Johnny sat on the edge of the raised boardwalk, his feet dangling a few inches from the dusty ground. With a deft flick of his wrist the razor sharp blade of his boot knife severed a stick lying on the ground just in front of him in two pieces. He watched one of the halves flip up into the air and thought idly of shooting it, just out of boredom, but, and he grinned crookedly at the thought, the last thing his old man needed to see was his ex-gunfighter son shooting at imaginary men in the middle of town as the late stage Murdoch were on rolled into town.
With a bored sigh, Johnny glanced up, his deep blue eyes squinting against the setting sun as he looked toward the west, in the direction from which his father and brother’s stage should have come from nearly fifteen minutes ago. It wasn’t unusual for the 2:00 stage to be late, but something, some niggling worry deep in the young man’s chest made him scowl and rise to his feet. Standing with a shoulder leaning casually against a porch post, though he now felt anything but casual, Johnny felt his body stiffen at seeing a plume of dust in the distance. The dust cloud was much too small to indicate a stagecoach and its team of four horses, so he could only assume someone with urgent business was riding pell-mell toward town. Hands clenched at his side, he waited rather impatiently for the rider to arrive, because, for some reason, there was no doubt in his mind that the rider’s destination would be the stagecoach station where Johnny stood waiting for his family.
As soon as the white lather-covered horse rode into view, a frisson of fear tracked up Johnny’s spine to settle at the nape of his neck and setting the fine hair there on end. The rider, a young man from a neighboring ranch, vaulted from the saddle as soon as the horse skidded to an abrupt halt in front of the stage depot.
“JOHNNY!” Abe gasped as he stumbled to his knees, quickly scrambling back up before Johnny could move to assist him. The young man’s breath was coming in a rasping pants, sounding much like his spent mount as he bent over and dropped his hands to his knees as he tried to gain some semblance of order. When Abe raised his eyes again a few seconds later, Johnny nearly went to his knees at the devastation seen there.
“WHAT?” Johnny growled loudly, suddenly scared beyond reason and garnering attention from onlookers who had stood behind him on the boardwalk as Abe had barreled into town. When the younger man didn’t immediately respond to his demanding question, Johnny jumped down onto the street in front of Abe and grasped both of the wary boy’s arms in a tight grasp and gave him a hard shake. “What is it, boy?” It seemed incongruous for Johnny to be calling the younger man a boy, since Johnny was only a year or so older, but, at the moment Johnny felt much older than his years. When he saw the genuine sorrow in the boy’s green eyes, Johnny quickly released Abe’s arms as if he’d been scalded.
“The stage…” Abe hissed out between great, heaving gasps of breath. “…was held…up!”
Johnny stood stock still, unable to move or breathe as the tingling that had settled at the back of his neck suddenly exploded inside his head. For an unnerving moment he thought he was going to be sick, instinctively knowing what Abe’s next words would be.
Skirting around the breathless boy, Johnny vaulted into the saddle of the exhausted horse, unmindful of the fact that the horse was worn out. Johnny savagely jerked the horse’s head around and dug his spurs into the foam-flecked sides. The horse gave a protesting squeal before another goad with the sharp spurs had him racing out of town in the direction he’d just come.
“M-My h-horse!” Abe yelped, but then gave up when he realized that Johnny couldn’t have heard him anyway. He turned at the touch of a gentle hand on his arm and looked into the sad eyes of Dr. Sam Jenkins.
“Come on with me, boy,” Sam said quietly, his heart breaking from the news Abe had just delivered about his old friend. “We’ll go find the sheriff and tell him what happened, all right?”
Following quietly behind the doctor, Abe gave one last look back over his shoulder, but all he saw was a drifting plume of dust as it settled back to the hard packed ground.
Johnny’s mind was traveling much faster than the spent horse beneath him, but he didn’t have the time or the inclination to stop and allow the animal a breather. He had to get to his father and brother, for there was no way that he could believe that they were gone. Johnny felt his heart constrict in his chest at the thought and firmly pushed the ridiculous idea aside. His father was too stubborn to let some two-bit thief do him in and he definitely wouldn’t have allowed anyone to injure his son.
Just up ahead a circle of vultures spiraled in the sky, several of which were already standing awkwardly on the ground near the edge of a ravine and peering down at something that had their attention below, not even the sound of hoof beats disturbed their rapt attention.
“GET AWAY!” Johnny shouted as he spurred the faltering horse once again, completely oblivious to the fact that his spurs were leaving bloodied furrows in the horse’s heaving sides.
Suddenly the brave little cowpony staggered to his knees, his nose digging painfully into the ground as he stumbled forward. As he crumpled to the ground he gave one last breath as a red froth bubbled out of his widespread nostrils.
Tumbling head over heels from the horse’s back, Johnny lay breathlessly on his back staring up at the vultures overhead as they made ever-widening circles above him and whatever was in the ravine far below. Gasping for breath that didn’t seem to be available, Johnny forced his reluctant body to roll over and clawing his fingers into the dirt he dragged himself over to the lip of the ravine. Finally able to draw in a modicum of breath, Johnny quickly lost it again when he reached the edge and looked down at the wreckage amongst the jagged rocks below. There was no movement other than a couple of vultures perched atop the splintered remains of the stagecoach.
“No!” Johnny whispered, his gasping breath sending up swirls of dust from the ground beneath him. “Oh, God! PAPA, NO!”
There below him lay several unmoving bodies, two of whom had already been desecrated by the hungry vultures. He couldn’t tell, from a distance and through the mist covering his eyes, if any of the men were his brother and father, but he didn’t have any other reason to believe that they weren’t.
Scrambling to his knees Johnny hastily dashed the moisture from his eyes so he could see, but more tears took over where those were displaced and he quickly swiped the sleeve of his dust-covered shirt across his eyes as he searched in vain for a way down to the crash site.
Carved out over hundreds of years from flash floods during the rainy season, the ravine was treacherously dangerous and most townsfolk avoided coming anywhere near it because of its crumbling edges. Johnny, however, was urgently seeking the fastest way down to the shattered remains of the stagecoach and the passengers. Irregardless of his own safety, Johnny raced along the edge of the ravine as his eyes searched ahead of him for a likely place for him to descend. The ravine sides were too steep to slide down and there didn’t appear to be a break for miles either way.
With his breath coming in ragged gasps, Johnny suddenly stopped and drew his Colt when several more vultures dropped out of the sky, landing like heavy rocks onto the ground and hopping gracelessly toward the unprotected bodies lying below. Aiming at the vulture nearest to the largest body, Johnny easily blew the big bird’s head off and then quickly shot another vulture as it settled unsteadily atop one of the other bodies and reached its ugly beak down to tear into pale flesh.
The shots scared away the other vultures, who, unable to raise their heavy bodies easily into air for flight, managed to hop further down the dry streambed before taking to the air and flying away. The big birds were patient, however, and the scent of death was simply too enticing for them to go very far from the scene.
Seeing no way down the side of the ravine without possibly breaking his neck, Johnny turned back toward the horse he’d ridden and nearly stumbled to his knees at seeing the brave little pony lying unmoving in the dust. Johnny’s eyes focused on the horse’s exposed foam-covered side and he cringed at the bloody furrows he’d put there with the rowels of his spurs. Staggering over to the horse, Johnny dropped to his knees beside his head and placed a gentle hand on the animal’s neck before hanging his head in shame. He had never, in all his life, run a horse into the ground and it tore him up inside to know that it had done him no good to get here faster as his father and brother were already gone.
Sheriff Val Crawford rounded up as many men as were willing and able, which weren’t many. Most had left town to head back to their homes for supper, but he found a few drovers idling away their time in the saloon. Finding out that the stagecoach had been robbed and that Murdoch Lancer and his eldest son had been expected to be on that stage, the men quickly volunteered to join the posse.
Riding out of town with seven men following him, Val couldn’t help but worry about Johnny.
Having known the younger man when he was the notorious gunslinger, Johnny Madrid, Val also knew a lot about the man that no one else would ever know. They had become allies in a range war one cold winter day and a reluctant friendship had evolved over the next few weeks, despite either man’s usual vow to sever all ties when a job was finished. Over the years, Val and Johnny had run into one another and their friendship would be renewed, but they never kept in contact with one another because gunfighters never stayed in one place for very long. It wasn’t a very healthy way to stay alive.
Then Val had turned his expertise to what he was good at doing and began wearing a badge to back up his gun. He finally settled down in a one-horse town in West Texas and settled in to watch over the citizens and the occasional drunk that ended up in his jail overnight. He had been saddened to hear, a few years later, that Johnny Madrid had been caught by the Rurales in a little no-name town in Mexico during a short-lived revolution. The last Val had heard was that Johnny had been slated to be executed before a firing squad for his involvement in an uprising that hadn’t even had a chance from the start. The revolution had sounded to Val just like something Johnny Madrid, the champion of the underdogs of the world, would have gotten involved with, despite the odds. Val had felt such remorse for the loss of his friend and he was sure he had never felt that way for anyone else before or since. He hadn’t bothered with taking the emotion out and studying it because he wasn’t sure he wanted to know why Johnny’s death had effected him so.
A few years after hearing of the devastating news of his friend’s apparent demise, Val received a telegram requesting that he relocate to Green River, California as sheriff in the growing community. The sender of the telegram was Murdoch Lancer, a name Val knew well he nearly swallowed the chunk of tobacco he’d just put in his mouth at reading the name. There was no question in his mind that this Murdoch Lancer was Johnny Madrid’s much-reviled father. Val remembered well Johnny’s revulsion for the man who had, according to Johnny’s story, tossed a two-year old boy and his mother out all those years ago. Val had second and third thoughts about responding to the telegram, but his innate curiosity got the better of him and he sent a reply back to Mr. Murdoch Lancer that he was indeed interested. Especially after the new mayor of the little one-horse town where he was currently sheriff took acceptance to Val’s lackluster attitude toward the man’s pompous authority and was threatened to fire him. Val figured he would take the decision out of the man’s hands. One day he was there and the next he was gone, without leaving a forwarding address.
Riding into Green River on a cold, blustery winter day, Val was shocked to the core at finding a broadly grinning Johnny Madrid standing shoulder to shoulder with the old man the young gunfighter had vowed to shoot on sight. Hearing all about Johnny’s change of way of thinking over a couple of beers, Val made his choice and quickly accepted the position of Sheriff of Green River. The decision was made, however, with a lot of grumbling and snarls from the gruff man, to Johnny’s pleasure, who just couldn’t seem to stop smiling at Val.
Now Val was riding hell bent for leather to catch up with Johnny in order to offer any support he could give his friend. Val couldn’t begin to imagine what it would feel like to find a family after so many years without one, only to lose it so quickly again. With that thought in his mind he spurred his horse again, outdistancing the posse in the process.
As he rounded a bend in the road Val hauled back on the reins, sending his horse into a bone-jarring skid on the rough, gravelly surface. Quickly throwing himself out of the saddle as his horse came to a trembling halt, Val ran as fast as he could to Johnny’s side. Grabbing the younger man by the arm, Val quickly jerked him back away from the unstable edge of the ravine.
Sprawling to the hard ground, Johnny was quickly back up on his feet, his Colt held steadily in his hand and aimed directly at Val’s heaving chest.
“Johnny, it’s me,” Val called out, his hands raised chest high as he stared down the muzzle of Johnny’s gun. “I-I didn’t know what you were gonna do.” Gesturing his right hand toward the ravine, Val slowly lowered his left hand to his side, watching Johnny closely the entire time. “You can put the gun away.”
“V-Val?” Johnny stammered as his eyes seemed to stare straight through the man. “T-They’re gonna get to ‘em.” Then, with a flash of sunlight gleaming off the barrel of his Colt, Johnny raised the gun and sent a low-flying vulture plummeting into the ravine behind Val.
Flinching as if the weapon was being discharged toward him, Val resisted the urge to hit the dirt and instead stood very still as Johnny turned tortured blue eyes toward him.
“Put the gun away, Johnny,” Val crooned in a soft, no-nonsense voice. “I ain’t gonna let ‘em get to ‘em, all right?”
Johnny appeared to seriously weigh Val’s words before carefully lowering his weapon and then sheathing it in his holster. With a shudder that shook his entire frame Johnny stood with his shoulders slumped as Val cautiously approached him.
“You okay, buddy?” Val asked quietly as soon as he stood face-to-face with his friend. Reaching out both hands he captured Johnny’s upper arms and suddenly had to hold on tight as Johnny slowly sank to his knees before him.
“T-They’re gone, Val,” Johnny said softly, his eyes downcast and staring at the ground in front of him.
“I know,” Val answered just as softly as he looked over Johnny’s shoulder to see the posse just now coming into view. Steadying his friend with one hand, Val slipped his other arm around Johnny’s shoulders and helped him to his feet before slowly guiding him over to an outcropping of rocks, seating him on a low boulder. “You sit right here while me and the boys get ‘em outta there, okay?” When he got no response from Johnny, Val crouched down in front of the distraught man and looked up into Johnny’s dull blue eyes. “We’ll take good care of ‘em, Johnny. You can count on that.”
“Yeah,” Johnny whispered with a sad nod of his head as he dropped his eyes to stare down at his hands in his lap. “They can’t be gone, Val.” He fisted his right hand an pressed it against his chest, where his heart used to be. “I would feel it right here if they were…gone.” Raising tortured eyes, he looked at Val with yearning. “Wouldn’t I?”
“I’m sorry, Johnny,” his friend said softly before giving Johnny’s forearm a gentle squeeze. Val slowly rose to his feet, reluctant to leave Johnny alone. He walked over to the posse and gestured for them to dismount.
“We’re gonna need all of your ropes, boys,” Val said lowly as he quickly outlined his plan, his gaze flicking occasionally over at the miserable figure sitting dejectedly on the rock where he’d been led. He lowered his voice even more as he guided the men over to the edge of the ravine and they got their first glimpse of the wreckage. One man turned aside and threw up while several others seemed to turn green at the sight. “We need to get those men up here and covered with blankets.” He shot a glance toward Johnny, relieved to see that his friend didn’t appear to be paying them any attention. “Johnny’s father and brother are down there. When ya find ‘em, let me know right off, okay?”
At the men’s agreement, Val then set about getting several of them tethered to quickly constructed harnesses and then carefully lowered them into the ravine. With four of the men going down to assess the damage and sort through the bodies, it was up to Val and the other four men to haul them up again. Just as the men were lowered halfway down the side of the ravine, Val saw something out of the corner of his eye and looked up as Johnny vaulted into the saddle of the nearest horse, which just happened to be Val’s. Before the sheriff could voice his protests, Johnny was galloping away, his hat slapping against his back, held there by the stampede strings.
“Well, let’s get this done,” Val grumbled as he turned back to the job at hand, resigned to the fact that Johnny Madrid had taken over and was on the trail of his family’s killers.
Riding low over the horse’s neck, Johnny blinked moisture out of his eyes as he studied the tracks that he’d been following from the ravine. He had stumbled upon the tracks quite by accident when Val’s horse had stepped into a rut in the road and nearly fell to his knees. Deciding to slow his pace before he killed yet another horse, Johnny had turned the animal toward a stream running along the side of the road when he came upon a set of four tracks along the bank. They were fresh, not more than four hours old from his estimation and he felt rage burn deep in his gut. Johnny quickly dismounted and absently allowed the thirsty horse to drink his fill as he studied the tracks and set them in his mind. He immediately noted a jagged edge on one of the horseshoe prints and had to steady himself as he crouched down and eyed each print separately. Two other horseshoes had irregularities that would make it easier to hunt his prey and he smiled with malevolence as he rose his feet and then vaulted easily into the saddle once again.
As daylight waned into dusk Johnny urged the horse across the small stream and followed the tracks as far as he could before darkness intervened and forced him to dismount. For a while he was able to follow along on foot, but even that was halted when storm clouds rolled across the rising half moon and obscured even that last vestige of light. With a low, growling curse, Johnny glared up at the darkened sky and shook his fist at the gathering clouds. He knew that if those clouds dropped any lower and it started to rain, the tracks would be washed away and the trail he followed would be gone.
Sitting on his haunches beside the grazing horse, Johnny seemed to be dozing, though appearances were deceiving. Staring at the ground in front of him intently, Johnny was wide awake and contemplating the way he was going kill the men who had murdered his family. There would be no mercy and Johnny Madrid would mete out judgment without remorse because he was after revenge, pure and simple.
By the time the last victim was hauled up the side of the ravine, Val and several others of the posse had emptied their stomachs at the damage done to the bodies of the men who had been unlucky enough to have been on the stagecoach. The driver and shotgun rider, Orin and Wilton Reece, were the first two to be brought up and Val had recognized them right away. A father and son team, Orin and Wil had always been jovial men and didn’t deserve to die at the bottom of a ravine like they obviously had, their bodies broken and torn apart by vultures. Next were two strangers who had apparently been passing through Green River to San Diego according to the tickets Val found in their pockets.
By the time the last two men, one older and much larger than the others, were hauled up Val was a bundle of nerves as he waited, expecting to see the faces of his friend’s father and brother. When the bodies arrived, however, Val had to turn his eyes aside in order to avoid throwing up again. Both men had been brutally battered by the sharp, rocky terrain and had obviously been victims of the vultures before Johnny had arrived on the scene.
“S-Sheriff?” One of the drovers stammered out as he and another man carefully settled the larger of the two bodies alongside the rest of the victims beneath the shade of a huge oak tree. “You gonna search their pockets?”
Heaving a trembling sigh at what he had to do, Val simply nodded his throbbing head and walked over to kneel beside the larger body. Drawing in a deep breath he carefully folded back the man’s buff colored jacket and slipped his fingers into the inside pocket there, only to come up empty. He then searched the other side. There was nothing to indicate the man’s identity. Rocking back on his heels, Val studied the battered and misshapen face, seeing nothing there to reveal whether the man was Murdoch Lancer or not. The shock of graying hair notwithstanding, Val couldn’t unequivocally identify the victim.
“Cover him up,” Val growled hoarsely as he turned toward the last body. To his shock the man’s hair was dark brown with an obvious hint of gray at the temples. “This ain’t Scott Lancer!” He quickly rose to his feet and hurried over to the other victims and flipped back the blankets covering them to reveal varying colors of hair, finding none of them to be the sandy brown that he expected to see. Standing in confusion, with his hands fisted on his hips Val gazed at the bodies again in turn until a sickening realization hit him.
“The Lancer’s ain’t here!” He exclaimed as he turned and raced toward the horses tied up nearby. Grabbing up the nearest reins, he quickly snatched them loose from a tree limb and vaulted into the saddle before anyone could protest. With the horse dancing nervously in place, having picked up on Val’s anxiousness, the sheriff pointed to an older man, Mason by name, and directed him to send someone to town for a wagon to bring the bodies back and then to follow them as soon as that was taken care of. The rest of the men he ordered into the saddle.
“But, Sheriff Crawford, what’re ya in such a hurry for? Ain’t Johnny goin’ after the men what done this?” Mason demanded as he anxiously watched Val manhandle his horse to keep him from skittering into the other horses.
“Yeah, he’s goin’ after ‘em, all right,” Val growled as he sawed on the reins to keep the fractious horse from backing into another man mounting his horse.
“Well, what’s the deal, then? Johnny’ll get ‘em and bring ‘em in, won’t he?” Mason snapped as he took a cautious step toward his horse and the scowling sheriff.
“Oh, he’ll bring ‘em in,” Val answered as he set his heels against the horse’s sides. His last words were thrown over his shoulder as he and the others rode off in a cloud of dust. “He’ll bring ‘em in hangin’ over their saddles.”
The sun was a mere hint in the eastern sky when Johnny tightened the cinch and stepped into the saddle. It was slow-going at first, but as the sun rose higher along the horizon he was able to make out the tracks more clearly. The fury that had burned inside him the night before had not waned or gone out, in fact it had seemed to grow in epic proportions as he waited for daybreak and Johnny wasn’t doing anything to douse it. The urge to kill had never been so palpable before, and he even thought that he could find himself strangling the men he was after with his bare hands. However, killing them with his Colt would be just as satisfying.
By mid-afternoon Johnny was ignoring his need for rest and food as the tracks he followed became fresher and more pronounced as they crossed over a marshy area near a stream. The men were becoming careless, thinking that they were home free since it didn’t appear that a posse was after them. Johnny expected to come up on them at any moment and hoped to surprise them as they made camp for the night. He slowed his horse and skirted around to the west in order to catch the unsuspecting men with the sun at his back.
Chewing his bottom lip, Val couldn’t help but think about what he’d unknowingly done to his friend. Johnny wasn’t normally a vengeful man, and with the exception of his mother’s murder, the young man had never been dealt such a heartrending hand to play. Now that Val knew Murdoch and Scott weren’t among the hapless victims of the stagecoach robbery, he was ready to ride his horse into the ground in order to stop his friend from making the biggest mistake of his life. Val was quite aware that the men who had perpetrated the crime on the stagecoach and its occupants deserved to be brought to justice, but not at the expense of Johnny’s soul.
As the sun set lower in the evening sky, Val finally had to admit that he and his men would not be able to catch up with Johnny before nightfall. Turning an intense glare up toward the storm clouds amassing overhead, Val resigned himself to making camp for the night and losing Johnny’s trail if it rained.
“Hey, Sheriff!” Jed Hadly called out as he watered his horse by the stream running alongside the road. “Got some tracks over here ya might wanna see.” He gestured toward the bank of the stream and edged his horse further away from the area as Val jogged his borrowed horse over to take a look at what had been discovered.
“Looks like Johnny found ‘em,” Hadly announced as he dismounted and crouched down beside the tracks to study them closer in the waning light. “There’s four of ‘em and there’s Johnny’s… er… your horse’s tracks right there.”
Hadly looked up at Val as if to confirm what he’d found, but Val was already guiding his horse across the stream and through the bushes along the other side of the bank. “Well, I guess we need to follow him, huh, boys?” Climbing back into the saddle, Hadly fell in behind his friends without another word.
To Johnny’s astonishment the campsite he came upon had been quickly abandoned, the fire barely doused and leaving a tendril of smoke lifting lazily toward the evening sky. Glancing around the hastily departed camp Johnny saw a canteen lying on its side, the water within still trickling out onto the ground.
Holding his horse still when it tried to sidle beneath him, Johnny narrowed his eyes and turned his head slightly to the side and listened closely to hear over the pounding of his heart and the restless movement of his mount. There, in the distance he could hear the sound of horses as they thundered away toward the west. With a curse for his bad luck, Johnny spurred his horse into a dead run as he took off after them. He would not be cheated of retribution.
Val cursed a bitterly as he and his weary men came upon the abandoned camp in the middle of the night. He knew that the posse and the horses wouldn’t be able to keep on at the pace they had been going, but he also knew that he couldn’t stop. It was obvious that Johnny was close and Val vowed that he would be there to stop him.
Ordering the men to take a break until there was enough light to follow, he struck out on his own following the obvious trail that Johnny had inadvertently left behind.
Cursing in Spanish and then in English, Johnny slowed his mount as he entered the outskirts of a sleepy little town. At times he knew he had gotten close to his father and brother’s killers, tasting the dust their horses were kicking up in their flight, but he hadn’t gotten close enough to get them in the sights of his Colt.
Riding cautiously into town, he skirted around to the back of the buildings as he kept an eye open for any horses that appeared to have been ridden hard. Nearing the livery stable, Johnny quietly dismounted and left Val’s horse tied to an apple tree behind one of the houses nearby. Walking stealthily he slipped into the corral of horses and cautiously ran a gentling hand along each one’s back as he moved amongst the sleeping animals. None of them appeared winded or even damp, as if from a long run.
Ducking between the slats in the corral fence, Johnny peered around the gaping stable door and heaved a quiet sigh. Four horses, still saddled, were being led into the barn by an older man whom Johnny assumed was the livery owner. Leaving the safety of the shadows by the stable door Johnny slipped into the barn and followed the old man as he stood grumbling beneath his breath while he unsaddled the first horse and led him into a stall. Just as the old man started to run a burlap sack over the heaving sides of the animal Johnny slipped a hand over the man’s mouth to keep him from calling out.
“I’m not gonna hurt you,” Johnny hissed lowly and then slowly removed his hand after the man nodded his head slightly. When the old man turned slowly to confront Johnny, he flinched at seeing the glint of steel in the deep blue eyes.
“Whadya want, young’un?” The stable owner asked quietly as he studied the younger man closely.
“These horses, where did the men go who were riding them?”
“Got me. They tossed a few coins my way and took off down main street like their tails were afire,” the old man snorted when he sensed that he wasn’t in any real danger from Johnny. “What’s goin’ on?”
“Those men robbed a stagecoach down near Green River and killed…” Johnny’s voice ground to a halt as a fist seemed to grab hold of his heart within his chest and squeeze painfully. He shook his head and then skirted around the old man to head for the front of the stable.
“Hold up there, young’un,” the old man called out quietly. When Johnny stopped the old livery man gestured him back. Johnny once more shook his head and started forward again, but a strong grip on his arm kept him from taking another step. He turned an anrgy glare on the old man, who quickly dropped his hand from Johnny’s right arm.
“Look, sonny. I don’t know what’s goin’ on, but I can see revenge in a man’s eyes.” He raised his eyes toward the ceiling of the barn and then looked back at Johnny, who was watching him cautiously. “‘Revenge is mine, sayeth the Lord’,” the old man quoted from the Bible and shook his head at Johnny’s angry glare. “Ain’t gonna do ya no good to give me the evil eye, sonny. I’m just atellin’ ya what the Good Book says. You let the sheriff take care of them men, ya hear?”
“Look ol’ man…” Johnny’s voice cracked on the words and he clenched his eyes closed tightly against the fresh pain that seared his heart the memory of calling his father that name. “Those men k-killed my f-father and brother,” he hissed out angrily.
“And yer judge, jury and executioner, huh?” The old man blurted out as he took two steps to reach Johnny’s side where he once again grabbed hold of Johnny’s arm, urgently digging his fingers into the muscle of his biceps. “Don’t do it, son. It’ll haunt you for the rest o’ yer life. Trust me.”
Johnny tried to shrug his arm out of the old man’s grasp, but the gnarled fingers dug in even deeper, causing his fingers to tingle from the constriction. He raised his head to glower at the man, but was stopped cold by the pain in the depths of the old man’s pale blue, tear-filled eyes.
“Please don’t do it, son,” the man repeated before releasing his hard grip and dropping his hand to his side again. He shook his grizzled head and turned back into the stable to see to the worn-out horses now in his care. “Once ya take a man’s life ya can’t ever get it back.”
With those words muttered over his shoulder the old man disappeared into the gloom of the stable, his low voice speaking calmly to the tired horses.
Johnny shuddered at hearing the very warning he’d spoken to a young boy years earlier thrown back in his face. Turning toward the darkened street he squared his shoulder determinedly and walked quickly out of the stable. Heading for the nearest saloon, he knew he’d find the men who had killed his father and brother there. The old man’s muttered words chided him every step of the way.
Seen as a slovenly man by many because of his lack of concern over his appearance, Val Crawford was anything but careless when it came to doing his job. At the moment that job was in finding Johnny Lancer before the distraught man did something he would regret for the rest of his life. It was difficult, but Val ignored the wheezing breathing coming from his mount. He didn’t want to kill the horse by riding it so hard, but when it came down to his friendship with Johnny or the horse, Johnny won hands down. So, when the lights of a small town loomed up ahead Val asked for a little more from the valiant horse and was surprised he actually received it. He wasn’t sure that he hadn’t asked for too much when the animal started to stagger and nearly stumbled to his knees upon reaching the harder packed ground of main street.
Pulling the horse to a stop at the nearest hitching post, Val dismounted and quickly charged up the street on foot. He’d heard the tinny pounding of an out of tune piano and instantly knew that the town’s saloon was where he would find Johnny, and possibly the men they were after.
Val slowed his steps as he neared the saloon and inched up to the wide window overlooking main street. Peaking around the edge of the window frame he froze at seeing Johnny sitting at a table in the back of the room, as usual with his back against a wall. However, not so usual was Johnny’s posture. The dark-headed young man was slumped over the table, a bottle of tequila held securely in his left hand as he poured a liberal amount of the liquor into a shot glass.
Easing past the window, Val carefully surveyed the rest of the room before pushing open one side of the batwing doors and cautiously entered the saloon. Several pairs of mistrusting eyes rose from various tasks to watch the newcomer as Val sidled around the perimeter of the room to slide into one of the empty chairs at Johnny’s table.
With a glare of deep blue eyes, Johnny chose to ignore Val as the bottle of tequila was set down on the table with a loud thud. He then picked up the shot glass and threw back the libation without a word. Clenching his eyes closed against the burning sensation blazing down his throat and into his empty belly, Johnny slapped the glass back down onto the table beside the bottle. When he reached for the tequila again, he found Val’s hand had already snatched it away.
“Slow down, amigo,” Val crooned quietly, his eyes quickly darting over to the closest table where they were being watched intently. “Don’t do this to yourself, all right?”
Raising his head to shoot a pain-filled, defiant glare at his friend, Johnny leaned forward and jerked the bottle out of Val’s hand. “You ain’t my ol’ ma--” Johnny’s voice broke and he dropped his eyes to the bottle now held protectively against his chest. “Leav’ me ‘lone,” he mumbled as he reached for the shot glass and poured another liberal drink. Holding the bottle against his chest he picked up the glass and threw it back just as fast as the earlier one.
“Johnny,” Val said lowly as he leaned forward over the table. “Those men from the stagecoach…”
Surging unsteadily to his feet, Johnny hurled the half-full bottle of tequila toward the large mirror behind the bar, shattering it on contact. He then staggered back against the wall, his right hand suddenly filled with his Colt as he glowered at Val, the gun held unwaveringly on his old friend.
“Shut up, Val,” Johnny warned in a low, menacing voice that Val had never heard directed toward him before.
“It ain’t them, Johnny,” Val exclaimed insistently as he stood on shaking legs. An angry Johnny he could deal with, but an angry, inebriated Johnny was a wild card that Val wasn’t so sure he could reckon with.
“SHUT UP, VAL!” The words were hissed out loudly through clenched teeth and the barrel of the gun was raised slightly until it was aimed unerringly at Val’s heart. “Shut up or I’ll shut you up,” Johnny growled lowly.
Raising his hands to chest level for the second time in as many days, Val stepped back and gave his agitated friend room. When Johnny moved sideways toward the batwing doors, Val wisely let him go. As soon as Johnny was out of sight Val sat back down in his chair with a loud huff of relief and then snarled at the man who dared to put a hand on his arm. He raised his head to look up into the muzzle of a double-barreled shotgun aimed right in his face.
“Yer gonna pay fer that mirror, mister,” the huge, angry bartender snarled as he pressed his advantage by pushing the barrel of the shotgun against the side of Val’s nose. Before the overweight man knew what was happening, however, he was on the floor and the shotgun barrel was now pressed painfully against his flabby throat, the pressure against his windpipe threatening to cut off his breath.
“You aim a gun at me, fat man,” Val hissed angrily as he gave the shotgun a healthy shove. “You’d better be ready to face the consequences.”
The big man’s eyes bulged as he gasped desperately for air before Val finally released the pressure and stepped back. Keeping the barrel pointed toward the frightened man, Val reached into his pocket and pulled out a $20 gold piece and tossed it onto the man’s chest. “That should pay for it, right?” At the man’s careful nod Val broke the shotgun apart and removed the shells. Placing them into the breast pocket of his jacket he then tossed the empty gun behind the bar before striding out of the saloon.
Stopping just outside the saloon doors, his back against the wall, Val waited for his eyes to adjust to the darkness and then swept them up and down the street, hoping for any sign of his friend. There was no one out and Val resigned himself to another sleepless night as he spent his evening searching for his friend.
Arriving in Green River on the 6:00 stage, Murdoch Lancer was more than ready to get home. He and Scott had missed the earlier stage by only a few minutes and, by necessity, had to wait around the stage depot in a little backwater town for several hours until the next stagecoach arrived. Scott had been angry for most of the trip and still wasn’t speaking to his father because Murdoch had dared to stop and speak to an old friend he’d met on the way to the depot. Because of Murdoch’s distraction while discussing old times with his friend, time had gotten away from him and by the time Scott had found them in talking over a piece of pie and coffee in a nearby diner, the stage had already come and gone.
Grabbing up his bag from the ground where the driver had tossed it, Scott scowled as he looked up and down the street for Johnny and the wagon he’d been asked to bring to pick them up. Finding the requested rig tied up in front of the stage depot, Scott stormed over to it and tossed his dusty bag into the back of the wagon before once again surveying the surrounding building in the hopes of finding his brother sauntering toward them. Scott was obviously looking for a fight and if his little brother so much as opened his mouth to complain about the long wait, it would be all that the irritated man would need to vent his anger.
Well aware of his normally even-keeled son’s frustrations, Murdoch chose to ignore the fact that an eruption was eminent. Placing his own bag into the back of the wagon he quickly scanned the area for Johnny. “Where do you think he might be?” He asked thoughtfully, and mostly to himself as he was sure Scott was still not speaking to him. However, to his amazement Scott whirled to glare at him with an incredulous expression on his face.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” the furious blond spat out as he slapped the side of the wagon in anger at his father’s seeming stupidity. “Did you seriously believe that Johnny would simply wait four hours in the hot sun for us to arrive on a different stage than we told him?”
“Well, no, but I would think that he’d be close enough to hear our stage coming in and meet us here by now,” Murdoch insisted stoically as he turned away to step up onto the boardwalk.
“Where are you going now?” Scott demanded as he watched his father walking away from him.
“I’m going into the stage depot to see if Johnny is inside,” the older man said matter-of-factly as he stepped into the small building and shut the door behind him, effectively cutting off Scott’s protest before it could be voiced.
“Scott? Scott Lancer?”
The feminine voice called out in a wavering tone, as if unbelieving that he was actually standing there in the street. Whirling about to see who had spoken, Scott smiled uncertainly at the Eason twins who were staring at him as if he might be a ghost.
Doffing his dust-covered hat and holding it against his chest, Scott’s smile broadened when Miss Emily quickly rushed over and threw her arms around Scott’s shoulders and gave him a crushing hug before stepping back and looking him over from head to toe.
Shocked by the normally reserved young lady’s enthusiastic embrace, Scott was further stunned when Emily’s identical twin, Emma, nearly tripped over her feet to give him her own animated hug.
“Miss Emma. Miss Emily,” he said in awed wonder. “Is everything all right?”
“Oh, Scott! How awful!” Miss Emma, or was it Miss Emily, exclaimed as she grasped her sister’s hands and held on tight, a tear shimmering on her dark lashes as she gazed in amazement at Scott.
“It’s a miracle,” the other twin gasped before tugging gently on her sister’s hands and hauling her off down the street without another word to explain their strange behavior.
Standing beside the wagon in bewilderment, Scott watched the twins nearly tripping over themselves as they hurried down the street. He didn’t see his father step out of the stage depot. When Murdoch nearly stumbled off the boardwalk as he walked toward his waiting son, Scott suddenly realized that his father’s face was devoid of all color and the older man looked ready to pass out. All of Scott’s earlier anger and frustration was gone in an instant as he quickly rushed to Murdoch’s side and wrapped his arm around the quivering man’s waist.
“Sir? Are you… Is everything all right?” Suddenly the stunned disbelief on Murdoch’s face hit Scott broadside and he quickly grabbed his father’s arm hard, stopping the stumbling man in his tracks. “IS IT JOHNNY? Is he hurt?” He demanded in a fear-filled voice.
“H-He thinks we’re…dead,” Murdoch said woodenly as he leaned heavily against the side of the wagon and hung his head. “The 2:00 stage… was robbed. It was sent over into that deep ravine outside of town.” Murdoch raised his head and looked Scott directly in the eye. “Your brother believes we were on that stage and that we’re…dead!”
“Where is he?” Scott growled as he looked frantically up and down the street once again, as if he might have missed his little brother the other times he’d looked for him there. “We have to find him, Murdoch!”
“Scott…” Murdoch began and then had to swallow convulsively against the constriction in his throat at the memory of where he was told Johnny had gone. “He’s gone after the men…who did it.”
“How many?” Scott felt a frisson of fear shiver down his spine and he grasped his father’s hand hard when the man didn’t immediately answer him. “HOW MANY?”
“They think there were f-four of them.” Turning so that he could use the side of the wagon as a brace when his legs didn’t feel strong enough to hold him upright, Murdoch dropped his head into the palm of his right hand and moaned. “He’s going after the men with vengeance on his mind, son.”
“Against four of them,” Scott whispered. He suddenly pivoted on his heel and ran toward the livery stable.
“Where are you going?” Murdoch shouted after his son.
“I’m going after him!” Racing into the darkened interior of the stable, Scott quickly located a likely mount and started saddling him. Just as he was about to mount the horse the livery boy hustled in to try and stop him.
“Hey! You can’t take Mr. Morgan’s horse!” The boy exclaimed even as Scott threw himself into the saddle and sent the animal careening out of the stable at a gallop. “COME BACK!” Screaming for the sheriff, the boy ran after the horse and was soon outdistanced as Scott leaned forward and spurred the horse on.
It was a bedraggled group who trudged into town late that evening. The wagon carrying the passengers, the driver and the shotgun rider for the stage made its way slowly down the street as the citizens stopped to watch its slow progress to the undertaker’s shop.
Sitting in a chair outside the stage depot, Murdoch’s eyes watched the wagon as it moved past him, but he couldn’t dredge up any vestige of feelings for the victims. He couldn’t allow his mind to think of the possibility of what might have been. Murdoch’s thoughts were only on his sons, and Johnny’s reaction to what he thought were his father and brother’s death. A shiver of dread passed through Murdoch and he wrapped his arms around his chest at the idea of his son being in such pain, and all because Murdoch had lost track of time.
“Murdoch?” Sam Jenkins headed down the boardwalk toward his old friend. Gently easing the much larger man to his feet, Sam led Murdoch toward his office. “Let’s get you inside. I’ve got some fresh coffee brewing and a fire just waiting for you to warm your feet.”
“But… Scott… Johnny?” Murdoch protested as he tried to turn back toward the chair, his self-appointed sentry seat.
“They’ll know to come looking for you at my office. I promise.” Guiding Murdoch down the boardwalk toward his home that doubled as his office, Sam worried that his old friend may have fallen into shock.
As soon as they arrived at Sam’s house the older man quickly wrapped Murdoch in a blanket and tucked him into an easy chair near the fire. Handing the shivering man a cup of coffee doctored with a liberal amount of Scotch whisky, Sam settled in the adjoining chair and kept his friend company as they waited for his sons to return.
Johnny stumbled his way back to the livery stable. Seeing no one around, the inebriated and distraught young man climbed into the hayloft with the intent to keep an eye on the horses stabled below in their stalls. If the men who had ridden in on them tried to leave in the middle of the night, then Johnny would hear the ruckus and stop them before they could get away again.
With that theory in his muddled head Johnny settled down in the hayloft and almost instantly passed out from exhaustion, too much tequila and an overwhelming need to mourn the death of his family
Val was beyond tired. He had searched everywhere in the small town for Johnny, but was unable to find anyone who had seen the troubled young man since the saloon. Finding a chair in front of the mercantile Val settled in to wait. He knew that Johnny had to come out from wherever he was hiding at some point and Val was going to make sure he was the one to find the young hothead first.
With the best intentions of staying awake and alert, Val slumped down in the chair and, as best intentions go, he was sound asleep in minutes.
Having come upon the wagon bringing the bodies from the stagecoach wreck into Green River, Scott found out from Mason that Johnny had lit out after the killers, revenge obviously on his mind. He was then informed that Val had taken a few men with him in an attempt to stop him. With the knowledge that his brother wasn’t going to be facing four men on his own, Scott set his borrowed horse into a ground eating lope and quickly set his horse in the direction Mason had indicated Johnny and the posse had gone.
Johnny awoke to the muted jingling of someone trying to quietly saddle a horse and vaguely wondered, by the metallic taste in his mouth from overindulging in tequila, if that same someone had managed to slip a bit into own his mouth. When more of the same noises came to him from his hideout in the loft he suddenly remembered why he had climbed up into the loft in the first place. Moving stealthily in the loose, rustling hay simply wasn’t an option and he hoped that the muffled sounds the men below were now making would mask any noise he might inadvertently make.
Climbing to his knees, Johnny peered cautiously down through the open hatch and quickly drew his head back when a small tuft of hay was dislodged and floated slowly toward the floor, right into one of the occupied stalls below. Holding his breath and expecting at any moment to hear that one of the men had seen the hay falling from the loft, Johnny released his breath with a soft sigh when no one raised the alarm.
Mentally kicking himself for climbing up into the loft where he couldn’t get the drop on the men who had killed his father and brother, Johnny ground his teeth angrily as his eyes darted around the loft to see if there was another way down. Besides the hatch and ladder that opened up directly into the barn aisle, there was no other way down. Clenching his hands into fists, Johnny had to resign himself to the fact that he would have to wait until the men had finished saddling their mounts and then left the barn before he could climb down and confront them. He cursed mentally that he hadn’t left his own horse saddled so that he could follow the men if they immediately took off.
“Come on, Asher! We ain’t got all day!” One of the men below growled anxiously as another man, Asher, seemed to have problems getting his horse to accept the bit.
“I got it. I got it!” Asher snapped as the sound of metal striking against teeth resounded in the barn. Johnny winced sympathetically for the horse against the rough treatment given. It was just another nail in the gang’s coffin, as far as he was concerned.
As soon as the last horse was saddled, the men quietly led them out of the barn and into the early morning sunlight.
“Did ya see that sheriff sitting outside the mercantile, Holt?” A voice exclaimed over the plodding of horse’s hooves.
“Yeah, he don’t look like no trouble to me,” the man named Holt answered with a sneer. “Fact is, I’d bet I could take him down without breakin’ a sweat.”
“He sure looked awful familiar to me.”
“Well, since we spent a better part of three days in Green River plannin’ this deal, I ‘spect he looks familiar ‘cause he’s the sheriff that run us outta the saloon when you yahoos decided it would be fun to set that barmaid up on that light fixture in the ceiling.”
Johnny jolted suddenly as the vague memory suddenly came to him of seeing Val Crawford in the saloon the night before. It took every ounce of control he could muster to keep from leaping from the loft to the floor below and shoot the men without a word of warning. However, Johnny couldn’t see out into the street and didn’t know if there was any innocent bystanders in the surrounding area.
As soon as the voices faded away, Johnny quickly shimmied down the ladder and darted into the shadows beside the open stable door. Sweeping the street with wary eyes he got a completely different view of the small town in the light of day than he had from the night before. For some strange reason, and he knew Val was responsible, there were no townspeople visible.
Reaching down with his right hand, Johnny quickly loosened his Colt in its holster, assuring himself it was ready when he needed it. Darting out of the barn on swift feet he raced toward a building on his left and quietly melded into the shadows there. With his sights set on the backs of the men walking their horses nonchalantly through the middle of town, Johnny quickly followed, keeping to the shadows as much as he could. When he was able to get to within fifteen feet of the retreating men, Johnny quit the shadows and walked into the street.
“HOLT!” He shouted loudly as he stopped in the middle of the street and stood with his feet spread wide, his hands relaxed by his side. Watching the backs of the foursome retreating slowly down the street, Johnny saw one of the men stiffen his back as if he wanted to look around, but kept himself from doing so by sheer willpower. All four men pulled their horses to a stop. “Holt,” Johnny shouted again. “Turn around and face me, you coward!” Having strategically placed himself with the rising sun at his back, Johnny suppressed an evil grin when the men turned their horses as one, as if they had choreographed the move somehow.
“Who are ya, and whadya want?” The older man snarled as he sidled his horse away from the others, quickly noting with approval that his men were doing the same, making it harder for one man to target them all.
“You and your men robbed the Overland Stage headed for Green River,” Johnny reminded them coldly, his blue eyes as hard as steel at the memory of what these men had cost him.
“Nope! We’ve been here in…” Holt hesitated as he quickly tried to recall the name of the town, but gave up when he realized he didn’t even know. “…in the saloon the past three days,” he continued as if he hadn’t hesitated, adding a humorless smile to his words, which only managed to set Johnny’s teeth on edge.
“And I say you’re lyin’,” Johnny shouted, his eyes watching the men as they urged their horses further apart at his goading words.
“Don’t matter much what you say, does it, boy?” Holt snorted. “’sides, what’s it to you what we do?”
Johnny ground his teeth together, the sound evident in the stillness of the morning. “My father and brother were on that stage that you held up, Holt. That’s what it is to me.” Tensing his shoulders as soon as he saw the younger dart a frightened glance toward Holt, Johnny held his body perfectly still when someone quietly stepped out onto the boardwalk to his left. Something indefinable tugged at Johnny’s stone-cold heart when he caught an achingly familiar flash of gold out of the corner of his eye. He had to forcing his attention back to the men watching him warily from down the street. Johnny tried to ignore the stirring he felt in the deepest part of his soul.
“Don’t know what yer talkin’ about, boy,” Holt countered as his eyes darted to the man who had stepped out onto the boardwalk to his right. The blond-headed man held a Winchester cradled casually in his arms and he looked as if he knew how to use it. Holt noted also that the barrel of the rifle was aimed unerringly at his chest.
Uneasy at having to divide his attention between two obvious threats to his life, Holt decided on the one he deemed the most obvious. Turning a dark glare on the blond, he growled, “What’s this to you, blondie?”
“Just trying to even up the odds a little,” Scott said quietly, his pale blue eyes on Holt, though he wished fervently that he was standing beside his brother as he realized what a shock it would be for Johnny to see him there. When he had stepped out onto the boardwalk from the diner, he had seen a slight flicker of Johnny’s eyes and assumed that his brother had seen him, but there had been no other hint of acknowledgement and Scott certainly hadn’t wanted to distract him when Johnny was facing down four armed men.
Feeling as if his world had suddenly been turned upside down again, Johnny again had to force his undivided attention on the men in the street before him. Tamping down the almost excruciating need to go to the man standing on the boardwalk to confirm that it was Scott, Johnny felt his body tense even more than it already was when someone else stepped out onto the boardwalk to his right. He didn’t think his nerves could take anymore.
“What is this?” The nervous young man beside Holt demanded as he flicked a panicky glance toward the newest threat.
“This, son,” Val Crawford’s gravelly voice intoned drolly, “is your chance to give yourself up to the law. Now drop those weapons and get down off those horses.” Shifting his jacket back to expose his badge pinned to his shirt, Val nonchalantly spat a wad of tobacco into the street as he kept his eyes on the four men now watching him anxiously.
“I ain’t did nuthin’,” the younger man protested as his fractious horse’s movements caused a chain reaction when sidled hard into Holt’s mount. Taking exception to being jostled, Holt’s horse, in turn, snaked out his teeth and bit the offending horse on the withers. Then all hell broke loose as horses started bucking and kicking as riders were bucked off or those still in their seat began cursing and hauling too hard on their reins to add to the confusion.
In the ensuing scuffle Holt managed to separate himself from the others and under the cover of the chaos he drew his gun and aimed it at Scott’s chest. Holt never knew what hit him as Johnny’s bullet to the shoulder knocked him out of the saddle to land with a jarring thud beneath the churning hooves of his frightened horse.
With a primal shriek that was cut off mid-scream Holt lay unmoving as Johnny, Val and Scott quickly sorted out the frightened horses and separated them from one another.
The pounding of hooves sounded from the other end of town and Johnny’s Colt was in his hand so fast that the man nearest him gasped in shock, his eyes as round as saucers at realizing he hadn’t stood a chance. The man was thanking his lucky stars as Val dragged him out of his saddle and quickly ushered his prisoners out of the line of fire.
Whirling to face the new, unknown danger approaching them from the east, Johnny still couldn’t allow himself to relish the fact that Scott was standing by his side, Scott’s Winchester held securely in his hands as he stood ready to do battle. Squinting against the rising sun that had been an ally only moments earlier, Johnny felt his senses tingle at hearing a familiar voice calling his name.
“PAPA?” Johnny cried out, instantly dropping his gun back into its holster before taking two stumbling steps forward as Murdoch pulled his horse to a grinding halt in front of his sons.
With an agility he hadn’t known since he’d been shot years earlier by Day Pardee, Murdoch vaulted from the saddle and met Johnny halfway, his long arms grabbing his youngest son up against his chest just as Johnny’s legs failed him.
It was just too much for Johnny’s mind to comprehend. His father and brother were alive. Theirs weren’t among those bloated bodies at the bottom of the ravine and his heartfelt agony was unfounded. Closing his eyes tightly as his father’s arms wrapped securely around his back, he felt all the uncertainty and fear suddenly dissolve as tears of joy flooded his eyes. Johnny slipped trembling arms around Murdoch’s waist and did something he hadn’t done since he was ten years old and had watched his mother murdered right in front of him. Johnny wept.
Johnny felt his father gently guiding him somewhere, but he couldn’t seem to stop the tears that were streaming down his cheeks. Pressing his cheek against his father’s chest, Johnny felt Murdoch’s heart thundering there. He shifted his grasp and held on even tighter, thinking that Murdoch was going to try to move away from him.
“Shhh, John, it’s all right, son. Papa’s right here,” Murdoch crooned as he carefully pulled Johnny down to sit on the edge of the boardwalk. Flicking a glance over Johnny’s bowed head at Scott, Murdoch’s eyes hungrily searched his elder son to assure himself that he was unharmed. Scott smiled softly and sat down close to Johnny, slipping his hand onto his brother’s quivering back and smoothing his fingers up and down in a comforting motion.
“I-I thought…” Johnny’s voice broke on a hitching sob. He suddenly realized that he was weeping like a child and tried to gain control of his overwhelming emotions, but when he attempted to sit up and shift away from his father’s warm embrace he was gently held a little tighter. Johnny found that he really didn’t want to move anyway. Settling his cheek against his father’s chest once more, Johnny released a ragged sigh as he felt Scott’s presence at his back, effectively blocking the view of anyone who happened to be watching.
“I know what you thought, son, and I’m sorry the telegram we sent didn’t arrive.” Murdoch’s hand gently smoothed down the back of Johnny’s dark head. “I’m so sorry.”
Shaking his head in response to his father’s apology, Johnny slowly eased away from him. Scott was sitting so closely behind him that Johnny’s back collided with his brother’s chest, but Johnny merely sagged against him when Scott’s arms encircled his distraught brother’s waist, giving Johnny a warm embrace from behind. Johnny smiled warmly when Scott propped his chin on Johnny’s shoulder and leaned his head sideways into his brother’s.
“I sure missed you,” Scott said with a crooked grin, his blue-gray eyes sparkling with joy.
Grinning broadly at Scott as the older man ruffled his dark hair, Johnny gently poked his brother in the stomach with his elbow and Scott swiftly released his hold around Johnny’s waist.
“Hey, didn’t you miss me, little brother?” He asked as soon as Johnny turned a mock scowl on him.
“And just why would I miss you?” Johnny demanded huffily, though Scott could still see the evidence of Johnny’s agony in his moisture-laden eyes. Pain that Johnny had suffered thinking his father and brother were lost to him forever. Hauling his little brother into his arms again, Scott found he couldn’t breathe for a moment when Johnny embraced him tightly, as if he would never let Scott go.
“Johnny, I am so sorry for what you had to go through,” Scott hissed out as he held on just as tightly to his brother.
Across the street Val was ushering the remaining three men into a building the town used as a jail. Since the small town had no sheriff, Val took it upon himself to take care of that detail. He securely tied the men to some sturdy posts inside the storage room and left them to grumble amongst themselves as he hurried back outside to where the leader of the gang, Holt, lay staring, unseeing, at the clear morning sky. Running a hand through his disheveled hair Val darted a quick glance down the street where Johnny, Scott and Murdoch sat in a tight huddle, their arms wrapped around one another as if they weren’t going to let go anytime soon. Swiping a dirty shirt sleeve across his eyes, Val grumbled something about getting blasted dust in his eyes before reaching down to grab hold of Holt’s shirt and drag his body out of the middle of the street.
It was three o’clock in the morning and Johnny was jolted awake from the same nightmare he had been having for the past two nights. Scrambling out of bed he grabbed the hated nightshirt he’d thrown to the floor when it had tangled around his waist and quickly pulled it on over his head. Padding across the cold floor he felt his heart pounding wildly in his chest as he threw open his bedroom door and practically ran out into the hallway. Rushing across the hall he quickly opened Scott’s bedroom door so hard that it hit the wall and rebounded into his shoulder as he charged into the room, his breath heaving in his chest.
Approaching the bed at a full run, Johnny leapt onto the mattress and nearly cracked his head on Scott’s chin as his brother sat up abruptly out of a deep sleep when Johnny’s full weight landed on him.
“What are you doing, Johnny?” Scott exclaimed breathlessly as he shoved his brother off his chest and onto the bed beside him. Looking down at the obviously terrified young man, Scott drew in a sudden breath of understanding and quickly placed his hand on Johnny’s heaving chest, landing unerringly over his brother’s racing heart.
“I’m all right, little brother,” he managed to get out, despite the sudden constriction in his throat and the urge to gather his frightened brother into his arms and hold him tight. “I’m right here.” He grasped Johnny’s right hand and lifted it to his own chest as he sat beside him, Johnny’s deep blue eyes turned nearly black with fear as he watched Scott avidly. “Can you feel my heart beating, Johnny?” He watched Johnny’s dilated pupils begin to recede in the pale light of the lamp Scott had inadvertently left burning when he’d fallen asleep while reading. “I’m right here and Murdoch is in his room.”
“Scott?” As if the name had been a strain on his vocal chords, Johnny swallowed painfully before clenching his eyes closed tightly.
“What happened, Johnny?” Scott asked softly as he settled back down on the bed beside his brother, his hand still pressed over Johnny’s wildly racing heart.
“I-I had a dream…” Johnny gasped and opened his eyes, as if to make sure his brother was still there and that he wasn’t still having a nightmare.
Releasing his held breath in a soft sigh, Scott gently patted Johnny’s hand still held over his chest and smiled sadly at him. “Johnny? Do you want to sleep in here the rest of the night? The bed’s big enough.” Scott seemed to instinctively know that if Johnny went back to his room he wouldn’t go back to sleep. Besides, Scott suddenly felt the need to be close to his brother, just as much as Johnny needed the reassurance. Without waiting for his brother to voice the refusal he could see dawning in the deep blue eyes, Scott simply sat up and flipped the rumpled covers over Johnny and then blew out the lamp by the bed. He settled down in the bed, drawing the covers up over his shoulder as he nuzzled his face into the crisp, cool pillowcase.
“Scott?” Johnny’s whisper was but a breath of air and for a second the older brother wondered if he’d really said anything. “Thanks.”
Smiling into the pillowcase, Scott closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep with the gentle pressure of Johnny’s hand lying against his back. The light touch was just as much a comfort to him as it was to Johnny, who fell asleep not long after Scott.
At the open door to Scott’s bedroom Murdoch stood in the shadows of the hallway and brushed a tear from his eye. With a trembling smile he reached into the room and quietly pulled the door closed, lest Teresa awaken her brothers when she went downstairs to start breakfast in a few hours.
Padding quietly back to his bedroom, Murdoch couldn’t help but marvel at the thought of his sons lying side by side, dark head against blond, as if they had played too long and hard all day long and had fallen into an exhausted sleep together. Smiling wistfully, Murdoch’s thought began to wonder to what might have been if the two had had a chance to grow up together.
Giving himself a mental shake, the older man climbed back into his now cold bed and settled beneath the covers, the image of his boys giving and receiving comfort from one another as sleep took him into a world of which he could only dream.
Constructive criticism welcome: firstname.lastname@example.org
Created November 7-10, 2008