Second Opinion

A medical practice in the San Joaquin Valley just didn't feature in the career that Sam Jenkins originally planned for himself.

He isn't Californian, to begin with. He's an Easterner, the only child of an immigrant English doctor and the daughter of a well-to-do Philadelphia merchant of German descent. And while it was always expected that he would follow in his father's footsteps, it was never anyone's expectation, least of all young Samuel's, that in 1839 he would finish his medical training in Philadelphia and Boston, turn his back on a promising career ministering to the wealthy mercantile class that could at least pay its bills, and move west where the bill is, as often as not, paid in potatoes or hay.

He first travelled into the west as part of a scientific expedition charting the vast unknown centre of the continent and later went as far west as he could get without wetting his feet in a warmer ocean than the one he knew in the east. And there he is yet.

He stays because of what he found on his way there, in the flatlands at the heart of America.

And what he found, was this.

At the ending of a day (it doesn't matter which day), the expedition camp far enough distant in a hollow in the grasslands that he could see and hear nothing of it, Sam might as well have been the only man alive for all the impact humanity had had on this place. It was like standing alone in the centre of the universe.

The seemingly flat, golden land stretched out to every horizon, unbroken, its swells and hollows smoothed out by coarse, sun-bleached grasses that rippled in the wind like water. The sky went on for ever, arching over his head like a shield. In the very far distance, in the west, Sam fancied that he saw the faint, hazy outlines of a mountain range, like pallid rocky ghosts rearing up against a paler sky. He didn't think that they were really there, but those almost translucent, remote shapes of his imagination stood at the only point of the compass where, however illusory and fleetingly, the world felt as if it had any boundaries at all. A blink, and he couldn't see them any more.

The air was still and heavy, the sun still hot on the back of Sam's neck when he turned and faced, for a moment, the eastern city he still called home. The sun was low in the sky, huge and fiery and red as new gold; but the horizon, with its ghost mountains gone, was so far distant that Sam had the queerest feeling that it was unreachable, that the sun wouldn't fall below it but drop instead onto the flat plain and slide and slither over the edge into night. He could understand why men had once believed that the world was flat. Here, it was.

There were millions of insects creaking away, sounding like metal scraping on stone, and the air smelled of warm hay. Sam sat cross-legged in the greeny-golden grasses. They reached above his head, rustling and murmuring until he almost thought there were voices in the prairie wind and a strange knowledge that was just waiting for him to grasp it and make it his own. He was both exultant and humbled, his heart thumping as if he'd just run a race. The sharp, analytical mind that his training had fostered (and his eminently practical German grandfather had grounded in common sense) wondered at how he could feel both that he was insignificant in this vast space, of no more account than one of the crickets creaking and sawing away in the grass, and yet that he was the master of it all; that with brain and guts and knowledge, he could know this place and subdue it. He was breathless and excited, giddy with it, the way he'd felt that first time with a girl in the brothel in Philadelphia.

Although Sam has never been a religious man, in that place and at that moment he wondered if, sometimes, God is the only word men can use to put recognisable limits on otherwise frighteningly limitless possibilities.

That's what drew Sam back to the west when the expedition was over: the memory of that moment of knowledge and belonging, and a deep, awed love for the empty lands where a man could be still and silent and learn their secrets and his own. The chance to make a real difference drew him on, firing him with the desire to use his brain and guts and knowledge to help mould this wild land into compliance with Man's will.

Oh, but he was young then and foolish, poetry sang in his blood as if it were wine, and his eyes were clear and fixed on the horizon. Now he's no man's fool and he's older, not an old man yet, of course he isn't, but his joints creak of a morning more than crickets in the grass; his blood is sluggish and he really should take some of his own tonic; and these days his eyes are dimmer and he carries his gold-rimmed spectacles in his breast pocket, carefully wrapped in a fine silk handkerchief that once belonged to his mother.

Sam's sometimes amused, more than thirty years later, at how that fiery young visionary, alight with bright ambition and half-drunk with euphoria, transmuted into an ordinary country doctor. But the visionary is still alive in Sam, even if the dream no longer speaks in words of burnished gold. He still thrills to possibilities and potential and boundless spaces (both real and metaphorical), wherever he finds them: in watching men tame the new land he loves, in the scientific and medical discoveries he reads about and puts into practice where he can, in the lives he brings into the world and the lives he sees out of it-for despite his agnosticism, he believes death is only the portal to another dimension of possibilities to be explored and knowledge to be grasped. All these things bring back that moment of exultation, so vivid that he can hear the crickets and smell the sun-warm grasses, and again and again the whole universe is spread out for the taking.

It's what fires Sam and gives his life its deepest and most profound moments: that sense of almost limitless freedom bounded only by things so pale and distant that they're as translucent as ghosts.

x

x

A medical practice in the San Joaquin valley isn't a profitable thing, financially. But personally? Well, that's a different matter.

Sam would certainly agree with the opinion expressed by Miss Teresa Elizabeth O'Brien that the San Joaquin is the most beautiful place in the whole wide world. Teresa had limited her praise to the Lancer ranch, of course, for she's barely out of childhood and still sees the world that children inhabit, one that is, paradoxically, both limitless and small. But Lancer is of the San Joaquin-indeed, Lancer takes up a very great deal of the San Joaquin-and Sam, if he'd known of Teresa's emphatic pronouncement to the prodigal Lancer sons, would have no difficulty in extrapolation.

Sam loves the San Joaquin and he's happy in California. He's been the only doctor in this part of the Valley for a quarter of a century, ministering to the people of Green River, where he has his office, Morro Coyo and Spanish Wells and all the estancias around the three small towns. He's watched California's transformation from an outlier of the Spanish-Mexican empire to indisputable American soil. He's seen an entire generation of settlers arrive and buy out the Mexican rancheros who had been there before them, grasping every opportunity to realise the land's potential and establishing themselves as men of substance in their turn, and becoming one with the land, moulding and shaping it.

Sam is one of them. At ease with the Valley's residents in consulting room, or ranch great room or hacienda drawing room-or for that matter, the small adobe houses where the married hands and vaqueros live or the bunkhouse for the bachelors-Sam is the friend and confidante of many of those he serves. He's indeed one of them and, with an admirable philosophy, in consequence he counts himself a rich man.

He knows his Valley. When he's disturbed over his early breakfast with a rumour that he had rather discount, and the news that Day Pardee and his men were seen leaving Morro Coyo before dawn, he knows that Lancer has to be their target. Lancer's the biggest estancia in the Valley, owned by one of the biggest men in the Valley (not to say the one of the stubbornest). Murdoch Lancer has led the fight against the land pirates, standing alone to deny Pardee control over the San Joaquin. Irrespective of owning the richest prize, Murdoch represents the backbone of the resistance: Pardee wants Murdoch dead on both counts. It doesn't bode well for Murdoch, and Sam's anxious because, dour as the Scot sometimes is, he's one of Sam's closest friends.

He's told the news by one of the Johanssen boys. Fredrik Johanssen is Morro Coyo's blacksmith, a big, cheery man, almost as tall as Murdoch Lancer and certainly broader. Fred Junior, sent to fetch Sam to deal with a younger son's broken arm ("Maybe this will keep him from climbing on the smithy roof," remarks young Jan's unfeeling elder brother), regales him all the way to Morro Coyo with stories about the infamous gunhawk seen on the town's streets, a man so notorious that Pardee has paled in comparison. Sam wishes that they were tall stories, but he's seen the Pinkerton reports that Murdoch Lancer keeps in a locked desk drawer, and he knows that each story has more than a kernel of truth. His anxiety grows a little sharper.

By ten, his patient's arm set and splinted and young Jan soothed with a little laudanum against the pain and a little candy against the mental anguish of being banned from climbing for more than a month, more news comes. Again Fred is the messenger. He's whiled away the morning loitering near the town's saloon to catch the latest gossip and hoping to see the famous gunhawk for himself, but he's out of luck there. Still, what he has to say is interesting enough. Some of Pardee's men, confused and chaotic, have passed through Morro Coyo like the locusts ate Egypt (raiding the Baldomeros' store for supplies in proper locust fashion) and then scattered like chaff in the wind. A few of them of them have obvious injuries; all of them are sullen and angry. No-one has seen Pardee himself and a good third of his men are missing.

"Good news, ja?" says Johanssen, cheerful, and hopeful that it's all over (and consequently paying Sam his fee in full and without complaint). "I heard yesterday that Murdoch's sons came on the previous day's stage."

"I know one was expected," says Sam.

"Heard that two came. Looks like it pushed Pardee into moving before he was ready, and Murdoch won."

"I hope so," says Sam, sincerely.

"Maybe Murdoch hired that gunhawk everyone was talking about yesterday," speculates the blacksmith. "I didn't see him, myself. I have better things to do than go looking for that kind of trouble. Pardee is bad enough without tangling with a top gun."

"Mmn," says Sam, non-committal, and takes his leave.

Whatever the outcome of the raid on Lancer, Sam's services will be needed there. He hopes they'll be needed by Murdoch, rather than Pardee-and by that he hopes that Pardee is beyond his help, which goes against his oath, rather, and gives him a little prick of conscience as a result. He's half-way to Lancer when the vaquero catches up with him after chasing after him from Green River to Johanssen's forge, and begs him to come to the estancia.

"Pardee came this morning at dawn," says Toledano, confirming the gossip. "But the perro is dead, Dios gracias, shot by Senor Scott; and the cobardes, his men, have fled. Senor Scott tricked him by pretending to ride away into the mountains with all of us and-" and here his expression grows doubtful "-and I think that Senor Johnny tricked him too, although I don't know in what manner or how that was done. There are many dead, Senor; many of Pardee's men who didn't expect to be under our guns, and some of our own. Isidore is dead, and Manuel Garcia and Tomas, who was Manuel's wife's cousin, and we have many wounded, including Senor Johnny. He was shot from his horse as he galloped back to us, with all of Pardee's men chasing behind him. Ai! That was a wild ride, Senor! He rides very well, does Senor Johnny, and very fast. But no-one rides well enough or fast enough to escape a bullet."

So, thinks Sam, the rumour was probably true. But he's not sure how to square it with Toledano's news that Murdoch's sons seem to have worked to tip the scales against Pardee, just as Murdoch had hoped. Both of Murdoch's sons. Sam has been one of the few to whom Murdoch has confided his plans for sending for his sons and offering them a partnership-Paul O'Brien was another; and Aggie Conway, whose ranch was probably next in line if Lancer fell; and Cipriano Roldan who took over as segundo when O'Brien was murdered and who's known Murdoch Lancer longer than any of them. Sam knows rather more about the sons than Toledano does, even though the knowledge is limited to the dry, lifeless words of a Pinkerton investigator's report. He fears that Toledano's doubts about Johnny might be far more valid than Toledano can know. He thinks again about Fred's breathless, artless gossip.

"He is a pistolero, Senor, did you know? " Toledano twists in his saddle to lean nearer to Sam as they talk. "A famous pistolero-"

"I know," says Sam, and perhaps Toledano knows exactly how valid his doubts are, after all. "Ride on ahead, please, Toledano, and tell Senor Lancer that I'll be there within the hour."

"Si, Senor, of course."

It's with some relief that Sam watches Toledano's stocky form on his stocky cow pony disappear across the Valley, leaving Sam to his thoughts. He wonders, now, if he was wise to persuade Murdoch to send for Johnny as well as Scott. He realises that he's never thought beyond ridding of Valley of Pardee. He doesn't know, can't think, what a gunfighter like Johnny will do with a ranch like Lancer. Mind you, he doesn't know what a gunfighter like Day Pardee would have done with a ranch like Lancer, either, but presumably Pardee had had some ideas or he wouldn't have tried to take it and the rest of the Valley with it.

Maybe Johnny will have some ideas too.

It's not a comforting thought. Pardee was indeed a perro, the local big dog taking the meat; but in dealing with him, in putting the rabid dog down, they may just have invited in the wolf.

x

x

The estancia's remarkably quiet and serene given that battle was waged here a few scant hours ago. Now it's almost sleepy in the thin Spring sunshine.

Sam looks around quickly as he gets down from his buggy, but the bodies have been moved and most of the mess cleaned up. There are patches of dry earth scattered here and there over the green grass; soaking up blood, he assumes. He wonders what they've done with the dead. The Lancer vaqueros will get an honourable burial in the land they died to protect, but he doubts that Murdoch will want to plant Pardee in Lancer land; Murdoch won't give Pardee even that much of a hollow victory, not least because Paul O'Brien is buried here on the hill behind the hacienda. Even if O'Brien doesn't rise up in ire, Teresa will hate to have her father's murderer buried anywhere near him. Murdoch will hate it, too: he and O'Brien were like brothers.

Sam doesn't have time to brood about it. Murdoch moves fast, despite the leg and despite the walking cane, coming out of the wide-open French windows to greet him. Sam takes time for one swift, assessing glance. Murdoch is doing very well, considering how close he came to dying at O'Brien's side last winter, and is moving more freely than Sam has seen for a couple of months.

Sam grips Murdoch's hand tightly, all the acknowledgement they have time for. "Toledano told me that the boys are both here, and Pardee is dead and his men driven off. I'm sorry it's taken me so long for me to get here-I had a patient in Morro Coyo and it took Toledano a little while to catch up with me. Who do I need to see first?"

He's never seen Murdoch dither before, and he watches, fascinated. But when Murdoch speaks, the customary decisiveness has returned.

"Given the choice I'd want you to see to Johnny, but Arturo needs you more and you'd better go to him first. He was shot in the chest and Cipriano doesn't think that he'll live. We have another few who need attention, including some of Pardee's men in the guardhouse, but none of them are seriously hurt." He looks grim. "We'll keep you busy all day, I expect."

"And Johnny?"

"Pardee shot him in the back. The bullet's still in there, but Scott and Teresa have the bleeding stopped. Still I want the bullet out and to be sure he's safe. And there's more for you to deal with. You'll understand when you see him. I don't know what happened to him before he got here, but something did. He won't talk about it."

"I heard that he was here."

"He was in town yesterday. I suppose the entire Valley's heard that he's here." Murdoch looks sombre and tired. "I don't know what to make of the boy, Sam, and I don't understand what he thinks he was doing this morning, but if Johnny hadn't brought Pardee's men down the hill behind him this morning, if they'd had the chance to surround the hacienda, we'd have been hard put to it to get through today. But it was so damned reckless! He could have been killed, and for a moment-"

"Toledano said he was shot from his horse," says Sam, halting the unusually emotional display and giving Murdoch a chance to recover his composure. "Is he unconscious?"

Murdoch shook his head. "He passed out as Scott was bringing him into the house, but he wasn't out for long. Long enough for us to get the bleeding stopped, thankfully. He's awake now and although he's not complaining, he's hurting, Sam; you can see it. Scott's with him."

"Well, go back to him, Murdoch. I know it goes against the grain, but don't give him anything for the pain until I can see him-"

"I gave him a whiskey earlier," confesses Murdoch.

"No more now, though. Keep him warm and quiet and I'll be along as soon as I can. If the pain gets too much for him, come and get me. Where's Arturo?"

"In Cip's house, with Isabella caring for him." Murdoch scowls. "I should have sent the women and Teresa to safety, after what happened yesterday to the Bocanegras. I should-" He shakes his head and stamps back into the hacienda's great room before Sam can ask what he means, angry and frustrated.

Sam watches him go, thinking that he has rarely seen Murdoch unsure of himself and certainly not to this degree. He's not sure it's a good thing, not with a wolf here. And one of the biggest wolves in the pack, at that.

x

x

Cipriano's prognosis for Arturo is sadly accurate. Sam takes a look under the dressing applied by Cipriano's stately and competent wife, and shakes his head as he replaces it. Arturo has taken two rifle bullets to the chest and they've almost torn him apart; the right lung is almost destroyed and Arturo is bleeding inside, some of the bigger blood vessels torn beyond repair. Sam can't understand how the man can still be breathing. There's no point in putting Arturo through torment for nothing: the old vaquero is deeply unconscious and will not wake this side of the grave.

Sam hates it when his skill and knowledge and all his hard-won experience stand for nothing in the face of the destruction wrought by a small piece of lead. He makes Arturo comfortable, using some of his precious morphine, and leaves him in Isabella's compassionate hands.

"There's too much damage. I can't do anything," he tells her, listening to Arturo's rasping, stuttering breathing. "It won't be long." He knows the man will never wake and be distressed or in pain. He's made sure of that, ensuring Arturo's transition into the next world will be easy. She nods her understanding, her large dark eyes sorrowful.

Cipriano is waiting outside the room, and he, too, nods when Sam tells him. But Sam sees the lines of pain around the Segundo's deep-set eyes. "We have worked at Lancer together for many years, Arturo and I," Cipriano says. "He was here when I came, before I married Isabella."

"I'm sorry, Cip."

Cipriano nods again and looks sombrely at the door to the room where Arturo is dying. "Did you hear about the Bocanegras?" he asks. "Toledano saw smoke coming from Gaspar's place yesterday and went over to see if anything was wrong. Pardee had been there."

Sam looks up sharply. He's washing his hands in the bowl Isabella had put ready for him and for a moment he freezes, water dripping from his fingers. "Mister Lancer mentioned the Bocanegras, but I'd not heard anything before I got here. Are they hurt?"

"They shot Gaspar and strung up his body. They killed Maria too... after." Cipriano looks at the door behind which his wife sits with a dying man and anger breaks through, fierce and hot. "I could not get Isabella to leave, not while Senorita Teresa and Maria Morales remained. The Patron should have sent them all away."

"Yes," agrees Sam, thinking of Maria Luisa Villaneuva Bocanegra, and what may have been a welcome death after Pardee's men had finished with her. Thank God Pardee had been stopped. He remembered Gaspar and Maria had two sons. "What of the two boys?"

"Safe. They were at school. They are with the priest in Morro Coyo, and I will bring them back here and keep them with us until Maria's brother can get here from Sonora. We will decide with him and the Patron what's best for them." Cipriano takes a deep breath and the control is back. He looks at Sam and smiles, very slightly. "Or did you mean the Patron's boys, Se?r?"

"I meant the Bocanegra boys, but what about the Lancer brothers?" says Sam, drying his hands.

"It will be good to have the sons here at last to help Senor Lancer. It was Senor Scott's plan to trick Pardee into thinking we'd followed his trail up into the mountains and that Lancer was undefended. Senor Johnny was chased all the way back here by them. He gave us a fine target to shoot for and they were surprised when they got in range of our guns. He was shot from his horse, did Toledano tell you? You must see to him next."

"I'll go up to the hacienda now if the rest can wait."

"They can wait. Senor Johnny needs you more." Cipriano brushes a hand over his moustache, and adds: "It was a brave ride. We thought he was dead, lying there on the ground in the open, but suddenly there were four or five of Pardee's men around him and he started shooting them. He killed them, and then Senor Scott ran out to get him to cover. They are both brave men, I think. But Senor Johnny, perhaps he is a little less... less..." Cipriano breaks off and shakes his head. "It was not cautious, what he did, but I think he meant to do it."

"He was reckless?"

"Perhaps. In some ways. I don't know, Senor, because there is something... I wonder if it is true recklessness or just something that he had to do."

"A calculated act, you mean? He planned it?"

"Si. They say he can be very cold, as well as very fast, when he is called out and facing down another of his kind. They say that men fear him because he himself is not afraid to die and that makes him ruthless. That's a terrible thing in one so young, even more terrible when you remember the nino he was." Cipriano frowns. "The nino he cannot remember being. I don't know, Senor. He is not so reckless that he let go of his gun, even when he was shot from his horse."

"I don't suppose a gunhawk would ever let go of his gun," says Sam, rather sadly. He reaches for his bag. "Will they stay, Cip?"

"The estancia needs its heirs."

"And perhaps the heirs need the estancia." Sam thinks about a young wolf who doesn't remember being the beloved small son he once was and who doesn't fear death, and how good this life could be for Johnny, offering a new start and that limitless possibility that still fills Sam with deep joy. He finds it harder to speculate about what it might offer Scott, what it can offer against the claims and attractions of a sophisticated city like Boston, or what a Harvard graduate might gain from Lancer.

Cipriano shrugs, face impassive. Then he says, "Here's Senor Scott."

Scott Lancer is a tall, slender young man. He has to be twenty-four or -five now, Sam thinks, calculating back to when Catherine Lancer died. He's shorter than Murdoch-but then, who isn't?-but Sam has to look up to meet the straightforward gaze from pale blue eyes set in a strong, handsome (if slightly bruised) face framed in dark blond hair. Sam can't see much resemblance to Murdoch, and his recollection of Catherine is too dim for him to see any likeness to her. Something about those frank eyes, perhaps, and the clipped, cultivated Bostonian accent that delights Sam's ears after so many years of listening to the western drawl.

Sam shakes hands heartily. "I'm glad to meet you at last, Scott. Murdoch's been waiting for this day for a long time, as I'm sure he's told you."

"Not in so many words."

"Well, believe me, it's something he's planned and looked forward to for many years, for both his sons. I'm glad you're home, Scott."

Perhaps Scott has inherited the thin-lipped mouth from his mother. He sets it firmly and just nods before saying, "Murdoch sent me to ask you to come to Johnny as soon as you can, sir."

"Is he worse?" Sam starts for the hacienda with Scott, after a nod of farewell for Cipriano. He knows the Segundo will return to his house to sit the death watch with Arturo.

"I don't think so," says Scott, judiciously. "It's just that he's awake and in a lot of pain, not to mention in a foul temper. He's being difficult, but Murdoch doesn't seem to know how to handle him and he's agitating Johnny all the more. Johnny's pretty furious with him."

"About what?"

Sam stoically endures the long, level look that assesses him. At the end of it, Scott nods. "Murdoch says that you're a good friend and you know all about Johnny and me, as much as Murdoch knows himself, anyway. Or, rather, as little as he knows."

"He doesn't know as much as he'd like, Scott. You'll understand that he regrets that."

Scott glances away. "Will I, sir? Still, the past is over and done, we're told. Mine is reasonably uneventful, but for the War and it's five years gone, anyway. I know Johnny is a gunfighter, and he certainly looks like he's had a rough time of it recently-you'll see what I mean when we get to the house, sir-so I suspect what Murdoch does know about him is more interesting. I believe that Murdoch has had reports from the Pinkerton agency on both of us, if what he's yelling at Johnny is anything to go by."

"He has," agrees Sam.

Scott's Pinkerton file is thin and mostly uncontroversial, although the record of his war service makes sad reading, given how young he was when he took his commission and the missing year about which the Pinkertons wrote only the one word, 'Libby'. Johnny's file takes some considerable time to read. It's a litany of dreadful things that no twenty-two year old boy should have done or have had done to him, and not only in the five years that Johnny has been one of the top guns along the Mexican border. What sparse information the Pinkertons managed to piece together relating to Johnny's childhood and early adolescence has cost Murdoch many a sleepless night; it's a sorry tale of prejudice, violence and deprivation. Sam thinks, in the words of the old saying, that Johnny is much sinned against, and if that doesn't quite excuse the sinning, retaliatory and otherwise, that Johnny has done on his own account, it goes a long way towards explaining it.

"In my opinion, it was a tactical mistake for Murdoch first of all to demand an explanation for what's happened to Johnny recently and then metaphorically to throw the Pinkerton reports at his head when he refused to answer. Johnny's furious, particularly about the reports. When I left them to come and find you, the conversation was animated."

Sam likes Scott's dry, deadpan delivery and smiles his appreciation. He thinks he'll like this educated, intelligent young man. "Murdoch is not subtle, if that's what you're wondering."

"I noticed. He and Johnny seem cut from the same block when it comes to that. I don't suppose that I'll be breaking any confidences if I tell you what you're about to walk into. The Pinkerton reports are merely a diversionary skirmish, I'm afraid; a feint to hide the real target. The problem is that my intriguing little brother's loyalties and motivations have seemed as pellucid as mud so far. I got into a fight in Morro Coyo with some of Pardee's men yesterday, you see, and Johnny stood by without helping. I think it was just that he didn't want to tip his hand to Pardee, but you'll understand that the fight, and then what happened to the poor Bocanegras had everyone on edge yesterday evening. He and Murdoch had a fight and he went off by himself, only to turn up this morning with Pardee's men chasing him like a pack of Hellhounds."

"I heard about the ride. It seems to have made quite an impression."

"It was something to see, Doctor. But he hasn't really explained anything about what he was doing and Murdoch's getting impatient for answers." Scott huffs out a little breath that may be amusement. He nods towards the corral fence as they approach the house. "And since Murdoch asking a question is the verbal equivalent of him picking up one of those fence posts over there and hitting you over the head with it, all he's managed to do is send Johnny into a fury."

"I see you're getting to know your father."

Scott's tone is bland. "Oh, I don't think I know anything much about Murdoch, sir. But I think I'd like to get to know my little brother. He was a surprise, Doctor; such a surprise. He's arrogant, annoying, bumptious, sarcastic, insolent and I think he's quite likely to be very dangerous. I like him."

x

x

They go into the house by the kitchen door.

"Murdoch said not to take him upstairs as you'd need him down here, so we've got him in the great room. Teresa and Maria are scrubbing the kitchen table. Murdoch said you'll use it as an operating table when you take the bullet out."

"It won't be the first time," says Sam, responding to the note of slight horror and disbelief in Scott's tone with a cheery assurance. This isn't the well-appointed operating theatre of the Boston hospital where Sam learned his surgery, but it works. "I'll be using it all day, if there are others who need surgery."

Scott just raises an eyebrow and waits while Sam speaks briefly with Teresa and Maria Morales, and hands over his instruments, rolled in a cloth bag, to be sterilised in boiling water. He ushers Sam into the great room.

Johnny, bare-chested, is huddled in one of the big chairs near the fireplace. Sam sees at once that his left shoulder and upper chest are bandaged tightly and the vivid blue eyes that are raised to scowl at Sam are far too bright for Sam's comfort.

Sam draws in a sharp breath, surprised. He barely knew Catherine Lancer and has little memory of her; he arrived in the San Joaquin when the last land war Murdoch was involved in was at its height, and within a couple of weeks Murdoch sent his heavily pregnant wife to an illusory safety. She died birthing Scott, Sam knows, and really that's all he knows of her.

But he remembers the lovely and tempestuous (and, ultimately, treacherous) Maria Aguilera Martinez Lancer very well indeed. The handsome boy in the chair is the image of her, but for the colour of those startling eyes, from the thick, shining black hair to the determined chin. The shape of his face and eyes, the nose and mouth: all Maria. Murdoch's contribution seems to have been a skin tone a degree or two lighter than Maria's and the blue eyes that mark Johnny as a mestizo and that would have made his childhood terrible.

Sam thinks that he looks far too young-and, oddly, too innocent-to be one of the fastest guns along the Mexican border and far, far too young to be one of the best hired killers in the business. Despite the heavy gunbelt coiled in his lap and the way he rests his right hand on it as if its his last comfort, Johnny doesn't look vicious enough to be the wolf that Sam feared he'd be. Sam breathes a little easier.

"Who're you?" demands Johnny.

Sam has dealt with fractious patients all his working life, and won't take that sort of insolence from anyone, no matter how fast his gun.. "I'm Sam Jenkins, the doctor. So I suggest a bit of courtesy wouldn't go amiss, young man, since I'll be the one digging that bullet out of you."

He looks the boy over, assessingly. Johnny is sitting far back in the chair, but Sam notices that he's careful not to not to let his back touch even the soft upholstery. He'll know more when he can see the wound, but Johnny's able to move his left arm and, although in obvious pain, is dealing with it. Sam sees at once what Murdoch and Scott both hinted at. The boy's too thin, too bruised and too battered and only some of it is new enough for it to have come from the crashing fall from his horse that morning. Johnny's been savagely beaten in the recent past, more than once, and he looks half-starved and malnourished. He's had a rough time recently, that's certain, and they won't be going into surgery with the boy at his strongest. That's reason enough for anxiety, but there's more that concerns Sam: there's a flush across Johnny's cheekbones and his eyes are glassily bright. He's far too feverish, far too fast.

Johnny's scowl deepens. He evidently doesn't take a rebuke well. "I don't need a doctor," he says, a startling statement in the circumstances. He glares at Murdoch. "I'll be fine."

"Don't be a fool, boy!" snaps Murdoch, provoked.

The two are squaring up to each other like two bulls butting heads, neither giving any quarter. Conciliation isn't a word in Murdoch's lexicon. It doesn't look like it's in Johnny's either, which suggests that whatever else he inherited from his father, he certainly got the obstinacy and the temper.

Sam shakes his head at Murdoch. He knows how hard this is for his old friend, having his much-loved small son grow into one of the most dangerous gunfighters around, and he understands that Murdoch is desperate to know why, to find out what Maria did or didn't do to cause it. But he needs Johnny kept quiet, no matter how provoking he is.

"I'll be the judge of how fine you are." Sam notes that despite the flushed cheekbones, Johnny's pale under the tan; he's dealing with the pain, but it's costing him. "Once you're asleep, and I can get that bullet out."

"I'm not takin' stuff to make me sleep!"

"We'll see," says Sam. Johnny needs attention, but despite the developing fever, he's lucid and alert. A few moments to gentle him and win his confidence won't do any great harm and may do some good; Sam doesn't want a fight to get him sedated. He's dug bullets out of more than one gunfighter in his time, and understands one cause, at least, of Johnny's agitation. "I know it must be hard for you, Johnny, to trust anyone or anything other than yourself and your gun, but you can trust me and your family to look after you. You're safe here, you know."

"No, I don't know!" snaps Johnny, sounding so like Murdoch that Sam is hard put to it not to laugh at the pair of them. The hand that closes on the butt of the Colt in his lap is trembling a little. "I'm not safe nowhere where I can't hold my gun! I'm only safe when I can protect myself. Take the slug out now, Doc. I've had it done before like that. But you ain't putting me out with laudanum."

Scott's eyes widen; he's getting a rapid education into the world of the professional gunman, into his brother's world. Murdoch throws up a hand in anger and defeat, growls something that Sam can't quite make out but that he suspects is an unflattering reference to Murdoch's second wife, and stamps off to stand at the window behind his desk to look out over the land that, between them, they've just saved. Johnny's gaze follows him, and he's frowning. Scott's frowning, too, but it's with anxiety, not anger, if Sam is reading him rightly.

"Oh, you're quite right. I won't use laudanum. I can promise you that." And just as Johnny starts to smirk with triumph, he adds: "I'm going to use chloroform. It'll knock you right out." Sam opens his bag, ignoring Scott's appreciative grin as much as Johnny's chagrined protests, looking through it for what he needs. "What about the rest of it, Johnny?"

"What rest of it?"

Sam runs gentle fingers over the huge bruise on Johnny's right side before the boy flinches away. A heavy boot to the ribs, he thought. The bruise is starting to fade into yellows and greens, and thankfully the ribs are firm under his fingers. "I don't think anything's broken. Is it paining you?"

Johnny gives him a steady look. "Nothin's broke, Doc, and it only pains me when folks poke at it."

Sam can't help but smile. "What else is there? And don't try to pretend there's nothing more, or I'll poke in good earnest."

The steady look doesn't waver. "I got worked over a couple of times, that's all. It is nothin'."

"Two weeks ago, maybe a little less?"

Johnny's smile is mirthless. "About that," he concedes. "I'm fine."

"All right. I'll take a look at it when you're asleep. I suppose it's an occupational hazard for you, getting beaten up?"

"Nope. Gettin' shot in the back is, though."

"I suppose people daren't lean on you," remarks Scott.

Johnny resumes staring at Murdoch's back. "I usually shoot 'em if they try."

"Very wise," murmurs Scott, delicately touching the bruise under his left eye.

"And this time?" Sam asks, amused.

"I didn't have my gun," says Johnny. "I've got it back now."

Murdoch turns around to glare at him and at the gunbelt on his knees.

"I'm disappointed in you, brother," says Scott. "You told me the Code of the West was to do it to them before they do it to you. I expect you to put that into practice, you know. I'd rather you hadn't let Pardee use you for target practice."

Johnny's smile is brilliant. It lights up his whole face and there's no sign of the wolf at all. Sam glances at Murdoch just in time to see the fleeting look of shocked longing. The lost child had smiled like that, Sam remembers.

"Well, you know, Boston," says Johnny, "Day was just lookin, for his best shot, that's all. He wouldn't have dared go up against me face to face."

"So you said the other evening." Scott grins in answer to the brilliant smile. It looks as if he and his brother are already forging some sort of a bond; they're easier with each other than with their father, anyway. "Which suggests to me that you should have been more careful about presenting Mister Pardee with your back."

"My mistake. I won't do that again. Did I say thank you, Boston, for killin' him?"

"You did. At least, you said, 'Good shooting' and I'll take that in the spirit that I'm sure it was meant. Let the doctor see to your back, Johnny."

It's neatly done, but Johnny isn't yet so far gone to be suggestible, even by Scott's soothing tone. "I'm fine."

"You knew Pardee, didn't you?" asks Sam. "There was quite the rumour rushing around town this morning. They say Pardee was seen drinking whiskey in Morro Coyo yesterday with one of the best gunhawks in the business."

"Really?" says Scott, in that dry tone again, and Sam decides he likes this laconic Easterner. "Is that what you were doing in the saloon?"

"I told you I knew Pardee," says Johnny, and there's a world of pain and exhaustion in his tone now. Sam itches to take a proper look at him.

"It's been exciting enough around here with Day Pardee," says Sam, "without Johnny Madrid as well. The gossips were in heaven trying to decide how many bottles of whiskey you two sank."

"Did you have to drink with him?" mutters Murdoch.

Johnny stares at his father and says, pointedly, "Like I said, I drink with a man when I know him."

"It wasn't my doing that she left, John."

"That ain't what I heard," says Johnny, but he frowns and looks uncertain.

Sam isn't sure what to make of that exchange, but has no opportunity to ask. Scott has processed what Sam said, and says, surprised, "The Johnny Madrid?"

"There's only the one of me," says Johnny, very matter-of-fact.

Scott stares for a moment. "Right." He recovers well, casting a dark glance at his father, and Sam realises that although Scott knows that Johnny is a gunfighter, he hadn't known just how famous or what name Johnny uses. Sam doesn't think that Scott is very pleased at being kept in the dark. "So, I have a famous brother?"

"I'm good at my trade," mutters Johnny, looking uneasily at Murdoch. "That's all."

"Better than good," says Murdoch, heavily. "Better than most." He glances at Scott. "Your brother has a reputation, Scott."

"I know. I read all about it. Are you better than the others we talked about the night we arrived here? Better than Stoudenmire or Allison or Wes Hardin?"

"I dunno. I've never gone up against them, seein' as how we're all still breathin'. I've never even seen Clay Allison. I met Dallas the once and Wes a few times, but not standin' in a street drawin' on each other. Wes'd sure like my name as a notch on his gun, but him and me have side-stepped the dancin' so far." Johnny adds, thoughtfully, "I dunno which one of us would win, that's for sure, and I dunno as he knows either. So we try not to get on different sides of any business that's goin' and every time I see him, Wes buys me a drink and is real polite."

Scott's grinning again. "Is he? Are you?"

"Sure," says Johnny. "I'm allus polite."

Murdoch snorts and shakes his head. He meets Sam's grin with a wry smile of his own. There's a story there that Sam will get later.

Scott lets out that little huff of amusement again. "You were very modest the other night, little brother, and I commend you for it. According to those dime novels we were talking about, you're the fastest gun along the border. Of course, they also say you have cold, icy blue eyes that can quell your enemies with a glance, that every one walks small and quiet when you're around, that you're at least ten feet tall and that you're very frightening because you'll kill a man for looking at you wrong."

"You know, Boston, that's why I warned you off them novels. They ain't worth the dime you paid for 'em. They twist things and make them more than they are, till even if you was there you'd be hard put to see where the truth is about what happened. That's surely Wes you're talkin' about there."

Scott returns his brother's grin. "I'm sorry, Johnny, but I have to tell you that description came straight from 'Johnny Madrid, the Border Hawk: Trouble Along the Cimmarron'-"

If dangerous gunfighters could gawk, that is pretty much what Johnny's doing. "The Border Hawk?" he repeats, sounding a little dazed.

"A wonderful title, isn't it?" enthuses Scott. "Perfect for the literary work in question. It's a thrilling and colourful tome and I still have it in my luggage. You can read it later, brother. It's just the thing to get you through your convalescence."

"Boston!" protests Johnny, faintly, and Sam makes a mental note not to get on the wrong side of Scott Lancer. He fights dirty and he smiles while he does it.

"As I was saying, I took the description straight from the book. So we'll just have to conclude that either you and Wes Hardin are twins or the authors of the novels have a limited vocabulary when it comes to describing famous gunmen."

"Huh?"

"They exaggerate. A lot."

"Except that stuff about folks all being scared of me. They're right about that." Johnny tries for a Madrid scowl, but he is woefully unintimidating, it seems, when it comes to his older brother.

"I'm sure that they are, but those novels do tell lies. I'll grant you the flashing blue eyes and the lazy drawl, Johnny, but you know, you could be taller. You're shorter than me."

"I use the high-heeled boots when I ride into town," explains Johnny, straight-faced, but he's weary now and the joking is coming harder.

"That makes all the difference," concedes Scott.

Sam closes his fingers over the boy's wrist before Johnny can pull away. The pulse is faster and more tumultuous than Sam likes. Johnny's listing a little to one side now and Sam suspects that it's only willpower that's keeping him awake.

"What was so exaggerated about saying that you and Pardee were drinking together, then?" pursues Scott. He sits down on the arm of the chair giving Johnny something to lean against if he wants to. He smiles at Sam. "Tell me, sir, did the rumours say Johnny was quelling roomfuls of Pardee's men with a sneer and the intense power of the glare from his cold, sapphire orbs?"

Johnny's very weary now. "You read too much, Boston."

"I wasn't told anything about quelling sapphire glances," says Sam. He lets go of Johnny's wrist and pats the boy's hand reassuringly. "But I'm sure they walked small, just in case."

"Then I don't see why you're complaining, little brother."

"Because they lied about it and next thing you know it'll be in one of those books, how I was drinkin' whiskey with Day Pardee afore the mangy dog shot me in the back. Well I wasn't drinkin' whiskey with Day Pardee and I don't like it that people will say I was."

"You weren't drinking with him? That's reassuring."

"I was drinkin' with him all right, Boston. Only I was drinking tequila."

Scott laughs, although Murdoch huffs in annoyance. Sam thinks it's funny that the same sound manages to convey two very different emotions in father and son.

"I didn't hook up with Pardee." Johnny is suddenly very much in earnest, looking up at Scott. "I was gonna take him, but he kept that Injun of his close, with a shotgun, and I didn't fancy bein' backshot with that. I didn't get the chance at him alone until we was on that rise up above the hacienda, and then that damned Irishman, Coley, had to butt in when I told Day to get off our land. By the time I killed Coley and took a shot at Day, I just got the chance to wing him before I had to hightail it down here."

"Do we need to send Cipriano out hunting for bodies all over the ranch?" asks Scott, lightly. "Maybe the novels are right about your prowess, and worth my hard-earned dime after all. I'm impressed, Johnny-my-boy."

"You took on two of them?" demands Murdoch, looking a little sick.

"Two's nothin'." Johnny's focus is still on Scott. "Coley won't be leanin' on you again, Boston, I made sure of that."

Scott's mouth twitches, but he says, very gravely, "I appreciate that. Of course, I would have appreciated it even more yesterday when he and his friends were doing their leaning on me and you were doing your leaning on the saloon post. But I suppose you had your reasons for staying out of it."

"Not what you think." Johnny's eyelids are drooping with exhaustion and Sam thinks he'll keel over within five minutes. He glares at Murdoch, and spits out: "And not what the old man thinks!"

Scott returns the earnest look and his own tone is serious now, all joking over. "I didn't think you'd joined Pardee, Johnny. I was there at the Bocanegras, remember, and I saw how you hated it. You were right when you said you and Pardee aren't anything alike. The only thing was, that you didn't exactly make it clear what you were going to do about it."

"Kill Pardee."

"A statement that is admirably to the point. You should always try for that sort of clarity although I do think I'm beginning to get a feel for your more Johnny-ish utterances. And by that I mean when you tell me that the cowhands and the tin soldier-that's me, Doctor, by the way-will be stumbling about the mountains in the dark, blowing each other's heads off while Pardee attacks the ranch, I get that what you're really saying is that you know I've worked out Pardee's trying to divert us and I've got a trick of my own to pull. You knew I'd be back here, waiting. And I was sure you'd do what you could from Pardee's end. I just didn't expect that you doing what you could would get you shot in the back."

Johnny sighs. He's worn out, at the end of his tether. "You sure can talk up a storm, Boston, but I'm damned if I know what the hell you mean half the time."

"I mean that I trusted you to be with us this morning, and I wish you'd trust me now. Please let the doctor treat you, Johnny. I swear I'll be here to watch your back." Scott puts his hand on his brother's shoulder and isn't rebuffed. "I promise."

There's a long silence. Johnny stares at Scott while his strong brown hands twist the plain leather gunbelt over and over, betraying his uncertainty and his reluctance to cede control and make himself vulnerable. He looks beyond Scott to where Murdoch is standing by the window, stiff and upright despite the cane. Murdoch comes to him at once.

"I don't think you were with Pardee either, John," he says, gruffly, although Sam thinks Murdoch wants to believe it rather than does so as unequivocally as Scott. "I was worried about you, I didn't know where you were and you didn't tell us what you had planned-"

"I had a plan," says Johnny, faint but indomitable.

"Yes, I see that now and if you hadn't brought them all down together like that, it would've gone hard for us. Let Sam see to your back, son. You're safe with me and Scott. We'll stand guard."

Johnny says nothing, still scrutinising their faces. He turns his head to give Sam the same hard, assessing stare, and Sam sees something of the wolf: it's Johnny Madrid staring at him, not Johnny Lancer. Sam meets the cold gaze as steadily as he can until at last Johnny nods and lets Scott take the gunbelt. Scott helps him ease forward, a manoeuvre that has Johnny's breath hissing between his teeth, and supports him in the chair so that Sam can finally remove the temporary dressing and take a look at the wound. Johnny's back shows evidence of more abuse-a riding quirt this time, Sam thinks, or a short whip-and some of it will scar, to add to the other marks of gun and knife. Pardee's bullet is lodged up against Johnny's left shoulder blade, the small entrance wound still seeping a little blood. Sam doesn't think that the shoulder is broken; Johnny's been moving his left arm and hand, and while that obviously pains him, he wouldn't be able to lift his arm if the shoulder blade had been shattered by the bullet.

"Not as bad as it might be, Johnny, but that bullet has to come out. Let's get you into the kitchen and do it." Sam looks at Scott and Murdoch. "I don't want him walking."

"I'll carry him," says Scott. He grins at Johnny. "It appears to be my job. I have to say, though, that he's heavier than he looks."

Johnny grins back, but he's fading very fast now and the list in the chair has become a full slump, only Scott's bracing arm keeping him from falling. Sam fishes the chloroform from out of his bag and unseals the bottle carefully.

"I'm going to give you this here, Johnny, because otherwise it'll hurt you too much to move you. Have you had chloroform before? Good. Then you know it smells a little odd, but just breathe normally when I put the cloth over your face. It will only take a moment." He puts the required number of drops onto a cloth and Johnny, suddenly tractable-although Sam thinks it's just that he has no more fight left in him-allows him to administer the chloroform without a struggle. Johnny's asleep within a minute, his head drooping onto Scott's arm. When Sam checks him, his breathing is strong and even, although his pulse is still too fast and he's too hot. They're undoubtedly in for a bout of fever, but the boy will be infinitely better with the bullet out of his back and they'll have a better chance of getting him through it.

Sam steps back and picks up his bag, watching. Scott takes a moment before gathering up Johnny, looking down at the dark head on his arm with a look on his face that seems half-bemused liking, half anxiety. Murdoch puts one hand on Johnny's hair and strokes it smooth-something he hasn't done for twenty years, to Sam's certain knowledge, and something that he certainly wouldn't dare attempt if Johnny were awake-and puts the other on Scott's shoulder and squeezes it. He wears the same expression that Scott does, looking from one son to the other. Scott glances up, giving Murdoch a grave smile.

Sam nods to himself, satisfied. How odd that he should see it here, at this uncertain time and in this place; but here it is, the thing that he's so alive to and which moves him still almost unbearably, that glorious realisation that he once associated not with a comfortable, enclosed room lined with books but with a wild, flat land and the glory of a red-gold sun. But however incongruous, here it is again, that sense of limitless possibility, embodied in these three, disparate men falling unexpectedly into the chance to make something together, to make a family. And if there are ghosts on the horizon-and there are, and Sam has no doubt but that they will be ghosts as big as mountains-then Sam comforts himself with the thought that it's in the nature of ghosts to fade, eventually, in the blinking of an eye.

Sam smiles, suddenly full of hope and affection and not a little exultation. "Let's get him seen to," he says. "Let's get it done."

September 2008