Johnny’s stomach rumbled and he cringed when it went on to growl loud enough for his family and everyone else in close proximity to hear. If he wasn’t uncomfortably enough before he certainly was now.
‘Shoulda had that third helping of eggs,’ he told himself his mouth watering at the very thought of food.
Shifting slightly in his seat he tried to ignore his itchy nose, his restless feet and by far the thing irritating him the most, the fur and feather creation perched precariously on Mrs. Macs’ head. He hoped for her sake it was dead! He'd been trying for the last hour not to look at the elaborately decorated bonnet but there was simply no avoiding it, not with its owner sitting directly in front of him. ‘Should be a law against wearing a thing like that in church! It’s liable to leap up and maul the Reverend if he takes much longer. Oh please! Not another hymn! I wouldn’t mind but the Old Man nearly deafened me last time!’
Johnny stood and sidled closer to his brother as Murdoch’s rich baritone voice soared to the rafters. ‘He sure can sing, Scott too, now me I couldn’t carry a tune if my life depended on it’
After receiving a meaningful nudge from his sibling Johnny began to mime the words, another none too gentle nudge followed and the youngest Lancer sighed in resignation before he too began to sing. To his surprise the brunet found he liked the tune and the rousing chorus stirred him into giving his all only for him to receive a sharp dig in the ribs from his father for his efforts.
‘I ain’t that bad am I?’ Johnny glanced quickly at his father who gave him a withering look. ‘Guess I must be! Teresa won’t let me hear the last of this’
As the hymn came to an end everyone’s head bowed in prayer. Johnny closed his eyes but opened them again as his ears caught the faint distant sound of gunfire. His hand went instantly to his hip but both his Colt and its holster were secured in his saddle bag.
No one else appeared to have heard the gun shot as all heads remained bowed, the Reverend James now giving the blessing. But it had unsettled Johnny still further and he began to fidget only to be nudged from both sides by two indignant elbows.
Johnny was equally as indignant ‘Alright, alright! Give me a break will ya, I ain’t been in church since I…well not for a long time, and this here suit is doin it’s best to suffocate me and these darn boots….well just look at ‘em! They’re so shiny... I’m almost scared to look at ‘em in case I see the devil lookin back!’
Another dig in the ribs made him open his eyes, to his relief he found the service over and the congregation leaving the church, one by one they were stopping and exchanging a few words with the Reverend. Johnny’s heart sank ‘They didn’t say I’d have to talk to him too!’
Stepping into the aisle Johnny leaned in close to his brother and whispered “Did you hear it?”
“The whole church did.” Scott grinned.
“What? No, not me, the gunshot! Did you hear it?”
“What are you whispering about John?” Murdoch asked a little intrigued by his younger son’s apparent unrest.
“I heard a gunshot during the prayers.”
Murdoch looked at Scott questioningly.
“No sir I didn’t hear anything.” Scott replied moving aside to allow Mrs. McDonald to pass. The blond hoped fervently that the Widow Mac as she was affectionately known, would not stop to talk now, she could, according to his father ‘talk a dead eye to sleep’…he’d hoped wrong, a set of twinkling green eyes settled on his family.
“John dear! How lovely to see you in Church. Scott you grow more handsome by the day. Teresa you look radiant and you…you old rascal you, I’m still waiting for you to come over for supper.”
Murdoch smiled broadly at his old friend, pretending not to notice Johnny’s widening grin. “One of these days Effie I may just surprise you, now why don’t you let Johnny escort you home.” The rancher watched the grin fade from his younger son’s face.
“How lovely.” Mrs. Mac gripped Johnny’s arm and led him towards Reverend James.
Scott watched his sibling being dragged away. “Like a lamb to the slaughter, that wasn’t very nice of you Murdoch!”
“I know.” Murdoch grinned.
“Oh you two are so mean. “Teresa giggled as all three watched Mrs. Mac introduce Johnny to the new minister.
Ten minutes later Johnny stepped into the morning sunshine, breathing a sigh of relief as he felt its warmth on his face, it spoke of freedom. The Reverend had been something of a revelation to the youngest Lancer, a man of wit and good humour, he’d put Johnny at ease immediately with his warm handshake and laughing eyes. He’d openly teased Mrs. Mac about her hat but still, the ex-gunfighter wasn’t quite ready for any in depth conversation with a man of the cloth.
Mrs. Mac once again took possession of his arm ready to steer him in the direction of her house. Johnny turned to wave to his family and called “I’ll follow ya on home” under his breath he added a vengeful ‘Where I’ll knock that smirk off your face brother’
The widow chatted away happily and Johnny tried unsuccessfully to join in the conversation. ‘The Old Man’s right, she can talk the hind leg off a mule!’
On finally reaching their destination, a small but cosy looking abode on the edge of town, Johnny tipped his hat and was just about to say his goodbyes when he received an offer he just couldn’t refuse.
“You’ll join me for a cup of tea and some freshly baked apple pie won’t you dear?”
The tea didn’t appeal to him but the apple pie certainly did, Mrs. Mac’s apple pies were famous, a helping or two would certainly go a long way in holding off the hunger pangs. “Thank you Ma'am, I am a mite peckish.” Johnny eagerly followed the widow in through the doorway but just seconds later he was rendered unconscious by the butt of a gun.
“I wonder where they’re going in such a hurry.” The blond Lancer pointed towards the approaching riders.
“Looks like a posse.” Murdoch replied, his hand finding Teresa’s to reassure her as he pulled up the team pulling the surrey.
The ten riders slowed down as they grew closer, no one recognized any of the men but they did recognize the badges they wore.
“Howdy folks. Ma’am.” Clancy Carter removed his hat as he addressed the trio introducing himself with a friendly smile “Sheriff Carter from Leesville.” The smile faded as he went on to explain his presence so far north “We’re trailing the Hogan gang, they held a stage coach up ten days ago, shot and wounded the driver and made off with at least twenty thousand dollars. I don’t suppose you’ve seen any strangers here abouts?
“No sheriff but my son…” Murdoch gestured behind him “…he’s in town; he thought he’d heard a gunshot when we were in church.”
“Did he now…you didn’t I take it”
“No.” Murdoch answered, an uneasy feeling creeping through him, Johnny was still in town and he attracted trouble like a moth to a flame.
“Well we’ll go check it out. Good day.”
Murdoch stared after the departing posse Scott’s words cutting through his anxious thoughts.
“He couldn’t get into much trouble with Mrs. Mac watching over him, could he?”
Murdoch grinned “I don’t think trouble would dare cross Euphemia McDonald’s path.”
“I hope he doesn’t join the posse.” Teresa paled at the thought.
Murdoch and Scott looked at each other silently wishing the same thing.
“We’ll get you home Teresa and then we’ll go round him up.” The patriarch said as the sense of unease inexplicably settled once more upon him.
As consciousness returned so did sensation and Johnny groaned miserably as pain pulsed incessantly between his temples. He found himself barely able to string rational thought together. His head hurt way too much for that!
From out of nowhere came a voice, invading his agony, adding to it with its selfish demands.
The brunet longed to return to the pain free darkness, but the voice was growing more insistent, determined it seemed, to have him stay with her! Yes, it was most definitely a female voice, and it sounded both fearful and concerned.
A hand was now touching his face, gently stroking his cheek. Something cool and damp was then dabbed across his forehead, he moaned his approval. The cool cloth hadn’t helped any where the pain was concerned, but it was beginning to clear his confusion.
Unease slowly crept upon him. Something was wrong, very wrong. He…they were in some kind of trouble! He forced his reluctant eyes open, somewhat surprised to see who it was that was kneeling beside him calling his name.
“Mrs. Mac?” He whispered.
As the Widow opened her mouth to speak, unknown hands roughly pushed her aside. The force used, causing her to fall awkwardly and to cry out in pain. A stranger now loomed menacingly above the prostrate Johnny. The brunet recognized trouble when he saw it, but still, he couldn’t stop himself from protesting the ill-treatment just doled out to Mrs. Mac. “Hey, what the hell…”
A booted foot made contact with his side, instantly winding and silencing him.
“I’ll do the talkin’ boy!”
Johnny heard Mrs. Mac gasp in horror, and looked in her direction hoping to reassure her only to find the Widow now crawling towards him. Seconds later, she was cradling him in her lap, and pleading with their assailant, begging him to leave.
The room spun around him, and he had to fight to focus on his surroundings. He was surprised to find himself in the widow’s parlour, although hazy images of that morning were beginning to parade before his mind’s eye and explain his presence there.
It was a decidedly feminine room. Light, airy, with pastel pink walls and flower embossed drapes, and soft furnishings. Crystal ware and fine china adorned an array of oak display cabinets, each piece sparkling, polished to perfection. Johnny had always thought of it as a pretty room, but not so today, as its peaceful air was marred by the ugliness that had invaded it.
Johnny stared at their captors. There were three of them. All were armed, and to Johnny’s experienced eye, all had the look of seasoned outlaws. ‘Yep, he and Mrs. Mac were in trouble alright!’ And the good lady was still trying to appeal to her unexpected guests’ better nature.
“Shut up before I shut ya up!” A deep voice threatened, silencing the widow immediately.
Johnny bit back on the words he’d been about to utter. For the Widow’s sake, it was best not to aggravate these men further. Instead, he forced himself upright, resting his back against the wall. He felt the smaller hand fold around his and squeezed it gently, sensing her terror.
“He looks familiar!” Another of the men stated, his brown eyes narrowing as he pondered on where he’d seen their captive before.
Johnny’s heart sank another fathom. If he was to be recognized as Madrid that could place the Widow in even more danger.
“What’s yer name kid?” The taller of the men asked, rubbing the stubble on his chin.
“John. John Lancer.”
“Lancer? That sounds familiar too. Why?”
“We’ve got a spread north of here.”
“My father and brother.”
“Where are they now?”
“On their way home from Church.”
“Do they know where ya are?”
Johnny hesitated wary of the reaction his reply might receive.
“I asked ya a question boy!”
“Yeah, they know where I am.”
“So they ain’t gonna come lookin’ for ya just yet?”
“No. I wouldn’t think so.” Johnny stared back at his interrogator, not liking what he saw. The man eyed him curiously, his gaze growing in intensity almost…no, he couldn’t quite bring himself to say it. He grew more and more uncomfortable. His skin beginning to crawl under the unwelcome attention. When the man’s lips parted into a toothy grin, he had to look away, now thoroughly unnerved. He wondered if the other men knew the blonds’ preferences. Surely it wasn’t something he could keep secret, but then some men didn’t try to.
Laughter erupted around him, one of the men eyeing the blond knowingly “It’s been a while, huh Len?”
“Yeah Jed, it’s been a while!”
More laughter followed leaving Johnny in no doubt what one of them at least had planned for him.
Murdoch and Scott rode side by side into town, both relieved to see Johnny’s horse still tied to the hitching post outside Green River’s Church.
The older man smiled, his eyes flashing with a mix of relief and mirth “Effie must still have him in her clutches! She’s probably doing her best to fatten him up!”
The blond Lancer laughed, “Yes, he’s probably on his third helping of something very sweet and sticky by now.”
Chuckling Murdoch let his gaze sweep up and down the empty street. His voice taking on a serious tone as he eyed his elder son “There’s no sign of that posse. They must have moved on.”
“Hopefully the trail leads them well away from here. The Hogan brothers have an unenviable reputation, we don’t want that sort round here!” Scott replied to his father.
“No.” The older man agreed with a great depth of feeling. Eyes settling on the Palomino, Murdoch spoke again “Get Barranca, will you son? I’d best go rescue your brother!”
Murdoch urged his horse into a trot and headed towards the outskirts of town; minutes later, he was dismounting and stepping through Effie McDonald’s gateway. The rancher made his way along the narrow path that led to her door, eyes drawn to the well stocked garden awash with seasonal colour.
The warm summer air was heavy with floral fragrance, lavender and honeysuckle vying for supremacy. Around the doorway, and covering the entire of the front of the house, an aging creeper in full and glorious bloom.
All in all it was a pleasing assault on the senses, and the rancher found himself smiling, Effie loved her garden, and had what some folk called ‘green fingers’. The Widow was a goodhearted soul. A little formidable perhaps at first, with the straight-laced air she exuded to strangers, but in reality, she was generous with her time and her affections. She had gone out of her way to welcome Murdoch’s boys back into the fold, Johnny in particular. And for that, the Lancer patriarch was very grateful.
A lot of people had been mistrustful of his younger son, his reputation distancing him from a lot of folk. Not Effie, though. And because someone as well loved and respected as Euphemia McDonald was prepared to give him a chance, these same people had then decided they would too; quickly learning all their fears were unfounded.
Murdoch had to admit to having quite a soft spot where Effie was concerned. He always had, but not the romantic kind. He had no wish to kindle any relationship at his age. No, he was quite happy as he was; now his boys were home!
He rapped lightly on the door, and when Effie didn’t appear he knocked again, a little louder. Just as he was about to knock for the third time, the door opened, the Widow peering cautiously around it.
“Murdoch!” Effie stepped out into the sunlight pulling the door behind her “What a surprise. What can I do for you dear?”
“I’m looking for Johnny. Something’s come up and he’s needed back at the ranch.”
“Johnny? Why he’s not here Murdoch. He did not stay. He wouldn’t come in, and he said he had to get back for lunch!”
“I see.” Murdoch replied trying to ignore the sudden pang of worry twisting his guts “Well he’s not returned and his horse…” Murdoch paused “I suppose he could have gone to see Val. He did have something on his mind!”
“Nothing for you to worry about Effie.” Murdoch assured his friend. “Anyway I won’t keep you. Will I see you next Sunday?”
“You will indeed.” Effie replied a small smile appearing on her unusually pale face.
Murdoch smiled back, tipping his hat before turning around to walk back down the pathway. On reaching the gate he turned around to wave only to find Effie had already gone inside. Later he would ask himself why he had ignored so many clues to there being something wrong. Hints that his son’s life was in grave danger.
Johnny had strained to hear the conversation passing between his father and Mrs. Mac. Knowing that a gun was being held to his head, the widow had gone outside and lied; she had managed to sound pretty convincing too. He had smiled reassuringly at her as she had stepped back into the room, grateful to her for ensuring his father’s safety, for now at least. But for how long Johnny didn’t know. His father would not miss seeing Barranca still tied up by the church, and so believing his younger son to be still in town, he’d first look for him in his usually haunts and eventually make his way back to Effie Mac’s place. His 'old man' unwittingly stepping into a heap of trouble.
A voice broke into his thoughts and he met the stranger’s eyes reluctantly as he answered his questions.
“Yeah that was my father and no, I don’t know why he’s come looking for me.”
Len Hogan stared hard at the dark haired hostage. The kid interested him and in more ways than one. Ranching was a thriving business in these parts; cattlemen wealthy landowners. The kid would hopefully, he thought, be worth a pretty penny to his old man. “Tie him up,” he ordered, “I don’t want him gettin’ away!”
“Oh please don’t!” Effie McDonald pleaded, “He’s not an animal…”
“Shut up!” The blond snarled. The woman’s bleating was getting on his nerves.
“Tie her up too and don’t forget to gag her!”
“No, there’s no need for that!” Johnny exclaimed, as his own hands and feet were being bound “She’ll be still now, won’t you Mrs. Mac?” Johnny eyed the widow beseechingly.
Clamping her mouth shut Effie nodded, knowing she would be powerless to help Johnny if she too was incapacitated by rope.
“I ain’t tying no old lady up anyways!” Clem Hogan protested, “What would Ma say?”
“She’d tell ya ta shoot her!” Jed Hogan replied stone-faced, leaving Johnny with the impression Ma Hogan would indeed say just that.
Eyeing the contrite looking widow Len smirked “Alright but if the old biddy opens her trap again, ya know what ya have ta do, huh Clem?”
“Oh I couldn’t shoot her Len!” Clem insisted wringing his huge hands “Couldn’t I just tie her up instead?”
Johnny listened to the exchange and quickly realized that Clem was lacking in one very important department. If brains were made of dynamite, he wouldn’t have enough to blow his hat off! Normally the brunet wouldn’t play on such a misfortune, but under the circumstances, he wondered if he could somehow use it to his advantage?
Murdoch rode back in the direction of the Church, hoping that by now his younger son would have materialised and joined his brother. For one minute, it appeared Johnny had, because as he turned into Main Street he could see Scott had dismounted and was talking to someone just outside the bank. However, as the rancher drew closer to the two men, he realised the smaller figure was in fact Jim Smee, the town’s mayor, not his missing son.
“Murdoch!” A cheery voice greeted him “Did you find Johnny?
The patriarch shook his head but before he had a chance to respond verbally, the rosy-cheeked official continued, “I didn’t think you would. I’m certain he rode off with that posse!
“But his horse is still here.” Murdoch pointed at the palomino tied up near the Church.
“He probably didn’t think Barranca was up to the chase. He wasn’t all that keen on riding him to Church today, if you remember sir.”
Scott’s reminder caused Murdoch’s heart to sink. Barranca had been off his feed the last couple of days and Johnny had done a lot of fretting over his four-legged friend. The horse had finally eaten that morning though and had seemed full of his usual zest, so Johnny had, with only a little reluctance, decided to ride him into town. He’d seemed fine, but Scott was right. Johnny wouldn’t risk his horse’s health doing what could prove to be a lengthy and arduous trek.
Murdoch’s thoughts were interrupted by Mayor Smee explaining about the posse.
“I know Val was looking for volunteers, swearing them in on the spot. Johnny wouldn’t have had chance to say no, even if he’d wanted to. But knowing that boy of yours Murdoch, he’d have wanted to help out! My guess is he’s taken a horse from the livery. I know the posse not only needed help, they needed fresh horses too. Jake let them have what they wanted from his stock.”
Murdoch nodded thoughtfully, it did all sound quite feasible, and yet he still had a nagging doubt about it all. He forced a smile, “Thanks Jim. I suppose we’d best get on home, there’s no telling when they’ll return.”
Johnny glanced over the mantelpiece clock. It had been almost two hours since his father had called by; surely he’d had plenty of time to establish he wasn’t anywhere in town? Yet he hadn’t come back as Johnny had expected him to do. As relieved as he was about that it also worried him. Murdoch had said he was needed back at the ranch. Did that mean there was some kind of trouble there? And just where was Scott? Normally his father would send his brother after him whenever he turned up missing! Perhaps it had something to do with Scott. A sense of dread rose up in his throat, his imagination beginning to run riot. No! He forcibly told himself. Murdoch had seemed quite calm, cheerful even...
A gruff voice roused Johnny from his thoughts and he stared up at Jed Hogan.
“Juarez? No I’ve never been to Juarez!”
Johnny lied, hoping it would throw the heavily bearded man off his scent. He’d been there alright, more times than he could remember. The last time just…what…three years ago? It was a friendly enough place, especially when the drovers were kicking their heels, waiting for the mighty Rio Bravo to lose some of its rage and become crossable again. But it also harboured the darker elements, and was where he’d first set eyes on John Wesley Hardin. Now there was a cold-blooded killer!
“You sure about that boy? I know I’ve seen ya somewheres.” Jed growled.
Johnny opened his mouth ready to make another denial, only to receive support to his claim from an unexpected source.
“I bet his daddy don’t let him stray that far from home.” Pointing to the front door Len Hogan continued mockingly “Hell, he’s out lookin’ fer him now and him only a little late home from Church,” Turning towards Johnny the blond grinned “Your old man the coddlin’ kind is he boy?”
Johnny lowered his gaze, feigning embarrassment, he’d much rather have them believe that, than find out he was Johnny Madrid, and risk anything happening to Mrs. Mac.
“Thought so!” Len sniggered, wondering just how much cash the rancher would be willing to hand over to ensure the safe return of his precious son.
Murdoch had waited up until midnight. As the grand time piece struck the late hour, he had set down the book that he had been under the pretence of reading, and moved towards the stairs. Wishing his older son goodnight, he also reminded Scott that he too had an early start the next morning.
“I’ll be right up.” Scott had promised stifling a yawn. Like his father, he was worried about his sibling. Riding with a posse was a dangerous task at the best of times. But the odds of being hurt in this particular instance were dramatically increased by the very fact their prey was notoriously ruthless, and merciless in their deeds. The fact they were outnumbered would mean nothing to such men. Scott knew they would rather die in a shootout, taking as many of their pursuers with them as they could, than be taken alive by lawmen to await a certain death by hanging.
It wasn’t the first posse Johnny had ridden with, and Scott knew that very fact was what was troubling his father so very much now. That time, his little brother had been shot. A bullet leaving a deep furrow in his brow, rendering him unconscious and helpless. If the shooter had been a slightly better shot, Johnny would be dead. Luckily, he had been found by Jelly’s boys and had eventually returned home safely.
Murdoch seemed to believe his younger son got some sort of a thrill out of courting such danger, and that that reckless need would one day get him killed. Scott wasn’t so sure that it was a need; more a way of life where his little brother was concerned!
The blond Lancer had tried to reassure their father at such times. Reminding him of how very astute the youngest Lancer was, and that he was more than capable of getting himself out of any tight scrape, even if it was by the skin of his teeth!
Of course, his words never really soothed the older man’s nerves. Neither did the words do much for his own nerves. Still he had to try to mollify both parties, if only for the sake of doing something positive.
Sighing deeply as he rose from the chair, he knew that neither one of them would get much sleep tonight, but like his father, he also knew he should try. Extinguishing the lamps, he followed his father up the stairs while making a silent plea “Keep your fool head down brother!”
His stomach was grumbling yet again! Johnny shook his head wryly; he never did get that piece of apple pie! ‘Strange’, he thought, how a piece of fruit could land a man in such a heap of trouble. He’d once heard a preacher, the fire and brimstone kind, relate the story of Adam and Eve. Now he too, it seemed, had fallen foul of the sweet temptation!
He had eaten earlier, but it seemed it was not enough. The widow had been made to rustle up a stew, and while the three men had attacked theirs with gusto, he’d been spoon fed his small portion by Mrs. Mac. As undignified as that was, he had eaten every bit on his plate, knowing he would need his strength.
“You alright Mrs. Mac?” He had asked quietly between mouthfuls, and had been rewarded with a warm smile and an insistent “Now don’t you worry about me John Lancer. I’m just fine.” That had been the end of the exchange, Len warning them to “shut up or else”
As the widow had played about with the food on her plate, Johnny had listened to the conversation the intruders were having. They didn’t seem to care that they were being overheard, seemingly believing he and the widow of no threat to them. Well he probably wasn’t … not trussed up like he was!
The intruders intended on waiting until the early hours, then they would sneak out just like they had snuck in; only this time they would have company!
While thinking about the outlaw’s plan and trying to figure out one of his own to insure Mrs. Mac’s safely, Johnny was once again drawn from his reverie. Looking up he saw that the blond member of the gang had moved to stand over him. After removing a knife from his boot, he leant down and sliced through the rope tied around Johnny’s feet.
“On yer feet!” Len Hogan demanded.
The youngest Lancer glanced at the clock; it had only just gone midnight, surely it was still a little early for them to be making a move. His suspicions roused he remained where he was. Seconds later, he was grabbed by the arm and impatiently hauled upright. Mrs. Mac instantly scrambling to her feet to stand alongside him
“Don’t go makin’ me angry boy!” Len hissed, “Ya wouldn’t want me ta mess up that pretty face of yours now would ya? Now git in there!”
The blond had gestured towards what Johnny knew to be a bedroom. Right now he knew he had no option but to do as he was told. As the blond’s accomplices laughed at his plight, Johnny turned to the widow “Stay here and sit tight, don’t give them any cause to hurt you. Do you understand?”
“But Johnny what…”
“Please Mrs. Mac just do as I say!”
The widow nodded reluctantly, she wasn’t sure what was going on but thought it best to do Johnny’s bidding
Stepping towards the door Johnny tried desperately to formulate a plan. His hands were still firmly tied behind his back, so he had no hope of defending himself with his fists. And there was Mrs. Mac to think about too!
Remembering how the blond had looked at him earlier in the day, Johnny tensed with apprehension. ‘Dios! Just what was he going to do to stop this from happening?’
When it finally occurred to Scott that something was wrong, it hit him like a bolt from the blue, rendering him motionless, and causing him to break out in a cold sweat.
“Barranca!” The blond whispered before taking the remainder of the stairs two at a time, then running headlong down the passageway to his father’s bedroom.
The panelled door swung open just as he approached it; Murdoch hurriedly stepping into the dimly lit hallway, and even in the half-light, Scott could see the older man’s face was pale and taut with anxiety. His lips parted on seeing his son, and his voice erupted “Scott! Your brother, I’m sure he’s in some kind of trouble!”
Scott nodded vehemently “Me too! He would never have left Barranca like that!”
“No.” The patriarch agreed unable to understand why he hadn’t realised that quite before now, and then of course there was the exchange he had had with Euphemia McDonald “And Effie…” the taller man continued “she…she wasn’t herself!”
Turning on his heels the blond rushed back down the stairs, “I’ll saddle the horses.”
Murdoch followed his son on leaden legs, a sense of foreboding wrapping itself around the rancher as he remembered how Effie had greeted him earlier that day. Uncharacteristically, she had not invited him in! Always before when calling on the widow he had been coaxed inside, ushered to an armchair, and plied with tea and cake. All callers to her door were treated in much the same way, and knowing how fond his younger son was of Mrs. Mac, he would have expected him to have willingly spent at least an hour with her. But it seemed he had not been invited in either…or had he?
There had been no colour in the widow’s cheeks, and the garden loving Effie always had a healthy glow no matter the season. Thinking back, he realised her infamous endless chatter had been absent too, and that was so unlike Effie.
She had swiftly shut the door on him long before he had reached the gate…any other time she would have waved after him until he was out of sight. No! This was not the Effie McDonald he knew. It was as if she was hiding something and was scared of that something being revealed!
‘Dear God, why hadn’t he realised something was amiss before now? Hadn’t all the clues been there?’
The door closed behind him, and as the key turned securing it, Johnny shivered, inexplicably cold. He looked around the room for some form of inspiration, for any hint to finding a way out of the situation he now found himself in. ‘Just how had he managed to get himself into such a mess?’ He silently demanded of himself, as he turned to face Len Hogan.
Grey eyes stared back at him, the pitiless depths sending another shiver down his spine. The taller man took a step towards him and Johnny quickly took a step backwards, furiously twisting his hands in an attempt to loosen the rope around his wrists.
A strange grin appeared on his captor’s face. The same grey eyes now looking Johnny up and down in an unnervingly leisurely fashion, one the brunet imagined to be that of some sick longing.
The intense and unwanted scrutiny drove Johnny backwards and into making unexpected and shuddering contact with a wall. His desperate retreat halted, his eyes again raked the room. As a shadow fell across his face, he found his gaze drawn to his own feet as he realized with some horror that there was no escape. His heart was now thundering in his chest, his breaths growing increasingly rapid and shallow, only to stop momentarily when a grimy hand touched his chest.
All moisture evaporated from his mouth when he felt the fingers of that hand move to the buttons of his shirt and another hand settle on his hip. Johnny swallowed the painful lump that had lodged in his throat, then forced out a firm “No!” through dry lips.
“Ya gonna enjoy this boy, I’ll make sure of that!”
The whispered words forced Johnny’s eyes shut, and his head to turn to one side, away from the odious breath from which they had been delivered. But the stench lingered and soon it was overpowering his senses. His stomach heaved in protest, painfully threatening to expel its contents.
Johnny managed to force down the nausea, as he battled for some control over the dread that now gripped him. ‘Think! Think!’ His mind screamed at him. There had to be a way to stop this without endangering the woman on the other side of the door!
His assailant was unbearably close now and his hands were beginning to stray to new territory. When they found the buckle of his belt Johnny’s head snapped up and he began to struggle; but his attempts to wrench himself free only seemed to excite the older man more. Suddenly a frenzied tussle erupted between the two men, culminating in a brutal backhander being delivered by the bigger man. Its force spinning the dark haired Lancer around to land face down on the bed. Panting, Johnny frantically squirmed onto his back, and glared wild eyed up at his tormentor, blood trickling from both his nose and his upper lip.
Len leered down at his prey, lust and excitement now openly displayed on his face as he moved to make the boy his. But once again he was stopped, this time by a voice outside the room.
“Johnny?” Effie worriedly called through the locked door.
“Ya want Jed to amuse her while we finish up in here?” Len smirked as he moved from the bed, stepping towards the door.
“No!” Johnny pleaded quietly, before raising his voice loud enough for the widow to hear.
“It’s alright Mrs. Mac…I’m alright.”
“But I heard…”
“I’m fine, really.” Johnny shot back, trying to instill some calmness into his tone as he acknowledged that whatever was planned for him he would have to somehow endure… rather that than let any harm come to Mrs. Mac!
Another voice, masculine and mocking permeated the wooden barrier “It’s okay old woman, they’re just getting ta know each other a little better, that right Len?”
Len chuckled and called over his shoulder “Yeah Jed, but the kid’s provin’ a mite shy!”
Laughter erupted in the parlour, both men there seemingly finding their brother’s words amusing. As it died away, Johnny called out.
“Why don’t you make us all some coffee Mrs. Mac…we’ll be out in a little while.”
No reply came, but just seconds later the clinking of china could be heard, and Johnny breathed a small sigh of relief.
“That’s more like it!” The blond crowed, his fingers now working his own belt open as he stepped back towards the bed.
“Now there boy, you just lay still, ya hear? Don’t want no harm ta happen to that old woman. No sir. And you and me, well now, we gonna become better acquainted.”
Mercifully a full moon hung in the cloudless sky. Its silvery beams illuminating the earth below, and ensuring the two Lancer men safe negotiation of the road to Green River. However, as bright as it was, it didn’t allow for any great speed to be reached, and it took them almost two hours to reach the sleeping town.
As they approached the quiet streets, they slowed their mounts down. As their horses trotted into a side street, both men’s eyes settled on the lamp that burned brightly in what they knew to be Effie’s parlour window.
Drawing closer they realised that the front door was open a little.
“What the hell is going on?” Murdoch asked aloud.
Warily the two men made their way inside. Checking each room in turn they found every one empty. But everywhere there was evidence of Effie having had guests. Dirty cups and plates littered her highly polished oak dining table. The contents of a seemingly dropped coffee pot pooled on her usually immaculately clean kitchen floor. The guest room looked untouched, and although Effie’s bed didn’t look to have been slept in, it was very dishevelled.
Scott’s keen eye settled on something that nestled atop the quilt, and he quickly reached out to retrieve the tiny object.
“What is it?” Murdoch asked.
The blond Lancer held out his hand, showing his father a pearly button that he knew for certain had once been attached to his brother’s best white shirt. He watched the older man pale as he too recognized it as being Johnny’s. Fear now clouded his father’s countenance, the same fear that had just wrapped its icy fingers around Scott’s heart.
Neither man could make head nor tail of the situation but both now knew the youngest Lancer had needed them and that that realization had come a little too late!
After discovering Effie’s house abandoned, Murdoch and Scott had gone on to search the numerous outbuildings that stood at the rear of the property. It was soon obvious that several horses had been kept in the largest of the wooden structures. The whitewashed gate that stood to its side and afforded access to the open countryside beyond was found to be open. The padlock that had once secured the gate lay broken on the ground, offering the first real clue to Effie’s visitors having been the uninvited kind.
There was a frightening possibility that the unwanted visitors were the same band of outlaws that the posse has been searching for. The idea the two missing people were now with the notorious Hogan gang only served to heighten the two men’s concern
“It has to be them!” Murdoch reasoned “But why take Effie and Johnny with them?” The rancher mused as he stared into the empty night.
Scott shrugged in answer, he too at a loss as to why the gang would take the pair along. Not that why really mattered. What truly mattered was the fact they were both now missing and their lives were almost certainly in danger.
Daybreak was still a couple of hours away. They couldn’t even start to think of tracking them until they had sufficient light, and they would certainly need more men too, if they were right and it was the Hogan’s they were after.
“Murdoch you stay here I’ll ride home, get the men together, then ride back here. If Val isn’t back by then, then we head out on our own and leave word at the sheriff’s office of what we think has happened.”
Murdoch nodded in agreement “I’ll go through everything here again. I should wake Mr. Wheatly and see if he saw or heard anything but there’s not much chance he did.”
Scott glanced at the neighbouring abode. An elderly widower, Ben Wheatly, lived there. He was partially sighted and deaf as a post. It probably would prove futile but his father was right to suggest it
“I’ll be back as soon as I can.” Scott promised before running back to the house.
Murdoch followed quickly behind and as Scott disappeared through the front door running now towards his horse, the patriarch studied the unwashed items littering the table. There were five cups, five plates, five of everything…so were there five gang members or did the five include Effie and Johnny?
Effie’s house was in an uncharacteristic state of disarray, but there was no real sign of violence, and mercifully there was no blood! Johnny was unarmed, and Murdoch wasn’t sure if that was a good or a bad thing…
“Dear God” Murdoch breathed, colour draining from his face with his next thought. ‘Was Johnny’s gun still in his saddle bags?’
He hadn’t looked! Scott had carried John’s bags into the house along with his own, and then deposited them on the hall table. An ever-tidying Teresa had then taken them up to Johnny’s room; no one had given them or their contents a second thought. Spinning around Murdoch dashed through the door his elder son had just exited through, bellowing after him.
Scott started at the deafening rendition of his name, his father’s voice echoing in the stillness of the night. It had spooked their horses too; the blond Lancer had just thrown himself up into the saddle and now found himself struggling to control his mount.
“What is it?” he called over his shoulder, as his horse continued to toss his head in unease.
From the winding garden path where he stood illuminated by moonlight, Murdoch replied solemnly “Check Johnny’s saddlebags, see if his gun’s still there!”
Scott cursed aloud as realization dawned on him too. Without answering his father directly, he urged his horse towards Main Street. As horse and rider thundered through the quiet streets, the young man berated himself for not picking up on the whereabouts of his sibling’s gun. The blond knew that if they’d found it in his saddlebags the previous afternoon they would not have swallowed the Mayor’s story of Johnny joining the posse.
Johnny had been more reluctant to stow his Colt away than he had been to go to Church. The cold piece of steel was rarely out of Johnny’s sight and always within easy reach. Yesterday he’d left it where he could neither see it nor get to it in a hurry.
He’d not even glanced in Barranca’s direction when he’d left Church. Suited and looking every inch a gentleman he had ignored the weapons call and leisurely strolled along the street with a smiling Mrs. Mac on his arm.
Scott didn’t need to look in the saddlebags to know the Colt was still there. Another curse rolled off the blond man’s tongue, one he now aimed at himself. Silently he went on to lambaste himself further. ‘Why the hell hadn’t he put two and two together back then? Surely to God the math had been easy enough! But no, both he and his father…no he wouldn’t blame his father.’ Scott knew Johnny better than anyone. ’So why hadn’t something clicked into place?’ If anything happened to his brother he would never forgive himself…if anything happened to his brother it would…it would break his heart.
Dawn had long since broken, the sun climbing effortlessly into a cloudless sky. It was a beautiful morning, but nature’s splendour was lost to both captors and hostages alike.
Johnny had been a little surprised at how well the gang seemed to know the area. It was obvious to him now that they had used the mountainous terrain that skirted the east side of the Lancer property to hide from the law before.
The partially forested towers of rock were pleasing to look at but could prove decidedly unfriendly to those unfamiliar with their steep and often treacherous inclines. The mountains were also home to a variety of wild cats, which served to attract numerous hunters to the range. But as the treacherous terrain was also infested with rattlesnakes, the local folk preferred to admire the mountain range from afar.
The small group was now on the far side of the tallest of the rocky mounds. The horses were tired, their riders equally so, but their already long and arduous trek continued. Riding single file they were now making their way through a narrow pass; Johnny had no idea where he was and even less sure of where they could be heading. All he did know was that Mrs. Mac looked exhausted; he felt much the same way.
His hands were tied to the saddle horn; his horse secured by a short rope to Len’s mount, and the blond was leading the way. Mrs. Mac rode just behind Johnny; the remaining two Hogan brothers bringing up the rear. Every now and again Johnny would crane his neck around and check on the widow, a reassuring smile would greet him, but the smile couldn’t hide the pallid cheeks or the dark shadows beneath her eyes. She looked ill at ease on a horse too; Johnny was sure she had little experience of riding, other than in the safety of a carriage.
Just as Johnny would peer behind him, Len was prone to do the same. Nausea would rise up in the brunet’s throat every time the blond Hogan brother turned, because his captor’s eyes always found and settled on him. The hungry leer forced the youngest Lancer to look away, and as he did, he’d tell himself the bastard would pay for what had happened last night.
He was sore, he ached, and he longed for a bath, wanting to wash away the unclean feeling he’d been left with after being locked in the bedroom with that sick bastard.
It had been too close a call, too near to happening. He’d retched helplessly when he’d realised just how close he’d been to being…a shiver ran through him as he contemplated what had then seemed so certain to be his fate; and Johnny was again forced to swallow the bile erupting from his churning stomach.
If Mrs. Mac hadn’t screamed when she did…if all hell hadn’t broken loose in the kitchen…if Jed hadn’t banged on the door when he did demanding Len to get the hell out of there! If? Why the hell was he worrying over if? He’d do better thanking his lucky stars for sparing him. Still he couldn’t shake the memories off and found his thoughts again returning to the events that had taken place in the early hours of that morning.
After almost emptying his stomach Johnny had struggled to right his clothing, colouring upon seeing Mrs. Mac observing him anxiously through the by then open doorway. The widow had been about to mouth something to him when Len had stalked back in from the kitchen grabbing her by the shoulders and demanding to know what she’d seen.
“A…a face!” The widow had stammered “At the…the window!”
“Who was it?” Len had snarled his grip tightening menacingly on Mrs. Mac.
Johnny had clambered to his feet and stumbled to the door only to find Jed’s gun hurriedly pressed against his belly.
“I…I don’t know…I couldn’t really see…”
Len had stared hard at the widow but her gaze had been unfaltering. Clem had appeared then informing them that he’d seen no one outside.
“But there was!” Mrs. Mac had insisted and that insistence had seemed to make Len’s mind up. Within minutes they were leaving. Both he and Mrs. Mac jostled at gunpoint out through the back door.
They had been riding ever since, stopping only once when Mrs. Mac had insisted she be allowed to answer the call of nature. Clem had supported her request, and Johnny hadn’t missed the consideration he’d shown the widow. A gun had been held to Johnny’s head when she disappeared into a thicket. However, the youngest Lancer’s dignity hadn’t warranted the same consideration. His hands had been untied briefly, but Clem had stood nearby, and when done, Johnny had once again felt the rope bite into his wrists.
He could barely feel his fingers now; he could barely feel his butt for that matter! So long had they been in the saddle. He knew the widow had to be suffering to a much greater extent than he though, and with that in mind Johnny was just about to suggest they stop again, when he noticed that the pass was widening.
Looking passed Len, the brunet saw what appeared to be a clearing. Seconds later the blond had stopped his mount; a shrill whistle escaped his lips and was answered shortly after by a similar one. On hearing it, Len led the group into the clearing where the youngest Lancer counted seven more men, all as deadly looking as the Hogan brothers. Johnny wondered if any were men he had met before or if any of them would recognize Johnny Madrid.
Murdoch had stood in the doorway that separated Effie’s parlour from her kitchen, deliberating over whether he should clean up the mess left in the wake of the intruders. He knew the house-proud Effie would be horrified at the sight of dirty dishes strewn across her table. The messy kitchen floor would have her tutting loudly, rolling up her sleeves and then getting down on all fours to scrub it clean. But the Lancer patriarch had finally decided it best to leave the dishes just where they were, with the very faint hope they might prove to be a clue; one that Val’s analytical mind might glean some information from.
The floor, however, was a different matter. So, as he had waited for his elder son to return with some extra manpower to help in their quest, he’d heated some water and then with a good measure of elbow grease and a stiff bristled scrubbing brush, cleared all remnants of the spilt black liquid that had dried hard on the red tiled floor.
As he’d worked, he forced his troubled mind to transport him back in time to his youth and the tiny kitchen that had been the hub of his family’s most modest home. He’d wanted a brief respite from dwelling on Effie’s and his younger son’s plight and his fear for both; and so instead envisioned another time, another widow, but that one surrounded by her loving brood.
His mother, Els Lancer, had been a diminutive bundle of energy, and oh, how she had needed that endless source of vigour. His father had perished at sea; the herring boat he had been the proud skipper of having sank in a storm tossed ocean, all aboard lost to the angry sea. Left with five hungry mouths to feed the Lancer matriarch had taken in first washing, and then when that failed to bring in enough money, mending.
The mending had however; led to the discovery that she had a latent talent for dressmaking. She had quickly made use of this talent, becoming the dressmaker of choice for the surrounding area and beyond. His mother had worked hard, tirelessly, and somehow still found time to keep their home spick and span. Murdoch could picture her now, down on her hands and knees, humming softly to herself as she scrubbed her kitchen floor.
That tiny workhorse had been the centre of his world back then, and he had learnt a thing or two from her about picking yourself up, dusting yourself down and carrying on! His mother had had an indomitable spirit, which he had inherited. So too had his sons, Johnny in particular. As he thought about his mother, he also realized that Effie was too, a most formidable woman, and was of the same stock as Els Lancer and…
Murdoch sighed and with a grunt of discomfort rose to his feet, realizing his thoughts had quickly come full circle. He was again trying to convince himself that both his son and Mrs. Mac would return home safe and sound. Whatever the situation they had been placed in, both had the ability, the strength to endure it and survive to tell the tale! Murdoch knew that Johnny would look out for the widow and that the widow would look out for him.
Despite his grave concern for his boy, a wry grin settled on the ranchers face at his next thought hit him ‘Heaven help whoever took them…Effie and Johnny were a formidable pair!’
As he had stepped outside to empty the pail of dirty water, Murdoch had studied the heavens. Dawn was breaking over the hills and the first rays of daylight were beginning to filter through the night sky. It had promised to be a fine morning weather wise, hopefully not too hot a one; because if it turned out to be a scorcher then they would have to rest their horses frequently and they’d already lost enough time as it was.
The horizon was still cloaked in darkness, but the rancher had eyed its length hoping to see riders emerge from the emptiness. Disappointed he had turned away wondering how long it would be before Val and the posse returned. Some chases lasted mere hours; others days on end, and it seemed this latest manhunt was to follow the latter pattern.
The patriarch had found himself wondering about the gang the posse was chasing. Were they the same men that had taken his son? Had they somehow outwitted their pursuers and backtracked into the town, finding sanctuary if only briefly in Effie’s home? Or was it an entirely different set of outlaws? Val could maybe answer some of those questions, but it was doubtful now that the local sheriff would return before Murdoch and his men set out after their prey.
A despondent Murdoch turned and cast an inquisitive look at the property on the other side of the creeper-ridden fence; a lamp was now burning in a downstairs room. Just as he’d made to move in that direction the back door opened and Ben Wheatly ambled through it en route to the outhouse.
“Ben!” Knowing how very deaf the older man now was Murdoch had had no qualms about hollering loudly over the fence.
“Who is it?” The white haired man called back, his pace quickening as he turned to investigate the apparent stranger in his neighbour’s backyard.
Before Murdoch had a chance to state his name, the faded grey eyes of the old man were lighting up with recognition and a knowing grin played across his face. “You and Effie, huh? Well she’s always had a soft spot for you Murdoch Lancer. You make a fine couple I must say.” With a wink, Ben added “You sneaking in or out?”
“What? Neither Ben! This isn’t what you think…” The patriarch blustered.
“Oh?” Ben craned his neck and squinted up and over the fence at the much taller man, more than a little eager to hear him explain his shenanigans.
Pushing back his ire that Ben could think such a thing of him, Murdoch explained his presence, loudly and in great detail. Disappointment first crossed Ben’s face, then shock and finally horror. Mr. Wheatly had heard and seen nothing just like Murdoch had suspected and he apologized profusely for not being able to help in anyway. But at Murdoch’s request he gave his word to keep an eye out for the returning posse and to inform Val of the situation just as soon as he showed up.
Just as Murdoch turned to go back to Effie’s, he heard horses riding towards her house, and knew that Scott had returned. He turned quickly to Ben to remind him to keep an eye out for the returning sheriff, and noted the worried look in the old man’s eyes, a look he was sure was reflected in his own. Within minutes, Murdoch had saddled his horse and joined his elder son and the eight trusted ranch hands who had volunteered to assist the Lancer’s in their quest.
Several hours later, already hot and tired in the late morning heat, frustration was high as they realized the trail had long since grown cold. Not that there had been much of a trail to follow. All they could be relatively sure of was that the unknown riders had been heading in an easterly direction, and that encompassed both mountainous and heavily wooded terrain, both good places to hide and evade capture.
The sun was beating down unmercifully upon them by noon. The midday heat blistering in its intensity and just like Murdoch had so feared earlier that day, it was slowing them down. Right now they were having to take advantage of a small creek that was endlessly fed by a copious mountain spring; while their horses drank and rested they topped up their canteens with the crystal clear water and discussed their next move.
“We need to cover more ground and the only way to do that is split up.” Scott eyed his father expectantly.
He would have preferred to keep the relatively small group together, but knowing his son was right, Murdoch nodded his ascent then reeled off the names of the men who would accompany Scott. The remaining men would ride with him.
As he climbed back into the saddle the rancher met Scott’s eyes and he asked the question currently on his mind, one he had so far neglected to ask, “What did you tell Teresa?”
“The truth but not to worry!” Scott replied, silently acknowledging how futile the request had been.
The young woman had stood shivering in the predawn chill; lamplight illuminating her pale cheeks and reflecting in her big brown eyes: eyes that had been moist with unshed tears. Teresa had nodded and smiled up at him, determined it seemed not to let one of those tears fall until he’d ridden away. Seeing the furrow deepen on the older man’s brow Scott hurriedly continued:
“Jelly promised to keep an eye on her and Maria will keep her busy, she’ll have little time to fret.”
Murdoch nodded and offered his son a small smile of gratitude. The young man was trying to spare him any more worry, and he truly appreciated having that sort of support from his elder son right now. In fact, it helped just to be able to look at him, to know he at least was safe, for now at least. But they had no real idea of who they were dealing with. Danger could lurk behind any rock or tree. So with a flick of the reins Murdoch urged his mount onward, and as he did so eyed his older boy and quietly insisted,
“Be careful Son.”
Johnny hadn’t recognised any of the gang and mercifully no one had recognised him; not yet anyway! From the exchange he’d heard pass between Len and several of the men at the camp when they had first rode in, it seemed not all of them had returned to the hide out.
Both he and Mrs. Mac had been roughly hauled from their horses, and as they stood side by side, they had been intensely scrutinized by the gang members. Sick innuendo and foul language had then bounced back and forth between the men, and mocking laughter had echoed off the rocky precipices that almost entirely surrounded them.
The little voice inside his head had told him to ignore it that the widow would fare better if he kept his temper under control; but as the flow of filth increased, he was unable to stop an angry reproach from escaping his lips.
The retort had been aimed at the most vocal member, the youngest Lancer firing a very personal insult in his direction. Silence swiftly fell around him, and he knew instantly that he’d picked on the wrong man!
As the potbellied stranger lurched at Johnny, Mrs. Mac quickly stepped between the two men, placing one hand on the outlaw’s chest she smiled sweetly up at him “Oh pay no mind to him! Take it from me, women like a man to have plenty of meat on his bones.”
Horrified the widow had endangered herself on his account, Johnny tried to step around her, but her arm snaked out and her hand none to gently patted his stomach as she continued to speak to the man towering menacingly before her
“John here is way too skinny! A strong wind would blow him over! But you now…well let’s just say it would take something a mite more powerful to cause you to even sway.”
Johnny stared sideways at the widow, his blue eyes wide with disbelief; if he didn’t know better he’d swear she was flirting with the balding creep! Then to his utter horror, Effie gripped the man by the elbow and steered him towards the fire as she said in a cheery voice, “Now, why don't you let me fix you something to eat!”
Sweat trickled down his back and beaded on his brow, the sun’s intense heat reaching him even as he sat in the shade. The stubble on his lower face and neck added to his discomfort, it itched something fierce and with his hands tied behind his back he had no hope of doing anything about it.
His mouth was dry adding to his discomfort, but that wasn’t just due to thirst. No! From where he sat he could see the widow moving freely around the camp; doling out fresh coffee and what looked to be a tasty stew, all the time chattering away like she was at some church picnic!
Johnny was terrified for her safety! Did she really not know what danger she was in? Mrs. Mac was truly the kindest of souls, but she couldn’t really be that naïve…or could she?
His blue eyes had followed her every move, trying to catch her attention. But when she had looked his way, she’d simply smiled at him and then turned her attention back to the murderous scum all around her!
The youngest Lancer watched open mouthed as she tousled Clem’s hair. He was still gaping in disbelief when the widow suddenly turned around and started to walk in his direction.
He silently urged her closer, desperate to explain a few things to her before it was too late!
“Stew, John dear?”
“No!” Johnny shook his head vehemently when he realised Mrs. Mac had stopped her approach and was now side stepping to the fire and the pot of stew simmering above it.
“Oh you must eat John!” The widow admonished him before picking up a plate and ladling some of the pots contents upon it.
As the widow started to again move in his direction he heaved a sigh of relief, only for her to turn around again.
“Mrs. Mac!” Johnny hissed.
“Coffee! You want coffee don’t you John?” Effie Mac gestured with the tin mug she was now holding.
Johnny nodded and groaned quietly to himself.
As Mrs. Mac finally sat down beside him he turned to her and met her gaze.
“Are you trying to get yourself killed?” The two hostages snapped at each other in unison.
“Me?” Each retorted indignantly.
Placing a finger on the young man’s lips to silence him, the widow shook her head “What were you thinking calling that man that? Really Johnny! I’m surprised at you!” Then spooning some stew into Johnny’s now open mouth Effie whispered, “You really shouldn’t trifle with such men!”
Swallowing the food without either chewing or tasting it Johnny spluttered, “’I’ shouldn’t trifle with such men…” eager to point out that the widow had been doing some trifling of her own!
“Indeed not!” Effie agreed patting the young man’s arm “They’re not to be trusted…and you really should chew your food a little more, it aids the digestion you know!”
“What? No, no that’s it exactly Mrs. Mac, they’re not to be trusted, and you’re…”A fully laden spoon left another deposit of stew on his tongue, effectively silencing him yet again.
“Remember to chew now won’t you!” Effie instructed.
Johnny chewed this time, all the time staring incredulously at the widow and wondering just how the hell he was going to keep her safe. As soon as he swallowed he found another spoonful hovering by his lips. His first reaction was to clamp his mouth shut and refuse. They needed to talk, or rather he needed to talk and Mrs. Mac needed to listen. But there was such a determined glint in her green eyes, that Johnny realised he wouldn’t win such a fight!
He opened his mouth obediently and was rewarded with “That’s more like it!” from a beaming Effie.
Determined to show a little rebellion he rolled his eyes then watched the smile fade from the widow’s face.
“I know you think I’m a silly old woman…”
“I don’t!” Johnny protested loudly horrified that he’d given her that impression “Really I don’t Mrs. Mac. “It’s just…” A whoop of delight followed by some cheers drew both his and Effie’s attention; their eyes drawn to where some of the outlaws had gathered to greet two more men who had just ridden into the encampment.
Johnny had a clear view of both new men; his eyes quickly settling on the heavier set of the two. ‘Shit!’ he thought, as recognition sent a cold shiver up and down his spine. Things had just got a whole lot worse!
Scott stared up at the darkening sky; daylight would soon succumb to the power of night. He cursed the heavens, damning them for halting their desperate search.
Still he knew the men with him were both tired and hungry; that they had more than earned a hot meal and some rest.
Voicing that fact he pointed to a suitable clearing and led the way over to it. As he dismounted his thoughts strayed from his missing brother to his father, wondering if he’d had more success with their quest.
They had agreed to alert each other with one rifle shot should they find anything of any relevance, but there had been no gunfire from either group. It seemed their prey had disappeared into thin air.
As he set about tending his horse he hoped the older man wasn’t pushing himself too hard; that he’d eaten something and would manage to get some sleep. It had been a long and arduous day for them all; but particularly so for Murdoch; both physically and emotionally. His father’s back was sure to be giving him grief by now and concern for Johnny would be eating away at him like some vulture pecking at his soul. Not knowing where his brother was, or even if he was still alive, was wrecking havoc on his own mind, but at least he was not hurting physically, as he knew his father was.
Sighing with a heavy heart, Scott realised he was now worrying about both men, although the worry for Johnny was stronger – the fear of the unknown so much harder to control. He felt so very helpless at the moment. . And then of course there was the widow; Scott was very fond of her as was everyone of course. But then who could not like Effie MacDonald? She charmed her way into everyone’s heart…but what about the heartless?
It seemed the widow was at the mercy of a group of such men, how would she fare? Such questions would he knew, haunt him all night, and that meant it was to be one very long night! Well perhaps mentally it would; but he knew that after allowing the men to eat and rest up for a few hours, he would awaken them so that they could continue their hunt well before dawn. He had to find his brother, had to find him alive. Or Lancer would never be home again!
Murdoch stared up at the night sky, counting stars instead of sheep. Sleep was proving elusive as it had so many times over the years.
Inside was the familiar ache, one he’d hoped he’d said goodbye to when his sons had come home. But now it was back; severe in its intensity because once again his younger son had been taken from him. And unlike when Johnny was a baby, he didn’t even have the comfort of knowing where his elder boy was. Oh this time he knew Scott was nearby, yes; but not particularly safe, not with a gang of outlaws on the loose.
His boys might both be grown men, and more than capable of looking after their self in any given environment or situation; but that knowledge didn’t stop him worrying over them, fearing for their lives.
What had happened to Johnny was a complete mystery; all they knew was that he and Effie had been spirited away. The not knowing was the worst thing of course. It left plenty of room for the imagination to run riot. Such thoughts were hard… no impossible to suppress, and right now his imagination was working overtime. Taking a deep breath and closing his eyes, he said a prayer for his younger boy, as he tried to quash his worrisome thoughts, and find the sleep that had so far evaded him. Early morning would come soon, as Cipriano and he had agreed before settling in for the night. They would leave before dawn, his Segundo leading the way looking for the elusive trail as they headed deeper into the mountains.
Mercifully Charley Meeks had shown little interest in the captives, glancing only briefly in their direction. Food and drink his first priority. He had helped himself to both, and then sat on a rock to watch the poker game Len Hogan and several of the other men were embroiled in.
Johnny had just been about to tell Mrs. Mac that he could soon be recognised when she had whispered “Do you know that man Johnny?”
He’d answered her honestly and if she’d been at all worried she hadn’t let him know it. They both had watched Charley as he had sat in on the next game and every consecutive one, all the time with his back turned to them. And so Johnny had begun to relax a little.
A good few hours later as the moon was now shining down upon them, Charley now asleep, along with most of the other men, Mrs. Mac retrieved a blanket and lay down beside Johnny. She was just about to tell Johnny to do the same, when Clem sauntered over to them.
He reached for the young Lancer, heaving him to his feet and took him over to the bushes. Pulling his gun out first, he then untied Johnny’s hands and motioned for him to take care of his needs. When he was through, Clem retied his hand, telling him not to try anything during the night, and reminding Johnny of another threat that still hung over his head.
“Len’s watchin’ you boy, you best remember that!”
Johnny looked in the blonds’ direction, his stomach turning over on seeing a sick grin spread across the older man’s face. He’d looked away quickly but not before seeing him wink back.
The youngest Lancer shuddered, silently berating himself for letting the creep have such an effect on him.
“Are you alright John?”
The widow had settled down before Clem had come for him, and Johnny had believed her to be asleep. He scooted down to lay alongside her and smiled hoping to reassure her “Yeah I’m fine. You?”
Effie nodded and smiled back before replying knowingly “Don’t you worry about him Johnny dear! I’m sure he won’t try anything here, not in front of all these other men. So you just try and get some sleep and put that aside. We need to keep our wits about us, dear, so when the time comes we can make good our escape.”
The widow closed her eyes and it suddenly dawned on Johnny that she had known exactly what was going on in her bedroom the night before, and that she had purposefully caused a diversion to save him! And saving his sorry ass was becoming a bit of a habit for her. As a slow smile crept onto his face, he knew he needed to start rethinking Effie Mac. Maybe, just maybe with the two of them putting their heads together they could find a way out of this. Cause so far he hadn’t been doing too good, but Mrs. Mac, well now...
He’d slept a couple of hours, only fitfully, but then the cold hard ground he lay upon was hardly conducive to a good night’s rest, neither was the situation he found himself in. Grimacing as his stiff muscles protested the movement made; he slowly changed his position, turning awkwardly onto his other side. He’d like to have lain on his back, but with his hands tied the way they were it was impossible. At least, Johnny conceded grudgingly, they weren’t bound too tightly; the rope wasn’t digging into his flesh or hindering his circulation. He wondered if that was down to Clem showing him a little consideration; because unlike his brothers, Clem Hogan seemed capable of compassion, and again Johnny considered the possibility of working that to his advantage.
An owl called in the distance, and somewhere, not too far away a wolf bayed, howling Johnny imagined, up at the moon.
The milky orb hovered above him, surrounded by countless twinkling stars; he never tired of looking at the night sky, even now when danger was all around him.
He had tried not to think about his family, but now in the relative quiet of night he could no longer keep such thoughts at bay. And he found himself worrying over them again, growing ever more fearful of what could be wrong. His father had been to Effie’s looking for him, yet he had not come back as Johnny had expected and so feared. He was relieved he hadn’t of course, certain it would have ended up in a bloodbath; but on the other hand the fact he hadn’t returned pointed to there being something wrong at home!
Johnny’s first thought had been that something had happened to Scott but he’d slowly reasoned that out. No, whatever was wrong he was sure it had nothing to do with his brother. No, it had to be a problem with the ranch rather than one of the family members, because his father hadn’t sounded overly worried or upset. He was, Johnny knew, going over old ground. He’d pondered over all this before and he’d reasoned it out in exactly the same way. So why was he torturing himself again?
“A penny for them Johnny?”
Effie Mac’s hushed voice snapped Johnny out of his reverie, “You should be asleep.” Johnny chided quietly as his eyes met the widows questioning gaze.
“So should you.” Effie smiled, her green eyes glinting in the moonlight.
“Yeah, we both should.” A sigh escaped Johnny’s lips as he glanced in their captor’s direction. All but one of the men appeared to be asleep. The bearded outlaw in question was tramping the perimeter of the encampment, obviously on guard and battling hard to fend off sleep.
“Do you have something on your mind John?”Effie whispered regaining her companion’s attention, “Something other than the obvious I mean?”
“No.” Johnny lied, not wanting to burden the widow with anything else.
“You’re thinking about your father and brother aren’t you dear?” The widow shifted a little closer to her young friend.
Eyes widening the youngest Lancer asked “How’d you do that?”
“Know what I’m thinking!”
Effie laughed, “Oh I just know how important they are to you, and that when you care for someone that much they are never very far from your thoughts.”
“No they’re not.” Johnny agreed readily directing his gaze back up at the stars as he contemplated his feelings for his family. His old man and brother had come to mean so very much to him, Teresa too, and they were indeed always in his thoughts, and of course, his heart.
“I was so happy when I heard your father had found you, but nowhere near as happy and relieved as he was.”
The unexpected admission stirred up an eddy of emotion; and more than a little interested now in what Effie might share with him, the younger Lancer son turned once more to face the widow.
“He came to tell me you and Scott were home; he was wearing the biggest and brightest of smiles on his face. Positively beaming he was. ”
“Yes.” The widow reinforced her reply with a pat to Johnny’s arm. “For the first time in a long time... in twenty odd years he knew where you were, and although you were hurt, recovering from that bullet wound, he knew you were safe. It was as if the weight of the world had been lifted from his shoulders. “
“He got more than he bargained for though didn’t he...” Johnny shrugged as he remembered the way he’d acted towards his father those first few months, “With me I mean! I’ve caused him a great many headaches since I’ve been back.”
To Johnny’s surprise the widow chuckled. Didn’t she know just how much sass he’d given his old man, or how he’d continually rebelled against his authority? No probably not! Murdoch wouldn’t have wanted to share those experiences with his friend, and who could blame him?
“Oh I know you gave him hell John but he understood why. He was prepared to sit it out the best he could, certain you would eventually accept the truth about him.”
Johnny closed his eyes and forced out a truth that had for a long time haunted him, “I hated him!”
“I know.” Effie replied calmly. “But not anymore...”
“Ya best shut up, before Len hears yer!” A voice hissed from a few yards away. Both Effie and Johnny recognised it as Clem’s. Neither one of them wanted to get the eldest Hogan’s attention. So giving each other a knowing look they fell silent: Effie soon drifting off into a troubled sleep; Johnny left pondering on their conversation.
He was in truth, more than a little relieved that it had been interrupted. His admission didn’t seem to have come as any great surprise let alone a shock to the widow, but his openness had certainly disturbed Johnny himself.
What the hell was he thinking saying such a thing to a friend of his father’s? Not only did he feel ashamed of having had such feelings once, he also felt he’d betrayed his father by voicing them now.
Mrs. Mac had said ‘But not anymore’ and she was right. No he didn’t hate his father now and hadn’t for a long time, not since...not since...well when was it exactly that his feelings towards his father had changed? He didn’t know, but thankfully it had been quite early on.
Murdoch Lancer was an easy man to respect, not that Johnny had found it easy to show the older man any respect back then. And before long he’d found himself actually liking the man; and once he had seen past the gruff exterior, he’d realised Murdoch’s bark was hundred times worse than his bite! And that he tended only to snap in Johnny’s direction if pushed too far. Like Effie Mac said, he’d given his father hell...and he wasn’t proud of that fact.
Just like now, he’d spent those first sleepless nights at Lancer pondering on his father, and he’d soon realised his mother’s story just didn’t add up. She’d lied to him and in doing so had denied him a good and loving father.
Before he’d come to Lancer, before he’d come home, he’d never allowed himself to think so deeply on things or on people for that matter. He’d told himself not to get that involved, but he’d had to...had wanted to get involved with those he’d found there. And he knew now that he’d done the right thing.
Life at Lancer was good and he put that down to hard work and the love of his family. There was rarely a dull moment. Dull he wasn’t keen on, yet right at that moment he longed for a long spell of boredom. He longed for his own bed; he longed for a lot of things, for one thing that this nightmare he found himself trapped in to be over. He longed too to see his family, to know they were safe...they would be feeling the same way about him; and just knowing that gave him the determination to make it happen.
Yawning he closed his eyes and slowly succumbed to sleep.
The night had seemed endless to the blond Lancer, but dawn was finally breaking. He swallowed the last of his coffee then rose to his feet, his movements rousing his companions who had been sleeping soundly around him. Scott knew that once they’d eaten and got some of the hot black brew into their bellies, they too would be ready to ride.
In his wakeful hours and there had been a great many of them, Scott had plotted out the areas he would search, methodical ensuring that both time and manpower was used efficiently. Sometime during the long night while waiting for dawn, Scott began to think about the search for his brother, and Mrs. Mac, and how they would find them if picking up a trail continued to be so elusive. He began remembering some of the military training he had; the crash course he had before assuming command of troops as a junior officer. And even as the war went on, before he was captured, learning from the senior experienced officers, and his own sergeant, a seasoned veteran, who had saved their hides more than once.
‘Find the enemy and engage them’ had been drummed into him time and again. The trick though, was finding the enemy. ‘Think like them’, his sergeant had told him, and ‘look around see where you are, and then look at it again, only this time through the enemy’s eyes. What do they need? Are they coming at you or trying to hide from you? If you were them, where would you be?’
And so, he had begun to look at the current situation in a much different light. The first thing he thought about was if the riders for the number of horses they had determined had left Effie’s, three in addition to Johnny and Mrs. Mac, was the entire Hogan gang. From information he had heard about the gang, and from the sheriff heading the posse, there were a lot more than three. So maybe, just maybe, they were heading to a place where they planned to meet up with the remainder of the gang, to regroup. And if he thought about it, which he had, the mountains that skirted the eastern boundary of Lancer were a perfect place for a hide-out. The mountains featured caves, hidden trails that were difficult to see unless you knew just what you were looking for; along with narrow passages through towering rock walls leading to a clearing surrounded by rocks and trees.
However, one of the most important things for a group of men on the run was to make sure the hide-out had a way out. Not the same way you came in, but a different way. It would need to be high enough to see anyone coming long before they got there. They would post sentries, to alert them as to anyone coming. They would want it to be well hidden, to hide smoke from a camp fire. So when you put all these things together, it helped you narrow down what you were looking for – especially if one of the men travelling with you, knew these mountains well. And Pedro knew them well, well enough to give them an edge.
As the four men with him started to break camp, he called Pedro over and shared with him his thoughts for finding the Hogan gang, and asked him to think like an outlaw for a few minutes. Use his knowledge of these mountains, and see if he could remember any specific areas that might have a hidden narrow trail leading to a high plateau surrounded by high rock walls; where guards could hide to look back down that narrow trail. As he walked with Pedro back towards the horses to saddle up, Scott thought of one more thing to have the vaquero think about as he used his knowledge of the mountain range to aide them in the search.
“Pedro, if I was running from the law and needed a place to hide for a while, as I waited for others to join up with me, I would want to make sure the place I choose had a back way out. So the question is do you know of high hidden areas, with a narrow trail, and passage way that also have a back way out, an escape route?
Pedro looked at Senor Scott for a few moments, thinking about what he said, ‘think like an outlaw.’ Suddenly a grin appeared on his face, “Si, Senor Scott, if I was an outlaw, I know the place.”
As the camp came noisily to life around him so did Johnny. His heart sinking upon realising the space occupied by Mrs. Mac throughout the night was now empty. He’d obviously slept heavily this past hour or so, and had not heard her stir. Pushing himself upright he scanned his surroundings. He couldn’t see the widow and clambered to his knees, eyes now frantically seeking out his friend as panic rose still further in his chest. That panic turning to dismay when he locked eyes with Charley Meeks.
Charley’s brown eyes widened with recognition and Johnny watched a smile spread across the outlaws face. A split second later the man was striding towards the youngest Lancer, and was soon standing over him.
“Well if it ain’t...”
“Charley!” Johnny ground out quietly, “They don’t know who I am and I want it to stay that way!”
Casting a quick look over his shoulder to see if anyone was within hearing distance Charlie shook his head before replying quietly, “Len told me ya was some rich rancher’s son; he’s hoping ta make some money outta ya Johnny boy. He won’t like being made a fool of.”
“Well he’s right about me being a rancher’s son; he just doesn’t know what you know.”
“Your old mans a rancher? A rich one?”
“Yeah, well not rich exactly, and what money he has he’s worked damn hard for...”
“And the old biddy? “ Charley Meeks asked, trying to make sense of the situation.
“A friend...where is she?” Johnny didn’t even try to disguise the concern in his voice.
“Clem took her to get fresh water; she’s safe enough with him.”
“She’s not safe in this vipers nest!” Johnny spat in protest. “And if they find out who I am...what I was...”
“Yes was. I’m a rancher now, and I go by the name Lancer, Johnny Lancer.”
“MEEKS!” Lens voice echoed around the rocky enclosure making it sound threatening, both Johnny and Charley turned to look in his direction.
“You two look mighty friendly. Ya know the kid Charley?” Len demanded as he stalked towards the two younger men.
Cipriano had always been a light sleeper, but on the trail, when danger could rear its ugly head at any moment, he had what some called the senses of a cat. He lay in his bedroll, his eyes peering out through the barely discernable slits at the man he had called friend for many years. The Patron had barely slept, and he knew that sleep would be kept at bay until he found Juanito. The boy had been taken from him once before, and he knew Murdoch Lancer would stop at nothing to prevent that from happening again.
Dawn was coming, the first rays beginning to show to the east. It was time to break camp and to move on, searching for the elusive trail. The Segundo wished that Isidro was with them, as both of them were masters in deciphering the signs needed to track someone. There were always signs; you just had to know where to look. Often when a horse track was no longer visible, then you looked for other signs: broken twigs on branches that would snap a certain way when a horse rubbed against it; a discarded piece of food; water or a cup of coffee thrown or tossed a certain way; a discarded smoke, carelessly tossed aside. There were always signs.
Murdoch heard a noise bringing him to his feet as he reached for his rifle. Looking quickly around the camp he noted that Cipriano and the other men had also heard the noise, and now all had guns ready, looking into the copse of trees nearby where the sound had emanated from. Just as he was about to move toward the trees, a voice called out for him.
“Murdoch? It’s me Val.” The Sheriff slowly rode out from between the trees, lowering his head to avoid the low hanging branches. Behind him were two long-time Lancer hands, Isidro and Frank.
“Val, how did you find us? Where is the rest of the posse you rode with?” Murdoch lowered his rifle and moved over next to Val as he slowly dismounted.
“The posse became convinced that the Hogan’s were heading back towards Texas, so started doubling back. Didn’t agree, so told Sheriff Carter, that me, Isidro, Frank and the other local boys were pulling out. Thought it would be best if we all went back to Green River. Got your message in town, so we got fresh mounts, and Isidro tracked you here.” Val Crawford moved over to the fire, and poured himself a cup of coffee.
“Knew that Sheriff was wrong about ‘em heading back. “ Taking a sip of coffee, he continued:
“So they hid out at Mrs. Mac’s and she and Johnny walked right into it,” he paused looking around and then asked Murdoch where Scott was.
“Scott and I decided to split up yesterday to cover more ground leading up into the mountains, in hopes of picking up a trail sooner. They had a big head start, and while Cipriano picked up a trail heading into the foothills, here, we lost the trail early yesterday, and that’s when we split up. I…” Murdoch started to say more, but suddenly stopped, turning his back to the sheriff, he walked away from the group of men.
Val moved over to Cipriano, speaking softly.
“Cip, know this is hard on him, he gonna hold it together, as we got a tough way to go, here?”
“Si, Senor Sheriff, the patron knows what he needs to do. I think my friend that he is upset because he missed the signs of Barranca being left tied up, with Juanito’s saddlebags and gun still in place. He thinks he should have known that Johnny would go nowhere before taking care of his horse, his amigo.”
Crawford nodded his head in understanding and followed to where Murdoch was standing along the creek bed.
The elder Lancer turned when he heard footsteps approaching, bringing his emotions under control before doing so.
“Cip just told me about you and Scott not picking up on the sign of Johnny being in some trouble early enough, and I got ta tell you, not sure it would have been good for Effie and Johnny if ya had done so. They would have shot them dead in a fight with you and Scott. They seemed to want to take them hostage – and while it ain’t good, we might have a better chance of rescuing ‘em out in the open, then back there at Mrs. Mac’s place. “
Murdoch gave the scruffy looking man a small warm smile. He knew what Val was trying to do, and part of him understood that Crawford may be right, as it would have almost been impossible to try and rescue them from the Hogan’s when they were inside Effie’s place. But still, it did not excuse him from picking up on what was right in front of his face. And damn it! This was just another thing he had failed to do, where Johnny was concerned.
Well it would do no good wallowing in guilt now. Now was the time to act, and find the two of them before, god-forbid, anything happen to them, hoping also that nothing so far had, because the thought of losing his son……….No, now was not the time. They needed to move out, now.
“I understand and appreciate what you are saying Val, but we need to move out now. There is enough light now for Cip and Isidro to try and see if they can pick up a trail. We know that it wasn’t the whole gang at Effie’s so they may have split up, with a few taking refuge at Effie’s when Johnny and her walked in after Sunday service. So it is possible, they just took them as hostage for insurance, and were planning on meeting up with the other gang members. So maybe they have a camp already set up somewhere. It seemed the only trail we were able to pick up, let towards the mountain range that runs on the east side of Lancer, and while we lost it early on, there are some good places in those mountains to make a camp, hidden from view.
“That was part of the reason Scott and I decided to split up. There are many mountain trails going up – some leading to narrow passes, that open to clearings. All can be traversed by horse, even some by wagon. But one thing is certain; a lot of the trails can lead to a good hiding place. We need to pick the right one – or it could take us days and weeks –time we don’t have.” Murdoch accepted a cup of coffee handed to him by his Segundo, who had walked over to join the two of them.
“Si, Patron, we can easily pick the wrong trail, but with Isidro now joining us, the two of use should be able to find the right one, of this I am certain.”
“Well then Cip, let’s get going. Murdoch you ready to saddle up and move out?”
The elder Lancer nodded his head and yelled out for his men to break camp and saddle up. It was time to find his boy, and he had no doubt he would. It was just………
Charley Meeks continued staring at Johnny, knowing that Len was now standing a few feet away. He owed Johnny, that was for sure; but did he owe him his life? Cause that was sure the price he would pay if he lied to Len Hogan. The man was the meanest hombre he had ever come across, even if he had a hankering for men over women. Didn’t know anyone who had said anything to him about that and was still alive.
But Johnny and him, well………..
“Meeks, I asked you a question. You seem awful friendly with this Lancer boy, you know him?”
Taking a deep breath, hesitating just a second more, Charley finally spoke.
“Yeah, I know Johnny.”
Scott’s spirits had soared on hearing Pedro’s description of ‘La guarida del Diablo’. It sounded every inch the perfect hideout. Located high above the valley, it was perched upon a rocky mountain summit and was enclosed within peaks of granite. According to Pedro it was impregnably except for two steep and treacherous passes. Very few had attempted the ascent, especially in recent years as rumours had circulated about it being the den of murderers and other such lowlife.
Scott hadn’t known of its existence up until now, but that hadn’t come as any great surprise to Pedro; folklore and superstition meant it wasn’t openly discussed. But the godforsaken hole suddenly seemed to offer some hope, it could even prove to be the answer to his and Murdoch’s prayers.
He and his men had quickly broken camp, saddled their horses and rode in the direction where he and Murdoch had departed the previous day. Scott wasn’t sure how far his father had gone into the foot hills travelling away from him, but after almost an hour decided that as they had all been going slow tying to find elusive signs of tracks in the rocky terrain, signalling his father might result in a return contact.
As had been previously agreed he fired his gun into the air to alert his father to any development then led his men in the direction of the answering shot.
The young man wished he had something more tangible and reassuring to tell the older man, for all he had really was a gut feeling; still it was more than he’d had just an hour ago!
Riders appeared in the distance; as they grew closer Scott realised that his father’s group had increased in number. For one heart stopping moment the elder Lancer son dared hope one would be his brother that by some divine intervention Johnny had been found. However, the bubble of relief burst as quickly as it had formed leaving him physically aching with disappointment. Whoever the other riders were, Johnny wasn’t among them. His brother had a confident and natural seat, these men weren’t nearly quite so at home in the saddle.
couple of minutes passed before Scott realised it was Val riding along side
his father. The blond didn’t know what to make of the sheriff’s unexpected
appearance. Did it bode well or of ill? Did he have news of his missing
brother? Anxious to find out, he picked up the pace a little to close the
distance between the two search-parties.
Murdoch let out a breath he had not known he was holding upon seeing the tall blond with his military posture riding towards them. The single-shot had told him of a development – but until he saw his older son, he had worried that perhaps something had happened to this son, too. An unfounded worry he knew, but his nerves were on edge, and the fear of losing his younger boy had transferred in part to worrying about Scott when they parted the day before. Now at least he knew one was safe – and he prayed that Johnny was unharmed as well.
As they neared Scott’s group he glanced to his side and spoke to his Segundo.
“It would seem that you were right about Pedro knowing ‘La guarida Del Diablo’ too, unless there is another reason Scott is riding this way”
“Si, Patron, Pedro would know. He knows more than me, I think, as he spent mucho time as a nino here with his tio. Perhaps Senor Scott and Pedro have already found the right trail into the mountains, and that is why they signalled for us.”
“Don’t think so, Cip,” Val interjected. “Iffin they did, think Scott would of just sent a lone scout for us and been leading his group of men up that trail. Careful like, though, knowing Scott.”
“I think you are right, Val. But he signalled for some reason, so let’s pick it up and find out why.” Murdoch gently kicked the sides of his large sorrel urging Toby into a faster gait. Finally as the two groups met, he pulled on his reins, stopping and turning his horse to the side. He was the first to speak.
“Scott, you have something?”
“Well hopefully sir. Pedro remembered a place his uncle showed him when he was a young boy living near these mountains. But since you are riding this way – maybe you already figured that out.” Scott looked expectantly towards the Segundo.
Before Murdoch could speak, however, the young Vaquero spoke up. “La guarida del Diablo’ eh, Senor Cipriano.” A smile came to the young Mexican’s face as he looked toward the Segundo and saw the slow nod of the older man’s head.
The Segundo spoke. “But do you know where it is Pedro in these mountains? There are so many trails and we must be sure. I am not so sure where it is- somewhere near here, a steep but wide trail, hidden by rocks, I think, no?”
“Si, Senor, fue allí con mi tío muchas veces.” Pedro responded nodding. “Many times as a boy with my uncle.”
“Pedro, is Cipriano right, is it near here? Can you lead us there?” ”
“Si, Patron. It is just around a little from where you came.” He turned to the Patron’s son with a knowing smile, “dos senderos, eh Senor Scott?”
“Both?” The Sheriff asked.
“Yes, Val, I would think any band of outlaws would only use a camp high in these mountains if they were assured of a secondary means of egress.” Scott saw the befuddled looks coming his way. “Ah, a secondary trail, or back trail. When I asked Pedro to think of such a place he immediately came up with this ‘La guarida del Diablo’ as not only is the camp at a high plateau surrounded, according to Pedro, by high boulders, but it has two steep trails leading towards it.” Scott looked to the young Vaquero and nodded for him to explain further.
“Si, Senor, dos senderos,” the young man began to explain excitedly. Pedro knew that it was he who had the knowledge to help his Patron find his nino, to find Juanito, his amigo, and for this he was proud. However, in his excitement he had not realized that he was reverting to his native language. “Un sendero es steep, biut mucho camino fácil a los demás, que uno es difícil, muy empinado y rocoso.”
Cipriano quickly translated before Scott had to ask. “Scott, he is saying that the first trail is wide but steep, easier than the other trail, which is also steep, but very difficult and rocky. It will be hard for the horses, I think, eh?”
The others nodded their heads in agreement, but knew it would be the best way to go.
“Pedro, what else ya got about these trails that we should know ‘bout?” Val was anxious to get moving but wanted as much information as Pedro had so that they could begin putting together a plan. “And in English, boy, so as Scott knows what ya are saying.”
Pedro smiled shyly, but nodded his head. “Si Sheriff, Inglés. The trails they are hidden; the wider behind some big rocks and trees, not so easy to see from this trail,” he pointed to the one they were on, “but you go through the rocks and then, it is there. The other trail is farther from there and you cannot get to it so easy. You must walk your horse up through some rocks, a small path, mucho, mucho dificil. But then you ride, slowly and it is hard. But if we are slow and careful, we will do okay.” He looked to his Segundo, who gave a quick nod of his head in approval.
“Scott seems ta me we ought to leave a few men hidden in those rocks at the front trail, just to make sure no one comes down. And iffin’ they do and they have Johnny and Mrs. Mac, don’t do anything but follow, sending someone to get us. What ya think, Lieutenant?” Val gave a small smile to his friend’s brother.
Scott gave a startled look at the title used by the Sheriff, but quickly understood it was being used much as Johnny would refer to him as the ‘Tin Soldier’. There was much about the relationship between Johnny and this man that was a mystery to him, and once again he wondered at their friendship. But now was not the time to think about anything other than finding his brother.
“I think that is a good plan, Val. Frank, Isidro, take a couple of men when we get there and hide in the rocks and trees so you can’t be seen. Stay there and do as Sheriff Crawford says. Pedro you lead the rest of us up the back trail. Frank if you hear any shooting from our end, you and Isidro come and leave two men guarding the trail. Murdoch, Cip – you okay with that?”
“Yes, Scott – we can work out more as we check out the back trail. Pedro how long will it take us, single file to get to the top? And are there any side trails off the main one that we can use to check for lookouts along the way?” They were moving out not, but as the area was rocky, the going was slow and it was not difficult to carry on a conversation – work out a plan as they went along.
“Si, Patron, as the trail gets higher – it has some other short trails and some rocks to climb to look. There is cover too; it will be hard for them to see us.”
“Hard for us to see ‘em too, Pedro?” Val asked.
“Ah, si, but we will know we are coming, no Sheriff? They will not think so – so few know – and a man he look so many days, see no one – and so he don’t think you come.” Pedro smiled at the Sheriff, who nodded his understanding.
“How long to the top, Pedro?” Scott asked again, as the young man had not answered his father’s question.
“It will take time, Senor Scott; it is hard, mucho deficil.”
They all rode on in silence then, waiting to see what the trail looked like, before making their final plans: Pedro and the Sheriff in front, followed by Murdoch and Scott and then the others.
Murdoch glanced to his right to take in his son and noticed immediately the tight set of his jaw. Determination; stubbornness; what was it Johnny always said when he saw his brother’s jaw set? ‘Ain’t any way you can get him to back down now when his jaw gets like that; hell ain’t sure why he hasn’t locked it in place by now seeing as he’s probably been doing that since he was a little kid.’ He smiled a little thinking about how Johnny had come to know his older brother so well in so little time – and Scott of Johnny. He turned and looked straight ahead and said a quick prayer that his younger boy would be safe – please just keep him safe.
Charley Meeks had lied himself out of trouble many a time, lying usually came pretty easily to him but not so when it came to lying to Len Hogan. He’d once seen the eldest Hogan brother slit a man’s throat for deliberately telling him an untruth. He’d watched the poor bastard choke on his own blood, had stared in grim fascination at the victims hands as they had clawed frantically at the wound in a futile attempt to stop his life ebbing away.
Charley was in no hurry to die and especially not in that gruesome way, but apart from owing the younger man who sat bound hand and foot on the ground a favour; he also liked and respected him. He’d trust Johnny Madrid over the Hogan’s any day. So for both their sakes he knew he had to come up with a plausible tale and quickly too.
He was a gambler, it was a compulsion he couldn’t control and the Hogans’ knew that. Turning to look Len in the eye he stated, “I’ve played a few hands of poker with Johnny here. He always had plenty of money for the pot, guess I know why now; his daddy’s a rich man!”
“Where?” Jed Hogan demanded, he had been listening as eagerly as his elder brother to Meeks’s words. He’d been certain from the start that he knew the kid from somewhere, and it had left him with a lingering unease. Hopefully Meeks could help rid him of that.
“That little town east of Spanish Wells...”
“Ya mean Banta?” Interrupted Len.
“Yeah, Banta.” Charley confirmed, confident none of the Hogans had been with him on his numerous visits there.
“There anythin’ we should know about him?” Jed pushed.
Furrowing his brow thoughtfully Charley asked “Like what?”
“His old man’s rich. That’s all we need ta know.” Len said with a finality that left no one in any doubt that the subject was now closed.
Johnny had listened intently to the conversation; the relief he’d felt on realising Charley wasn’t going to betray him, however, was quickly evaporating. Len seemed happy with the younger mans story but Jed was evidently suspicious. As Len made his way back to the campfire the bearded Hogan eyed Charley questioningly.
Obviously rattled by Jed’s continued scrutiny the young outlaw strode after Len. Johnny watched him go wondering if Charley would be prepared to help him some more. The youngest Lancer knew Jed was staring at him now, undoubtedly still trying to figure out where he’d seen him before. He knew too that is was only a matter of time before he identified him as Johnny Madrid.
Mercifully that time hadn’t yet come. Jed still unable to make any connection finally moved away, leaving Johnny to heave a sigh of relief.
The young man then peered intently around the encampment, hoping to catch sight of Mrs. Mac. ‘Where the hell is she?’ Johnny mumbled worriedly under his breath, seconds later Effie along with the skinny, lank haired Clem Hogan, ambled into view.
A groan escaped the youngest Lancers lips; he couldn’t quite believe what his eyes were telling him. The outlaw was smiling down at the grey headed woman seemingly interested in her every word, and Effie’s arm was tucked trustingly in his! ‘It was’ Johnny mused ‘ just how he and Mrs. Mac must have looked as he had escorted her home from church just a few days before. The comparison sent a chill down Johnny’s back. Clem was a ruthless killer, part of a gang holding them against their will. She couldn’t have forgotten that! His next thought troubled him even more! Could the widow simply be befriending Clem with the intention of using him? No! Johnny found that very hard to believe; the widow McDonald could be never so devious and manipulative. No, Effie was just being Effie.
Johnny willed the pair to move in his direction, he’d feel a whole lot happier if the widow was with him. He needed Clem to untie him so he could see to his personal needs. His arms ached unbearably too; he really needed to stretch both them and his legs to get some relief.
Too late he realised Jed had been watching Effie and Clem too, and he looked far from pleased.
As he stalked menacing towards the pair Johnny heard him snarl, “Clem! It’s your watch, git to it.”
“I was carryin’ the water Jed; it’s too heavy fer...”
“The old hag can carry the water herself.” Jed responded his face darkening with rage.
Certain trouble was to follow Johnny clambered to his knees, his heart in his mouth.
“I don’t like ya callin’ her that Jed.” Clem stated nervously.
Ignoring his brother’s protest, Jed snatched the pale of water from his hands and handed it to the widow, then shoved her roughly towards the campfire.
“There ain’t no call for that,” The youngest Hogan gripped his brother’s arm in an attempt to get his attention.
Shrugging off the smaller man’s hand Jed balled his own into a fist and delivered a blow to his younger brother’s jaw, causing him to teeter backwards.
A horrified Effie Mac gasped audible drawing the irate Hogan’s attention. Turning he lashed out at her too, the sound of the slap reverberated sickeningly around the camp.
As the widow crumpled to the ground Johnny struggled to get to his feet, his only thought to get to the fallen woman. Once on his feet he battled to remain upright. He could see Jed towering over the prone Mrs. Mac, could hear him bellowing at her, threatening her with more of the same. Frantic now he began to hop and shuffle towards her, but it seemed help was closer to hand.
Clem launched himself at the older man, and the two crashed heavily to the ground where an irate Jed unleashed the full force of his fury with Clem trying unsuccessfully to shield himself from the blows raining down upon him.
Effie was now on her feet and through her split and bleeding lips was pleading with the men now gathering at the scene to stop the beating. Len stared dispassionately at his brothers for several minutes before grounding out “Jed. That’s enough!”
When his words went unheeded he grasped the upturned pale and slammed it against Jed’s head, “I said he’s had enough!”
Johnny was just feet away from Mrs. Mac when a rifle butt halted his progress; winded he slumped to the ground.
The group of men had been slowly picking their way around the base of a towering rock mass, Pedro taking his time with the intent of identifying what they were looking for correctly. Finally a smile appeared on the young man’s face as he announced “Here!” Gesturing towards a narrow opening flanked by shrub covered rock, he then turned to look at the men riding close behind him adding, “The front trail, the easy way.”
Scott eyed the opening, realising with alarm that it could so easily have been missed; it gave no hint of being anything other than an innocuous chink in an immense stone wall.
After being shown the entrance to the back trail, situated just a hundred yards or so away, Frank, Isidro and two more of the loyal Lancer ranch hands moved back to the front pass, quickly melding into the background, ready to do whatever was necessary in the rescue of their friend and a much loved member of the community. Cipriano ensuring their horses were secured and out of sight from above and below, went back to join the main search-party.
The opening to the back trail had been more obvious but one look at the terrain ahead was enough to put anyone with a modicum of sense off attempting to travel it.
It was just as Pedro had described it. ‘Johnny had to be here.’ Scott silently insisted, ‘please God, let him be here.’
Without speaking each man dismounted and readied themselves to lead their horses up the very steep incline that was the first part of the trail. As Pedro was most familiar with the area, he went first followed by Scott, then Val and Murdoch. Cipriano positioned himself just behind the senior Lancer, ready to assist the Patron should he need it. This first part would not be easy – it was necessary to climb the first fifty or so feet before they would be able to mount up again, as the ground was almost straight up until you reached a small plateau, which was the real start of the very narrow trail.
Val watched as Pedro crested the first part, pulling his mount steadily up the last few feet, coaxing him, while Scott had reached a rock to stand on for purchase, pushing the animal from behind. When it was his turn he too stood on the rock and helped Scott with his horse and then climbed after, needing Scott and Pedro to reach for him to give him extra help to pull him up the last few feet.
As the Sheriff turned to pull his own horse, he looked over at Scott and their eyes met, giving a slight nod of understanding. Murdoch, they knew with his bad back, would need some extra help to make it – and he would not be easy to help; both because of his size and importantly his pride.
Before they could say anything, they noticed that Cipriano had moved closer to Murdoch, leaving his horse for the next man, and pushed the patron’s horse, Toby, himself. Wordlessly, he then found another protruding rock, and reached a hand out for his long-time friend. Moving up he helped Murdoch discreetly, using his own strength and that of his boss as momentum for the final hard steps to the small plateau.
“When we are big we may not move as easily as the smaller man, but our strength together can do much more, eh Patron?” The big Mexican smiled as Murdoch patted him on the shoulder.
“True Cip and so often over the years we have proved that time and time again – as we will today.” Murdoch looked at Scott and Val, who both seemed to be taken aback by the quick climb of the two large men. Murdoch smiled to his self and turned towards the men still moving up.
“Come on men let’s make this move a little faster, we have a long, treacherous way to go.” Not waiting for a reply, he took the reins of his horse and mounted.
Murdoch Lancer wanted his son back, and he knew this trail would lead to him. He motioned for Pedro to lead the way.
“Let’s go get Johnny and Mrs. Mac.”
An hour after being dragged back to his corner of the camp Johnny was still waiting to be allowed to see to his personal needs. To his horror it was Len who finally made his way over to untie him.
But Len was in a foul frame of mind, and any designs he’s had on the youngest Lancer seemed to have been eclipsed by his dark mood. After securing the ropes around Johnny’s wrists once more he stormed back into the main part of the camp
The atmosphere there remained heavy and oppressive. Both Jed and Clem had skulked off, away from each other and their older brother. With the three of them riled and decidedly tetchy everyone was keeping well out of their way.
Seemingly in the hopes of ensuring that the dust finally did settle, Charlie Meeks had swiftly retrieved a deck of cards from his saddle bags, and then settled himself in the shade of a large bolder. A number of the men had joined him in a game of poker, the remainder quietly looking on. Such games were usually raucous in nature but the group of men remained sullen and subdued.
Johnny’s eyes strayed as they so frequently did towards the Widow Mac. She was busy collecting firewood, moving quietly and discretely around the camp. Effie McDonald had obviously been very shaken by what had happened, although she’d reassured Johnny to the contrary. The youngest Lancer’s heart constricted as he studied her. Her lips were bruised and swollen and her face etched with the strain of their situation. She looked so much older today and ‘no wonder’ he told himself.
Jed could so easily have killed her, he’d hit her with such force! But even after receiving such a violent blow she’d been thinking about someone else. She’d picked herself up of the ground and pleaded for someone to help Clem.
Johnny’s admiration for the widow just kept on growing. As did his concern for her safety. They had to get away, escape somehow. But that was impossible without help.
He had no idea of what was going on in the outside world; his family had to know he was in some kind of trouble by now. But did they have any idea of what kind he was in or where to look for him? He couldn’t imagine they did.
As much as he’d like to have them ride in and rescue Mrs. Mac and him, he feared such an action; someone he cared about could very well end up dead.
No, it was down to him. He was going to have to somehow get them out of the mess they were in and soon, very soon. He’d need help! Could he count on Charlie to do his bit? Maybe!
And what about Clem? Right from the beginning he’d wondered if he could use the youngest Hogan’s backwardness to his advantage. Now that he’d developed a real soft spot for the widow it seemed a real possibility but was it? Could he trust the likes of Clem Hogan?
Scouring the camp Johnny finally caught sight of the man in question. The dejected looking Hogan was mooching around the outskirts of the hideout, slowly moving in Johnny’s direction.
As Clem ambled closer a set of blue eyes studied him intensely.
The older man’s right eye was swollen shut, most of his face discoloured by a mass of bruises. He was favouring the right side of his chest; Johnny guessed he’d suffered a cracked rib or two during the sustained assault from his brother.
‘Some brother!’ The youngest Lancer thought bitterly. Despite everything he couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for the youngest of the three Hogan brothers. At least he had a streak of decency running through him; the older two were rotten to the core.
The Widow McDonald had shown real interest in and kindness to Clem and he had responded to it by defending her. Johnny knew the longer they were in the Hogan’s clutches the more danger they were in. If he could convince Clem of that, he might just be prepared to help them for her sake!
With Clem just a few feet away Johnny searched desperately for a way to open a conversation, one that would lead to him asking the outlaw for help.
But nothing he came up with seemed appropriate. So in desperation he went with a simple but genuinely meant enquiry. “Are you alright Clem?”
Clem’s one good eye focused on the youngest Lancer before looking suspiciously around him. Finally in a hushed voice he said “Ya got ta get her outta here, before Jed or Len kills her!”
Swallowing his shock at the unexpected statement, Johnny nodded and replied calmly “You’re gonna have to help me Clem.”
How anyone could refer to the land or rather rocks they were slowly travelling over as a ‘trail’, Scott would never know. But shortly after they had begun this arduous trek when they had asked Pedro if he was sure this was the right trail, he had assured them that yes this was the right path to La guarida del Diablo. And so they kept slowly moving forward over the rocky, steep terrain hopeful that it would lead them to the outlaws’ camp – a camp where they would finally find his brother and Mrs. Mac.
As this part of the back trail was very narrow they were now riding single-file, Pedro of course in the lead followed by himself, Val, his father, Cipriano and the others: A slow moving line climbing up the side of the mountain. It was difficult to talk to each other in this type of formation, so they travelled silently, each with their own thoughts. The only sounds were the hoofs of their horses stepping on rocks, finding purchase, often loosening small rocks along the way and sending them cascading down the steep sides falling silently far below: a distant sound echoing back when the stones finally found a new place to lay.
For Scott it reminded him of treks made with other men long ago. Those too often done in silence as they moved on in the early morn or dead of night from a small battle won or mission completed, on to the next farm, mill or encampment. Sometimes they were lucky and everyone moved on; more often than not they would leave behind a comrade in arms, or two, or three. He sighed, too many men lost: young and old, friends, sons, fathers and brothers.
‘Brother’ Scott said the word to himself. ‘No – not this time, not his brother, not…..’ Scott’s horse suddenly stumbled on the narrow path, his back right leg loosing his footing, slipping to the side while trying to seek solid ground. Jolted out of his thoughts by the near panicking horse, Scott focused on trying to bring his horse more to the left part of the path, pulling on the reins as he nudged his mount with his boot.
“Scott?” His father called to him, ‘don’t fight him; let him have his head. He’ll find his way if you leave him.”
Murdoch too had been with his own thoughts when he heard the whinny of a horse in trouble. It took only moments for him to realize it was Scott’s horse – and he was precariously near the open side of the steep path. There wasn’t much room here for a panicked horse. After calling to Scott, he saw the slight nod of his son’s head and then held his breath for the few moments it took his son to gently work with his horse, easing up on the reins as the sleek black stallion found firmer footing and settled down again.
The Lancer patriarch closed his eyes briefly, taking in some calming breaths: One son in the hands of brutal outlaws, the other son near falling down the side of a mountain. With the arrival of his sons, came the worrying. Truth be told, however, he knew the worrying was always there. Particularly when his friend in Boston who had kept in touch regarding news of Scott, sent him a letter telling him his oldest had joined the cavalry. Coupled with his constant worry over Johnny all those years, well he figured there probably hadn’t been a time when he hadn’t worried; it just seemed sometimes, more intense now.
The trail widened as they moved from the narrow outside passage towards the split in the rock formations taking them further into the mountains. As he nudged Toby to a faster gait, he noticed that Val, who was riding just ahead of him behind Scott, slowed a bit and came along side of him.
He gave a small smile to the Sheriff as they allowed their mounts to fall into an easy trot now that the trail had evened out into a wide-flat path that allowed the posse to pick up a little speed.
Before either could speak, Pedro turned in his saddle and spoke in a loud voice. “The trail, it is more friendly here for a short time, senors. Then it climbs steep and narrow again. But we make some time now, no?” The vaquero nodded to himself as he shifted forwards and continued setting a pace for the others to follow.
Watching Pedro as the vaquero turned forwards, Val chewed on a pick he held in his mouth for a few moments and then looked sideways, seeing the set jaw of Johnny’s old man. He smiled a little to himself as he remembered his friend telling him in the saloon one night that no one had seen stubborn in action until they had seen Murdoch and Scott Lancer each setting their jaws and preparing to get into one of their ‘discussions’; no yellin’ according to Johnny, just one of their ‘discussions’. Val had seen the set of Scott’s jaw plenty during these past couple of years when he was trying to deal with his ‘little brother’. But until now, well he had never really noticed Mr. Lancer’s.
Sure he had heard the man yell – Val would be hard pressed to name one folk who lived in the valley and hadn’t heard him bellow. But he had never noticed the tight jaw before. In a way he was glad of it now, because he had the feeling that no one, would get in Mr. Lancer’s way of getting to Johnny. And that was fine with him. He figured with him, Cipriano and the two jaw-set Lancers, well damn, they would put up quite a front, and maybe just maybe they could pull his young friend and Mrs. Mac out of this mess. It wouldn’t hurt one bit if they took out the gang of outlaws, who they believed to be the Hogan gang, while they were at it. He smiled a little at the thought. ‘Yeah, that wouldn’t hurt one bit!’
“Something you find amusing, Sheriff?” Murdoch had glanced at Val as they rode and had been surprised to find a small smile coming to the Sheriff’s face.
“Naw, ain't nothing amusing about this, Mr. Lancer. Just thinking about how that we might look like an odd posse – but that I reckon that outlaw gang may not know what hit them if we are able to get the jump on them. Ain’t anyone here I wouldn’t like to have at my side in a fire fight, particularly you, Scott and Cipriano. Yes Sir, them are odds I like on my side.” He gave a furtive glance and taking the chewed pick from his mouth he tossed it aside and moved off pacing his horse just behind Scott.
Murdoch thought a moment about what Val had said. He hoped Val was right about the odds because he couldn’t even begin to think of his life without his youngest, not again. Not ever again.
The green eyes stared intensely into his and Johnny knew the widow was taking in his every word. Mrs. Mac had remained silent throughout his hushed detailing of the escape plan, her gaze along with her composure unwavering; she seemed totally unfazed by what lay ahead. That worried Johnny, the widow may well have heard his every word, but did she realise just how very dangerous it would be? Deciding he had to push home the point he added, “I think it’s our only chance of getting out of here alive, but that don’t necessarily mean we will...”
“I know that John dear...,” Effie interrupted patting the youngest Lancer’s arm reassuringly, “... but it’s a risk we are going to have to take. But you know, I have a good feeling about this. Clem will be helping us, and I’ll be having a quiet word with the man upstairs!”
The widow glanced meaningfully up at the sky before meeting Johnny’s gaze again. “So don’t you worry dear, this time tomorrow, this will all be over and behind us.”
As the widow made her way back over to the campfire and the rabbit stew she had simmering there, Johnny looked up at the expanse of blue. The very thought of Effie Mac having ‘a quiet word’ with God made the young man grin. Euphemia McDonald was infamously hard to ignore!
Johnny supposed the widow’s faith was strong, her belief unshakable. That faith alone seemed to have her convinced that their attempt to escape would be successful! Johnny’s grin faded at that realisation, he didn’t understand how anyone could put so much trust in something so remote. Well maybe he did. True faith, one such as Effie’s somehow made the remote accessible. So, if it helped Effie to believe in divine intervention then so be it. He though preferred to rely on what he knew for sure wouldn’t let him down: himself and his gun...the gun Clem had promised to get him!
The moon kept sliding behind clouds, effectively cutting off what little light they needed to safely traverse the narrow, treacherous trail.
Pedro had been right about the conditions they would encounter – especially as they went further up the mountain. Not that anybody questioned his knowledge after the first bit of trail. He had forewarned them about every part.
But now as much as they wanted to push on, they could not. Not without the possibility of someone getting hurt, or worse, killed by falling down the mountain side. So Pedro had led them through a small break in the rock formation to an area that held a small stream, and enough level ground to spread out bedrolls and bed-down the horses for a well-deserved rest.
As the vaquero moved them off the trail Murdoch had asked Pedro how far it was to the hideout. The young ranch hand had told the Lancer patriarch that it was not too much further, but as most of the trail was very rocky and still steep, it would perhaps take a couple of hours, still.
It was quickly decided by Cipriano and Val that even though the hideout was still a few hours away on horseback due to the difficult trail, it was not actually too far in land distance and certainly on higher ground than the camp. Therefore, it would be best not to have a fire.
So now they made camp: A cold, fireless camp, but camp none-the-less.
Food and nourishment for the posse would be in the form of water and hard-tack. Enough to tie them over until this job was done.
As most of the men began to settle back on their bed-rolls for a few hours sleep, it was obvious that for some the luxury of even a few hours sleep would not be had.
Murdoch in deference to his back had found a spot near a few sturdy low-growing trees that allowed him to lean back and stretch out his legs, but while he closed his eyes, he did not sleep. His thoughts centered on his younger son: finding him tomorrow, bringing him home, unharmed.
When he opened his eyes he noticed his older son across the camp talking to Val and Cipriano. Murdoch noticed the young man’s worried face as he turned away from the two men and began to walk towards him. As he watched his son approach, his mind wandered back to the early months together with his boys.
Scott had provided both he and Johnny the bridge they had often needed back then, in learning how to become a family, getting to know one another and accepting their differences without always blowing up at one another. Murdoch had often worried during those early months, that in allowing Scott to act as a buffer, that both he and Johnny were being unfair to Scott, putting him sometimes in impossible situations. But it had never seemed to truly bother his older son – or at least Scott had never let either of them know if it did.
Things had gradually gotten better between him and Johnny starting shortly after the Striker fiasco. Murdoch had made a promise then that it would be different – he would be different in how he treated his sons, or rather how he reacted to them. He had tried to remember that as a young man, he had been allowed to sow his oats, fulfil his needs. Therefore, he had needed to allow his own sons, in particular Johnny, room to grow in their new roles as ranchers, without him watching over their every move, or being so stubborn in his way – that he couldn’t listen to new ideas.
So he had refrained from making comment on every little thing and in doing so had given tacit approval to a wild ride on a fast horse across Lancer; a trip to town during the week for an unplanned night out as long as chores were done. It had not been much to ask of their father, and truth be told, Murdoch had enjoyed watching his boys beginning to spend more time with each other as they ‘explored the ranch and tested the limits of their ‘new’ father. His younger boy had needed that, hell his older son did too. And he needed to trust who they were: sons any father would be proud to have. And he was. All he needed was time with them, both of them, and he would be able to be the kind of father they could be proud of, too.
“Am I interrupting you, sir?”
“No, Son, just resting my back for a spell. You should rest too, as we will be riding when the sky starts to light, which is not that far off, Pedro says the camp is near, only a couple of hours away and we will need to be prepared.” Murdoch gave a small smile to his son, as Scott moved next to him, dropping to one knee to make it easier to look his father in the eye.
“Yes, I was just talking about that with Cipriano and Val. And I think, well that is, we….”
“No? Sir, perhaps before you provide an answer it would be best to hear what I have to say.” Scott tried to keep the irritation out of his voice. He knew before walking over here that his father would be less than receptive to what he was going to say. But damn-it, he thought he would at least be given the opportunity to speak, and perhaps even have the time to put forth a logical argument for his father to stay behind with a few men, back-up as it were. Certainly not receive a defiant ‘no’ even before he was heard.
“Scott, I appreciate that you want to protect me, but under no circumstances am I going to be prevented from riding in that camp tomorrow morning. None. Now I hope that this ill-advised ‘discussion’ is ended, and that we will not spend what little time before we break camp arguing. Is that clear?” Murdoch looked sternly into his son’s eyes. “
“Perfectly, sir. But before you dismiss the idea – without hearing it, I might add, it is not ill-advised to protect your flank, by leaving a few men to the rear, which is all I was going to state. And as the closer we get to this camp the rockier the trail is becoming, it seemed to make sense that as you are not as agil…. er rather as you are have trouble with your back……”
“Enough!” Murdoch’s voice boomed, startling the men who had started to drift off to sleep.
Val came running over. “Mr. Lancer ya can’t raise your voice out here, these rock walls can create an echo, and….”
“I understand Sheriff, it won’t happen again.” Giving a stern look to his son, he continued:
“Scott protecting our flank is a sound idea. Protecting it with me leading a few men, is not. Pedro has a cool head and once we are close enough to the camp to no longer need his expertise with the trail, move him into that position, picking out a few men to stay with him. Now this discussion is over, unless of course there is something else you need to talk to me about.” He raised his eyebrows slightly in a questioning manner, waiting for his older son to reply.
“No, sir, I think that about covers it.” Scott gave a slight nod and stood, turning to walk away. Val moved in next to him.
“Told ya it was a dumb idea, Lancer. Hell, just where do ya think yer brother and ya got that wide streak of stubborn from?” A bemused look came across the Sheriff’s face as he moved over to his bedroll. If everything came out all right, he was sure going to enjoy reminding Johnny’s brother about how his old man sure put him in his place, right quick like. Heck, if he knew Johnny, and surely he did, he knew that boy would get a kick out of the tellin’ too; especially if the tellin’ was done while they were all enjoying a few beers on a Saturday night. Yep, good story – if everything came out alright….
As Scott walked back to where he had placed his gear, he caught the eye of the Lancer’ Segundo. He stopped and waited knowing that Cipriano would come. As the older Mexican stopped a few feet from him, the man’s eyes softened, and he reached out and placed his hand on Scott’s shoulder.
“It is good Senor Scott that you respect and love your father; you want to keep him safe, as he does you and your brother. But remember, it is also muy importante that a father keep his dignity too, no?”
“Yes, Cipriano, it is important too.” Scott then placed his hand on the Segundo’s shoulder, imparting his own thanks for the gentle reminder of the man that was his father.
Cipriano nodded and giving the young man’s shoulder a gentle squeeze moved off into the night to check on the guards before he too would try and get a few hours rest. Tomorrow they would bring Juanito and Senora Mac home. In this they would not fail
The moon, although on the wane still provided enough light to travel by. At least it did when it wasn’t hiding behind a cloud. ‘As ill luck would have it,’ Johnny mused bitterly, ‘clouds were plentiful tonight.’ He’d long since shaken off the rope Clem had tied loosely around his wrists and feet. During the ensuing hours he’d carefully massaged and flexed the abused muscles in his arms and legs, determined they wouldn’t let him down on the arduous trek to safety.
It was almost time to make their move. Dawn now only hours away. The camp was silent but for the snoring of men in deep slumber. With no suspicions aroused, no hint of treachery in the ranks the outlaws had settled down for the night, never doubting Clem’s loyalty. The youngest Hogan had offered to take the much hated night watch, making it look a convincingly nervous attempt to soothe his brothers’ ruffled feathers. It meant he’d been the one to settle the captives down for the night and to check on the horses. Johnny could only hope he’d kept his word on readying two of those horses for travel. Turning to look at the widow he found her gaze on him.
“Ready when you are dear.”
Johnny smiled at the whispered statement, Mrs. Mac had made it sound like they were about to leave on a Church picnic. There was no show of nerves or of fear on her part; determination could be seen in her green eyes and the set of her jaw.
“Right,” Johnny whispered back, getting to his knees he continued “”Stay close to me.” The young man wanted to say something more, like ‘don’t do anything stupid’ and ‘keep your head down’ but thought better of it: It just didn’t seem appropriate to say such things to the woman he’d so recently come to see in a refreshing new light.
Once on their feet they crept towards the perimeter rock wall, edging as silently as was possible around it. A couple of times a twig cracked unexpectedly under one of their feet, causing them to stop and hold their breath in anticipation of being caught.
Finally after what seemed an eternity they reached the enclosure’s opening and stepped quickly through it.
It led to a smaller opening where the gang’s horses were kept. Once there Clem stepped out from the shadows, a rifle in both hands. He pressed one into Johnny’s waiting hand.
“Thank you Clem...” The widow began.”
“Ya ain’t safe yet.” Clem shrugged off Effie’s gratitude. Catching hold of her arm he hurriedly led the duo towards two horses which were saddled ready to ride. “I picked the best two, they won’t let ya down. Ya’ll have to walk more than ride in the pass mind, and pick ya way real careful like, it ain’t goin’ ta be easy.”
Johnny stared at the trail Clem gestured towards then stated suspiciously, “That ain’t the way we came!”
“No it ain’t, but the back pass will give ya more cover, more of a chance of escaping should ya be followed.”
“How long to reach the bottom?”
Clem shrugged, “Like I said it ain’t goin’ ta be easy, ya should be half way down by daybreak if ya don’t stop. Now git!” With that Clem turned his back on Effie and Johnny and strode back towards the main enclosure.
Johnny had silently cursed the moon a dozen times in the hour he and Effie had been leading their horses through the pass. With its constant loitering behind clouds their trek was proving both painstakingly slow and treacherous. When it did make an appearance the two escapees would try and quicken the pace.
Knowing they would need their mounts to race to safety once at the bottom of the pass, they did their best to shield them from the razor sharp craggy outcrops of rock and the overhanging branches that ripped cruelly at naked flesh. Carefully they guided the beasts over what were barely scalable banks of granite and coaxed them around sheer drops that no horse would survive unscathed.
Johnny hadn’t expected the passé to be so difficult, it was much worse than anything he had come across before. He knew it was taking its toll on the widow too; she looked deathly pale in the moonlight her face pinched with fatigue. Not having any idea of how the path lay ahead or how much longer they would have to struggle like they were, only added to his unease. As much as he admired Mrs. Mac for her courage, strength, and determination, he wasn’t sure she was up to the trial. He was finding it exhausting and was beginning to think he was leading her to certain death.
As if sensing Johnny’s concern Effie said “We’re making good progress John.”
The widow’s soft voice held a good measure of cheer and Johnny couldn’t help but be encouraged by it. The widow was rallying and so should he.
“Yeah, we’re doing pretty good considering...”
High above them a gunshot shattered the silence of the night.” “Oh my word!” Effie gasped at the very same time Johnny vehemently spat out “Shit!”
The sun was in his eyes and even if he squinted against the dazzling light he couldn’t quite see the strangers face.
There was something familiar about him though. Maybe it was the studded calzoneras, or the red shirt...no it was the way he wore his gun. He was a gunfighter but which one?
He looked around for his brothers. Maybe one of them would know him, but they were nowhere to be seen.
Main Street was eerily empty; there was just him and the gunfighter!
The sunlight suddenly faded, leaving his vision clear.
Blue eyes stared back at him, cold and emotionless. The lips parted and the soft drawl chilled him with the menace it contained.
He reached for his gun but it was still in its holster when Johnny Madrid’s bullet ripped into his chest………
Jed awoke from the dream soaked with sweat. It had seemed so real, too real. It had taken him a few seconds to get himself together and when he had, he’d reached for his brother violently shaking him awake. “Len! That ain’t no rancher’s son, that’s Johnny Madrid!”
By now most of the camp was stirring, watching questioningly as Jed ran towards the area the hostages were being held. Finding only discarded ropes Jed fired a shot into the air and angrily bellowed “They’re gone!”
The moon was at last playing fair, casting its milky light just where it was required. But Johnny knew as much as it was aiding his and Effie’s decent it was also helping the Hogan gang, who he was sure were now hard on their trail.
Thankfully the pass had become a little easier to move through, levelling out a little. Reluctantly Johnny made the decision to ride and for as long as they could; they would cover more distance but at the risk of tiring the horses.
Dawn was, Johnny gauged an hour or more away, a lot could happen in that time, but they had a good head start on the Hogan’s, if they kept it. Once they reached the bottom they could lit out for home with enough miles between them and the outlaws to guarantee their safety.
As Johnny turned to check on the widow he heard another gunshot and a split second later he felt a bullet slam into his shoulder. The impact drove him sideways and off his mount, sending him crashing heavily to the ground.
The posse had been roused just before the brief time when the moon and the sun would begin to share the early morning sky. Dawn was not quite ready to appear, but there was enough light now from a cloudless moon to allow them to travel without endangering man or beast.
Horses saddled, the men moved out, back through the narrow opening in the rock wall to the trail. It was narrow again, but unlike the earlier part of the previous day, at least the trail was heading into the mountain and away from the sheer drop along one side of the path – where one wrong step would take you to your death below.
Pedro was again in the lead, followed closely by Scott, Val, Murdoch and Cipriano. The others too, fell into line in the same position as the day before. The going was slow, as Pedro had told them, and even though they were not too far away in distance, it would take time – time that they were not sure they had.
The posse had been riding, or rather slowly picking their way up the steep trail for about an hour when once again the rock walls seemed to fall back, giving way to a wider path where the terrain seemed less harsh and two or more riders could ride side by side.
As if their thoughts had all coalesced into the same idea, simultaneously Val move to the left of Scott, while his father and Cipriano moved to the right. It was time to start planning their approach to the camp.
Cipriano was the first to speak.
“Patron, I remember this place is surrounded by high……..”
Before he could finish there was a distant sound coming from up ahead. It was still a way off – how far they did not know, as sound often travelled a distance in the mountains, reverberating off of the high-rock walls. But it was none-the-less a sound that each of them knew.
Whether it was a warning shot or someone was shooting at something or someone, they did not know. The only thing they knew was that Johnny and Mrs. Mac were being held by a murderous gang in the same direction the shot was heard from.
Murdoch was the first to kick his horse into action. “Johnny!”
Effie tore desperately at her linen petticoat, after the last few event filled days it could no longer be considered clean but it was all she had to stem the flow of blood from the hole in her young friends shoulder.
As well as a bullet wound, the boy had a small lump on the side of his head and had been worryingly unconscious when she’d gotten to him, but he was now mumbling incoherently. That wasn’t a particularly good sign either but it was slightly more encouraging.
The widow knew Johnny needed to rest, that the bullet needed removing, the wound cleaned, stitched and dressed. But there was no way she could do that now, not with the Hogan gang right behind them.
As she pressed the wad of cloth against the bleeding wound she realized with horror she was shaking, and not just her fingers, her whole body was quaking uncontrollably.
”Pull yourself together Euphemia Anne.” she quietly scolded herself “this will not do!”
Despite their dire situation a small smile settled on the widow’s lips, no one but her dear Mother had ever called her by her full name and then only when she had needed chastising: Chastising like all children need from time to time. Gaining strength from the memory of a loved one Effie took two deep and steadying breaths and was once more in control. With a now steady hand she reached for the rifle Johnny had dropped when shot out of his saddle and lay it across her lap. With their only weapon now safely in her possession she applied more pressure to the young man’s wound, all the time talking to him, hoping to urge him to full consciousness so they could get to safety.
Johnny had landed badly on the rock strewn ground, his head impacting with granite. Dazed and winded he struggled to make sense of his situation. Pain seared through his right shoulder and down his arm. He was certain that was due to a bullet but as to who had put it there and why he didn’t know.
Suddenly pressure was applied to the source of the pain and he gritted his teeth.
A familiar voice cut through the haze, calm but insistent.
“John. I can’t do anything more to the wound now, we have to keep moving.”
There was no ignoring the urgency in the woman’s voice, it forced his eyes open. The widow’s face swam into focus and memory of the last few days surged to the fore. Especially the Sunday this had all kicked off! That day too he’d opened his eyes to find Effie kneeling beside his groggy form.
He turned his head and glanced quickly at his throbbing shoulder. Mrs. Mac’s hand was tucked under his shirt holding a compress of white cotton against the wound. Once again it seemed the widow was the one doing the looking after.
Another gunshot echoed above them, and a bullet ricocheted off the rock wall just inches away from Johnny’s head.
Spying the rifle he reached for it, grimacing in pain and then horror on realizing his gun hand was so very weak, he wasn’t sure he was capable of holding the rifle let alone firing it.
“It’s been a while…” Effie whispered matter-of-factly as she got to her feet, “…but I’m sure I can still…” the widow held her breath and taking a firing stance calmly pointed the rifle high above her and took careful aim at the figure just barely visible in the moonlight. A second later she pulled the trigger, her green eyes widened with expectancy, narrowing seconds later with relief as the sniper responsible for Johnny’s wound fell lifelessly from his vantage point, to hit the ground just a few feet away from his prey with a sickening thud.
“Yes…” The widow stated shakily, “I can still hit a rat when needs be!”
“That…” Johnny stared incredulously at the broken body of the outlaw, “….was darn good shootin’.” His gaze quickly returned to the widow finding her openly distressed, tears now threatening to fall from the green eyes. As dearly as he would have liked to comfort the widow properly, Johnny knew now wasn’t the time. Instead he gripped her arm with his one good hand and stated firmly “You did what had to be done.”
The words jolted the remorseful Effie McDonald back into stoic mode. Wiping away a stray tear she nodded, “Yes, yes I did.”
The youngest Lancer clambered to his feet, Effie having to help and support him as wave after wave of dizziness hindered his progress. He’d had concussion before and felt certain he had it again. He silently damned the ailment knowing it could slow him down then made an oath not to let it. Catching hold of the widow’s hand he gripped it tightly and staggered the few feet to an overhanging tree limb where the quick thinking widow had tied their skittish mounts.
Clem Hogan had hurried down the trail, scrambling over rocks, slipping and sliding down granite slopes, desperate to keep ahead of his brothers in the chase. Unlike them he didn’t have his horse in tow. He’d left his behind knowing it would give him something of an advantage.
He’d not given his brothers a chance to question or beat on him. As Len had lunged furiously in his direction he’d backed away intent on keeping as much distance between them as possible, “Sorry Len I…I fell asleep but don’t ya worry none I’ll get ‘em, I’ll bring ‘em back.”
As he’d turned away deliberately making for the opening to the front pass in the hopes of leading the manhunt the wrong way, he’d heard Joe Parks, a short red faced member of the gang yell to Jed that he’d found some tracks, that Madrid and the old woman had taken the back pass down the mountain. With that, Parks, always eager to curry favour with the Hogan brothers, had, like the snake he was, sloped off after the prey, intent on being the one to bring them down.
Lumbering after the smaller man Clem heard his older brother yell a command to the other men as they hurriedly saddled their horses, “I don’t care what ya do with the old hag but I want Madrid alive.”
No matter how hard he tried Clem could not catch up with Parks, the older man was fearless in his decent, risking life and limb in his haste to recapture who they now believed to be Johnny Madrid. The harsh unforgiving terrain was sapping an injured Clem’s strength, his broken ribs making his every move agony.
The youngest Hogan brother was surprised at just how far the duo had made it down the pass, it meant there was still hope for them to get away, or would be if he could reach them before Parks did.
Grunting in pain as he crawled over yet another rocky mound he heard the crack of a rifle shot just up ahead of him.
Edging around a bolder he spied Parks atop a rocky elevation. The man turned around to see who was there, grinning triumphantly at Clem before stating “I just shot Johnny Madrid!”
Clem nodded, relieved it had not been the widow, and as Parks turned back around ready to take another shot, the youngest Hogan drew his own gun prepared to shoot the older man in the back. But before he could pull the trigger he heard a rifle shot and watched Parks convulse before falling to his death.
Reaching the place from where the outlaw had fallen, Clem stared down at the pass below just in time to see the escaping pair and their horses disappear behind an outcrop of rock.
Another shot. This time it was closer, much closer.
Murdoch had been riding hard since he had heard the first gunshot; panic having driven him to push his mount at a much faster gait than was advisable for the rough undulating terrain. But his head was not in control of this ride, his heart was.
Having reached a patch of very steep rocky trail, he had slowed a few minutes earlier to pick his way over the rocks and had just about cleared the area when he had heard the second shot. He had tried pushing Toby a bit faster to no avail – the condition of the trail dictated the pace of his horse’s ability to climb over the hard rocky surface to the smoother trail Murdoch could see just ahead.
As Toby finally stepped over the last rocks onto the hard-packed dirt trail, Murdoch started to kick his mount into action, but then heard his son and Val call out for him to wait. He pulled back harshly on the reins and turned angrily toward the two men.
“Damn it Scott! What the hell is the matter with you? Your brother may be injured, or….” He could not say the word; would not allow himself to even think it was possible.
“And if you do not hold up a minute, sir that could very well happen to you!” Scott understood his father’s need to rush head-on to find Johnny. Hell he felt the same way, but they had no idea if they had been spotted, if the shots were just a means to draw them into an ambush. They needed to proceed cautiously, particularly as the last gunshot had been much closer – meaning they were nearer to whatever was out there.
Before he or his father could say anything more, Val piped in.
“Mr. Lancer, Scott’s right. We have to take a few minutes to regroup before we go any further. So just hold on.”
Turning in his saddle, Val waited a moment until Cipriano and Pedro came clear of the rocks.
“Scott, what do you think? You want to take the point with me, while we have a few men branch off and climb through those rocks over there?” Val pointed off to his right. “Appears there may be a passable old donkey trail that could get them high enough, pretty fast too, to see what’s going on – maybe signal us, as we move on up ahead, take out any lookouts iffn in range, cover our backs.”
Scott nodded his head and turned to his father. “Sir, I know you want to get to Johnny, but in this situation it is best for me to move out first, followed by Val. We can ride a little faster, move off our horses if we need. And while I know you have had your share of gun battles, I think I might have more experience in fighting from a horse than anyone here, including you Val. I can lead my horse with my legs, leaving my hands free to hold and shoot my rifle. I can ride in fast, clearing a path, followed quickly by Val and then you and Cipriano.” Having made a decision in his own mind of what to do as he spoke to his father, he quickly turned to Pedro and put the plan into action before waiting for Murdoch to respond.
“Pedro you take a couple of men and go up the path that Sheriff Crawford pointed out. I think he may be right – and you might be able to get high enough to see up ahead. Will give you ten minute head-start, should be enough time to get high in those rocks.” As he spoke to Pedro he kept glancing at his father, hoping he would not interfere with the directive, causing a delay with an argument. He didn’t want to wait any more than his father did in getting to his brother, but he knew from experience that rushing in head-on without a plan or back-up, could be disastrous for them all.
Pedro motioned to the two vaqueros he wanted along with him: the two youngest Mexican hands, both strong riders, and one also a good-shot with a rifle.
“Si Senor Scott. That trail will lead to a plateau with some large rocks for cover. We can see far into trail ahead. There is also Senor, a clear path down back to this trail, for us to join you pronto. It is good place for us.” Not waiting for any reply, Pedro kicked his mount and guided him to the old trail, quickly followed by the two other young men.
Murdoch watched the three hands ride away, while thinking over the plan that had just been put in place by his son, without his say-so. He wanted to be angry at Scott for taking away his decision role in this matter – after all it was his son that was in danger, but he couldn’t fault the soundness of the plan. Didn’t want to argue – but the irritation of being pushed aside without being consulted, rankled him.
He sensed rather than saw that Cipriano had moved his horse next to him, and turned towards him. The Segundo nodded his head slightly, the quick movement meant for Murdoch’s eyes only: a signal to let it stand. The Lancer patriarch acknowledged the message, with his own imperceptive move of his head, and it was clearly understood by the two elders with old world values of what is a father’s right: When this was over and his younger son was once again safe, the older one would endure a lecture of fatherly respect. But not now – now they must accept this plan, this good plan, however it was put in place.
A third shot: again close.
“I believe the time is now, Scott for you to move out.” Murdoch spoke, his voice authoritative, his tone harsh.
Scott looked quickly towards his father and then Cipriano, who sat on his horse beside him. Both men looking straight ahead, censuring him, but also ready to follow him.
‘Good, let’s focus on one battle at a time’ he thought.
“Men, check your guns; load them, use which ever you are surer of, but be ready.” Scott moved out at an easy cantor that quickly turned into a faster run, still not at full speed, not until they could see further up the trail.
Val was next, leaving a large enough gap between his horse and Scott’s to make sure he could see clearly for taking aim, or break off for cover when needed. He had noticed the change in Scott’s demeanor and voice while he was speaking to Murdoch. Changing the tone from respectful son to the Lieutenant about to lead his men into battle by the time he started giving Pedro orders. And just now, well now the eastern dandy was back in the war – and that was just what they needed. ‘Yep, ain’t nothing wrong with that,’ Val thought, ‘may just be what gets us all home.’
Pedro scrambled off his horse, just as they heard another shot, signaling the other two men to do the same. They had reached the high plateau in a very short time; the surface of the old trail being worn smooth by old miners and rain and snow washing through over the years. While not very wide – it was by far the easiest path they had been on since starting up the mountain trail yesterday.
Pedro along with the two vaqueros moved to the far side and got a first view of what lay ahead. Much the same terrain lay ahead: high rock walls framing the trail, with a scattering of brush and trees on the far side. Seeing immediately a man standing amongst an outcropping of rocks a short distance ahead, who was trying to take aim at a couple of figures coming down the trail ahead, Pedro saw that the man apparently had no shot. However, as the guard shifted he suddenly turned back to look down the trail and quickly took aim. This time the guard, Pedro saw, had a clear target.
Moving closer to the edge, and taking a chance and standing clear of the sheltering rock, Pedro could see the posse moving up the trail now – Senor Scott in the lead, his rifle at the ready. Quickly he gave orders to his young compadre, the one who almost beat hijo rubio in the last shoot-out challenge at the town festival.
The young vaquero nodded his head and brought his rifle to bear, took aim and fired. A near miss – the bullet glancing off the rock by the look-outs left shoulder. But a warning to the target below.
Scott heard the shot and saw the lookout just as he recovered from being near shot and moved slightly to block himself from view from above. But that move proved fatal, as he exposed himself more to Scott’s shot – a shot that did not miss nor slow him down as he moved further up the trail.
But Val did slow down – looking to Pedro for any information on what lay ahead. The young Vaquero understood and shouted down to the Sheriff – knowing his voice would carry to all from up here, but he needed to le them know.
“Think Juanito and Senora Mac ahead,” he yelled. Then looking again – he saw what they all hoped that they would be able to take by surprise. But it was too late for that. “The banditos, they coming down, too.”
Waiting only for the acknowledgement of the Sheriff, given with the wave of his hand, Pedro took one more look at the high rock area ahead. He saw another dead man – perhaps shot by Juanito himself, he hoped. He said a quick prayer for his friend and Mrs. Mac, hoping they would make it to cover soon before the banditos caught up, because he had seen how far they were still away from being able to help them. Pedro quickly mounted to start down the trail, knowing the other two men would follow. They would all be needed to fight the banditos, as he had seen how many were coming.
Johnny stared up at the ever lightening sky. Not so long ago he’d been desperate for daylight, but now he was wishing the half-light would linger just a little longer. At least until they reached the lush flat of the valley.
With dogged determination he and Effie had pushed on, occasionally hearing the faint echo of a voice somewhere above them in the pass. It was unnerving knowing their foe was slowly catching them up, but both clung to the hope that they would make it to the bottom of the mountain and have a clear get away.
But the next noise an ever vigilant Johnny heard dashed those hopes. He stopped abruptly and signaled to the widow to do the same.
“What?” Effie whispered.
“There’s someone coming up the pass!”
Effie’s gaze instantly travelled to the trail ahead “It couldn’t be them John surely?”
“They know this mountain Mrs. Mac. I don’t. There could be another trail down. Shit! It could be a lookout. ”The dark haired Lancer exclaimed, unable to believe he’d not considered such a possibility before now.
“But Clem never mentioned…” Effie protested not wanting to believe the young man had betrayed them.
“And I never asked!” Johnny mentally kicked himself for his stupidity. Then seeing the hurt and disappointment on the widow’s face the youngest Lancer heard himself defend Clem Hogan. “Maybe he didn’t know or maybe he just plain forgot!
Suddenly desperate to offer the widow some hope Johnny continued “It could just be a hunter, or….” he paused debating whether or not he should suggest help could be on its way. One thing he knew for sure was that his father and brother would track them down if at all possible….but had it been possible?
“Do you think it could be help?” The widow asked seeing the glimmer of renewed hope in her young friend’s eyes.
“It could be.” Johnny said quietly, “but I don’t think we should count on it.” Looking around them at the rocky outcrops and moss blanketed boulders he added, “We’d better get behind something bullet proof.”
The young man knew their only chance now was to conceal themselves in a place that offered a measure of protection and also a view of what was going on around them.
After a few minutes of desperate searching his eyes settled on what looked to be a small recess in the granite. It was a good eight feet off the ground and wouldn’t be easy to reach.
The pair dismounted, then on the youngest Lancer’s instructions, Effie slapped both horses on the rump sending them galloping down the pass.
The widow then readied herself for the ascent; hitching up her skirts securing them in her waistband she eyed the youngest Lancer, a mischievous twinkle in her eyes. “You know Johnny, I had four older brothers and I could outrun, out shoot and out climb every one of them!”
“That…” Smiled Johnny “doesn’t surprise me one little bit.”
With a little help from the widow the injured Lancer managed to reach what turned out to be a very small cave. As he leaned back against the cold stone wall, trying to fend off the dizziness he heard another gunshot, followed a few moments later by another one – and he was sure that both were rifle shots.
They appeared to come from below them, yet they didn’t seem to have been fired in their direction. Johnny knew its accompanying echo could have distorted the sound, but right now he’d rather believe it was someone shooting at the gang trailing them, or their lookouts below.
The small smile on Mrs. Mac’s face told him she believed the same.
Val had not stopped, but only slowed down to hear from Pedro. Even so, Murdoch, and the others were now very close to him, too close – he wanted some distance, enough to try and draw fire, without endangering the old man more than was necessary. He understood what Scott wanted: His father and the others to have enough time to find cover, drawing fire first to the two of them, keeping the others a little further out of range, letting the two of them be the bait to find out what lie ahead.
He knew, too, that Cipriano understood. And while the proud Segundo may have felt his position should be with the Sheriff, and to protect the sons, the older Mexican was no fool. He was no match for Scott or Val in their shooting, riding, or agility in slipping dangerous off to one side or another on a horse, to make the target less a sure thing.
The Sheriff turned quickly and yelled back, hoping that the Segundo would once again know how to handle the old man.
“Cipriano, slow it down, give us room.” He hoped it would be enough.
And it was enough. Cipriano understood and moved to make sure the Patron allowed the two younger men the distance to draw out what was out there.
He reached over and pulled a little on the reins to Senor Murdoch’s horse. As he pulled at the reins he spoke to his boss.
“The Sheriff’s right Senor Murdoch, we must slow a little and allow the plan to work. We will get to your son, but we must allow your other son and Senor Crawford to do their part. Let them use their skills so that we can get Juanito and Senora Mac home safely.”
Murdoch understood and knew that Cipriano was right. The plan to draw out the enemy and give the rest of them time to move into position off their horses, using the rocks and trees as coverage was to their advantage. Riding all out and trying to fight and shoot was a young man’s game, and perhaps even a fool’s game. He was no fool, and he hoped his older son and Val were not either. He had to trust them.
Slowing his horse to match Cipriano, he raised his hand to motion to the others behind them to also slow down. He glanced around and up to check for Pedro and saw them riding down from the plateau. Good. There would be nine of them now, eleven with Scott and Val. He had no idea of how many were in the Hogan brothers’ gang, but he did know men who made their living stealing and preying on others were more proficient than men who worked day in and day out with cattle.
Murdoch had heard what Pedro had shouted and knew that the outlaws were now riding down the trail. He also knew the odds were against them as they rode into this fight. But he also knew that his men would fight until their very last breath, each and every one of them. God willing, their determination and willingness to give their lives would be enough to overtake men who often times tucked-tail and ran to lick their own wounds rather than give their life up for a leader: a leader who often was one of convenience rather than one who garnered loyalty from his men.
He prayed it would be enough.
Scott’s eyes skirted the trail ahead, slowing for a moment to allow Val nearer, and then once again kicking his mount to move faster. The trail was narrow, but free of rocks or larger boulders, leaving a hard packed ground, which allowed a horse and rider to move quickly up the trail: even a hands-free rider such as him.
His stint in the Cavalry during the war had taught him the art of riding this way, and also the need to keep both hands on the rifle, ready to shoot when riding in fast. Just having the rifle out of the scabbard wasn’t enough. Seconds lost in lifting your other hand to aim the rifle, while also remembering to secure yourself on the horse with the pressure of your legs, could mean the difference between life and death. Ready, shoot, his old sergeant had told him; his first lesson in battle readiness.
A movement up ahead caught his eye, a flash of color in the otherwise moss covered rocks surrounding them. There it was again, but this time, he also saw the sunlight bounce off the shining end of a long-gun. Aiming he waited a few moments more hoping that the man behind the gun would show himself before firing – not much he knew, but just enough. And he did. Scott had kept his aim on the rifle tip knowing that when most men aimed and fired, the rifle was brought more in front of them, and so if his aim was true, his shot would catch the broad target of a man’s chest, or it lucky, is head.
He never knew which he had hit, just that his aim was true and the man was sprawled out dead or near dead on the path in front of him. And with that kill, more guns were fired, to the front and rear of him, as he heard Val coming fast behind him, his hand gun taking aim at another man nearby who was stunned to see two riders coming in towards them fast.
And fast they were, but not far enough in to seek shelter yet; still needed to move in past this first line of defense, closer now, as he was sure the three men they had just shot were guards who had been posted the night before, not part of the main band of outlaws that Pedro said were riding down the trail.
Suddenly he saw riders up ahead, dismounting and running for cover: the fight would now begin. Turning quickly back Scott shouted to dismount, and noted that Val was already moving off the trail, jumping to the ground, even as he turned to warn the others. Scott quickly found a break in the rocks and moved to his right. He pulled his right leg over the horn, and slid down to the ground, rifle still at the ready. Checking his surrounding, he quickly reached for additional shells from his saddle bags, and then reached for Charlemagne’s reins pulling him into the sheltered area, tying him to a low clump of brush sprouting from a rock fissure near the ground of a large boulder.
Movement at his back made him spin around, only to come face to face with Val.
“Damn it Val! You are as bad as Johnny. Couldn’t you call out my name and warn me. Jesus, man!” Scott was sure he had lost at least a half dozen heart beats he would never see again.
“Don’t know how you yanks fight wars, Lancer. But out here we try not to let the enemy know where we are.”
Val turned away from Johnny’s brother, hoping not to show the grin that he knew he was sporting. He moved to the edge of the large tree bordering the trail, peeked around but saw nothing. His glance back down the path though, showed him that Murdoch, Cipriano, and the others had cleared off the trail and were moving through the rocks and trees trying to stake out a position.
Scott moved alongside him in time to see his father motion that he and Cipriano wanted to join them. The blond nodded his head and nudged Val to let him know what his father wanted to do. He need not have bothered though, as the Sheriff jumped into the trail before he could say anything, shooting his gun at possible positions; Scott did the same, only his shots going higher and further along the trail.
Murdoch and Cipriano moved quickly across into sheltered opening. Just as Scott and Val jumped back in they heard someone softly call to them from the high rock to their backs. Looking up – guns ready, they saw Pedro and young Miguel. He motioned to the four men on the ground to look across the trail and they saw that two more men were climbing up to the some of the higher ground.
Scott moved to climb a rock nearby to scan the area in front of Pedro – looking back to the other side as well. He also saw a narrow opening towards his right that looked like a means to move undetected, at least for a short while, further towards the area where the outlaws had taken cover.
Jumping back down to the ground, he motioned for the other three men to come close to him.
“There appears to me that both Pedro and the two men on the other side up in the rocks have a means to slowly move forward staying higher up in these rocks. There also appears to be an opening off to our right, if we climb over the rock I was just on that moves away from the main trail, but may be a way for us to come up on the outlaws away from the main trail. And hopefully we can get to Johnny and Mrs. Mac while the outlaws are preparing for our attach coming up the main trail. There are lots of trees and low vegetation to provide some cover as we move.”
Hearing this information, Murdoch nudged his son aside. “Let’s go then,” he stated in a firm but soft voice, and started to climb up on the rock, his agility surprising even his Segundo.
As if sensing his son was about to say something, Murdoch glanced back, the look in his eye daring the young man to challenge him.
Scott merely nodded, but before following his father he placed his hand on Cipriano’s shoulder.
"Cip, do you know where the other three men are?”
“Si, Scott, they are back where we came from waiting for us. Perhaps one of you…..”
Val knew it was hard for the Segundo to leave his Patron, but he also knew that Scott needed to be with his father. And it was best to cover both sides of the open trail, cause he knew that’s what the Hogan brothers would do. But before he could say anything, Scott spoke.
“Cip, I know you want to be with my father, but you have to trust me and Val on this. In order for us to get a drop on them – and hopefully get to Johnny and Effie quickly, we need to keep their attention on the main trail. With Pedro on this side, and the other two men on the other in the higher ground, they will be able to move closer and get in to position – while hopefully you and the Sheriff and the other three men, can spread out closer to the trail, move in among the trees and rocks for cover – drawing the Hogan gang out.” Scott stopped when he felt the Sheriff’s hand on his shoulder. He turned to him.
“Scott, go on and go after your old man, let me work your plan with Cip.” Scott nodded and took off like a light after his father.
Val continued: “Cip you and I are gonna go back across the trail quickly.” He looked up and motioned for the two vaqueros to lean over the edge of the rock and listen carefully.
“Pedro you cover us – but no need to fire your gun, just watch out for any movement. Scoot over to the end and cover the trail up ahead. Then when Cip and I get over, we’ll send two men back and keep one with us. Pedro you have one of those men go with Scott. And you too, only ya follow them slowly above if you can; if not climb down and work your way towards ‘em.” He looked up at the other young vaquero with Pedro.
“Miguel, you stay at this end, up on top of the rocks moving forward as long as ya can. Have the other guy we send over stay lower, closer to the trail. Everyone carefully move forward. Use the rocks and trees for cover and keep your eyes open and heads down! Don’t want none of ya taking a bullet from these varmints, ya hear? Okay? Everybody clear?” Val watched as the men nodded and then moved into position.
It didn’t take more than a minute or two for everyone to move across and back, and as soon as he gave instructions to the two men who ran to his side, Pedro moved off towards the Lancers staying up in the rocks with the other hand following the trail on the ground.
Scott had heard part of Val’s instructions, so was listening for the sound of a man following on the ground. He didn’t figure it would take long to catch up with his father, he had seen the pathway and knew it was narrow and involved climbing here and there – enough of both to slow his father down.
He was right, not more than five minutes later he could see his father making his way along the narrow rock strewn path. He whistled softly, signaling his arrival and Murdoch looked back quickly, nodded his head in acknowledgement and turned back to maneuver his way along the passageway.
Scott noticed as he closed the distance between them that his father had holstered his gun, not a smart thing to do. He was just about to tell him to put his gun in his hand when Murdoch stumbled and fell hard to the ground. Stopping himself from yelling out his father’s name, he quickly moved to his side. Not hiding the worry on his face he spoke to him in a soft voice.
“Murdoch, are you alright?” Seeing the grimace on the older man’s face, he knew that he was hurt. But just how bad……
“Damn, it’s my ankle; give me a minute, Scott.”
Scott nodded his head and waited for his father to bring the pain under control. After a few minutes, Murdoch grabbed at his son’s arm and started to rise.
“Help me up, Son, and don’t question whether I should or not. I think it is only a sprain, as I can move my toes. Hurts like hell, but I’ll be alright.”
Doing as asked, Scott helped his father up and waited as his father moved to put weight on that leg. The elder Lancer’s face screwed up in pain as he did, but he held his position. His son knew it may not be broken, but it was a bad sprain. He was just about to say something to his father about staying put, when Murdoch Lancer stretched to his full height and pushed his son’s hand from his arm.
“No I’ll not stay here, but am not so much an old fool as to risk the life of my son over my foolish pride. You move on, take Ben with you. I’ll follow. You get Johnny and take care.” Murdoch’s eyes held a worry his son was just beginning to see – and understand.
Scott gave his father’s arm a gentle squeeze, love and respect for his father showing in his eyes.
“I will sir.” Motioning to the hand that had arrived a few minutes earlier he moved off.
They had not gone far when they heard gun fire, lots of it, and they knew that the outlaw gang was now taking aim at the other members of the posse. He heard rather than saw a man in the trees interspersed with the moss covered rocks, which seemed to cover more of the land as they moved from amongst the big boulders. He pulled up his rifle, aiming towards the area where he had seen a flash of color, waited, and when once again the color appeared, fired. The man tumbled from behind the tree, falling back down the trail towards them, landing on the ground a few feet from him. Another shot rang out, and Scott heard a grunt. Ben, the ranch hand moving with him had taken a bullet in the arm, not a life-threatening wound, but one that would take him out of action.
Pulling back behind a rock, he pulled Ben with him. Waiting a few moments, Scott then moved back out, firing as he did. Another man hit the ground, this one still alive, but the bullet had gone through his right shoulder – his gun arm: no use to his gang any more.
Scott quickly went to him, disarming him and moving him towards Ben.
“Ben, you keep him guarded while I tie his hands and bind his wound.”
Ben nodded while Scott moved back to the other outlaw he had just killed and took the piece of rope he had noticed the man had tied to the back of his belt. He also pulled at the dead man’s shirt and ripped off a couple of strips to use as bandages. Cutting off some of the rope he quickly tied the outlaw’s hands. He turned back to Ben and wrapped his upper arm where the bullet had gone through. He quickly ripped some more of the shirt, and put a crude wrapping on the outlaw’s shoulder.
“Ben you stay here and wait for Murdoch. If you feel up to moving, leave him,” he motioned towards the outlaw, “and come with my father. If you don’t, then stay here. I’m going on.” With that said Scott started out again. As he moved up he climbed a little higher to get a look at what was going on around him. The rocks while giving protection also made it treacherous as you were virtually moving around blind.
Looking back to the way he came, he saw Murdoch moving quicker than he thought he would. His father, he knew, would force himself no matter the damage he may be doing to himself. Johnny and he hadn’t come by their stubborn streaks without a little help from their old man.
He looked out further and saw that Pedro was near and he motioned for him to keep moving forward. The large boulders went on for just a short distance more, then gave way to low vegetation, moss covered rocks and trees. The land also dropped down a little, so that the advantage that Pedro and Miguel and the others had for a while in these rocks – would soon go away.
Looking to his left he saw that Miguel had moved further up the trail, climbing over and among the boulders and was engaged in a fire fight, along with the hand at ground level with three or four men who were also at ground level, moving in and out of the trees and rock openings. He whistled to Pedro, getting his attention, then motioned for him to go help them; pleased with the young vaquero did without hesitation.
As he started to turn away he saw one of the gang members fall forward: a shot by Miguel hitting his target dead-on. A slight smile came to Scott’s face remembering the battle he had had with the young vaquero in trying to win the grand price in the shooting contest at last year’s festival in Green River. He gripped the winning prize tighter as he started to move off the rock.
Before moving very far, however, he caught sight of a scene playing out some distance from him: two figures on foot, one helping the other, climbing slowly towards what appeared to be an opening in some trees and rocks. Was the person helping the other wearing a dress? Effie? Was Johnny hurt?
Before he could think more about what he was seeing, he saw another man coming towards them from further up the mountain, and then another, back further but still making his way. Knowing he had no time to waste, Scott took his bearings, fixing in his mind where they were at, and checking the direction of the path he was on to make sure it would lead him to his brother. It would, but he feared it would not be soon enough. He jumped down to the path and as quickly as he could, started running up the trail.
If he just could get to them in time. If only…….
The cave was, according to Effie, “Just about big enough to swing a cat!” The observation had amused Johnny and he had grinned up at her even though she was applying pressure to the wound in his shoulder. It was bleeding heavily again or had been until the widow had noticed and done something to stop it. She had made him sit down, hurriedly tore strips off her underskirts and then determinedly got the bleeding under control. All the time she had been doing that she had been talking to him, trying he knew to divert his attention away from her actions.
He’d been close to passing out but the youngest Lancer had fought against the darkness, scared something might happen to Effie while he was out. He’d kept his eyes focused on his friend and for first time in a great many hours he could see her clearly.
Effie’s face was bruised, streaked with dirt and blood. His blood. Her hair that had once been secured in a neat no nonsense bun was dishevelled, the silver streaked locks having escaped from the umpteen pins she’d used to control them. Her dress, her Sunday finery, was dirty, bloody, and torn beyond repair. She was barely recognisable as the Widow McDonald he and everyone in town and for miles around knew and loved.
It both angered and saddened him to see her like this and it was those emotions that had him contemplate long and hard the woman before him. The widow had been through hell the last few days but she’d never once complained. She had kept her calm, and her dignity.
Johnny realised that during that time he had seen the true Effie Mac.
He’d seen behind the silly hats and non-stop chatter. He knew now that there was so much more to Effie than honeysuckle, apple pies, and gleaming pots and pans.
Everyone knew the widow was a kind hearted soul, but they didn’t know how strong and courageous she was: he did.
They didn’t know how worldly-wise the church going Mrs. Mac was, but mercifully he did.
Effie was a gentle yet powerful force to be reckoned with and he’d been privileged to witness it all firsthand.
It probably wasn’t the right time, but knowing it might be his only chance Johnny clasped the widow’s hand and squeezing it gently saying, “Thank you.”
The words were said with such feeling that the widow stopped her chatter and eyed him thoughtfully. “Whatever for, John?”
The dark haired Lancer smiled “For being you, Mrs. Mac. For being you!”
Euphemia McDonald had had many a compliment in her life and she had received each and every one of them with grace. But this one, the sentiment behind this one, managed to rob her of her composure. Tears formed in her eyes. A lump formed in her throat, and for the first time ever she found herself lost for words.
As Johnny’s grip tightened around her hand she smiled back at him, and just as she felt able to speak a single gunshot was heard.
Johnny scrambled to the entrance of the cave. It soon became clear that whoever was coming up the pass were fairly large in number. The unknown party had been the first to use a gun, and gunfire on their part had been sporadic and spread out. They seemed to be making every bullet count in what looked to be a tactical advance.
‘It has to be Scott!’ Johnny told himself ‘who else would have a rescue planned so strategically?’
‘It could all be wishful thinking’ he supposed ‘but no!’ Johnny just knew his brother was out there, he could sense him, his father too. ‘And maybe,’ he thought, ‘if things were really starting to work their way, Val would be with them – cause weren’t anyone who knew better than Val how to deal with these low-lifes.’
If Val Crawford knew what Johnny was thinking at that moment, he may not have agreed. Because just then he was having a hell of a time trying to move forward beyond the copse of trees he was using for cover, and had been using for cover for the past fifteen minutes.
“Damn varmints,” he growled to himself, “shouldn’t be havin’ this much trouble with ‘em. Ain’t usually this patient in not showing their mangy faces.”
Crawford took a moment to focus in on the small outcropping of brush surrounding the large boulder about 100 feet ahead. That was where the shots had been coming from – pretty regularly too; and close – close enough to have him hugging the tree he was behind, as if it was a sweet smellin’ gal he was just getting ta know.
‘But it wasn’t no gal’ he thought, as he turned around and placed his back to the tree. And he was getting damn tired of the situation he found himself in.
Just as he was thinking about taking a chance and moving out and trying to rush the gunmen, his own gun blasting away, he heard a low whistle to his left. He looked over and up and was surprised to see one of the two men who had been moving on top of the large, tall boulders interspersed throughout the area. He had last seen Jose back a little way from where the horses were, standing up on one of the large boulders looking at the wide gap between the rock formation where he was, and the next one he needed to jump to, in order to keep moving in the direction where they thought the outlaws were.
Val was glad to see that apparently the young vaquero had succeeded in finding a way to jump over the wide crevice. That had not been the case for Ray Jackson, a long-time Lancer hand, who had also been with Jose on top of the rock formations. Val winced, thinking of Ray when the man had landed in an ungainly heap at the bottom of the crevice, with a broken ankle, and probably sore all over, after having misjudged his jump. He and Cipriano had left Ray, with his buddy and fellow Lancer hand, Tom, who had been working his way forward on the ground with them. Tom would stay with Ray and try and help him – or at least provide some protection until they could return – if they returned.
That had left three of them on this side, he and Cipriano and the young Vaquero up in the rocks– not much to work with – but still he had been outnumbered before. And they had been lucky, well except for Ray. And he and Cipriano had been able to move quickly and had picked off a few of the outlaws without being seen.
Until now; now they were trapped.
Val noticed that Jose was motioning for him to look further to the young man’s right. Not sure if it was more of the Hogan gang he turned to his right a little to get Cip’s attention. The Lancer Segundo however, was already aware of Jose up on the rocks and signalled to Val that he too saw him. As they both turned back towards the young Mexican, they finally saw what he was trying to tell them: Pedro and Miguel along with Steve, who had all been on the other side of the trail, had moved in to help them.
Their position was well protected and to the right of the large boulder. If Pedro and his men along with Jose still on top of the rocks could draw fire, Val and Cipriano would have a good chance of rushing towards where the outlaws were and might be able to take them out.
Val turned around to face the tree, placing Pedro and his men now on his right. Cipriano also got ready to move; Val signalled the men to start firing and soon, just as he hoped the outlaws began shooting in the direction of the new danger; away from them. Quickly he motioned to Cipriano, and they moved out – fast and low – their own guns firing away.
An adrenal rush had always came to Val when he found himself facing danger head-on, not sure if death’s long arm was going to reach out and grab him, and today’s fight wasn’t any different. Time seemed to move slowly, almost standing still; everything in slow motion, as they moved, fired, and took cover – waiting for the enemy to come to them. And they did; however, with well placed firepower backing he and Cipriano, it took mere minutes to wound or kill six of the holed-up gang members.
Coming into the brush surrounding the large boulder, Val held his hand up for a cease fire. Cipriano followed and quickly went to the two men still alive and grabbed their guns. Val along with Pedro moved further behind the large boulder and saw four or five men scrambling to get to their horses among the trees and rocks further up the trail. The outlaws had a good start and were able to mount and start riding back up the trail as Val and Miguel, who had come up behind them, shot after the gang members trying to escape. Two bullets found their marks: one causing a man to fall from his horse; the other merely hitting a shoulder, leaving the man to remain in his saddle, still riding back up the mountain.
Pedro and Miguel ran to check the fallen man who was still alive and trying to move off into the trees. Grabbing hold, they kicked his gun away and brought him back to the others. Val took charge.
“Leave those men go,” he said pointing up the trail. “They’re probably gonna’ try riding back up to the camp and start down the front trail, and Frank and the others are down their just a waitin’. Pedro you see any more of the Hogan gang up yonder before you came over here?”
“A few men the way Senor Scott was going. I think maybe by Juanito as well.”
“Okay you and the boys stay with these men and make sure they're tied up. Cip you come with me. Will make our way over there and Pedro you come quick as ya can. Okay?” Val didn’t wait for an answer. He knew his friend and Mrs. Mac were in trouble and they needed to get there before it was too late!
Murdoch had heard the gun fire coming from further up and to the other side of the rocky trail and said a silent prayer that Cipriano, Val and the others would be alright. Looking at Ben, who had decided to accompany his boss rather than stay with the wounded outlaw, Murdoch could see that his long-time ranch hand had the same thoughts.
“We just have to believe they’ll be okay Ben, can’t help them from here. Let’s keep moving; we need to stay as close to Scott as we can.” Murdoch turned, walking on as quickly as his ankle would allow him.
Ben nodded to his boss, following him as they made their way slowly over the rocky narrow trail. They had caught a glimpse of Scott a few minutes before – before the trail moved off towards some bushes and evergreens – an area that tended to also drop down steeply if you weren’t careful with your footing. And neither one of them was in much shape to prevent a fall if they stepped wrong – Mr. Lancer hobbling, leaning on a sturdy branch to help him stay upright with his bad ankle, and even though his own injured arm was now cradled in a sling Mr. Lancer had fashioned from a large bandana, it still was aching fiercely, interfering with the need to concentrate on his footing and the surroundings.
‘T’weren’t nothin’ much the two of ‘em would be able to do, even if they came upon anyone,’ he thought, as he followed behind Mr. Lancer. At least they now had their guns out, though, after the Lancer boy had motioned for them to do so when he looked back and seen them before disappearing into the trees.
Murdoch was trying to move as quickly as he could, but he realized if he tried to go much faster he would more than likely slide down the steep side of the mountain, which wasn’t more than a foot or two from where they were walking. The trees on this side of the mountain would prevent him from falling far, but that would not help his son or Effie McDonald, and he knew they needed help. Helping them, was all he could think of.
No, they had to move sure and steady, hoping that he would get there in time to help his son – he prayed, prayed hard that this one time he would be their for his son – both sons.
The cave was little more than ten foot wide even less in length, although it did afford plenty of headroom. It also provided a reasonable measure of protection. The granite walls of the opening curved inwards and Johnny and Mrs, Mac had positioned themselves behind them, peering out into the daylight, hoping to catch sight of their rescuers.
They were yet to see a familiar face, but Johnny was sure he had heard a voice he knew: Pedro’s, ranch hand and friend.
Voices didn’t so much carry as reverberate in the stony labyrinths that surrounded him, but he had heard what had been shouted.
The dark haired Lancer knew the outlaws were rapidly closing in on them, undaunted by the enemy. Unfortunately that enemy appeared to be a lot closer to him and Effie than their rescuers did, and Johnny guessed they outnumbered them too. But his brother was skilled in matters of war. Outnumbered or not, Scott would do battle and win.
Long minutes passed, gunfire could be heard below and above them. Then off to his right, appeared one of the outlaws: the fat bellied one Johnny had insulted their first day at camp. As quick as he had appeared he disappeared from sight, dropping down behind a boulder, the business end of his rifle just visible.
An uneasy feeling settled around him, the bastard was readying to take someone he knew down. He had to warn them.
“GET DOWN.” Johnny bellowed in the direction the rifle was aimed. In the silence that followed he realised in making the warning he’d given their position away.
It was a little while before they heard any further gunplay, and when it did come it came from both sides. During the onslaught he and Effie became aware of rock debris falling down past the opening of the cave. Someone was standing directly above them!
Effie instantly readied the rifle, pointing it upward to where she believed one of the outlaws would make their entrance. The pair waited silently for what seemed an eternity until finally their worst fears became a reality. But the intruder didn’t enter their sanctuary from above as expected. From their left, where Effie stood rifle at the ready, lunged Jed Hogan.
Before Effie could react the bearded Jed snatched the rifle out of her hand, shoving her violently over to where Johnny was standing. Effie tucked her arm in her young friend’s, the two of them then eyeing the outlaw defiantly.
The angry Hogan glowered at Johnny, “Madrid! Johnny Madrid. I knew I’d seen ya somewheres before.”
“His name is John Lancer” Effie protested.
“Shut up!” Jed snarled never taking his eyes off Johnny. “I know who he is! What he is.”
“What I was.” Johnny corrected quietly.
“I heard ya died down in Mexico.” The outlaw grinned before continuing in a taunting tone. “Seems ta me ya just lost ya nerve and have been hidin’ out in these parts ever since.”
Johnny knew it wouldn’t make any difference to Jed what he said, but he himself wanted to acknowledge out loud the reason for the dramatic change in his life. “I just came home. I’m Johnny Lancer now”
Scratching his beard thoughtfully, Jed said, “So ya worth a pretty penny whatever name ya go by?”
“Jed?” A disembodied voice drew the attention of all three in the cave.
“That you Clem?” Jed Hogan stepped away from his prey, levelling his rifle at Johnny’s chest before looking outside of the cave.
“Yeah. You get ‘em Jed?”
A pair of feet then a pair of legs dangled from above, seconds later Clem Hogan dropped down to stand alongside his brother.
“What you doin’ here?” Jed demanded. “Len told ya to stay put.”
“He changed his mind.” Clem lied, “He thought ya might need some help.”
“The hell he did!” Spat Jed smelling a rat. “Ya come ta help them!” Gesturing at Effie and Johnny he continued, “just like ya helped ‘em escape!”
“Then prove it! Len wants rid of the old biddy so you do the riddin’.”
”But she’s more use ta us alive.” Clem insisted trying to hide his fear of his own brother from him.
“Madrid’s daddy’s out there, toss the hag out to him dead and he’ll know we mean business. If he wants his boy back alive he’s gonna have ta let us off this mountain. Now do it!”
“If you help us Clem I’ll make sure you get away.”
Johnny’s plea angered Jed still further and the larger man lashed out with his free hand. The blow knocked the dark haired Lancer sideways, already weak he crumpled to the ground.
As Effie instinctively went to Johnny’s aid, Jed grabbed her arm and roughly pushed her to the other side of the cave. There he slammed her up against the wall and turned to his brother.
“Kill her Clem or Len’s gonna kill you!”
The youngest Hogan seemed to consider the option for a moment or two then removing his gun from its holster he nodded and walked towards Effie.
“Clem! Don’t do this. Please.” Johnny begged as he struggled to his knees.
“Shut up.” Jed warned as he lunged menacingly towards Johnny. As he was about to deliver yet another blow to the younger man’s head he heard a gun being cocked behind him.
Wanting to witness this particular spilling of blood he turned around. The sadistic grin that had formed on his face quickly faded. Clem was now standing directly in front of the widow pointing his gun at him.
“What ya doin ya fool’? Shoot her.”
Snatching his gun from his gun belt Jed yelled over at the taller man, “Then get out of the way bonehead. I’ll do it myself.”
“I won’t let ya do that Jed.”
Storming the short distance to where his brother stood Jed growled up into his face “Move now or ya a dead man.”
“Do as he says Clem please.” Effie pleaded as she grasped the young man’s arm. “
“No, He’s gonna have ta kill me...”
A shot reverberated around the cave and Clem fell lifelessly to the ground.
A horrified Effie clamped both hands over her mouth to stifle a sob then closing her eyes she pressed her hands together and began to pray.
Seconds later another shot rang out and Johnny closed his eyes against the bitter sting of tears.
Scott stopped in his tracks.
A single gunshot: ahead, close. Not the gunfire from the battle being played out where Val and his men were, but close to him.
And before he could move off again, a second lone shot rang out.
“Johnny,” he whispered his brother’s name, and knew in his heart that those shots meant that time had run out for his brother.
Forgetting the steep terrain just off to his right, he began to run – running faster than he ever had run before. He had to get to his brother before….. before….. it was too late.
“This ain’t the time for sleepin’ or prayin’” Charley Meeks said flatly as he stepped further into the cave.
Johnny started at the sound of the unexpected voice. Opening his eyes he stared across to where a very much alive Effie had fallen to her knees. Jed lay dead across his brother and the widow was struggling to move his body.
Charley holstered his gun and went to assist her. As he unceremoniously hauled Jed to one side the widow looked up at him and thanked him profusely.
Embarrassed by the show of gratitude he mumbled “I liked Clem too, ma’am.” Hurriedly turning his back on the emotional woman, Charley moved over to where Johnny was attempting to get to his feet.
Accepting the helping hand offered him the youngest Lancer said, “Thanks Charley. That was close, too close mi amigo!”
“Yeah well Jed had it coming.”
“Len?” Johnny asked hoping he’d been sent to hell too.
Charley grimaced, “He’s out ta get ya Johnny.”
“Yeah, I bet he is!” Johnny let out a heavy sigh before continuing, “That’s my father and brother out there, how they doin’”
Charley looked impressed, “Well bein’ a gamblin’ man Johnny I’d bet on them winnin’ this one. That’s why I’m turnin’ tale and headin’ back up the pass.”
“You don’t have to Charlie, after what you just did they’ll let you go no questions asked.”
“Na I’d rather slip away now. The odds are better.”
The two men fell silent as they became aware of what was happening across from them. The widow was carefully straightening Clem’s still form, crossing his arms across his chest before gently closing his eyes. Then just before she got to her feet she bent lower and kissing his forehead whispered her heartfelt gratitude to the dead outlaw.
By the time the widow had made her way over to Johnny’s side, all trace of tears had gone and she was once again in control of her emotions.
The events of the last half hour had seen their arsenal grow. They now had three rifles, two handguns and a fair amount of ammunition. The guns were all loaded and ready for use. Johnny had picked up Clem’s handgun, he wasn’t too bad a shot left handed. He couldn’t hold a rifle though so Effie remained in charge of those.
Charley had slipped out into the midst of the fray despite Johnny’s assurance of a safe passage; he did not trust the posse and was admittedly scared of Len’s revenge. Both Johnny and Effie reiterated their thanks as he went, neither very confident of him actually getting away unscathed.
While gunfire went on around them, Effie and Johnny waited it out. At first they had been silent, both wearied by it all. But as time dragged on restlessness and impatience with their situation grew.
“Just what the hell is happening out there?” The youngest Lancer demanded through dry and cracked lips.
Effie knew the question wasn’t aimed at her and she ignored it. Still she too wondered how long it would be before the fighting was over. The sun was climbing ever higher in the sky and sunlight was now reaching far into the cave. The air there was hot and her mouth already so very dry. The dry heat was draining and they were both aware it was sapping their remaining strength. Effie knew Clem had done his best ‘but bless his heart’ she thought sadly, ‘he’d not filled the canteens on the saddles that he’d readied for them’. Charley didn’t have one to give them either so their thirst continued to grow.
They needed water desperately; Johnny had lost a lot of blood and he in particular needed to replace some fluid.
Effie was growing increasingly worried about the young man, he was visibly perspiring, beads of moisture formed on his brow then trickled down his cheek into the ever thickening stubble on the lower part of his face.
The boy didn’t have a fever yet, she’d checked a few minutes since but she knew it was only a matter of time before he started to burn up. He needed to be home, in his own bed with Dr Jenkins tending his wound.
Lost in her thoughts she didn’t notice Johnny was getting to his feet and when she did she was so intent on going to help him that she forgot that by passing the opening of the cave she was endangering herself. Johnny opened his mouth to warn her, waving her away, back to safety but it was too late.
Johnny heard the gunshot but Effie did not, blackness had claimed her and she fell to the floor of the cave, blood seeping from the side of her head.
“Effie!” Johnny fell to his knees beside the widow, he feared the worst and tears were once again threatening. Tucking his handgun in his belt he examined the wound. “It’s just a graze!” He announced out loud as relief flooded through him. “You’re gonna be alright Mrs Mac I promise.” Johnny knew he had to get the widow further over to the side of the cave, glancing quickly outside and seeing and hearing nothing he pushed his good arm under Effie’s back and pulled her up to his chest. With the widows unconscious form secure in his arm Johnny was just about to drag her over to a dark corner when a shadow fell across him.
His head jerked towards the entrance of the cave, there gun in hand and sick grin plastered across his face stood Len Hogan.
Val and Cipriano had only gone a short way when they encountered another few members of the Hogan gang.
“Damn, I thought they all had tucked tail and ran,” griped Crawford as once again he found himself using a tree as cover – but this time it was next to some good size boulders that help in giving him cover.
“Si, we had heard that this gang of outlaws was large, but still…..” Cipriano’s voice trailed off. “Senor Sheriff, perhaps if I move off I can come up the other side of that rock where they are, and catch them off guard, no?”
Val thought about it a moment, looking over where Cipriano was pointing and seeing the cover he would have. He knew the large Segundo was quicker than his large body would have you believe, and would move in fast.
“Yeah, it might just work Cip. You wait and count to three after I start firing my rifle and then take a run. Hopefully I’ll see you on the other side of the boulder.” He gave the older man a grin, and moved out from cover, firing his rifle, rapidly.
It only took Cipriano a few minutes to get in position. Leaning up against the far side of the boulder, he could see Sheriff Crawford through the trees and nodded he was ready. Val increased his firing and started moving forward as if he was charging, drawing the gunmen out towards him away from their cover.
There were two of them, at least that was all Val noticed before he fell forward, rolling into the brush, taking cover hoping that Cipriano would be able to take them out.
He did. Two quick shots and all firing stopped.
The Segundo hadn’t aimed for a wound. He was rapidly tiring of this battle, and they needed to rescue Juanito and go home to Lancer. Both of the banditos were dead, and he nodded to the Sheriff that they needed to move on.
Val shook his head, and followed. ‘Hell, don’t think I wanna mess with Johnny’s uncle any more than I would wanna mess with Johnny’s old man.” Val thought as he quickly ran to catch up with the Lancer Segundo.
Len glanced briefly at his dead brothers before his gaze settled back on the dark haired Lancer. Showing no emotion he asked, “I suppose I got you to thank for that Madrid?”
Johnny remained silent not able to believe his bad luck.
“She dead?” Without waiting for an answer Len continued “Bout time.” Then gesturing to Johnny to put her down, he walked a little nearer kicking the gun and rifles out of Johnny’s reach.
As Johnny laid the widow on the ground he tried to shield the gun nestling in his belt. When Len became distracted by gunshots outside he wrapped his hand around the gun, removing it from its resting place ready to draw. But Len hadn’t missed the sleight of hand and instantly kicked the weapon from Johnny’s grasp.
The outlaw shook his head, “Ya a feisty one I’ll give ya that.”
A slow smile had followed the words sending a shiver down Johnny’s back. Bile began to rise in his throat when he realised the outlaw was looking at him in the exact same way he’d done back in Effie’s bedroom. ‘No! Not here!’ Johnny thought, ‘Not now!’ But Len’s next words confirmed his fears.
“Me and you boy got some unfinished business.”
As Len took another step closer Johnny said desperately “You’d better go, they’re closing in on you. Go while you still can, before they kill you.”
The comment seemed to amuse Len because he laughed before saying “I’m a dead man already.”
‘Did that mean the outlaws were defeated?’ Johnny couldn’t be sure, there was still the odd burst of gunfire yet Len was talking like it was all over for him.
Help could be close at hand. But would Len be here, seemingly about to attempt the unthinkable, if that was so? Johnny glared up at the older man. He wasn’t going to let it happen. He would kill the sick bastard or would die trying!
Summoning all his strength Johnny heaved himself to his feet. Len was on him immediately, slamming him up against the granite wall. Winded and immobilized by pain, Johnny had to endure the fetid breath on his cheek as Len whispered into his ear “Ya gonna fight me boy? Good. That’s just how I like it.”
As panic exploded in his gut Johnny lashed out with his good arm. There was just enough force behind the blow to draw blood. Len licked his split lip, the coppery taste excited him even more, and grabbing the younger man by the shoulders he hurled him to the ground. Again rendered helpless by the searing pain in his shoulder, Johnny lay panting, unable to do anything but watch as Len removed his belt then began working open the buttons on his pants.
Blackness threatened. Johnny wanted to succumb to the peace that would accompany it, but knew if he did, Len would be free to... He pushed the nauseating thought away. As he did so he heard Len curse; his fingers were struggling with one of the buttons.
As the pain eased Johnny was beginning to think more rationally. He realised he had one chance left. If he could just reach one of the guns he could put a bullet through Len’s sick head. Slowing his breathing down and conquering all remaining pain he kicked out with his left foot sending Len sprawling to the ground. A split second later he had rolled onto his side and with his good arm was dragging himself the few feet to where the nearest gun lay. He was closing the distance quicker than even he had hoped, but just as he was about to grasp the Colt he felt Len’s hands upon him once more. The outlaw forced him onto his back, delivering a brutal backhander to Johnny’s face when he continued to struggle.
Momentarily dazed Johnny ceased to fight, he felt someone tugging at his pants but was oblivious to who and why. The bewilderment only lasted a few minutes, but by then Johnny felt his pants being wrenched down over his hips. Panic ignited once more and he again began to struggle. But he was no match for Len’s strength, or the urge that drove him on. With every effort Johnny made to free himself he grew weaker. Len would eventually overpower him and then...
A sick grin broke out on his face. He knew he had won. Maybe he wouldn’t be able to enjoy his conquest for long, but he would enjoy this – his last one. Len knew he wouldn’t be taken alive, the pose was close, but – ‘hell’ he thought, ‘he would have him a fine time with this boy before he left this world.’
Johnny felt himself being forced over, his pants down around his knees now. Len’s knee was now pressing on his back, his good hand held firmly, and an arm pressing against the back of his neck forcing his face into the dirt. He couldn’t breathe; couldn’t do a damn thing to stop what this bastard was going to do to him.
He felt the tip of a knife against his cheek as the arm that was pressed down on his neck moved; then a hand grabbed his hair and yanked his head back, stretching his neck.
“You gonna whimper boy? Or are you going to just surprise me and enjoy what I have for you? What’s it going to be, Mr. Madrid? What’s it going to be?” Len’s whispered voice blew softy in his ear, as if he were trying to sweet talk him into submission, rather than just rape him.
Johnny could barely catch his breath, but knew he couldn’t just give up. He tried reaching deep inside, trying to find the last vestiges of strength to fight this evil bastard – or die trying.
He began to struggle again, but Len just increased his hold, and started licking his lips, laughing.
“Ain’t going to do any good Madrid, just makes me………..”
Len never really knew what happened. One minute he was on top of Madrid, savouring his victory waiting for the right moment to take the half-breed as his. The next he was flung off, pulled back, a gun in his face….a man yelling….
“You rot in hell you son of a bitch!” Scott yelled.
He looked back at his brother and then quickly back at Len Hogan.
He nodded, took a calming breath, placed the gun in Hogan’s face and pulled the trigger.
Here he was again! Suited booted and sitting on a butt numbing wooden seat.
Just like last time, which just happened to be his first time in Green River’s Church, he was flanked by his father and brother and directly in front of him was Effie Mac. The widow was again wearing an unforgettable hat and Johnny was once again finding the object more than a little distracting. The scarlet ribbons and berries that adorned it were, he supposed, pleasing enough to the eye, but the enormous black and white plumes that protruded from it were more likely to have someone’s eye out! Earlier, when the congregation had stood up to sing he had found the tips of several of those feathers touching his nose!
He had begun to sneeze and had hurriedly retrieved the handkerchief his father had insisted on tucking in his pocket earlier that morning. He had sneezed endlessly through the sermon and the prayers, and just when he’d thought he had sneezed his last, the Reverend announced the next hymn.
Johnny had done his best to dodge the ‘tickling sticks’ as he had good naturedly deemed them, but there was just too many and by the time the hymn was over he was sneezing again! His father and brother appeared oblivious to the cause and kept eyeing him questioningly. As for Teresa well the girl was oblivious to everything but the Reverend!
Johnny’s thoughts strayed to the blossoming romance that had the whole town talking.
While Murdoch and Scott had been out searching for him and Effie the Reverend James had called daily at Lancer. The young and newly appointed minister had offered words of comfort and prayer to an increasingly worried Teresa. The visits had continued after the rescue and it was clear to all that Teresa and Michael James were meant for each other.
Smiling to himself Johnny acknowledged, and not for the first time, that something good had come out of the nightmare, several good things in fact. He had made a true friend in Effie too.
The widow had visited him often during his recovery, and had plied him with all sorts of homemade goodies. Her own recovery from the bullet grazing her head had left Mrs. Mac with a bad, lingering headache. A “fiercely pounding head, like one of those sickly headaches you get from drinking too much whiskey,” Johnny had heard Mrs. Mac say to his old man. Just how she would know something like that had at first baffled Johnny, but then he figured after what he had learned about Effie Mac during their recent kidnapping, why anything she did or knew about would baffle anyone, was beyond him. The headaches had lasted on and off for a week or so, but nothing to keep her down.
Effie had also made time for a chat with his father on each of her visits; although Johnny wasn’t sure if his old man had had the chance to do much more than listen. He’d spied the pair from his room once, strolling arm in arm in the orchard. Mrs. Mac had been talking, Murdoch listening intently.
The Reverend was speaking again, bringing the morning service to an end by announcing upcoming church and social events. Try as he might Johnny just couldn’t concentrate on what the Reverend was saying or couldn’t until his name was mentioned. He started on hearing it, and for one minute thought he was being singled out for not paying due attention. But seconds later the widow’s name was spoken too.
To Johnny’s relief and surprise the reverend was giving thanks for their safe return, praising Effie and his courage and determination. He went on to praise the rescuers and finally to thank all those who had prayed for their deliverance from evil, reminding everyone of the power of prayer.
Johnny shifted uneasily, ‘the power of prayer’. He wasn’t sure how he felt about that, ‘that’ and everything associated with it unsettled him. Yet he had prayed so very recently, had made a silent desperate plea for someone or something to save him from...from something terrible, and his brother had!
Had his prayer been answered or was it just good timing on his brothers part? The question needed some serious thought but he wasn’t ready to do that. He also needed to give some serious thought to what might be going on with his brother since he had come upon him in the cave. Scott hadn’t talked about any of it, and he was for certain not wanting to talk about it either, but Scott seemed kind of quiet and serious since then. He wasn’t ready though to think about any of that either, and anyway now wasn’t the time. The congregation was standing ready to leave and make their way home.
Johnny got to his feet, eager to do the same; he was hungry although mercifully his belly hadn’t let the whole world know like it had last time. He’d earlier had several extra helpings of ham and eggs to make sure of that.
The Widow Mac had already stepped out into the aisle and was now smiling warmly in his direction.
“John! Oh it is good to see you recovered enough to come into town and to church. Barely stopping to draw breath Effie chatted on, “Scott! I swear you are even more handsome than you were last week. Teresa, you are positively glowing,” Glancing quickly at the reverend she continued in a teasing tone “there must be something in the air.”
As the widow greeted Murdoch, Johnny was about to offer her his arm with the intention of once again walking Effie home, only to be beaten to it by his father.
A little perturbed Johnny watched as the pair stepped towards the door, Teresa scuttling past him seemingly eager to share in the conversation they would have with the Reverend James.
“Something wrong Johnny?” Scott asked eyeing his frowning sibling.
“I was gonna walk Effie home.” Johnny explained wanting to share his disappointment.
“I see.” Scott stared after his father; turning back to his brother he said “It looks like you have a rival for her affections!”
“What?’ Johnny pondered his brother’s comment, was Scott hinting at their being something between his father and Effie, something other than friendship?
Gesturing outside to where his father, Effie and Teresa were now standing and talking to the Reverend he added, “They make a handsome couple don’t you think?”
Johnny studied the taller man’s face. There was no trace of humour there, no playful glint in the blue eyes, nothing to indicate he was being anything but serious. ‘But he was mostly serious about everything lately,’ he thought to himself.
The youngest Lancer wasn’t sure what to say. However, Scott seemed to be aware of something he wasn’t, something that had come as one hell of a big surprise to him.
His brother was now looking at him questioningly, wondering no doubt why he wasn’t agreeing with him.
“Yeah.” Johnny quickly said, “Yeah they do.” He forced a smile; as much as he loved Effie, he wasn’t sure how he felt about the widow getting together with his father. That would take a lot of getting used to.
Scott didn’t seem too convinced by his reply, though, as his questioning gaze grew a little more intense. But to Johnny’s relief he didn’t push him further, turning around instead his sibling stepped along the now empty aisle.
A bemused Johnny followed on behind.
Michael greeted him warmly, going on to sympathize with him over his cold. It seemed the Reverend was getting over a nasty bout himself, and was somewhat dismayed at the thought he might be responsible for passing it on to someone recovering from a gunshot wound.
After assuring the older man to the contrary Johnny excused himself leaving Teresa and the Reverend James to spend some time alone, albeit chaperoned from a distance.
He joined his brother and father who still had the Widow Mac on his arm. On seeing him Effie pointed at her hat.
“Do you like it John, dear? It was a gift from your father. He has such good taste don’t you think?” The widow tilted her head from side to side and waited for the young man to comment.
“Yeah. Yeah he does. It, er it’s very becomin’ Mrs Mac.” Johnny said struggling with the idea his father had actually bought the hat for Effie. He’d never known his father to buy a gift for a woman before, and a hat of all things! Wasn’t that something a man would buy his wife or almost wife?
The widow seemed pleased by his comment and smiled back at him before looking up at his father, her smile widening on making eye contact with the older man.
Johnny watched his father smile back seemingly contented with the attention being paid him.
‘How come’ Johnny asked himself, ‘how come I ain’t noticed there’s been something going on between ‘em?’
As he stood contemplating the question, his father led Effie towards their buggy.
“Effie will liven up the dinner table.” Scott gave him a slight grin.
“I didn’t know she was coming to dinner?” Johnny said starting now to feel a little left out.
“Murdoch invited her just before you joined us. He has something important he wants to ask her.”
“Oh!” Exclaimed Johnny trying hard to rein in his annoyance, “and would that have anything to do with the Reverend James over there?”
Gesturing to him to lower his voice the blond Lancer said “Of course it has! But Effie might say no, and he doesn’t want to get Teresa’s hopes up.”
Leaving Johnny staring at him, Scott moved off away from their buggy, untying the reins of his horse as he did. This morning instead of riding with the rest of them in the buggy, his brother had brought his saddled horse out of the barn and announced that he would be riding his own horse to church. Johnny had nearly dropped his jaw when Murdoch had just nodded his head in acceptance. And when he had started to open his mouth to say he was just going to saddle Barranca and ride too, his old man had just taken him by the arm, and guided him to the buggy, saying “Not today, Son. You’re still recovering.”
He had said it with that no-nonsense tone of his, and Johnny had looked at his brother for support – but none had come. Just gotten up on his horse and waited beside the buggy until Teresa and he were in, and Murdoch had flicked the reins. Scott had ridden beside them all the way, not even taking off in a fast gallop. ‘Hell, the way he had ridden slow and peaceful like, he could have just as well went with them in the buggy’ Johnny thought to himself as he watched his brother mount up.
And now it looked like his brother wasn’t even going to be riding back with them. Instead, Scott just told Murdoch he would be home in time for dinner, kicked his horse into a gentle canter and started riding out of town. Johnny looked at his father and waited for him to say something, but he didn’t, again, turning instead to help Mrs. Mac in the carriage, and called for Teresa to come along.
As they rode out of town he half listened to the chatter from the Widow Mac and Teresa in the back seat, while he scanned the scenes around him. Town was pretty much quiet, just people walking home from church or stopping in at the Grand Hotel’s restaurant for a nice Sunday dinner. Their own dinner would be ready in a couple of hours – always mid-afternoon on Sundays, giving them time to get home, and relax a bit.
He saw Val up the street, tipping his hat to a few folks and then turning to go in to the cantina for some of Rosalita’s fine, special south-of-the-border fare she always served up on Sundays. It had been a while since he had been able to go to the cantina on Sunday with Val. Murdoch always liked to have Sunday dinner with the family, but still, occasionally he would relent and let him go.
Hadn’t seen much of his friend since he showed up in the cave a few minutes after……, well after everything was over. By the time Val and Cipriano had arrived, followed quickly by Murdoch and the others, Scott had him sitting up against the cave wall near Effie and had moved next to her to try and determine how bad she was hurt.
Nothing had been said between them, no words spoken before the others arrived. Scott had just helped him in that quiet way of his, and then grabbed onto his good shoulder, squeezing tight and looked at him – asking with his eyes, if he was okay. Johnny had only been able to give him a slight nod – too much had happened so fast, and then he hadn’t known if Effie was still alright.
She had started to come around just a little, by the time they all arrived. Val had come to him, seeing that he was hurt and looking over at Len lying on the cave floor, most of his face blown away. He had looked at both brothers – waiting, and when nothing was said, just gave a quick nod and started giving some of the men instructions about the dead Hogan brothers’ bodies.
Murdoch, though, had gone into overload with his solicitous behaviour in attending to his young son. Old man wanted to take care of the wound right then and there, never mind all the dead Hogan’s laying around them – one in particular. The only thing that had stopped his father was Johnny’s own insistence that they get out of the dark, damp cave. Scott voicing agreement hadn’t hurt either.
But they had finally all made it down the mountain – some more slowly then others. Val had taken Pedro, Miguel and a couple of others ahead with him – wanting to make sure the outlaws that had escaped had been dealt with at the bottom of the mountain by Frank and the others. They had; a few breathing their last breaths when they reached the bottom. As for good old Charley, well it seemed he had beaten the odds for once, he wasn’t among the injured or the dead, and appeared to have somehow got clean away. That was the sort of justice Johnny liked. The remaining ones that were still alive were added to the wounded ones captured in the fire fight. All now had been picked up by the Marshall, who had been with the original posse, taking them back for trial. Johnny had heard from Val when he was still recovering from the bullet wound that the Marshall had been a bit contrite over his decision to go the wrong way in chasing the bad guys. They had had a good laugh about that one.
Val had never asked, though, what had happened in the cave. He wouldn’t either; their friendship was like that. As he watched his friend walking into the cantina he promised himself that next week after church, he would make his way over to Rosalita’s; time to sit back with his long-time amigo and share one of those special meals.
They were passing the gates to the cemetery now, the plot reserved for the lawless a lot fuller than it had been a month or so back. One of the new graves had been set apart from the rest, situated at Effie’s request beneath the sheltering limbs of an ancient oak tree. Fresh flowers adorned Clem Hogan’s final resting place, the widow determined to remember and mark the outlaw’s selfless acts.
As the carriage finally was on the road to Lancer, Johnny sat back, relaxing as he basked in the warmth of the noon-day sun. He glanced over at his father and then back at Mrs. Mac. He turned back and slouched down, pulling his hat down a little more to block out the sun. He thought about his old man and Mrs. Mac and wondered if they were really going to ……… well although he was fond of the widow he wasn’t sure he wanted that.
He thought about what Scott had said for a few minutes and as he did, he wondered if he was even talking about them. Maybe it had something to do with Teresa and her marrying the Reverend. After all didn’t he say if Mrs. Mac said no to Murdoch’s question it might disappoint or upset Teresa? Yeah, something like that. Well would Teresa be upset if Mrs. Mac turned down Murdoch’s proposal? Well maybe – but since the Reverend entered her life, he was about all she seemed to care about; couldn’t rightly blame her, she deserved her happiness.
And why the hell would Murdoch be asking the Widow Mac to marry him in front of everyone? Nope couldn’t see that at all. Well nothing to do about it now, just sit back and enjoy the ride. When they got home he would just have to ask his brother, what the hell he meant.
Well when his brother got home that is. And maybe when he did it was time the two of them spent a little time together, maybe take a walk up to their favourite spot. Spend some time talking………
Con and Molly