Prologue

The sofa facing the fire was big and comfortable, and damned if it didn't mould itself around a man, soft and warm and welcoming as a whore's arms. Johnny stretched out his boots towards the warmth from the low flames and leaned back, wriggling to get the cushion in just the right place against his back.

He checked the room again. Scott and Murdoch reading, Teresa sitting beside him knitting something, his gun belt hanging over the arm of the sofa with the gun butt towards his hand. He let his shoulders relax. Everything was fine. The way it should be. No danger; not here, not yet.

He took a sip of tequila. That had been a surprise the other night, Murdoch handing him a glass of real good reposado when they'd all settled in the salón after supper.

"I saw that you didn't like the brandy and you don't seem to be much of a Scotch drinker. It's an acquired taste, maybe. I had the tequila picked up from Morro Coyo with the supplies." Murdoch had looked uncomfortable under Johnny's stare. "I don't usually keep it here. It's a young man's drink."

Scott joined in, laughing. "Need a good hard head for it, sir?"

"Even a good hard head raised on Scotch balks at tequila." And Murdoch had poured Johnny a generous glassful of the pale gold liquor. T he firelight had glowed through it when he'd handed it over, golden as the sky at sunrise.

It was real good stuff, too; smooth as silk, and he could taste the smokiness behind it that came from the old barrels it was aged in. He didn't often get to drink a tequila this good, almost as good as an añejo. Now an añejo tequila, that was the stuff that God drank, but this quality tequila ora was fine. It was mighty fine. It must have cost Murdoch a fair few dollars. The only thing that could make it better would be a sangrita to sip along with it. Couldn't expect Murdoch to know about that, though.

Beside Johnny, Teresa hummed some tune, her eyes fixed on her knitting, the needles clacking and her foot tapping softly. She had a nice voice. Murdoch's newspaper rustled as he turned the page, making Johnny look up, but Murdoch didn't notice and read on. Scott was reading a fat red book, sipping now and again from his brandy glass. Looked like that book Scott had brought with him from San Francisco and read to him when he was sick, the one about some hombre left stranded on an island someplace. That'd teach him to go on a ship. No-one'd ever catch Johnny Madrid on a ship. .

It was quiet. Johnny liked it quiet.

He was never one for talking a lot, 'specially with people he didn't know. He never said much when they were eating or sitting in the salón at night after supper. He was always more of a watcher than a talker. You learned more about folks that way, watchin' and listening. Better to sip the tequila and watch Scott and Murdoch read and listen to the tick of the clock, or watch Teresa stabbing her needle in and out of a bit of cloth with bright flowers stitched onto it, or watch as Boston thought about which man to move in chess or checkers. Figuring folks out in the quiet, that was the way to do it.

Scott was different. It wasn't that Scott couldn't be quiet—he sure was now, lost in that fat little book, and he read a lot. A man could see that Scott had a real education behind him. But Scott liked to talk, too. Scott could talk for hours about near on anything at all. He talked about Boston whenever someone asked him, but after seeing Murdoch hunch himself up and glower a time or two, he stopped mentioning his grandfather where Murdoch could hear him. Instead, he talked books and politics with Murdoch, or about the contracts Murdoch kept in the safe behind the desk, or about town or the Ladies Aid or Church with Teresa, and he even asked Johnny about Mexico.

He never asked the questions that Johnny figured he wanted to ask. Why did you turn to your gun for a living? and Are you like Day Pardee; would you do what he did? and What sort of man kills other men for money? and How do you sleep at night, knowing that you're a killer? and How many men have you killed? And most of all, Can I trust you? and How can I accept what you've done? and How can someone like you be my brother?

Maybe that fancy education stopped him. Scott had real good manners and maybe he didn't want to be rude. Instead he'd wait until it was Johnny's turn to make his move at checkers, and then say something like: "One of the hands mentioned a corrida today. Have you been to one, Johnny? What's it like?"

All the time he listened to Johnny tell him about the processions and the matadors and the bulls, he had a look on his face, a considering look, like he was trying to make Johnny out and measure him up. Watchful. Those pale blue eyes of his saw too much. Like he was seein' or trying to see, right into what made Johnny who and what he was. As if what Johnny was saying about El Alguachil and the banderilleros and the bands playing La Virgen De La Macarena over and over like it was the only tune they knew, answered the questions about Why Madrid? and How many men? and Can I trust someone like you?

Johnny had seen that look often over the weeks since Pardee's raid, when Scott looked at Murdoch, or the ranch or, mostly, at Johnny. It was the look of a man considering the hand he'd been dealt, taking his time over working out if the cards he had would win him the game or not, or if he was staying in the game at all. And when Johnny stopped talking, about fiestas or markets or the corrida or whatever it was that Scott had asked about, Scott would start up again about something else. He sure could talk, and about 'most anything he put his mind to.

Maybe Boston was hiding in all that talk what Johnny hid in being real quiet, and all the time he considered and judged and kept his considering and his judgements to himself.

That was something to think about. Johnny settled down lower on the sofa, his eyes closing so he could do his thinking better, while Teresa's humming grew softer and softer. The loudest thing in the room was the long-case clock in the corner; taller than he was, and ticking his life away.

Murdoch folded his newspaper and cleared his throat. Everyone looked over to him. Maybe he wanted to talk some more. He and Scott had already had what Scott called 'a lively discussion' about some election due later in the year. They'd tried to pull Johnny into it, but he'd head right off to bed if they started up on that again. He'd never been to Washington and didn't want to go, and he sure as hell didn't give a damn who California sent. Scott and Murdoch cared. That'd have to be enough for all of them.

"I'm sending Hernán into Green River first thing tomorrow to tell James Randolph that we'll be coming in to sign the partnership deed. I just realised that neither of you have had the chance to read it properly. You ought to read it first and I'll answer any questions you have about what it means." Murdoch struggled up out of his big chair and limped to the desk. He took the folded papers from the top drawer and handed them to Scott. "I only have one copy here. Randolph has the original deed in his office, ready for us to sign, with copies for each of us."

Johnny watched from the deep, soft sofa, sipping on his tequila. Scott read through the deed quickly, nodding. At one point he looked up, startled and a mite wild about the eyes, then smiled and shook his head, chuckling. Murdoch smiled a thin smile back at him. Well, something was real funny, looked like.

"It seems clear enough, sir. Admirably concise, actually, if a trifle… a trifle agricultural in some of its clauses. Here you go, Johnny."

Johnny took the deed with his left hand and glanced through it. It wasn't very long, a couple of pages. Just paper, but it roped and corralled the three of them, fencing them in with so many wheretofors and insomuchs that it made his head ache. Maybe it'd be easier to work out if the deed was in Spanish, but when he tried changing it in his head, then hell, some of those words didn't make much sense in Spanish either.

Scott was grinning. Yeah something was real funny. "See clause seven. It's about a particularly interesting… er, stock breeding programme."

Johnny read it. What the hell? He had to hold back a snort. So the old man was looking for grandkids to cluster around his knees, was he? Mierda, but he hadn't done too well with his sons. Who in hell would trust him with grandkids? Although maybe it was just that Murdoch was looking for wife number three. He glanced at his brother and Scott shook his head. Didn't look like Boston was any more ready for matrimony than he was.

"Randolph advised that we had to cover every eventuality, including inheritance issues. That's all." Murdoch was stiff and the thin smile was thinner and more tetchy than like he thought Scott was funny. He'd been Patrón of this place for so long he wasn't used to being challenged. Probably wasn't used to being joked with, either.

Boston, though, he was all relaxed and easy. It was a wonder how he could tease a man like that and always be that educated and polite. "That's very far-sighted of him, sir. And of you, of course. But I'm not intending to get leg shackled for a few years yet."

Hell, no! Johnny grinned and went back to puzzling the meaning out of the deed. At the end of the second page were three names, one on top of the other with a space beneath each one, room for them to sign.

Murdoch Angus Lancer. Angus? What the hell kind of name was Angus? Come to think on it, what the hell kind of name was Murdoch? Was the old man even from around here? Sometimes there was something in the way he talked, a softness to it and the way he said some words, that Johnny had never heard before and didn't recognise.

Scott Garrett Lancer. Gringos sometimes added their mother's name but not in the order it was done in Spanish, so was that what the Garrett was for? The first wife's name; the gringa first wife that Mama had never ever mentioned, the way she'd never ever mentioned Scott. He'd gone through all his life thinking he was the only kid Murdoch Lancer—Murdoch Angus Lancer—had abandoned. It was quite something to find out he was just the youngest.

And quite something to find out that Mama knew about the first wife and about Scott, and never told anyone. Made you wonder what else she hadn't told, and if what she had told was—

And there it was.

John Luis Lancer.

No mention of his mother's name. It wasn't John Luis Lancer Martínez, the way it should be. It was like Mama had never happened. Poor Mama. She wouldn't have liked that, and she'd have flown about the room, eyes flashing and hands waving, mouth going faster than a horse could gallop, telling him and Papa exactly what she thought about it and What are you going to do about this, Edgardo? Papa would have rested a big hand on Johnny's head, the fingers working through his hair, so Johnny wouldn't be scared by Mama's yelling. And then Papa would have laughed and called her querida and mi corazón and mi vida, and he'd kiss the palms of her hands and the inside of her wrists until she'd laugh along with him before pulling Johnny into a hug, and everything would be all right again.

He ducked his head. He'd been such a scrawny little nino when he'd lived in the little house with them, before they died and left him. It had been a good time, the life with Edgardo Madrid; the only time he'd ever lived in a house with familia.

So. No mention of Mama and Martínez, and there sure as hell was no mention of Madrid. It was like this was Lancer and Lancer alone, and the last twenty years had never happened.

Johnny folded up the papers and handed them back. He took a swig of tequila, letting the liquor burn its way down his throat. Something in him tightened.

Who the hell was John Luis Lancer?

There'd been a Juan Luis Lancer once, who'd been pushed into that orphanage in Tijuana after Papa died. Tadeo Madrid had taken Papa's farm but he hadn't wanted the mestizo bastard in the house, and Papa wasn't there to make him look after Johnny. Tadeo hadn't even wanted to let Johnny keep Papa's name. Johnny had shown him, though. No-one had ever heard of Tadeo Madrid, no-one knew who he was. But Johnny Madrid? Well, one helluva lot of people had heard Johnny Madrid's name.

"Any questions? Apart from clause seven!" Murdoch was smiling now, wider and more liked he meant it, and he looked mellow when Johnny looked at him, sitting back with his whisky glass in hand, relaxed. He didn't look like a man with too many names to fit onto that deed of his. He looked right, like he belonged, like this was his place. He was Murdoch Lancer, the respectable rich ranchero, and he and everyone else knew it.

Johnny let himself slide down a little on the sofa. Sign as John Luis Lancer, because a man didn't get the chance to own something like Lancer every day and hell, it was just a name? Get the Martínez added, to honour Mama? Insist on signing as Madrid to honour Papa and to make Murdoch face up to who Johnny really was, the way he'd gone back and made Tadeo face it? Because if there was someone called John Luis Lancer, Johnny sure didn't know the man.

He looked past Murdoch and out of the huge window behind Murdoch's desk. He couldn't see much but sky, and that was dim and grey in the twilight, but out there was the biggest ranch in this part of the San Joaquin valley; pasture, hills, streams and valleys stretching up into the foothills of the San Bernito mountains. It was beautiful. Tomorrow, one third of it would be his. It should always have been his. If Mama had stayed.

The window darkened as he watched it, and he could see a star way off somewhere up above the mountains.

The star flickered.

Murdoch loomed over him. "Johnny?"

Pay attention! It's damned stupid to let your guard down like that. "What?"

"I said, you'd better go to bed as well. You'll be better off in your bed than sleeping here."

He started to say he wasn't sleeping but when he straightened up and looked around the room, Scott and the girl had already gone and someone had taken the tequila glass from his hand and put it on a side table where it wouldn't spill. There was a still a little bit of tequila in the bottom of the glass. He tossed it back, rubbed at the back of his neck and glanced at the window. There was nothing to see outside, now. The window glass was a dark mirror, reflecting the lamp-lit room.

He stood up, stretching to ease the kinks. His reflection in the window looked rumpled. He looped his gunbelt over his arm and headed for the door.

Murdoch had gone back to his chair and picked up his newspaper again. He gave it a little flick to open out the pages and was tut-tutting at something in it. "Good night, Johnny."

"Yeah." Johnny hesitated in the doorway. "Murdoch?"

Murdoch looked at him over the newspaper. Something must have shown, because the old man started frowning and lowered the paper to look at Johnny properly.

"About tomorrow, Murdoch. When I sign that deed, I don't know who you want to sign it."

"What are you talking about? I want you to sign it, of course. I want both my sons to sign it."

"And do you know who he is, Murdoch? This John Luis Lancer?"

Murdoch stared at him.

"I don't know him. You might want to take some time to think about that." Johnny waited, but Murdoch just frowned. " 'Night, Murdoch."

He left Murdoch staring and went up the stairs two at a time, just to prove to himself that his back was healed enough to let him. Closing the door of his room meant he could let his guard back down and relax properly, away from eyes that saw too much and eyes that didn't see enough.

Murdoch had better think hard, because if Johnny was sure of one thing, it was that neither of them knew the John Luis Lancer who'd be signing the deed tomorrow.