It's been a silly ritual that started the day Johnny finally woke after Pardee's bullet. I don't know what I was thinking; well, yes I do. I'd just known my brother for a week and a lot of that time he was unconscious. I was trying to figure him out. He made it hard, too, but I'm not sure he did it on purpose. I know now that my brother just didn't know how to respond because he was just learning to trust. His sense of humor, though, came through crystal clear.
I'd given him a book. Since he was pretty restless lying there in bed, I figured he'd enjoy the diversion. It was a book on military battle theory which studied classic military engagements.
Johnny used the book as a coaster.
In fact, it still sits there on his nightstand, several orbits of drinking glass sweat rings staining the cover with two years worth of bedside beverages. I don't think the cover has ever been cracked open.
As soon as he was up and around, Johnny reciprocated with his own gift. A door knocker shaped like a horseshoe for my bedroom door. Deciding to give his gift the same due, it immediately went into service as a paperweight on my dresser. It's still there. It works great.
When the first anniversary of our surprise introduction came around, without any prior agreement, we exchanged gifts again. I gave him a nightshirt with matching cap because he said "I always sleep well." He gave me a picture frame. That's what it claimed to be, anyway. I've seen better looking wagon wrecks.
The nightshirt and cap ended up on the scarecrow in Teresa's garden. The crows won’t go anywhere near it.
Johnny found the picture frame hanging in the barn with the current stage schedule on display. The barn dust enhanced the beauty of it. I told Johnny that at least now he knew what times he could pick up the stage in the middle of nowhere.
This year, he's not going to be able to top what I have for him. I can't think of any way he could possibly find some other purpose for it; it's meant to just sit there. Now all I have to do is figure out a way to get into town to pick it up. I got a message that it's at Baldemoro's. Perfect timing - tomorrow marks the end of our second year as partners in Lancer - but Murdoch's been working us like there's no tomorrow.
As I splash some water on my face in the kitchen, Teresa whacks me with a towel.
"Scott!" She tries to sound menacing but doesn’t quite accomplish it. "Quit splashing all over the floor!"
"Okay, okay." I grab a towel and dry my face. She whacks me again.
"That's a dish towel!"
"Oh, sorry!" I hastily put it down and back away toward the exit to the great room. All I want is some lunch and some way to sneak out of here without running into . . .
"Scott, I'm glad to see you're home."
"Murdoch!" I’m surprised by my father entering the kitchen from my escape venue. "You're home early." Didn’t he ever leave the house today?
"Listen, you have to go into town for me."
I'm momentarily stunned. "Really?" I say, trying not to sound too eager. What timing!
"There's a package you need to pick up for me and a wire to send. Get some lunch and head on out." He hands me a scribbled note and I stuff it in my pocket.
Perfect! "Is Johnny still working on the fence?" I don't want my brother to see me going into town.
"Yes. He said it would take most of the afternoon. I don't expect to see him until dinner."
What luck! I see Murdoch frown at me and realize I'm smiling. I immediately look thoughtful. "Maybe I should help Johnny with the fence line on my way back." I can't believe that just left my mouth . . .
"No, I want you to bring the package right home. Then you can help him if he's not done by then."
"Yes, sir. I'll be off as soon as I have some lunch." Murdoch returns to the great room and I turn back to the kitchen, thrilled at my turn of luck. It's almost one o'clock . I'll even have time for a beer when I get in town.
My grin immediately falls away as I end up face to face with a glaring Teresa, just rising from drying the floor I’d splashed. Her arms cross her chest and her toe is tapping dangerously. She's managing to look quite menacing now.
"Now I suppose you want food," she snaps.
Uh . . . maybe not . . .
I can't believe the timing on this. Everything is working out just great! I convinced Murdoch this fence job would take all afternoon and I'm just about done. I'll have plenty of time to get into town and get my surprise for Scott.
The sweat on my palms is making the shovel slick, so I pause to wipe the wetness from my hands on my pants and get a drink. Good thing I took off my shirt early on; at least it'll be clean when I get to town.
I can't help but laugh out loud when I think of Scott's gift this year. He'll never top it. It's taken a year to arrange. Clara’s been a big help, but I’ll be very happy not having to sneak into her dress shop anymore. Good idea to have the package sent to Baldemoro’s; I sure didn’t want to have to explain why I needed to pick up a delivery at Clara’s Fashion Shoppe.
This is a far better present than that God-awful picture frame, but even Scott admitted it was a good reminder that he'd said he "photographed well". Hard to believe he's the same man I almost sat on when I got on the stage; he's a far cry from that pretty dude now and has an evil wicked sense of humor. I have to admit, framing the stage schedule one-upped me good. That ain't happenin' this year.
The water feels cool and welcome going down, but a beer would really hit the spot. One more string of wire and I can call it done. I'll eat what Teresa packed for me as I ride and have more time in town. Maybe I'll drop in on Val - haven't seen him in weeks. Murdoch's had some kinda burr under his saddle, drivin' us all loco with chores. He gets that way when his back's been botherin' him.
Two years. It's been two years since we came together. Hard to believe Johnny Madrid has stayed in one place for two years. I even have a watch now. Pulling the timepiece carefully from my waist, I sober at the memory it brings as I finger the crystal.
Damn! It's almost one o'clock ! Quickly, I shove the watch away, twist that last wire on the fence and make my way to Barranca. Snatching my shirt from the saddle horn causes Barranca to turn to me, both ears pricked with obvious curiosity. "Yeah, yeah, I'll finish it tomorrow. Are you Murdoch's watchdog now?"
All I get in response is a lazy tail swish and I immediately grin. "I won't tell if you don't," I whisper while I refasten the canteen. Barranca's ears relax and he shifts his weight with a sigh of apparent agreement. I swear that animal knows exactly what I'm thinkin’ sometimes.
It's no time at all before we're on the trail to town. Murdoch's never gonna know and Scott's gonna have the britches shocked off him. I can feel that I'm grinnin' like a fool. Tomorrow's gonna be a good day. For now, Barranca’s steady, smooth lope feels perfect.
I pull up just before we enter town so my horse can catch his wind. We made great time, so I can have a beer first. Maybe I can get Val to join me! I stop in front of his office, dismount, and let Barranca get a drink in the trough. Town looks quiet, but then again, it is the middle of the day on a Thursday. Looking around, the only thing that seems odd is the old buggy tied up in front of the saloon. Wonder who that belongs to?
My dang horse dribbles on my leg to signal that he's had his fill. "Thanks a lot, compadre," I gripe. After hitching up Barranca, I brush off the dust and water from my pants with my hat and push open Val's door. It's no surprise to see him relaxed in his chair, boots on desk and head thrown back, napping hard. The open mouth is just too temptin'. I wad up a sheet of paper from his desk and give it a toss . . .
The snort of surprise is just perfect as the paper bounces off his nose and I start to laugh. His arms start wheelin’ as the town’s top lawman loses his balance.
"Johnny, you're a dead man!" Val sputters after he saves himself from fallin’ backward.
"Hey, Val, if you ever lose your job as Sheriff, you can hire out as a windmill with that there arm action!"
Val pushes to his feet and tugs up his gun belt with a grunt, still not quite awake. "Someday you're gonna accidentally get shot with your games," he grouses, running his fingers through his hair. "Where you been, anyway? Haven't seen ya for awhile."
"Well, here I am now and ready for a beer. How 'bout you?" I settle on the corner of his desk and finger through the wanted posters stacked in a pile that's leaning dangerously to one side. Just one little tap . . .
Val whacks my hand away. I look up with a grin and find him scowling at me. "Was just there. Gun salesman already bought me one, so I'd best stop with that."
"Gun salesman?" Must belong to that wagon out front.
"Yeah, he's got a few nice things. Says he's passin' through. Too bad. If he'd stay another day he could do some business tomorrow, bein' payday Friday for the Bar R and all."
I stand and stretch. "Well, I offered. I'll be over there a little while if ya change your mind." I point at the leaning pile. "I see ya got some paperwork to do." In a flash, I tap the pile and it starts to slide to the floor like a waterfall.
"Johnny, get outta my office!" Val barks as he leaps to try and stem the flow of paper. His hands fly but the papers are on a run.
I laugh and make my way to the door. "See ya later, Val!" I quickly close the door, still chuckling, and untie Barranca. We walk to the saloon where I tie him next to the salesman's buggy.
I adjust my gun belt before pushing the doors aside. Scott doesn't think I even know I'm doing that - adjusting my rig - but I am fully conscious of it. It's more than a habit, as is skimming the room with my eyes as I enter. In the dim light I find four people: the bartender, Ellie the saloon girl who's lookin' mighty bored at the moment, and two men leaning on the bar. The smaller one is Silas from the livery who will be in big trouble if Gene - his boss - knew he was here. I know that feeling. And finally, a skinny, tall man in dapper clothes that are a bit threadbare. Must be the salesman.
The salesman turns to me as the batwings clatter shut. His hair is full and combed straight back with a shot of grey at each temple. He's not a young man, but still limber. His grin is practiced and his eyes sharp.
He puts me on edge. I pause just inside the door and give him an obvious look over. He takes it well. One thing I do notice - and I don't know why I noticed it - is that his boots are well worn with stirrup marks. This man has spent a lot of time in the saddle but he has a buggy outside. That tells me he may not be what he seems, but for now, his loose-limbed posture tells me he's not an immediate threat. He's not even wearing a gun.
"Hello, sir. Would you like to see some very fine guns? I see that you are a connoisseur yourself." He acknowledges my rig with a slight nod of his head and is careful not to move his hands. Smart man.
"I always like lookin' at guns," I say pleasantly. "Howdy, Silas. Becker." The liveryman and the bartender nod in greeting. I glance at Ellie. "Hey, Ellie. You look nice today."
"Thanks, Johnny," she says, finally breaking a grin. "Staying long?"
"Nah," I say, dragging off my hat as I slowly approach the bar. The salesman has a pair of display cases laying flat with a very nice selection of guns packed neatly in dark blue velvet that has seen better days.
"Name's Mika. Glenn Mika. See anything you like?"
I do see that Mr. Mika's eyes are very busy. Although they don't move much, I can see the dark circles of his eyes change constantly in width. He's sizing me up, and not nearly as relaxed as his posture wants to make me believe. I smile brazenly and look away for a moment to ask for a beer. When the mug is in my hand I look at the display.
"Very pretty," I say, taking a sip.
"This one's the latest in single action and very smooth." He touches a shiny Colt. "I was telling Silas here that he may do better with a smaller piece, like this Derringer."
I don't say much and Silas isn't buying, so Mr. Mika lets the conversation dwindle away. I finish my beer, thanking Becker. "I'll see ya later, Silas. Ellie, maybe this weekend."
"You takin' off, Johnny?" Her lower lip does a temptin’ pout.
"Yeah, 'fraid so. Back to work." I turn to Mika and see something akin to satisfaction in his eyes. The man's glad I'm leavin and I wonder why. "Mr. Mika." With a nod, I'm out the door.
I give Mika's carriage one last glance. One leather satchel sits on the floor; it's pretty bare for a salesman on the road. "Comon', Johnny," I chide myself. "You're seein' ghosts again." I sigh, set my hat on my head, and stroll to Baldemoro's store to get my gift.
I can't help but grin at the thought of the gift. Scott's never gonna top this one.
I don't believe it. That's Barranca tied in front of the saloon! I knew he had to be up to something. My brother rarely volunteers to work with barbed wire. Johnny’s going to recognize Charlie, so I’ll tie him up behind Baldemoro’s store and keep out of sight until the coast is clear.
In fact, maybe I can get this done and get out of here before Johnny even knows I’m in town. Tying off Charlie, I make my way down the back alley and up to the side of the saloon. There’s one window on that side; it’s dirty, but I can make out my brother taking a beer from Becker. Perfect; I can get my gift and get out of town before he’s even done.
I make it to the back door of Baldemoro’s in no time and slip inside. Mr. Baldemoro’s stocking shelves, his back to me and jumps when I clear my throat to get his attention.
“Oh! Señor Lancer!” he sputters, momentarily juggling a pair of jars.
I grab one jar that’s refusing to get under control. “I apologize, sir. I came in the back door.”
He smiles, embarrassed, and gives me a dismissive wave. “It’s all right. The bell on the front door usually gives me a warning!” He puts the jars down. “Now, what can I do for you?”
“I’m here to pick up a package?”
“Oh, yes! It’s in the back. Uno momento.” Mr. Baldemoro hustles to the back storage room as I look out the front window to make sure Johnny is staying put. I’m about to turn away when I see the batwing doors open. Johnny! And he’s coming in this direction!
When I turn I see Mr. Baldemoro coming out from the back room with a frown on his face and looking at brown paper wrapped items in his hands. “I found these two packages . . .” he starts.
Packages? I hesitate at the counter. Oh, right! I was supposed to pick up a package for Murdoch. And a wire – I’m supposed to send a wire, too! I chew my lip, trying to plan a way to stay out of Johnny’s sight and get to Travis’ telegraph office. Having a brother who doesn’t miss a thing can be a real problem sometimes.
“That’ll be . . .” Mr. Baldemoro starts.
“Put it on the account!” I cut him off as I quickly grab the items and tuck them to my chest. “And if Johnny comes in here, you didn’t see me today, okay?” Mr. Baldemoro looks very puzzled. “It’s a surprise,” I explain, holding up the smaller of the two packages.
“Oh,” he replies, still looking a bit confused.
I dart out the back door and make my way to the corner of the store where I take a quick peek and see the heel of my brother as he steps up onto the boardwalk in front of Baldemoro’s. Suddenly, it’s clear: he’s got something to pick up, too, I bet. I grin to myself. Maybe I’ll quiz Mr. Baldemoro after I send the wire. No way is Johnny going to outdo me in this silly gift contest.
I settle back into the shadows to wait out Johnny and decide to open the smaller package which has to be mine and see if my gift is in one piece.
“Oh no!” Inside the opened box in my hand is not what was supposed to be in there. Instead of the custom made figurine I’d ordered for Johnny, there in the pile of tissue are two leather wallets with the Lancer brand carved on the outside.
If this isn’t what I ordered, then what’s in this other, larger package? I put the smaller box down and start to peel back the brown wrapping paper on the bigger package. One little part of the wrapped item is finally exposed and I feel my jaw drop. Then I can’t help but smile hugely.
“Why that little rat!” I mumble. “Where on Earth did Johnny find this?”
"Buenos dias, Senor Baldemoro.” The old man is behind the counter with a strange look on his face. He stares at me for a second with his mouth hanging open before he replies.
“Buenos dias, Johnny. Er, cómo está?”
He sounds fine, but the man seems kinda nervous as I saunter up to the counter. “Just fine, thanks. You have a package for me?” I casually look around, but he’s all alone.
“Yeah. Señora Baldemoro said she’d put it aside for me.”
“Oh." That funny look crosses his face again. "I’ll check in the back.”
He slinks off to the back room like he’s got some big secret. What did I miss? I look around again and through the front window I happen to see Val walkin’ down the other side of the street. Maybe he’s changed his mind about that beer . . .
“Here you go. I did not see it when . . . er, I mean, I found it.”
I turn back to Baldemoro and he looks positively frazzled. Now he’s makin’ me nervous. I look down at the package and frown as I reach for it. “That don’t look right,” I say. “It’s smaller than I was expectin’.”
He coughs nervously. “Really?”
Somethin’s not right here. “Well, let me check it real quick.” I carefully slip off the string and paper that’s on the small box and then slip off the lid. Inside is a bundle of tissue. “This is way too small," I say as I remove the tissue-wrapped item and start to unroll the paper.
The storekeeper is fidgeting. “Well, maybe, um. . .”
I uncover a small figure. It’s a little statue of a jumping horse. A palomino horse; and the rider . . . I hold the item closer to confirm what I think I’m seeing and start to laugh. “Scott was supposed to get this, wasn’t he?”
Mr. Baldemoro blushes immediately as his fingers start to fiddle with his apron. “Sí. I think he may have your package,” he says, clearly embarrassed.
“Scott was here?” I laugh again. “Boy, is he gonna be surprised!”
Just then, I hear shouting and the sound of gunfire outside. Without thinking, I head to the front door, my gun instantly in my hand.
Once I clear the door I see Val rolling in the dirt and taking a position behind a water trough. He’s aiming down the street. I follow his line of sight and see three cowboys in front of the bank shootin' in Val’s direction.
I let fly with a couple of rounds and one is down. One of the remaining pair is just about mounted up as the other stands fast and keeps Val pinned. Two more men spill from the bank door and one wastes no time gettin’ a bead on me.
Instantly, I drop to one knee and take him out as his shot sails past my shoulder. His partner has a fat bag and runs down the side of the bank, headin’ to the back alley. I start to the corner of Baldemoro’s to get to the back and cut him off when the mounted man starts shootin’ at me. I pump a few rounds in his direction, the spookin’ horse makin’ the target hard to hit. I see Val reloadin’ from the corner of my eye.
“Johnny!” Val hollers. “They robbed the bank!” He snaps the gun cylinder back in place and ducks from a close one.
“I’ll get ‘em!” I holler as I take better aim and finally take out the mounted man. As the man hits the dirt, the one left in the street pulls a second gun from his waist and starts shootin’ at me, too. I get off one more shot. “I’m empty!” I yell at Val as I duck into the side alley.
“I got this one!” Val yells, meaning the man in the street. I nod and move toward the back alley knowing I have to reload. That’s when I notice I’m still holding the jumping horse figurine, and have been fanning the hammer of my gun with the heel of my hand. I’m just about to drop it when I hear a shot and a yell from around the corner in the back alley. I freeze, and then slowly peek around the corner.
A shout and immediate gunfire jerk my attention away from Johnny's obvious gift to me and I drop it on the ground to pull my gun. Keeping to the wall, I make my way up the back alley, realizing the gunfire is coming from the front of the bank, two buildings up. I’m just about to the bank’s side when a cowboy holding a bag runs into the back alley. His other hand holds a gun.
The cowboy turns in my direction to find that he's looking down the barrel of my Colt.
“Stop right there,” I snap. He does so, but in a flash I see that I’m in trouble. The bank robber is looking behind me and a smug smile grows on his face. All I can do is dodge aside and shoot.
I hear Scott’s voice, low and stern, the same time I peek around the corner. To my right, I see my brother’s back – he’s holdin’ off the robber I saw run back here.
But wait . . . I drop lower because something about the posture of the robber alerts my gut. He sees someone farther down the alley - I turn, and there’s Mika, the gun salesman, leather tote from the wagon in one hand and a bright, shiny handgun in the other. The muzzle is leveling on Scott’s back.
I never had time to reload.
I hear a shot but it’s not Mika - his gun's not even fully up yet. Reacting without thinking, I fling the horse figurine with all I’ve got. It flies true and wings hard off the gun salesman’s temple making him staggar and throwing off his shot before he can take it.
I charge forward. Mika regains his balance and crouches as he starts to bring up his gun at me. Before he can aim I crash into him.
I hear a loud bang and feel a kick in my thigh. I think he got me, but I’m not lettin’ him get away.
I just have time to drop to one knee and fire at the robber. He flies back, the gun flipping through the air along with the bank bag.
Another shot sounds behind me so I launch myself sideways again, this time into the dirt. A glance back reveals Johnny dropping hard on another man – the robber’s partner, waiting for him in the alley.
I refocus on the young cowboy moaning on the ground. He’s curled up, holding his stomach. Pounding feet from the direction of the street startle me and I swing up my gun.
Thank God it’s Val. I point at the bleeding robber and I sprint to Johnny rolling on the ground with the other man. I grab the collar of my brother's adversary and pull him off. The man is bleeding from the temple. He starts to struggle in my hand.
“Hold still!” I yell, pressing my gun into the small of his back. He obeys, breathing hard. Glancing around, I see his gun on the ground. It looks shiny new.
Johnny’s moving much too slowly. I yell, “Val! Johnny’s hurt!”
By now, other men from town are showing up and Val puts one of them in charge of the robber I shot. Our sheriff then runs over and takes control of the man I have. He’s not happy.
“Check Johnny,” Val snaps unnecessarily because I’m already by my brother’s side.
“Johnny! You all right?” I sit him up and see that he’s clutching his leg.
“I will be as soon as I stop hurtin’,” Johnny groans. There’s blood all over his thigh.
“I’ve got to stop the bleeding,” I say, pressing my hand on the bullet hole just above the knee. “It looks like you’ll live, but I need some bandages.” And I know exactly where to get some.
Looking up, I see Mr. Baldemoro standing outside his back door. “Hey!” I yell, getting his attention. When he looks my way I nod at a pile on the ground near him. “Bring that over here!”
The storekeeper looks down, sees the packages I dropped and brings them over. I pull the paper from the bigger bundle and discover that the item inside is actually a shirt. I tear off a sleeve and begin to use it as a tourniquet on Johnny’s thigh.
Johnny’s holding his injured thigh with both hands as he sits on the ground. He was concentrating on his wound, but when he sees the sleeve, his eyebrows raise and then he starts to laugh and moan in pain at the same time.
I can’t help it. I start to laugh, too, as I tie off the tourniquet. Then I rip the other sleeve off to tie around the bullet hole. By the time I’m done, we’re both trying hard to control ourselves - unsuccessfully.
“What in blazes is going on over there?” Val’s handcuffing the man that shot Johnny and directing two other men to drag the injured robber to the jail. “This ain’t funny as far as I can see!”
Neither one of us can reply.
Val hands off his prisoner and comes over, yelling for someone to get Sam. “Now tell me . . .” Our scruffy sheriff friend stops in mid sentence and points at the remains of the shirt. “What the heck was that supposed to be?”
“That was Boston ’s present,” Johnny manages to gasp, getting his laughter under control for a moment. “It exactly matches a certain pair of riding pants. . .”
“Stop right there, Johnny!” I warn. I swear, I’m never going to live those particular pair of plaid pants down. Ever. I feel Johnny trying to get up. “You stay put a minute, will you please?” When I push him back down, a glint in the dirt next to Johnny catches my eye. It’s his gun. And next to it is . . .
I pick up the round object and discover it’s the head of the rider from the figurine I’d ordered. I hold it up between my thumb and finger then redirect my eyes to my brother, who suddenly is working hard to look innocent. Then he glances around and nods to something on the ground behind me. I turn to see the rest of the figurine in the dirt, the palomino’s body amazingly intact, frozen in flight over a brushy jump. I retrieve the bigger part and hold the rider’s head where it should be. Then I triumphantly hold it aloft for my brother to appreciate.
“I see the rider’s got yellow hair,” Johnny quips with a grin.
“Yup,” I reply smartly. “Just a reminder to you about who actually taught that nag of yours to jump.”
“I see,” Johnny says slowly, his grin turning into a wince of pain. “It’s also a reminder that I saved your sorry hide. Sure packs a nice wollop.”
“My gun was empty. I had to use somethin' to keep him from shootin’ ya and I sure as heck wasn’t gonna throw my gun.” Johnny sounds indignant.
“Do you know how long it took me to find that statue?”
“Do you know how long it took me to get that shirt made?”
We try to scowl at each other, Johnny still holding his thigh and me waving the broken statue in front of his face. Then we both freeze and crack huge grins. Laughing again, I let the headless horseman drop to the dirt and point at his thigh.
“Well, it looks like I saved your life again, too,” I say, checking the firmly wrapped bullet wound.
“What?” Johnny snorts, pushing my hand away. “This is just a scratch. I saved your life this time, brother.”
I pick up the headless figurine. I’m grateful, but I’ll be darned if I’m going to let him think that he’s topped me this year. “I can’t believe your gun was empty. What kind of novice are you, anyway?” I say with a difficult to hold straight face as I try to stare him down. Johnny’s eyes sparkle happily even though I know he’s in a bit of pain.
Before he can respond, Mr. Baldemoro hands me the other box. “Here’s the package I guess your father ordered. Looks like I got them all mixed up.”
“That’s all right,” Johnny smirks. “They got where they were supposed to go.”
The store owner backs off as Sam appears around the corner, black bag in hand. Johnny scowls at his arrival.
“Hey,” I say, nudging Johnny's uninjured leg to get his attention. “Want to see what Murdoch got us?”
Happy for distraction, my little brother focuses on me as Sam clucks and makes those sounds that indicated he’s annoyed. The doctor fingers the colorful plaid bandage for a moment then shakes his head as he unties it.
“What did he get us?” Johnny says with gritted teeth, refocusing my attention.
I pull out the matching wallets and he eyes them closely.
“Nice,” he says with a gasp; Sam’s begun to probe the wound. “But it wouldn’t pack near the same wollop.”
We both dissolve into laughter again as the doctor harrumphs and goes to work.