever was sitting too close to you.”

“Uh huh, sorry about that.”

Murdoch glared Teresa, but accepted the cup she thrust at him. “Keep going with your story, Johnny.”

“Anyway I found him in the Lonesome Strike and called him out and told him who I was and why I was going to kill him. He followed me outside and just before he drew his gun, I saw his eyes shift to something over my shoulder. I knew then that he had a gun behind me, but it was too late. Must be getting soft or not thinking clearly, as I should have realized he’d have some trick up his sleeve. All I could do was try to out-draw him and then turn and get the one behind me.”

Scott took a sandwich and took a bite. “One of the witnesses said Vasquez’s gun was out of his holster before you drew your gun? You gave him enough of a head-start.”

Vasquez drew first, as I planned, and luck was with me because his shot went widebut before I could fire at him and turn around, I felt a bullet hit my back. It threw off my aim and I only winged himI knew I had to get the man behind me before he could fire again, so I spun around and shot him. I was too slow and heard Vasquez fire again. The bullet hit me, but I got him the second time as I was falling.”

“Both times you were back-shot.”

“I know for sure Vasquez is dead.”

“How?”

“I shot him near his heart – where I was aiming the first time.”

“Then what happened?”

“I went over to him, said three words I’ve waited fifteen years to say to him and watched him die. Somehow I made it to my horse and headed back here.”

Murdoch asked, “Were there any witnesses?”

“Plenty,” Johnny smiled. “I made sure of that.”

“How?”

“I waited until midday to call him out. I wanted plenty of people in the saloon to hear what I had to say and they followed us into the street to see the shootout. I made certain it was a fair fight.”

“Fair fight?” cried Teresa. “How can you say that, Johnny? He had a man waiting behind you to kill you. There were two to your one!”

“I didn’t say his was a fair fight, I meant mine was.”

“That’s true enough, little brother,” Scott may have been talking to Johnny, but his words were meant for Murdoch. He glanced up at his father, his undisguised anger at not helping his brother showing clearly on his face, “but I should have been with you, to guard your back.”

“Didn’t want you or Murdoch in Morro Coyo, only me.”

“But why?”

“Boston, you woulda just got in my way and I had enough to worry about without adding you into the picture.”

Scott snorted. “How come it took you all afternoon to ride back home?”

Johnny yawned and fought a loosing battle to keep his eyes open. “I tried to get back here as fast as I could, but I was hurting so much that when I kicked Barranca into anything faster than a walk, it hurt worse and I’d pass out from the pain and kept falling off him.” He smiled weakly. “Hitting the ground didn’t help neither, and made it harder to climb back on, so that was another reason I walked him. I knew he’d get me home – eventually. I just hoped I wouldn’t bleed to death, before you all had a chance to get mad at me.”

“That’s why your clothes were covered in dust and you’ve got bruises all over your body.” Murdoch nodded as he studied his injured son. “I think it’s about time you had some more rest, son.”

“But he hasn’t eaten any of his food, Murdoch,” protested Teresa.

“Don’t feel hungry right now, just wanna go to sleep,” Johnny mumbled.

“I’m sure missing one supper more won’t hurt him.”

“The way he eats, he’ll make up for it later,” teased Scott.

Johnny lost his fight with his eyelids and they closed gently onto his cheeks. “If you’d missed as many meals as I did over the years, Boston, you’d eat everything on your plate and more too.”

Scott laughed. “Guess you’ve got a point there.”

Murdoch guided Teresa out the door and beckoned for Scott to follow. Instead Scott leaned close to Johnny until his mouth was beside Johnny’s ear.

“What three words did you say to Vasquez, Johnny?”

Scott could barely hear his brother’s reply. “Vengeance is mine.”

***The End***

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