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The Tale of the Scorpion

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Joe kicked back under the dappled light of the palapa, a Pacifico and lime in one hand, and a very old book by a very old friend in the other. He had no plans on moving for oh...say...another three days if he could help it. And if a certain old pain-in-the-ass made good on his threat to steal back his book and force him to drink fruit juice and exercise on his supposed vacation, well, Joe just wouldn't be responsible for mending the bullet holes.

Methos lounged in the sand next to Joe's beach chair with his own libation, some touristy drink with fruit and rum. With the innocent mask of Adam Pierson plastered on firmly, and proud nose hidden behind a tattered William Gibson paperback, he appeared unconcerned about the interesting tidbits of his long life Joe was about to read.

"How can you drink that stuff?" Joe asked disparagingly. "I'd end up with a hangover going through my head like a Cummings diesel. Or did all that practice with date wine make you immune?" Joe carefully bookmarked the current passage he was reading about Hecuba's Hetaerae and Hot Springs. He suspected fibbing.

"You have to prep by eating red meat. Otherwise, after a few of these you end up barking like a dog," Methos replied as he sat up on his knees in the sand, and stretched. "However, the design on that Hawaiian shirt you're wearing could make a lifeguard seasick," he said, smirking.

"I'll have you know that this is an auténticamente hecha en Mexico Sonoran Hawaiian shirt you're insulting."

"My eyes! They burn!" Methos laughed, donning his sunglasses with exaggerated caution. Methos, as usual, was unremarkable in jeans and an earth tone tee shirt.

"Researchers. No sense of the fine nuances of protective coloration in the field," Joe returned the insult.

"Field agent fashionista!" Methos tossed back, settling his butt and happily wallowing a new nest in the sand.

Joe caught Methos' sly glance over his sunglasses to see how far into the journal Joe's bookmark had progressed. "No backseat reading," Joe tightened his grip on the tome. The journal was a rare bribe from Methos to be allowed to horn in on Joe's 'vacation' in San Carlos, and Joe wasn't letting it out of his sight without finishing it.

"Myth was that Hecuba gave birth to nineteen children, can you imagine that? After awhile a woman might appreciate a man shooting blanks."

"After nineteen children, I'd shoot the messenger," Joe said fervently. "I can see why you had an inside track." Joe ran his fingers over the raised leather of the journal as if it was the fretwork of his first guitar. Then he scooted and settled the plastic beach chair around too keep Methos in the corner of one eye, and Methos' back covered with the other.

"You haven't gotten around to explaining how you found me, yet. Or why."

He watched Methos capture a piece of pineapple from his drink and take his time chewing the sweet fruit before answering. Once finished, a mischievous smile spread across his face. "Sorry, how is a trade secret. Why? I'm your Watcher, of course. I belong to a super secret organization that watches The Watchers, interfering whenever we feel like it. Oh, and you better behave yourself or I'll tell my Boss on you, again."

The mostly nonsensical lie surprised a laugh out of Joe, and he allowed himself to relax, letting go some of his tension. He nodded to the waiter and practiced his Spanish, ordering another round and some carne asada. If Methos was going to stick his considerable nose into his business, he'd have to start pretending to eat and sleep semi-regularly.

"Which part of my act am I supposed to clean up, Super Watcher?" he asked with a slightly challenging smile. "Can't be my love life. I haven't cheated on my taxes. And it's been a whole week since I interfered with the boy-scout-who-will-not-be-named." More than a month, really, but Methos was going to have to work for that little detail. A long month indeed, since he'd been chucked out of the Clan MacLeod. Yet again. Joe had to get a new hobby. He was going to get a complex. Not to mention, a significant cut in pay.

"It's true. You've been a veritable monk. Hence my burning need to interfere," Methos beamed like a saint.

Joe immediately vowed to start sinning, if only out of self-preservation. His eyes focused on a group of riders well down the beach. It looked like they were lining up for a race to the bar. Joe discounted the shorter ponies, checked out a huge bay with an arched neck that must have been seventeen hands at the withers, then made his choice. "Fifty pesos on the blonde on the buckskin."

"On the buckskin! What about the bay? You're on." They watched with interest as the ponies and horses took off in a scrabbling unorganized sprint. "I think perhaps the boy-scout is having second and third thoughts about firing you. Guilt ridden git."

Joe winced. "So much for keeping that secret. It was a lousy secret, anyway." Being replaced as Mac's Watcher was a sore spot, right up there next to his own rapid reassignment a full ocean and continent away. "Apparently even ex-researchers in the wilds of Dalmatia know about it."

"Personally, I'm not fond of your replacement. She tends to over hear things I'd rather she didn't ‒ stay on your horse kid! ‒ such as my name." Methos swished his drink. "I guess it's my own fault, not training him to call me Adam in public."

"They don't train 'em like they used to," he allowed. "Not Watchers, not Immortals, either, I guess. Mac used to give me away to every stray acquaintance and bedfellow. I feel your pain," Joe empathized, digging his elbow into Methos' side to clearly demonstrate. Painfully, he hoped. "And you owe me a hundred pesos," he added, as the blonde with the buckskin tore across the finish line a good three lengths ahead of the bay. "Double for not training him to call you Adam from the get-go."

Methos sprawled in the sand, his laugh was throaty and genuine. "Drink up Joe, the rest of them are on me." After a few moments of companionable silence he said, "You know, we're making an assumption here that he is trainable. He never listens to me ‒ unless I'm bashing him, and then he has this tendency to bash back with vigor. I'm really too old to be wrangling with rowdy youngsters..." his voice trailed off as he took another sip of his fruity concoction.

"You're never bored riding herd on MacLeod," he reminded dryly. "And you don't fool me. I've seen you two do rowdy. The Montmartre, remember?"

Methos grinned. "The whole Montmartre remembers that night, Joe. We broke the fun meter. I think you personally busted the mainspring with that tourist from the States. What was her name, Delilah?"

"There's nothing wrong with the mainspring, thank you very much," Joe said evenly. He tugged his cap brim lower, feeling the sun overwarm his cheeks.

"We should do it again, when your vacation here is up and you and MacLeod kiss and make up. Can I Watch?"

"I'll send you the DVD. When hell freezes over," Joe said with enough of an edge to indicate the subject was closed.

"Still, all in all, it was much more pleasant with you watching him than Miss Snoop, Justine. Her ascendancy is going to result in some interesting entries in the MacLeod chronicles."

"I bet." Joe carefully kept his eyes on the milling horses down the beach, and the windboarders skipping off the surf, his face without expression. Having MacLeod's chronicles taken away and reassigned to a junior Watcher stung. But it was his own fault. Losing track of one's Immortal was bad enough. Being actively fired by your Immortal really went down badly with Headquarters. But Methos didn't need to know the true extent of his latest cockup.

"So tell me," Joe asked, tapping Methos' book and shifting the subject without apology. "What's with you stealing Daedalus' thunder? Flying kites off the Pharos Lighthouse? Hah. Likely story. Next thing, you'll be telling me Icarus plagiarized your design."

"Alexandria! Who wouldn't want to fly over that city? Oh I knew how to keep the Lighthouse fires burning! But it was just a kite. Alexandria was..." Methos sighed and watched the wind surfer's dance. "Demetrius' Library! 'The Place of the Cure of the Soul' ‒ birth of the scientific method..." He shook his head and sighed, Joe could see the regret on his face.

"Sorry, man," Joe did apologize this time. Losing MacLeod's chronicle wasn't even a fluttering candle to the cataclysmic losses in the Alexandrian bookburnings. Even if it was his own personal fluttering candle.

Methos straightened as a new line of horses formed up for another informal gallop. "Oh! Here they come again. Shall I take the bay again? Though I've always been partial to white horses. Maybe the kid can stay on this time."

"I'll take the gray if you take the white," a quick glance at the ponies and Joe made a snap judgment. "The white has a hammerheaded look about him." Not unlike certain Immortals he knew. Not unlike himself when he looked in the mirror, lately.

"The gray? The rider is grayer than the horse! She must be older than you are!"

"So what's your point?" Joe asked pointedly.

"Nothing," Methos acknowledged sagely. "I bow to your superior judgement. Where did you learn to pick the ponies, Joe?"

"Watching Bonanza every Sunday night, like every other kid my age in Chicago, where else?"

Methos shuddered. "Barbarian."

Joe smiled. "Thanks, bucko! Coming from you, that is a real compliment. And...they're off!" Far down the beach, hooves pounded into the wet sand.

"You know the Eagles' song lyric, 'you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave'? You really can't leave him, Joe. He holds on, even when pushing away."

"Only one pushing here is you, bub." Joe signaled to the bartender for another round of cerveza and the embarrassing fruity cocktail ‒ he wasn't going to go light if Methos was buying. Moreover, the passing of the Alexandria Library deserved a toast or eight. "Y dos tequilas, añejos, de Don Tacho Gran, por favor." He figured they would polish those off before Methos realized the dusty bottle on the top shelf behind the bar rivaled the best scotch whisky in rarity...and price.

"That Hotel California gig you mentioned? Been there, done that. Lousy pay and the tips sucked." Joe sat up straighter as the tequila arrived and the sound of hooves on sand signaled the final stretch. Nice, blue añejo tequila, nice blue water, nice blue sky. "They're neck and neck..."

Joe watched the gallop with an eye for the artistry, rather than the technique, so he didn't quite process the immediate consequences when the rider of the white lost a rein and the hammerheaded barb shied away from the windsurfers. Straight toward the bar. Specifically, straight toward Joe's table at the edge of the palapa. "Uh oh," Joe said with a very mortal sigh, and braced himself.

The drink that had just touched Methos' lips slipped from his fingers and dropped to the sand, as if returning at this key moment to its elemental origin in a cactus mist. Methos leaped to his feet to put himself between the runaway horse and his mortal friend. Dashing forward, he reached out to slap a sweaty shoulder to turn the charger's direction just enough to miss Joe, but taking Methos down.

In the time it took Methos to spring to his feet and run to the best angle to deflect the careening horse, Joe, in his own ungainly way, managed to force himself to his full height, squaring his shoulders. "Damnfool Adam, you're going to get yourself..." There was a thump. And a squishy tock, as trailing hoof lashed out. "...killed."

The horse flashed by Joe quite harmlessly, and avoided crashing into the bar by neatly planting all four hooves and dumping his rider over his head, before taking off into the thorn bushes and cactus tangle beyond the beach. Joe barely paid attention, keeping his eyes on Methos, but pointing to the ex-jockey at the base of the bar, calling "¡Ayúdelo! Help him!"

Then he grabbed a couple of napkins and edged away from the gathering crowd and made his way down into the soft sand to Methos' side. Bending over to dab what blood he could away before the crowd noticed them, he muttered accusingly, "You owe me another hundred pesos!"

*****
She was a vision of beauty! Long elegant legs, the color of summer milk. Smart, obedient, sure of foot and strong of heart. The pale horse carried him across desert to the end of the earth where the sand met the sea. And then they turned around and rode back.

The river, the river...Going back again, back again, never arriving... Dead, not dead.

"Ahh! Gods what hit me?" Someone pounded on his head and wouldn't let him sit up. "Joe? Stop that! Let me... just give me a second, a minute ‒ Oh Gods. Kicked in the head, bloody fates! No respect." The words deteriorated into dead language babble as he struggled to sit again.

"Only when you stop swearing in Akkadian. It sounds like a cat fight."

Methos stopped, and regrouped a few thousand phonemes. "It's OK Joe, let me up." Finally, Joe helped him lean into a sitting position. He peered at the hubbub around the tossed rider. "Don't think anyone noticed my indiscreet dying. Think I'd better switch back to drinking beer."

******
"Stick to Latin if you can't manage the Anglo Saxon, willya?" Joe chastised as he eased Methos up as gently as he could. "At least with Latin I can spin the 'defrocked priest attains miracle recovery scam'." He'd ended up knocking himself down to sit next to the stricken Immortal in the sloping sands, hiding what he could, lying about the rest to keep the crowd away. Just like old times.

"That horse has an evil eye. Killed me on purpose."

"Kicked ya in the head, yeah. Like the horse and the three wives. And the yurt. You remember the story you told me about the yurt?" Joe asked anxiously. Immortals could react to head wounds...unpredictably. Like by talking in languages that had evaporated in the age of Homer. "What were you thinking, pulling that stunt, anyway?"

"It's OK, Joe. My head is especially hard. We didn't need to test yours."

Joe looked up at the sound of a heavy step, to see the hammerheaded barb scuff up next to them, looming like a thunderhead. From fetlock level, the stallion looked huge, ears pointed forward, nostrils flaring, snuffling. Blowing. Looking remarkably disappointed. Joe gently caught the reins in one hand and experimentally reached out to stroke the nose with the other. "What's Latin for 'Nice horsey'?"

"Canis victus." Methos grumbled. He caught Joe's fingers and moved them away from the horse's mouth. "Don't be waving those carrots in front of him. He doesn't deserve a treat."

One of the other young riders came over to claim the flighty horse's reins. Joe tried to block her view, but failed. She apparently caught sight of Methos' head, or of the bloody napkin in Joe's hand that he had used to dab at the head wound. "Mi Dios! ¿Estás bien?"

"Estoy bien. Solo un golpe." Methos' Spanish sounded a little muddled even to Joe's rusty ear, which worried him far more than a bit of blood from an already healed cut. She gave them a worried smile, nodded, and backed the horse out of their way.

"We'd better get moving before they call rescate on us," Joe muttered.

"Now how are we going to get up?" Methos asked then laughed. Joe did not laugh, getting up from the sand would not be easy. Methos' laughter broke off as a clear stab of pain flickered across his face. "This may take me a minute. Once we figure it out."

Joe stuffed the bloody napkin in Methos' tee shirt pocket "What do you mean, we?"

"Hey! This is a good shirt!" Then he actually looked and noticed the blood splatter. "Good thing it's a rusty shade." Loud sigh. "I need a beer."

Joe held Methos down, all too easily. "You need a keeper. Why the hell didn't you just push me out of the way?" he asked, delaying so his friend could have a few more key seconds to heal.

"Because the rider was aiming right at you, Joe," Methos rubbed his ear. "Guiding with his knees. No reins needed."

"That's paranoid, even for you, man. I haven't been here long enough to piss off anyone that bad, natural talent or no."

"Time to get out of here. Let's do this, Joe." Without giving Joe time to protest, Methos began to wobble to his feet, at the same time pulling him upward. Both giving and receiving support they struggled to a more or less standing position.

Joe then spent most of the next dozen steps propping Methos up and attempting to steer him back to his nice, solid plastic beach chair. A quick getaway wasn't in the cards. "I'd ask you what year it is and how old you are, but you'd probably lie about your age, anyway," he complained.

"Gods, I feel at least a thousand years old." But the words were accompanied by a smile. "Well that was fun! What's next on the holiday agenda?"

"You really do need to switch back to beer. You do realize 'canis' means 'dog', right?" he asked with less snark than worry.

"Dog food," Methos translated the Latin. "What happens to bad horses."

"Hunh." Joe's church Latin tended to flinch at Methos' home-grown accent. "How about you park your equus nates in this nice Corona chair here and drink this." Joe handed him his own Pacifico while he downed the last intact shot of tequila.

He tapped his sunglasses back on, and made a hard survey of the crowd behind the dark lenses. Most of the crowd were settling back, laughing at the close call, buzzing with armchair criticism about the riders or horses or their beer getting warm. But two dark-visaged men in white shirts and worn jeans on the edge of the crowd didn't seem to be drinking, or talking, or doing much of anything but looking at the horizon. The two looked just like their pictures in El Alacrán's file. The rider of the white charger had vanished, and Joe castigated himself for not paying more attention to his face and build, and whether he sported any tattoos.

"Dammitall," Joe sighed. He was going to have to go to work a lot sooner than he'd planned. And those plans didn't include Methos. Immortals disappeared within a certain radius of El Alacrán's stronghold. So did Watchers, for that matter, but that was a separate problem.

"Cursing was far more refined in my day," Methos remarked airily.

"Don't make me get out my Marine manual. How's your head?" he asked, noting the wince as Methos held his beer to the horseshoe shaped divot outlined in his hair in corral dust. "I can drive you to my place, let you shower, kick back, have a siesta. Maybe read your journal to you," he offered with his best Nurse Joe voice. That would get him kicked out of the apartment quick, and he could go to work.

Methos twisted around in his chair popping joints, focussing on the beer label, sniffing the contents. He seemed to be measuring his sensory intake. Joe figured that a mental beermeter made as good a baseline as any for a spot check in this particular case history.

After icing his head with it for a time, Methos drank the beer down as he finally acknowledged Joe's offer. "No, I think I'd rather go shopping for armament." This time his eyes followed Joe's as he resurveyed the crowd. "I'm feeling under-dressed, right off the plane. Care to tell me about it, Joe? Or are you gonna keep it to yourself all day? I thought this was gonna be a laid back holiday...Joe?"

Joe's knuckles whitened on his cane, as he desperately suppressed the urge to find out if he could replicate a headslap with the force and speed of a horse's hoof. He was quite sure he could hear his blood pressure rising. "Where. Is. Your. Sword?" Feeling a rising panic, Joe mentally counted their bullets, and came up with zero. Mexico held a very, very dim view of guns, and Joe's own concealed carry permit was locked up in a bureaucratic limbo. Bringing in a sword should have been cake in comparison.

"There's a shop I know. They sell machetes. Big ones. You get the car, I'll meet you in the parking lot." Joe tossed Methos the keys and stalked off, wrestling his temper under control. He found the blonde with the buckskin, and asked her a key question, and got more than he bargained for, and a phone number besides. He was almost to the car when he realized Methos had stuck him with the bill. Again. He diverted course just long enough to leave a generous pile of pesos on the bar. Playing a clueless tourist was one thing, stiffing a fellow bartender with the tab was unthinkable.

Setting his jaw, Joe struggled through the sand to the hard dirt of the parking lot to the only rental car with hand controls to be found in greater Guaymas. Harassing Methos out of the driver's seat, Joe slid in, dropping his own forehead to the steering wheel. "That's it. You've lost it. You never go anywhere unarmed. Did MacLeod suck your brains out through your dick?"

Methos rubbed his forehead. "Not that I recall ‒ of course if my brains were gone I wouldn't ‒ no, no, not since that time in Lyons, anyway," he shrugged and sighed loudly. He gave Joe a stern look and nodded toward the carryall he'd tossed in the back seat. "Don't worry about a sword. I always check mine through. What I had in mind was a gun ‒ after catching a look at your hard mortal shadows. Please tell me there isn't an Immortal pulling their strings?"

Joe was thinking that maybe it was a mistake to leave the bar. He could use more tequila. And the worm, too. He wouldn't forget the worm, this time. "Of course there's an Immortal. There's always an Immortal, in my line of work," he answered quietly, to try to roll back the irrational anger he felt when 'his' Immortals took unnecessary risks.

"You were supposed to be on vacation," Methos said brightly. "Not going to work."

"You were supposed to be in Dalmatia, not Sonora. Besides. It's supposed to be temp work. So sue me." Back to business at hand. Armament. "The Watchers aren't ponying up with a Mexican gun permit this time, or I'd give you mine. I already made a couple of discreet inquiries. I've heard some sport fishermen who go between ports sometimes have a few anti-pirate persuaders. We can try the chi-chi bars near the marina," Joe sighed. "But honestly? We could bring an Abrams tank and still be low on firepower. El Alacrán likes his toys." There. That ought to get Methos' flight or flight reflex operating again.

"The Scorpion?" Slowly, a questioning expression was replaced by wide eyed alarm as Methos appeared to search his throbbing memory banks. A sharp intake of breath announced the injured Immortal had finally arrived at the file marked, 'Crazy-ass Immortals to be avoided,' where dwelt the name El Alacrán. "Oh." For the count of three he remained motionless, then he pulled out his cellphone and hit his number one speed dial.

Joe tried to grab the cell, but Methos fended him off with sharp flicks of his wrist. "Hey, that stings, dammit," he protested, and by then it was too late. Joe suspected that Methos' automatic reflexes might just be faster when he was half clocked, and his retaliatory parries weren't particularly well reined in. Instead of ending up clocked himself, Joe leaned back and squeezed the bridge of his nose, muttering, "At least Mac can't fire me twice. Shish kebab, maybe."

"Mac! Time to get your backside over here." Methos listened for a moment. "Because I asked so nicely." Methos actually smiled while listening to the next reply. "Sure. Whatever you want. Oh and there are a few necessities I need you to ship 'over-night.' My little green bag, and you might as well throw in my black bag ‒ just as a precaution." After he disconnected, Methos closed his eyes and rested his obviously still aching head.

Joe had actually been hoping for Methos to be predictable, here, and evaporate out of town. That would simplify matters immensely. He'd be left in peace to go through the test the Watchers had set up for him, pass or fail, and it would be all done.

The last thing he expected was for Methos to call MacLeod. "Fine time for you to develop a crusader complex," he insulted, then he got his own phone out, and hit the speed dial.

"Yeah, Mac. Sorry about that last call. He's three sheets to the wind. This isn't your problem. In fact, there is no problem. I'll send the miscreant back after he sleeps it off and comes to his senses."

When Mac started to interrupt, Joe overrode him. "Your ground rules. Your game. My bad. My problems are not your problems. Let's just leave it at that." Joe clicked the phone shut with finality.

 

*****
"But Joe...what?...wait, I didn't mean..." MacLeod tailed off, as he realized Joe had hung up on him. Normally it was MacLeod who carried one of their arguments past the expiration date, not Joe. Joe invariably extended the peace offering first.

MacLeod closed his phone, puzzled and more than a little alarmed. It was very rare for Methos to ask for help directly. "Help me," from Methos normally sounded like, "Go away, MacLeod, I'll fight my own battles, MacLeod, or see ya later, MacLeod." Methos sounded more like Joe on a mission, and Joe sounded like Methos, planning one of his six-month constitutionals to Tibet. Except Methos didn't do missions, and Joe didn't do Tibet.

He glanced out his ski lodge room window at the snowy slopes, the stark cold of his breath frosting the glass as he imagined his friends in sunny Mexico.

MacLeod worried about Methos, though he realized how ridiculous that was, worrying about someone forty-six centuries older than yourself. Still, there it was. He wished that Methos would let him know what was going on over there, wished he could get straight answers. But Methos was never overly forthcoming.

It wasn't as if they had an exclusive claim on each other. Their time together, though intense, occurred randomly when they both happened to be in the same place. So it was futile to make demands, though he sometimes still tried.

Methos had been off for months on an archaeological dig in Dalmatia prior to his excursion to Mexico. So MacLeod had gone skiing. And despite his periodic lurid updates to Methos, his occasional lover refused to be jealous about his ski lodge carousing. At least Amanda had always pretended to jealousy, though after a couple centuries he realised she was merely stroking his ego. Minx. Still he worried about that independent irritant, Methos, who wasn't even giving him the opportunity to do an interrogation.

And he worried about Joe. Sure they'd had another blow up, but that was as predictable as the sun rising tomorrow morn. Why the hell did Joe have to go all the way to Mexico for a vacation, when there were perfectly fine Mediterranean beaches so much closer? Joe hated flying.

What the hell were those two up to? Methos had claimed he was just checking on Joe, not off on a quest to start a conflagration.

Damned if he would spare the time detouring back to Paris for Methos' gear. Just the idea of finding where Methos had them hidden in his latest apartment was daunting enough, let alone finagling them through a shipping service to Mexico. No, the medical bag and armament bag would remain hidden amongst Methos' book middens. MacLeod smiled, musing that perhaps the lack of both would cancel each other out.

It took him all of ten minutes to grab his passport, a change of clothes and be gone without a backward glance at the snowy slopes or a goodbye to the ladies of the lodge. Interestingly enough, his new young Watcher shadow either lacked Joe's contacts or his talent for insomnia, allowing him to leave Europe quite unwatched. He'd have to complain to Joe. Watchers, these days.

*****
"That was a bit rude, Joe. Especially since Mac has my arsenal." Methos tried out a killing glare, but Joe appeared unquailed by its dire power, so he rested his eyelids to recharge. His head still throbbed.

"My problems are not your problems, Methos," Joe repeated, softly. "Mac was always right about that. This is something I have to do myself."

"Well I can tell when I'm unwanted." Methos opened his eyes again wearily. Joe had his jaw set, he appeared both stubborn and ungrateful. So Methos opened the car door and climbed out onto his feet, wobbling a bit, slowly fighting the remaining dizziness. He shut the front door, opened the back retrieving his carryall, shut that door then walked off in the direction of town.

"Hey, where are you going?" Joe asked as Methos' dignified retreat was spoiled when he tripped over a rut in the hardpan. He heard Joe slap the car into gear and gun the throttle, then he pulled around and parked in front of him. "Get in, before somebody runs you over."

Methos looked at him with all the expression he would waste on a rock in the road. "Such as you?" Then he fastidiously walked around the front of the car and proceeded down the narrowing dirt track.

Joe crashed the car over a couple of helpless mesquite bushes, and blocked the road again. "Get in before the Scorpion's men realize you're a sitting duck out here, dammit."

Again, Methos stalked around the car with wobbly dignity, not wasting breath on an answer.

Methos heard Joe use a swear word that he himself had taught Joe. It was definitely a good swear word. In fact, that particular word had once started three wars in Scythia. He had to remember to tell Joe about that. In a decade or so.

Joe continued destroying the paint job of his rather expensive hand-control rental car, scooting between two thorn bushes and over a cholla to again block his progress. "Come on, willya? We look like a lover's spat out here, and I'm too damn old for that. Get in, and I'll tell you why Mac fired me."

If there was one thing Methos could do, it was walk. Walking was transportation at its most dependable, and a pox on horses. Normally he could walk all day long, a nomadic superstar, however at this moment in time he had balance issues. He felt the electric bite of his quickening mending him ‒ a wonderful blessing to an Immortal ‒ but when it's the inside of your head that's buzzing, ambulation turned iffy. Oh well, it would be all better soon, if only Joe would stop trying to run him over.

Joe's promise to tell him what caused the rift between he and Mac sank into his awareness. Ah curiosity, an old weakness. Curious to know if Joe's story and Mac's lined up, and mindful that curiosity killed, he deigned to climb back into the passenger seat. This time he kept his carryall on his lap as if to make a quick escape. The small trickle of blood running from his ear had completely stopped and was drying on his neck causing a tickling itch that he scratched at. If the roar would just stop he would be all better.

He could see how Joe might think that his help would be less than stellar at the moment, but if he gave him another minute, he healed real fast, faster than anybody, most times. If they just wouldn't nail iron to horses hooves.... He leaned back his head and closed his eyes again. "You and Mac are both pains in the arse."

"I'm honored to be included in such elevated company," Joe allowed. He put the car in gear and aimed it for the motel. They were too exposed here. Joe talked as he drove, checking the rearview mirror for followers.

"You were off at that dig in Dalmatia, and Mac was hanging around the bar. He was ambushed going back to the barge by some wet-behind-the-ears dickhead who boasted he'd taken you out in the Dalmatian hills, and now he was coming for the Highlander." Joe rolled his shoulders, as if trying to take out the tension. "Mac took him out. No problem. The idiot learned his fighting skills from Bruce Lee movies. No shit. I found the DVDs later when I searched his car."

"He'd have been better off studying Monty Python."

"Yeah, 'Run away! Run away!' " Joe agreed, black humor showing. "Anyways, after the fight, Mac charged back to the bar. He was..." Joe picked his words carefully.

"...somewhat angry?" Methos offered helpfully.

"I haven't seen MacLeod that pissed off since the Galati screwup," Joe confessed obligingly. "He figured me and the Watchers had blown your cover, somehow. That someone was using the chronicles to get to you. Since only you, me and Amy theoretically knew you were at the dig, you know? It was a logical assumption."

Methos had to give MacLeod that much. It was a logical assumption. Wrong, but logical.

"You know MacLeod is cranky after a Quickening. It passes."

"Yeah, sure, when you or Amanda are around to kiss it and make it better," Joe pointed out uncharitably. "Anyway, I showed him the brand new email you'd sent just that afternoon, talking about Scythian incursions and gambling runes. You were fine. Mac whipped out his cell phone, and sure enough, you were there, number one on his speed dial. You cooed at each other for a while. I made a remark about transcribing it for the chronicle. That was a bad idea, in retrospect, poking at Mac's sore spot."

"And he went all Highland chieftain on your arse, and hurt your feelings."

"Yah think? And shut up about my feelings. This isn't about me."

Methos watched with interest as Joe's cheek twitched. "You know, you do that thing with your face when you lie to yourself, too?" he offered helpfully.

"Shut up." Inexplicably, Joe laughed. "Anyway. After a few choice words, he took off, to find you, I assumed. Logical, right?" Methos saw Joe was carefully keeping his words light. "But he was just gone. Off the radar. I lost him for...three weeks and five days." Methos knew that three weeks was the current limit the Watchers allowed for noncontact with one's Immortal. After that, they were reported officially 'lost', and the Watcher had the responsibility to explain exactly why.

"In the mean time, I checked out Bruce Lee's modus operandi. He was a gadget nut. Turns out he monitored Mac's cell phone from a wireless connection in his car. He figured claiming to have killed Mac's lover would give him a surprise psychological advantage."

"Behold, the fatal flaw of the emo generation."

"Oh, and to him, Methos was just a screwy name. He'd never even heard of the damned oldest Immortal in the world."

"Never heard of me?" Methos interrupted, shocked.

"Kids these days. You'd think he'd google you, at least. Anyway, by the time I realized MacLeod wasn't going to just drop in the bar and pretend nothing happened, Mac had jumped too many trains. It turned out he was doing the wedeln in Val d'Isere. I didn't find him in time. That Justine kid was the one who tracked him down a week later. She gets the prize. Pretty embarrassing, huh?"

Methos observed that Joe still colored at the humiliation, and he mercifully steered the subject back to himself. "Never heard of me! Humph! What are Immortals teaching their students now-a-days? How can a kid even understand a Methos joke, if they don't know who he is?"

After this outburst Methos sat quietly, mulling in silence while Joe drove them away from the beach. He divided the important from the extraneous variables in this puzzle, and realized that it was more difficult than usual for him to determine what manner of evil plot he and Joe had fallen into. Much more difficult. It was then that he pulled out his wallet, and from it a small planning calendar. Most of the months were blank, without any appointments written in the day squares. Methos put his pen to the task of writing in names (mostly feminine names) on five or six days of each month. When he finished December he smiled with satisfaction and put away the calendar.

"OK. Let me see if I've got this figured out. Mac goes skiing. You can't find him. And you ‒ now you're in Mexico looking for a different Immortal." His eyes open wide. "Please tell me you haven't been reassigned to this nut case!"

"It wasn't that I couldn't find him," Joe said quietly. Methos recognized deflection when he heard it. "It was that I didn't look for him." Joe drove them around the Tetakawi pass slowly as they came across a number of stray horses and cows. "Mac is really sensitive about his clan, you know? You're one of the few he has left. And the Watchers hit all his buttons‒he lost Tessa because of a Hunter, Darius and Galati, and nearly Fitz and Amanda, and now you. I couldn't blame him for cutting out. I figured, this time I wouldn't push it for a couple of weeks. Then it was too late, the trail was cold."

Cold as the French Alps, Methos mused. He wagered Joe had carried that frozen nugget of guilt since Galati. Methos vowed one day he would pour enough Scotch into Joe to wash that nugget away. One day.

"As for El Alacrán, not that it's any of your business, it's a Performance Review. You know, a fitness evaluation. They can't keep a regular Watcher on him, but they do like to keep tabs, so they periodically send down field agents to get the lay of the land, and rate their performance. The Tribunal assigns the task. Pass/fail. Simple, really. Pass, and I get my field agent license back."

That was the business. Fail, and...that was the business, too. Methos had to admire the Watchers' logic. It was an elegant solution, really. Joe couldn't complain, since he'd given MacLeod too much leeway. He always had. And since MacLeod had repudiated Joe outright as his Watcher, he couldn't complain down the line if Joe happened to be lost in action elsewhere. In the line of duty. No matter that the 'fail' rate on El Alacrán ran to one hundred per cent.

"Just doing the job?" he asked dryly.

"Just doing the job." Joe didn't meet his eyes. As he pulled into San Carlos, all business, he asked, "Food or sleep? There's a carne asada stand just down the street from the motel."

"Food would be good, Joe." Methos sighed and closed his eyes just for a moment, then forced himself to sit up straight in a good imitation of alertness.

Food ought to return him to the five thousand year old's version of next-to-new. He'd passed his own, "Are your brains still scrambled?" test by quickly writing down the birthdays of all of his wives in his planner. With marbles all accounted for he just needed to refuel and then he should be once again capable of devising devious plans, if not running marathons.

They stopped at the stand Joe had suggested and ordered fresh fish and crab tacos. Sitting at a tiny sidewalk table, enjoying the afternoon sun, they looked to be tourists without a care. Joe was hardly hungry it seemed, but Methos devoured his and ended up finishing off Joe's too when offered. He could see Joe snickering at him and hated to break the comfortable mood by pointing out their latest dilemma. So he waited.

They ended up talking horses. "There was some Andalusian in that war horse," Methos mused. "Maybe you can find out where it was trained."

"And there I went and forgot to ask for the license number on that cayuse," Joe grumbled.

"You still didn't tell me where you learned to pick the ponies, Joe," Methos teased. "Have you been making secret trips to Emerald Downs?"

"You still owe me for two races, amigo," Joe reminded, playing with a tortilla chip.

"Shit! I was supposed to pay the bar tab at the Soggy Peso."

Joe shrugged. "You were occupied."

"Don't be gallant, Joe, people plow over you when you're gallant."

"Like you and horses?" Joe was snickering at him, again. "You know I'm always an easy touch after an assassination attempt."

"Confess, Joe, you had inside information. I saw you talking with the blonde on the buckskin."

"If I tell you all my secrets, you'll get bored and move back to Bora Bora."

Methos grinned. Joe knew him so well. "Not to worry! I'll spring for the mariscos!" he leaned back, happily satisfied, and pulled out his wallet and laid a few bills on the table.

Joe shook his head, scooped up the bills, and handed them back to Methos, pulling out his own wallet again. "At least it wasn't shekels. We'll get your Euros changed to pesos at the Banamex later."

Methos peered at the offending tender, annoyed. "Used to be I could spend a Roman coin in any tavern from Carthage to Londinium."

"Yeah, yeah, the good old days before Constantine screwed things up," Joe agreed amiably and left his own pesos.

Methos and Joe left the outdoor table and returned to Joe's rental car. Methos attempted to slide into the drivers seat, but Joe kept him moving along to the passenger's side. "Hey, buddy, I had to pay extra for hand controls, lets not waste my money, or take our lives into our hands with your scrambled brains."

Deciding to overlook the slight to his driving reflexes, Methos summed up his understanding of the situation, "So what you need is to take a picture of this Scorpion fellow, without him noticing?"

"A few pictures of the rancho, the man, the emplacements," Joe shrugged. "Yeah. Easy. See? No worries. You can call MacLeod back and tell him it was all a misunderstanding. Heck, you hurry, you can meet him in Val d'Isere for the spring corn snow. I bet you look fetching in stretch Bogners."

"I gave up skiing for Lent. In 1549."

"Ah, before the invention of apres ski," Joe observed sagely, as he pulled up in front of El Motel Creston, a row of gleaming white rooms next to an empty pool. He eased out to open the door to number seven, waving Methos into the tiny room. "Watch out for the guitar," Joe warned sternly.

Given the choice, Methos elected to trip over the cooler, instead. The tile floor was cool and soothing. He assumed Joe's fall from grace with the Watchers also included a cut in per diem, if the size of the room was any indicator. "How the mighty have fallen," he murmured to a somnolent gecko hiding under the bed. At least he hoped it was a gecko.

"I actually had a cockeyed plan going before you got clocked, you know," Joe said, annoying Methos by holding out a hand to help him up. "I'm still bummed at that crowbait for interrupting. I would have loved to see you up on a horse." Joe smiled ruefully. "But Mac would be pissed all over again when he found out."

"I wouldn't rat you out," Methos declared loyally.

"You already did," Joe pointed out with a sideways smile devoid of rancor. "Get some rest, we'll take care of Mac later," he absently waved him toward the single bed, apparently all too aware that after major head injuries Immortals needed food and sleep, and could zone out for hours once they found a place to hole up.

Though Methos made a point of not following any predictable rules, he tentatively tested the hard mattress, considering an exception. "I'm not going to steal your bed, Joe."

Joe just settled himself firmly in the desk chair, getting out his notebook, clearly intent on his own agenda. "Mi motel es tu motel, conk out space is on me," he said firmly. "Cerveza in the cooler, sunset margarita cruise at six."

"I see you writing, over there. You'd better leave out the part where I got knocked on my bum. I get final edit."

"Dream on, buster."

"At least share the number of the blonde on the buckskin."

"You did hit your head hard. Have a beer. It might perk you up."

"Tomato juice in beer is just wrong." Methos searched the cooler for a plain beer. "I don't think I'm up to the Margarita cruise, Joe. If I'd had a few more of those rum drinks I might not have intercepted the runaway equine...now that would have really messed with your plans for photographing the Scorpion. You know scorpions are considered good luck in some cultures? You need a camera hidden in your cane. You know I really hate skiing? If I had a dollar for every time I broke my neck skiing...and Mac knows! Well, I'd rather lie on the beach any day. Actually my favorite vacations are to museums and bookstores. Ever been to Hay on Wye, Joe?" Methos talked faster and faster as he lay down on the bed, after failing to find a beer he wanted to drink. "You know, Joe, if you don't run off on me while I become unconscious I'll consider calling off the Mac."

"It's a deal," Methos heard in the distance, just before he allowed himself to fade into black.

*****


The Immortal finally wound down like an old clock. The next sound Joe heard was soft snoring. "Without the tomato juice, how would I get my vegetables?" he said with a soft smile. He heaved himself up and shuffled to the bed, tweaking off Methos' shoes and twitching the curtains shut against the westering sun. "By the way, thank you for saving my life. Again. Buddy."

He was sorely tempted to sneak out and make a run at the assignment while Methos slept, but leaving Methos vulnerable and unguarded was only a last ditch option if he could be sure it drew their stalker away. Besides, he'd made a promise. He made sure Methos' sword was unpacked and positioned on the floor nearest his right hand, then braced a chair against the solid hardwood door.

It was utterly inadequate in the face of a determined attack, he knew, but the best he could do until he could finagle his Immortal out of El Alacrán's territory. "Some vacation, hey? And I never even got to ask you to teach me how to ride."

Then he got down to work. On a yellow pad he roughed out all his notes on El Alacrán and what little he knew of his proclivities. He mapped out the ranch, the surrounding country, the sea approaches (hence the margarita cruise) and the few known tracks and trails around the compound. On a separate page, he started a list of Watchers that knew he had been assigned to beard the Scorpion in his den. The list was very short, and illuminating. If Joe disappeared, only a handful of Watchers would know where to look. Even fewer would bother. He doubted any of them would know where to send flowers.

Joe wrapped himself in dark thoughts, and Watched.

*****
Hooves, rocks, axes, pommels, 2x4s, books, lamps, rolling pins, beersteins...all objects in line with missing chunks of time...floating free...

They'd been chased for days. Soon they would drop from exhaustion. He was armed with only a knife against Darius' army. A hole 'neath a rock, a desperate stroke through the heart, Mercy stopped his quickening,and the army passed on by...

The air was warm, with the scent of the sea. He opened his eyes ‒ Joe's room ‒ oh yes, kicked in the head again. He reached out. His sword was right where it should be. Stretching, sitting up, he focused and found Joe writing on a notepad ‒ plotting plots no doubt.

"All better! Ready to paint the town? How about that cruise?"

Joe blinked, and peered at Methos suspiciously. "All better, eh? I think that's what you said the last time, but in Etruscan. You've been talking in your sleep, you know." Joe stacked his papers and more surreptitiously closed up the opened blade of his Swiss Army knife.

Methos decided he'd better not laugh.

Joe tossed the stack of papers on the bed. "All that I have on El Alacrán, including the final reports on the failed missions. All the roads previous Watchers have used to overlook the ranch. A couple of 4X4 trails. Boat approaches. Boat landings are a bad idea, by the way ‒ El Alacrán finagled a deputation from the DEA and the Federales to interdict any traficante on his lands. Very convenient for disappearing trespassers."

"As far as I can see, there's only two routes previous Watchers haven't used." Joe got up and stretched, clearly having stiffened during the hours of his watch. "I'll let you figure out the first." Joe rummaged around his luggage and pulled out another shirt, garish as the first, and washed up and changed in the tiny bathroom while Methos read. Then he propped up his guitar near the door and watched silently again until Methos felt the stare and looked up.

"Oh. My. Gods. I'm beginning to read your mind. And it's a really scary place, Joe. Fly over. A kite! I could fly over and take pictures. That would be so cool ‒ and so stupid ‒ not that that's ever stopped me before. Gods. Brilliant!"

Methos got up and paced the room in a tight circle, one hand pinching his lower lip and the other clutched across his chest. Occasionally he would wave a hand in the air, forming signs more ancient than he.

Abruptly he stopped and suggested,"We could take your cruise, of course. With a telephoto lens you might get a few good shots. Give that a try? Then go for the gold. Man oh man, I can imagine the look on Mac's face when we tell him about this adventure. He doesn't own me, Joe. I was a Watcher for years. Hell I invented them ‒ er ‒ the internet. Never mind. Let's try that and if it doesn't give you what you want I become one with Icarus. I assume there's some place 'round here that sells or rents hang-glider gear to reckless tourists?"

"Next to the liquor store, where else?" Joe answered truthfully, not even bothering with sarcasm.

Methos paced some more, obviously excited by the possibility of flying over El Alacrán's ranch. Somewhere in the back of his mind he scolded himself for getting off on doing something that would push Mac's button, and he knew it wasn't Joe's intention to set him off like a teenager in rebellion, it just seemed like it would be so much fun.

"I wonder if they would take shots at me in the air?"

"Ya think?" Joe somehow hadn't gotten caught up in his enthusiasm. "You'd end up with so many bullets in you metal detectors would be going off three states away," Joe said in disgust. " You've had green eggs and ham for brains ever since that hoof tagged you. I can see me explaining it to Mac now...'Gee, Mac, he was doing so great until the RPG got him...' "

"MacLeod would understand. He's a very understanding kind of guy," Methos mocked. "I read it in his Chronicle." He knew Joe didn't take well to being mocked.

Joe didn't disappoint. "You do realize that this situation is exactly why Mac fired me in the first place? Me dragging you into the line of fire because of Watcher business? And he's right. Just forget it, you know? If you won't teach me how to ride a horse, I'll get someone else." Joe pushed the chair away from under the door and stalked out of the room. "I've got a gig. Don't wait up for me."

Methos grabbed his coat and sword, and went after Joe. He paced beside him for a few minutes shaking his head as he did so. Joe seemed intent on ignoring him.

"OK, Joe, so I can't read your mind. So sue me. You want to ride a horse in to his ranch? Hmmm. What I see as the hard part will be getting on board. Falling off should be no problem at all. Where you got the horses stashed?"

Joe clearly couldn't outrun Methos, so he stopped and faced him. "What's so damn hard about it? Just like driving a car. Accelerate, brake. Giddyup, whoa. It's not as if I don't know how to fall, already. There's a guy out in the beach ranchos, will rent me a caballo bonito, guaranteed."

"You do know that used car salesmen are directly descended from horse dealers, don't you, Joe? If you insist on making like Randolph Scott, at least let me pick out the horse. I'll make sure and get one with a leather bucket seat."

"You still owe me three hundred pesos, buddy. We'll see who picks out the horse."

They were coming out of the dark sidestreet and approaching a cantina on the main road. Cars were parked haphazardly all around the bar without any apparent concern for blocking one another in for the night. "It looks like a good house. What part of your plan involved buskering on the Sonoran coast?"

"The 'vacation' part of the plan," Joe admitted, looking very realistically like a man who badly needed a holiday. "And unless you have an objection to me picking up some change on the side, I have to get a move on. Cornelio is already tuning up the band."

"Joe‒you've played the best clubs in Paris. What are you doing in a dive with concrete floors, palm fronds for a roof and no walls?"

Joe stopped, looking puzzled. "A gig is a gig. And Cornelio graduated from the equivalent of Juilliard in Mexico City. Who cares about the roof? We're going to blow it off, anyway."

"Playing trop-rock for pesos?" Methos prodded.

"Keep it civil," Joe warned. "And if you request 'Margaritaville,' I'll behead you with my guitar pick." He hesitated at the entrance, and lowered his voice. "Besides, I'm going to need a fallback job after the Watchers tumble to the fact both you and Mac followed me here," he said with a fatalistic grin.

"You told him to stay in Val D'Isere and sharpen his edges and wax his bottoms, if I remember correctly."

"Not exactly my wording," Joe pointed out, somewhat scandalized. He reached up to feel for the bump on Methos' head. "You still have your own personally inscribed petroglyph horseshoe?"

Methos grabbed Joe's wrist instinctively, even though it didn't hold a blade. Joe rocked, and caught his balance as Methos immediately transferred his grip to Joe's shoulder to steady him. "Sorry. Muscle memory."

"My mistake," Joe straightened and shrugged, eyeing Methos more carefully but not giving up an inch of ground. "Look, we both know Mac is on his way to rescue you from the clutches of yet another Watcher plot. By this time tomorrow, he'll be whisking you away like sweet Polly Purebred. Just think of the fun you'll have with that scenario!"

"Polly Purebred!" For a moment he was angry; had Joe just called him Mac's bitch? Sure sounded like it. Then it struck him as funny, once he started laughing he couldn't stop until his head started to hurt again. "All right, enough of that." He fished out his cell phone and dialed MacLeod.

"Hey, there!....Oh, fine....Nada....No, won't be necessary, we decided on a less dramatic route...Yeah....Yeah, Joe won't let me blow anything up this time, spoil sport....I'll see you next month maybe....Don't worry, we're fine....You've got all those snow bunnies keeping you warm....I'll never tell....Thanks, I'll remember you said that!...and remember the auction Friday." He snapped the phone shut and turned back to Joe.

"There. MacLeod is on stand down. Like I promised. Now maybe you can stop treating me like something you're trying to scrape off your shoe. Ready for a beer?"

"Is that a rhetorical question? And you're still buying, buddy," Joe acknowledged with a surrendering grin. "You grab us a table, and I'll see what Cornelio's got on the songlist."

"How about 'Last Mango in Paris?' "

"What's Etruscan for 'asshole?' "

Methos harassed him all the way to the stage with cheerful suggestions.

*****

For a moment at the door, Joe thought he might have succeeded in getting Methos angry enough to abandon his peculiarly uncharacteristic streak of chivalry. It was really beginning to cramp Joe's style. After all, it was cheating. On the other hand, maybe that was why Methos seemed so tickled about the whole humiliating scenario. Deep down, he still had a bronze age sense of humor, after all. Cheating was...fun. He probably figured that cheating on Joe's fitness test was not only fun, but practically an amoral imperative. No wonder he wasn't listening to reason.

And that illumination made Joe crack a smile, too. Methos had no qualms about hauling the Highlander a half a globe away on what would probably turn out to be a snipe hunt. And Joe had no doubt that six hours after Methos' first phone call to MacLeod, the Highlander had probably already taken the train to Frankfurt and he was about to lift off on the first transatlantic flight with connections to Phoenix or Mexico City. The chances he'd be called off now were virtually nil, no matter what Methos told MacLeod.

To be perfectly honest with himself, Joe would feel better if MacLeod were around to help look out for Methos while the bats in his belfry settled. Joe didn't have the firepower to stop a charging vole, at this point, much less El Alacrán and his posse. The biggest drawback was going to be Justine, the eager new Watcher MacLeod would be trailing behind him like a bridal train.

His best bet to get his assignment done without Immortal interference was to put plan B into action. The only problem with plan B was, Joe had no control over the timing. Moreover, Joe was getting a little too old to be ducking his mothering buddies like a grounded teenager. Still, out of habit, he surveyed the bar for quick exits. La Rana's Cantina was filling up fast with an eclectic mix of locals, tourists, repatriates and expatriates speaking Spanish, Spanglish, English, and in one far corner, a local dialect, probably Seri or Yaqui.

Joe looked at the natives a little more closely, recognizing the taciturn features. His shadowers from the beach were now dressed in snowy white shirts and the spotless white straw hats nearly every vaquero in the area wore. Sitting with them, yet apart, a solemn woman in a sheer sable blouse toyed with a drink. Mature and confident, with Yaqui features and an academic bearing, her figure attracted his eye again and again. Yoeme, he corrected himself, remembering his research. Early notes in El Alacrán's thin Chronicle claimed he sheltered renegade bands of natives from both the U.S. and Mexican cavalries up through the second World War. Now they apparently helped shelter him.

Joe let his gaze linger a little too long upon the woman ‒ he earned himself a blazing look so filled with charged personal animosity that it almost knocked him over. Then she rose to her feet and strode out of the bar, giving the stage the widest possible berth.

"Joeboy, have you lost your touch," he muttered sadly to himself. "Women you've never laid eyes on before walk out on you." Battling the urge to follow her and find out why, he settled onto the stage and got to work.

The set started off with a bang, and got rocking from there. Cornelio had also invited a taciturn Canadian harmonica player to stand in, and he covered the occasionally muddy bass beat with some fine riffs and stingers. Cornelio was generous with the solos, and Joe got to pour the last four weeks of professional disgrace and personal failure into his music, letting his frustration and his fears for Methos fuel an extra edge in his fretwork.

Joe kept tabs on Methos between songs, making sure he stayed well to the other side of the bar from El Alacrán's birddogs. He was so busy watching his own watchers that he didn't keep the strictest eye on his gear. At the end of the set Joe opened his guitar case to find an engraved business card, and a generous roll of pesos. On the back of the card was an invitation to play at a private party, that very night. On the front of the card was a stylized scorpion.

Plan B, it was then.

*****
Sequestered at a corner table without a clear view of the stage, Methos gazed into the flame of a white candle nestled in a red glass bowl. He munched on corn tortillas from a basket and sampled four tasty varieties of salsa while nursing his cerveza with a slice of lime.

Ah, the embarrassing relation, stashed in the corner. No problem, he could do inconspicuous better than anyone. Well except for that annoying Immortal buzz, which tended to be hard to tuck in around yourself, so as to imitate an innocent Immortal newbie, after your daily skull fracture. The rattling ancient buzz that he'd last allowed loose to greet the young Duncan MacLeod when he walked into his Paris apartment a dozen years ago, now ran loose like an unconstrained white horse. Ah, well, any Immortal familiar with sanity would find an engagement elsewhere. Ah, sanity, fleeting dreambitch.

One area of the cantina Methos did have a line of vision on was the side wall running to the left corner off stage where instrument cases were stashed, including one of Joe's with a distinctive sticker from the West Seacouver Arts Festival. He would have to ask Joe how he wrangled this cantina gig. It wouldn't do to let Joe get away with ducking his questions. He was getting too good at it as it was.

Sinking into the auditory feast of blues music and the multi-language babble he felt the scholastic glow he experienced whenever he found himself in an edgy linguistic melting pot. The Yoeme patois was especially sweet. Over a century had gone by since he'd last heard the cadences, while riding with Butch and the Kid.

His bruised brain found ease in the music, though Joe's missive informed him of the Watcher's displeasure with himself, the world, and Methos. That insidious vibe of otherness peeked on the horizon and he deliberately turned his mind away. There be white horses and death.

By the time Joe finished playing, Methos had eaten all the chips and he had given up on keeping the flies from the salsa. Flies on Death – if only he could keep from nodding off...

*****
Joe stashed the business card in his shirt, and shared the unexpected tip with the band. Cornelio nodded his thanks, seriously impressed. "El Alacrán...como se dice...patrón de la musica. He likes the blues, man."

Joe had read the same in his deep background research, and in fact had counted on it, but was more than a little surprised to see Plan B get a bite so quickly. Still jazzed by the set, Joe searched the crowd for Methos, his temporary high freezing when he saw him threatening to do a face plant in the tortilla chips. This was not a good sign. Moving as fast as he dared on the uneven tiles, he passed the front door and was stopped by a firm hand on his shoulder.

"Señor Dawson, may I have the honor of being your driver tonight?" It was one of the men from the beach bar. Beyond his shoulder, Joe could see a spotless white truck with four doors and absurdly high suspension. Joe's spine prickled. Now was definitely not the time to draw attention to his friend. In fact, it was time to draw attention away, fast.

Dawson squared his shoulders and shook off the hand. "I'll need to tell the band I won't make the next set. And I don't go anywhere without my guitar."

Dusting off his dignity, he returned to the stage and beckoned to Cornelio as he carefully put away his gear. "I need you to wake up my sleepy friend over there and give him this message right after I leave. Be careful, though. Está muy borracho. He bites."

There wasn't much time to write.

"My ride's here. Pass or fail, tell Mac when he gets here I stuck to the honor code, willya? He has a thing about that.

PS...Delfino rents horses down by La Manga, I hear. Maybe Mac will like a ride.

PPS...Don't behead Cornelio. He's just the piano player."

*****
Thunder of hooves, the wild horses running across the plain. There! There she is! The one he wanted. Hooves pounding to the beat.

*****
"Señor?" Cornelio patted the nodding man's shoulder, then jumped back as Joe's friend displayed reflexes a drunk man would never be capable of – one hand sliding into his coat before opening his eyes, glint of knife, eyes open, recognizing Cornelio, and the weapon disappearing all in an instant. The band leader dropped the note on the table and backed away. "Se tiene que ir."

*****
Methos grabbed the note, already guessing the message, and made his way outside, rapidly, zero sign of inebriation.

He looked up and down the dark street. Joe was gone.

Taking stock of his positive inventory he had his sword, wallet, and cell phone. On the negative, his carryall with his extra clothes and essentials was locked in Joe's room and it was too late at night to rent a room of his own.

He walked to a second cantina that had a good street view and ordered a beer that he didn't drink, but instead read Joe's note several times.

Joe was determined to do this himself. At this point all Methos could do was wish him luck, since running after him would likely get Joe killed.

Joe seemed to still think MacLeod would be coming to Mexico. Hopefully Plan B was a good one, because the Highlander should be heading for Paris where he would be attending an auction next week to bid on an old book both of them wanted.

Leaving the bar, he trekked to the beach near Motel Creston where he found a lounge chair to recline in till dawn. Maybe then he'd see a man about a horse.

*****
Cornelio left the bar after the moon was past it's zenith, and walked the hard-packed sand of the beach back to his girlfriend's apartment. He was surprised to see Joe's dangerous friend had appropriated a lounge chair from one of the beach houses and was huddling like a hermit crab against the Sonoran winter chill.

Cornelio stopped warily, and pondered. Drunk and dangerous was a bad combination, but he was Joe's friend, and he might be lost. Cornelio could guide him back to Motel Creston. If he behaved.

He settled for tossing a couple of stones at the foot of the lounge chair. If he was too drunk to notice, he was probably too drunk to move anyway.

"It takes better aim than that to stone a man."

"If I had wanted to hit you –." Cornelio's voice trailed off.

"Cornelio?"

"Sí. You lose your way?"

"No – No tengo la llave – Joe had the room key on him."

"You will get cold."

"I'm OK. I've slept under the stars more nights of my life than indoors. I'd rather be here than in la cárcel for breaking into the room."

"I understand, but I can speak for you at the motel, get you into the room."

"Thanks, Cornelio, but I'll be OK –"

"I understand. I've been without a roof myself. Let me help you. Perhaps mañana you will be outside again. But you don't have to be tonight. And I don't want Joe angry with me."

*****
"Joe doesn't –" Methos began to refuse again, but stopped. "OK. Gracias." He decided to go with what the Fates seemed to be commanding him to do. And Cornelio obviously was a kind man.

They walked back together toward the motel mostly in silence. At least this way he could get the map Joe made of the horse trail over looking El Alacrán's rancho. Maybe he'd even take a few pictures for Joe. Joe had to get over his bad habit of playing fair with the Watchers. The unreasonable expectation they would play fair in return was going to get him killed.

*****
Joe surveyed the giant truck with disdain. It was flashy, but top-heavy and probably cornered like an oil tanker. He spurned the offer of assistance from the expressionless escort and grabbed the overhead handle, pulling himself a full three feet straight up into the cab, and arranged himself with icy dignity. "On, James," he murmured, as he oversaw the safe storage of his guitar.

The truck might be a bitch to get into, but it had clearance. It needed clearance. The road to El Alacrán's estancia crossed flash-flood racked ravines and bounced over boulders and broken rock for miles in the lightless desert. They were crossing the old Yaqui reserve to the ranch inholding, by Joe's reckoning. They were long beyond the playa developments, and far into a part of Mexico that hadn't changed much since Aztecs ruled.

It would be a long walk back, Joe mused.

He glanced back into the bed of the truck, and stiffened. There was his travel duffel, where he had tucked the older Methos journal he was reading, and his laptop carrier. All his gear, and Methos', too. Including the bag containing Adam's latest journal.

So much for the one night stand.

The estancia was lit by old fashioned hanging lamps, well-dimmed to prevent backlighting the sentrys manning the extensive walled compound. The truck drove through the magnificent wrought-iron gates, which clanged shut behind them with firm authority. As the dust settled, Joe smoothly lowered himself to the sandy ground, brushing his jacket into place as he settled into his sockets.

A whipcord-thin figure stood in the light spilling from the hacienda entry. Joe stepped forward, shoulders straight. "Señor Montoya, I presume?" he inquired with just a tinge of irony.

"Señor Dawson." His host sketched the smallest of bows. "Welcome. I believe I have already had a brief acquaintance of your brother-in-law. James Horton killed my son."

*****
After a comfortable length of silence had been shared between the walking men, Methos asked, "This man that Joe went to – do you know him? Is he a good man?"

Cornelio's enigmatic smile was accented by the moonlit shadows. "He loves the blues."

They fell back into the quiet of the late night, which was interrupted sporadically by quarreling voices or a coyote in the distance, but was still peaceful in its normalness. Methos mused that it could be the night sounds of any of his thousands of years.

When they reached El Motel Creston, Cornelio spoke to the young man at the desk about the musician Joe Dawson who played at his cantina and introduced his stranded friend Adam Pierson, explaining the circumstances.

The desk clerk said, "Lo siento, los hombres del Señor Montoya se llevaron el equipaje del Señor Dawson."

"My bag too? – Mi bolso también?"

"Sí. Se llevaron todo."

Methos swore in the original language. He hated it when his journals (even just his most recent one) fell into the hands of a strange Immortal. His heartbeat spiked. It wasn't just his recent journal, but the old journal of his that Joe was reading. And Joe's campaign notes ‒ everything he'd prepped and shared with Methos about El Alacrán on the long, lined yellow notepad. Everything, except the one impossible, crazy, foolish, brilliant plan of Joe's to just ride in like a tourist and take pictures.

"Cornelio? One last thing. Just where would I go to see a blonde about a horse?"