I'll Watch Your Back . . . side!
“Sure, Scott, I got no problems with us parting company here.”
As he spoke, Val Crawford kneed the sorrel mare in the belly, expertly tightening the cinch before the beast could suck in another breath. Satisfied, he slapped the animal affectionately on the flank, giving rise to a cloud of trail dust.
Wiping his grimy hand on an already soiled shirtfront, he continued, “You’n Johnny already have a full day’s ride ahead, fore ya get home. Coming back to town with us’ll just put ya miles out of your way.”
“So you and the rest of the posse can handle the prisoners alright without us?” Scott nodded in the direction of four scruffy-looking culprits, all of whom were trussed up securely and appeared slightly the worse for wear.
“Them?” Val spat disgustedly. “Iffen they had a brain between’em, they’d of covered their tracks better when they made their get-a-away. The idjits had a six hour head-start—on account of nobody found Mayor Higgs all tied up until the store was supposed ta open in the morning—and we still caught’em.”
“They did put up a pretty good fight once we had them cornered,” Scott reminded him.
“Huh!” Val was obviously unwilling to give then even that much credit. “I reckon them yahoos figured they had a chance—holed up in them rocks like they was. But they didn’t count on Johnny making it to the top of that ridge ta get the drop on ‘em.”
“Did they, Johnny-boy?” he gloated again, as the dark-haired Lancer joined the pair.
“No, they sure didn’t, Val,” Johnny—hat in hand—worked the leather brim with his fingers, “but you better keep your eyes peeled on the way home. I won’t be there ta save your bacon next time.”
Normally this would have been the cue for his friend to make a jeering retort, but the usually crotchety lawman was too busy anticipating a triumphant return to Green River, highlighted by the sight of the pompous mayor eating crow.
So he just agreed—good-humoredly—and shouted orders to his men, “You heard Johnny. Get them jugheads tied up real good. Let’s get on the road; we don’t have all day to get’em back ta jail where they belong!”
Within a short time, the last of the posse’s horses had disappeared into the hills, leaving the Lancer brothers alone in the clearing.
“Well, we best make tracks too, brother,” Johnny remarked, settling his hat so it tipped slightly over his brow.
“Uh, not just yet, I think.”
Glancing at the tall blond, Johnny asked, “What are you talking about, Scott? There’s a couple of hours of daylight left. We can get a good ten miles down the road before we hafta make camp for the night.”
His brother’s reply didn’t seem to have anything to do with the subject at hand.
“You know, Val was right; we would never have apprehended those thieves if you hadn’t managed to take the high ground that way.”
“Well, I appreciate you trying ta make a hero of me,” Johnny smirked, “but could ya wait ta pin the medal on til after we do some serious riding?”
Ignoring his brother’s sarcastic jibe, Scott went on, “The thing is—I don’t think you came away from your act of heroism, unscathed.”
“Is that some fancy way of saying you think I been shot?” Johnny patted the front of his chest, then flung his arms wide. “You see any blood, any bullet holes?” he asked with derision.
Scott held up one finger. “I checked the weapons we confiscated—one of their party had a shotgun loaded with buckshot.
A second finger joined the first. “There’s no way you could have made that climb without turning your back on the fight, for at least for a few moments at a time.”
The third finger clinched the matter. “You’ve been limping when you think no one’s watching.”
Johnny’s glaring, unvoiced denial would have been more convincing if he hadn’t taken a sudden misstep when he turned to leave. The jarring pain to his upper leg produced a wince that wasn’t stifled quickly enough.
“So I caught some lead,” he admitted truculently. “I can still ride. I’ll make it back ta Lancer just fine.”
“By that time, infection will have set in,” Scott shook his head. “We’d better take care of it now.”
Even as he scoffed, Johnny was sizing up his brother’s resolve. No bluster…….no ranting………no show of temper……….and not one damn ounce of give.
Finally, Johnny dropped his eyes, and Scott knew the battle was over. He felt a certain amount of sympathy for his brother’s uncomfortable predicament, but was wise enough not to let it show.
“There’s really no polite way to phrase this, so I guess I’ll just get it said. Brother………..drop your pants.”
Johnny lay, face-down, on top of his bedroll, his britches bunched down around his knees. Those well-muscled buttocks—just a shade or two lighter than the rest of his bronzed body—were disfigured by a fair number of angry red puncture marks. He’d already fortified himself with several healthy pulls on the whiskey flask.
Pouring a small amount of alcohol over his newly-sharpened pocket knife, Scott remarked, “That scattergun makes for a very distinctive pattern. You know, it probably would have been worse if you hadn’t been wearing those leather pants.”
Between clenched teeth, Johnny ground out, “Do ya think this little conversation could wait until sometime when I don’t have my ass hung out ta dry?”
“Sorry, most inconsiderate of me,” Scott conceded.
So the procedure commenced—with no further ado. The makeshift surgeon was deft and skillful, extracting each lead pellet as quickly as possible. The only reaction from his reluctant patient was the slight intake of breath that accompanied each painful incision.
Presently, Scott sat back and surveyed his handiwork. “I think that’s all of it,” he announced. At his brother’s audible sigh of relief, he added—almost apologetically—“It’s not quite over, I’m afraid. Those wounds need to be disinfected.”
The whiskey was uncorked once more, and Johnny—encouraged to partake liberally—needed little persuasion to swig a goodly portion of the remaining spirits. Returning the flask to his brother, he braced himself and growled, “Let’er buck!”
Upending the bottle, Scott drenched the lacerations thoroughly. He was more than a little impressed by his brother’s powers of self-control, knowing just how much that alcohol had to burn. But Johnny toughed it out with no more than a softly hissed and hastily swallowed—“Son-of-a…………..”
The two men passed under the Lancer arch just after dark the next day. Thanks to a good night’s sleep, some of Johnny’s discomfort had eased by morning, but after many long hours in the saddle the agonized throbbing had returned with a vengeance.
Scott had attempted—as diplomatically as possible—to make the trip a bit less unpleasant, offering the last of their ‘medicinal’ whiskey and suggesting short breaks along the way. But pride and dignity won out over mere physical torture.
Never had Johnny been more grateful to hand off the care of Barranca to one of the willing ranch hands. With a mental promise to check on the palomino first thing in the morning, he trudged into the hacienda with Scott.
Surprisingly, at such a late hour, both Murdoch and Teresa were still sitting up in the Great Room. They called out greetings, with Murdoch asking for a report on the manhunt.
“We caught’em all. Val and the posse should have’em locked up tight by now.”
Johnny’s lazy drawl gave nothing away, but when both men started to leave, Teresa cried out in concern, “Johnny! Are you limping? Have you been hurt?”
As she hurried across the room, Scott met his brother’s eyes. Throughout his ordeal, Johnny had been surly, ill-tempered and generally unappreciative, but this was a desperate appeal for help.
“You know, honey, we’re both pretty stiff and sore after two days hard riding.”
Scott managed to produce a very good imitation of a man whose back was aching as he insinuated himself between Teresa and his brother. Putting his arm around her shoulders, he gently nudged her towards the kitchen.
“Could you make some of your delicious sandwiches and leave them out on the table for us? We’re going to get cleaned up, maybe soak in a hot bath for a bit. You needn’t wait up; we’ll help ourselves when we’re done.”
“Well, if you’re sure……..” Teresa seemed to hesitate a moment, then smiled happily. “Alright, I’ll see that everything is set out for you.”
“Thanks, T’resa,” Johnny mumbled, while Scott nodded a casual good-night to their father.
Walking down the hallway a few minutes later, Johnny stopped abruptly.
“Listen, Scott, I just wanna say…………thanks.”
“No thanks are necessary, Johnny. I know if the tables were turned, you’d be watching my back. And speaking of watching your back, maybe I should do some checking—make sure no infections has set in………”